Friday, December 14, 2007

Gem Miners of Bokheo

Sifting through the soil at the Bokheo gem mines
Mining gems, mostly zircon, has taken place for over fifty years in the area surrounding Bokheo, about 30kms east of Ratanakiri's provincial capital of Ban Lung, along that horrendous road I've referred to in previous posts. There's no big mining operation taking place though, its basically a series of deep holes dug into the fields surrounding the small town. Most remain open and unfilled long after the mining has stopped and moved onto another location, so present a danger to wandering tourists like me.
There were 10 miners at our location, taking it in turns to either squeeze into the 15 metre holes and work in cramped and dangerous conditions underground or to sift through the soil that's brought to the surface for the zircon gems that are in the seams below ground. Sometimes they are lucky and they find a big stone, most times they find smaller, worthless gems. A buyer makes regular trips to the miners to survey their finds. Prices depend on the quality of the stone. A good stone can be the equivalent of a month’s salary, so the miners work in teams of close friends and family as trust is an important factor when sifting through the soil. Foot holds are cut into the inside walls of the hole and below ground some of the more elaborate mines are connected by shafts and tunnels. The work is hard and risky, with only simple tools available, buckets and hand-turned winches to bring the soil to the surface. The buckets are then emptied and the search for the gems begins, aided by a regular swig of rice wine.

All hands to the deck to find the biggest and best zircon gems

Miner coming up for air...want a gem mister?

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