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Thai Rubies in Trat

The Road to Bo Rai in Trat
The Road to Bo Rai in Trat

One of the most important sources for ruby is Mogok in Burma. However, another source that is lesser known is Thailand. Some say that Thai rubies have a less attractive brownish color than the Burmese material, which is deep red with a bluish tint. Thai rubies range from orangey-red to purplish-red and may have brownish, black or grayish tones. The higher iron content of Thai rubies means that they have a lower fluorescence than their Burmese counterparts. However, what the Thai rubies may lack in color, they make up for in clarity, and the color can be improved with heat treatment. Thai rubies have been mined in Chanthaburi and Trat provinces, near the Cambodian border, on the Eastern Seaboard of Thailand.

Thai corundum (ruby and sapphire) gems have been mined and traded since the 15th century. Locals refer to rubies as "tabtim", which means "pomegranate", because the red gems closely resemble the bright red seed pods of pomegranate fruit. In the 1960s, the small town of Bo Rai in Trat experienced a ruby and sapphire rush, with people traveling from far and wide to make their fortune in the colored gemstone industry. One of the main mining areas is aptly named "Bo Ploy", which means "gem mine". Those who did not find rubies in the mines trekked through the jungle up the Cardamom Mountains toward Cambodia, hoping to find rich pickings. Some were lucky enough to find corundum in the mountains, but others lost limbs to landmines laid by the Khmer Rouge, or contracted malaria.

Sadly, the corundum of Trat is pretty much depleted now. By the end of the 1990s, Bo Rai was reduced to a ghost town, the remnants of the ruby mining gathering dust with the exception of a small gemstone and jewelry museum in Bo Rai. Most of the areas in which rubies had been found are now rubber, oil palm or fruit plantations, the telltale signs of mining are gravelly ground, lakes and flattened hills where the earth was excavated. The Thai government banned commercial mining there in the 1990s because of the toll it was taking on the countryside. Occasionally, after heavy rains, lucky locals can still find rubies washed down the swollen rivers resting in the sediment at the bottom. Some of the wealthy residents keep collections of Trat rubies and sapphires for posterity.

Hopeful Bo Rai Locals Prospecting for Rubies
Hopeful Bo Rai Locals Prospecting for Rubies

The ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) Economic Community has breathed new life into the small town of Bo Rai. While many locals have left to find work elsewhere, a large border market is being developed after successful weekly Thai-Cambodian market activity. Thus, signs of life are returning to the previously deserted border town. Since the opening up of Thai-Cambodian border crossings, trade between the two countries has increased, bringing some welcome economic relief to Trat. The goods being traded are mainly agricultural products, such as wood and fruit. These days, the main tourist attraction of the province of Trat is a group of beautiful tropical islands known as the Koh Chang Archipelago, a national marine park made up of over 50 islands. Koh Chang itself is the second largest island in Thailand with Phuket being the largest. The name "Koh Chang" means "Elephant Island"; this could be because the shape of the island is similar to the head of an elephant.

Even though Thai rubies are extremely scarce nowadays, Chanthaburi and Bangkok remain international trade centers for ruby. This began with governmental control of the Burmese ruby mines along with an ever-increasing global demand for red ruby, which caused Thailand to become an important source for the red jewel. Subsequently, when large-scale mining in Trat ceased, Thais developed ingenious methods for enhancing color and clarity, which has made otherwise unattractive rubies, like those from Mong Hsu in Burma, saleable. There are still deposits of unmined corundum within the Cardamom Mountains on the Thai-Cambodian border. Perhaps in the future the hills will be alive once again, with the activity of miners.

  • First Published: May-26-2016
  • Last Updated: April-29-2017
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