Situated on the Thai-Cambodian border on the edge of the Cardamom Mountain range, sits the mining town of Pailin in the Battambang province. Heralded for its production of stunning sapphires, the region has steadily grown in reputation for rubies as well. More modern gem deposits in the southwest region of the country have also sparked renewed interest in tapping into greater mineral resources in the area.
The mining efforts in Pailin hit a high point during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The dictatorship greatly exploited the mineral wealth of the region, and resources were quickly tapped out by the time of their fall in 1999 due to heavily mechanized mining operations.
Further complicating the reinvigoration of mining efforts in Cambodia, the area is still fraught with leftovers from that brutal time period in the form of landmines. Mainly found on the Thai side of the border, gem hunters would often take the risks of losing life or limb in order to have a chance at finding a lovely Cambodian sapphire or ruby.
The southwest province of Koh Kong is a coastal area with islands that extend up to the Cardamom Mountain range and Pailin. More recent discoveries of rubies in this area have increased the presence of miners and local farmers putting their efforts behind the ruby and sapphire trade.
There are two main rivers in the Pailin area. Much of the rubies in this area stem from volcanic activity that dates back centuries. Quite often, gemstone and gold miners like to spend time in the rivers, collecting the sand to sift looking for precious gemstones. When the weather is not too hot, at the end of the dry season, many people come to the river to “wash the gravel” including small family farmers hoping to make a great find of natural rubies that they can sell.
Miners will use high pressure water aimed directly at the ground to break up the earth into smaller, more manageable chunks. The water also helps serve to begin to loosen the chunks and create mud. The mud then goes through a piece of equipment that separates the materials based on weight, so anything that is light will be washed away, leaving the heavy pieces to be inspected more closely.
Many of the Cambodian gem mines are established in thickly forested areas that often hinder a streamlined mining experience. Miners are likely to find themselves stuck trying to navigate extensive vegetation, landmines, and mountains in order to reap the rewards of their efforts. It is one of the most hazardous of the ruby-mining areas of the world that often supplies beautiful gemstones.
Next we begin an exploration of ruby mining in Cambodia’s neighbor with Ruby Mines in Vietnam.