Once a buzzing hub of miners digging for gems, Sala Krao district in Pailin province has become quiet as its deposits of precious stones dwindles. Miners here say deposits nearly disappeared following an influx of Thai companies in the 1990s, but some still hold out hope of unearthing a life-changing gem.
Sala Krao district, Pailin province – Miners once flocked here to plunder an abundance of precious gemstones, but the scene has gone quiet in recent years as deposits dwindle.
Chea Toeu, a local resident, says not as many villagers mine for precious stones any more, not nearly as many as the district’s heyday in the 1970s.
The 57-year-old former Khmer Rouge soldier says he has been mining gemstones for nearly two decades, noting that there aren’t as many gems to be found any more.
“There’s only a little remaining since the Thais heavily mined them in the 1990s,” Mr Toeu says, referring to a mining boom when Thai companies flocked to the region.
“Pailin was a hub of treasure in gems, but that’s in the past now, as it’s rare to come across gems nowadays,” he adds.
Mr Toeu, along with his son, recently searched for gems down a stream approximately 10 kilometres away from Pailin city, where they only found small pieces of rubies.
He adds that a few months ago, he found some sapphires in Stung Kach commune’s O’Being village.
“We can’t rely on this job for a living. It’s more like an adventure of sorts, and one that depends on luck,” he says.
Mr Toeu says some people in the past have been very lucky and found gems worth up to $20,000.
“There are now fewer people mining because most of the time they find nothing,” he says.
He notes that in the past, mining was free, even if it was done on a privately-owned plot of land. If any gems were found, the miners were expected to share some of the profit with the land owner.
“It used to be free. We would share about 30 percent of the profits with the land owner and we keep 70 percent,” Mr Toeu says. “But now we have to pay to just dig.”
People who want to mine are expected to pay a fee to landowners even before they find anything, he notes.
“Sometimes you’re unlucky and you don’t even get back 100 riel because you already had to pay a fee. That’s why many have stopped mining,” he says.
Most villagers have turned to planting longan and cassava for a living or have found other employment, he notes.
Mr Toeu says that mining is physically straining and has no guarantee of any benefits; nonetheless, he pans for gems for 10 hours in one day.
“This job is very hard work, and if you’re not patient, you won’t be able to do this,” he says. “It’s difficult.”
“You have to dig for rocks, some from river streams, there’s also a lot of lifting, then carefully panning for the gems, and sometimes we fall on rocks,” he adds.
Mr Toeu displays what he has recently found, pointing to his collection of rubies and sapphires.
“The red one is very expensive, it can be worth from $30 for a carat, some up to $500 for two carats. Meanwhile the blue one, a two-carat stone is worth only about $100,” he says.
Mr Toeu says he continues to mine despite the risks and uncertainty.
“I am still doing this because I don’t have any other job besides farming,” he says.
Kao An, 56, also a former Khmer Rouge soldier living in the region, says he has been mining since 1991.
He echoes Mr Toeu’s sentiment, noting that gemstones have become scarce after Thai companies heavily mined the area.
“We can’t make a career out of mining, because we may not even find one gemstone in an entire day,” he says, noting on the uncertainty. “If we’re lucky, however, we can earn $100 to $200.”
After the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown in 1979, Pailin became known for its natural resources, namely precious stones and timber.
However, Pailin continued to be a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s as the region’s mountains and thick jungles formed a natural barrier to shelter guerilla fighters.
After the surrender of the Ieng Sary faction of the Khmer Rouge in 1996, Pailin province, which borders Battambang province, was carved out of the latter to become a separate administrative division.
Pov Kosal, 43, a villager, recalls how the Thai mined the area with machines and excavators in the 1990s.
“Gems used to be abundant in past decades, and if the Thai hadn’t come to mine it, gems here could feed Pailin people for generations,” Mr Kosal says.
He noted that Thai companies slowly abandoned mining throughout 2000 until 2006.
“During the late 1990s, gems were scattered everywhere and every miner could find gemstones,” he says. “But now, for me, I can earn about $10 to $20 dollars over days because we can hardly find gems.”
Keout Sothea, former governor of Pailin province and a government advisor, confirms that gemstone mining in the area has been in decline.
“It’s been declining because there’s now hardly any gems, if compared to past decades,” Mr Sothea says.
He says that previously, Thai companies actively mined the area, along with the Khmer Rouge, noting that together they excavated the majority of the stones.
“Now there are no companies operating in the mining industry, and only several people remain who mine when they have free time from farming,” Mr Sothea says.
Hap Karim, 49, a gemstone buyer in the area, says there are now fewer gems as fewer people are mining.
“There aren’t many gemstones available any more and fewer people are mining,” he says.
However, Mr Karim notes that he continues to support the mining industry in Pailin.
He says he provides machines to help poor people to mine so they would sell the gems to him in return. He adds that gemstones in Pailin are worth more.
“When gemstones are rare, they become more expensive,” he says. “Foreign gemstones are cheaper than gems in Pailin.”
Khoeun Sreytouch, 32, a gemstone shop owner in Pailin city, says her business remains running despite fewer people mining.
“We have a large storage of gems so we are not worried,” she says.
She notes that the price of gems will only continue to rise, adding that the stones are made into valuable jewellery.
“A good quality gem is worth thousands of US dollars, especially rubies,” Ms Sreytouch says. “My business is still going strong.”