Treasures in Ratanikiri

Ratanikiri was not chosen completely by chance.  The province held many beautiful and cultural sights that appealed to me greatly.  This northern province is one of the places in Cambodia where there are gem mines.  Over the years, I have shared wonderful gem mining experiences with my family and this seemed like the next special rock collecting adventure.  Many years ago, in Montana we purchased buckets of gravel from the local sapphire mine and tried our hand at panning.  Then we repeated this process in the outside of Prague but this time directly from the river bed and found garnets.  Seeing where peridot, amethyst and zircon are mined, and made into fine jewels would be a great addition to my worldwide quest for treasure.

A bit of research lead me to learn that while zircon (not cubic zirconia!) is the most common gem in the region most of the stones found now are not the beautiful blue that people admire.  In order to get that colour the brown stones must be heat treated.  A bit more research, meaning the use of Google maps and Facebook, and I was in touch with local jeweler who was willing to sell us raw stones and then fire up his kiln to heat them.

Since we arrived very late, we slept in we set off to visit the market and wander through BanLung a bit later in the morning.  The local market was bustling as it was truly the centre of the town, Kate and Jasper were able to help us navigate some of the offerings and even made a few purchases for us to try.  Most of the market was just like we’d seen elsewhere; the meat sellers however were not.  Sitting atop their stands with small chopping blocks the set up was simple, but perhaps not what I would consider hygienic.  All bits and pieces of the animals was for sale at different vendors.  From head to tail, and all of what is in-between was up for purchase on someone’s stand.

Gold vendors in the market

Produce vendors

Fish vendors

Meat vendor. Look carefully, and reread what I wrote, I’m trying to be funny.

From the market we aimed to find our jewelry and gem shop.  It was easy to find and we quickly engaged with the young man and his mother about stones.  We learned a lot and he was keen to explain, no doubt seeing that we were prepared to spend money.  In the end, we all picked out a few heated, cut and polished stones to bring home as gifts, or to keep for ourselves.  We also settled on a number that we would ask him to heat treat and kept the rest as they had been dug out of the ground.

Jeweler helping select which stones would be best for heat treatment

Picking out the ones we like best, we really have no idea what we are looking for


Once we had truly exhausted our pocket books and his selection, we headed out to watch the heat-treating process.  As with so many things in this country the kiln was not what I expected to find.  It was an old metal barrel lined with bricks and heated with charcoal. Our stones were placed in a small crucible, cemented closed, then placed in a second crucible cemented closed.  The whole container set atop the kiln to dry before being placed inside.

Kiln, I will point out that there is flammable sign on the barrel. Use what you have access to I guess

Putting cement around the crucible

Getting the coals ready to put the crucible in. It is resting on top until dry

Now you can tell this fellow was raised, he is the third generation to do this work, with this process and both knew what he was doing but that he was fearless.  Quick glances inside the fire raging kiln was all he needed to know when the temperature was just right.  Flip flops, t-shirt and bare hands was all the “protective” equipment he used.  We chatted and talked among ourselves for the 40 minutes or so it took to heat the rocks enough for them to change colour, then watched as he dug the container from the kiln and let it cool.  Watching him break open the cement seal was like watching someone open a treasure, or at least that’s what it felt like for us.  Once opened he poured out the rocks, the beautiful blue stones poured out and we were amazed.  The science is simple, heat and pressure allowed the atoms to arrange more perfectly and the colour emerges. To our eyes, in this moment the beauty of the process felt magical.  He also took out his grinder and showed us how he could shape and polish stones.

The stones, once brown and now a beautiful blue!

We took our treasures and continued back to the hotel.  Our tour of Ratanikiri would not have been complete however without seeing how these remarkable stones are mined.  While exploring the countryside we stopped amid a rubber tree plantation and went to see how it is done.  I had some idea from my internet searches but seeing the miniscule holes these men climb down and dig in shocked me.  Our phone lights would not reach the bottom of the shafts, their widths hardly big enough for the slight frames of the miners. No rigging, no ladders, no elevators, headlamps and small digging tools are the only equipment the miners use to carve hand holds out of the dirt and lower themselves down.  They excavate deeper and deeper seeking a deposit of rock, the dirt is taken to the surface and sorted there.  When a vein of good rock is found they begin to follow it, heading horizontally.  There are no safety measures so fatal accidents happen.  We bought a few more stones from this group, but not many.  We had all hoped to buy directly from the miners as they are the ones taking all the risk but they did not have nice stones and their asking prices were really high.  Our jewelry had warned us this would be the case.  While really interesting to see, I think we were all disappointed in not really being able to purchase more.


Mine site. Tucked between the trees of a rubber plantation

Negotiating the purchase of some more rocks

Mine shaft

Looking through what the miner has to offer, our guide translating when necessary

Our treasure was complete and we knew the story from beginning to end.  While the stones and jewels are not likely the best, they will forever tell us a story and to us they are our Ratanikiri treasures.

Stones in the miners hands

I’d like to thanks my friends, Jasper, Kate and Jamie for allowing me to use some of their photos.

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