Fieldtrip to Pailin City, Cambodia

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6 o'clock in the morning, the group of gemologists and students from l'AIGS (Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences) is packed in the pick-up which will drive us from Chantabury (South-Est of Bangkok) to the Cambodian border. From there we will have to take some specially modified taxis able to drive the chaotic roads between the border (Prum village) and Pailin City. As a matter of fact, the asphalt road of the Thailand side turns into some kind of muddy track right after the Combodian border..


Here we are in Pailin City. We are having a collation on the market place with Votha, our guide. English teacher and former gem dealer, he knows all the mining sites and will be a very good help all along the trip. Reknowned in the entire city, Votha allows us to bargain with the minors and brings us to the mining zones in constant movement specific to alluvial deposits.


We choose to stay in this little hotel, cheap but very clean, near the market place.


We decide to start our tour by visiting the artisan mines, which are mostly familial or individual businesses. You can see bellow a poor one-armed minor, working alone, digging a hole with an iron bar. Our friend Votha decides to help him a little bit and I start questioning him about the mining activity in the area.
Then we left him and took the direction of the mine-clearing squad of Pailin. We could find a very sad flowchart showing the composition and hierarchy of the mine-clearing team, and where some pictures of members are replaced by a Christian cross...


Here is an example of familial mining. The children are carrying bags of gravel rich in corundum. The parents are sitting in the muddy water where they clean the gravel to find some tiny little stones. They keep the gems in their mouth and I prefer not to imagine the amount of parasites and disease carried by those stagnant waters.


We are now back into "center town" in the gem market and artisan zone. But we couldn't find anything really interesting. Prices are high, and the cut stones come from many different geographic origins, even from Thailand.


In the early afternoon, we start our tour of the multiple small mechanized mining utilities disseminate all around Pailin City. The typical equipment used is a sorting machine using water speed and gravity to sort the gravel by density. The gravel is brought by water on a tray made of transversal sieves.


At first, the biggest stones are stopped by a cylinder-shaped wire net (on the right) and stacked in that huge pile right bellow the machine. The two big blowers (on the left) will cause a vertical reflux through the sieves to avoid the stuffing of the tiny holes, and to allow the muddy sand to pass. That reflux of water also allows sorting the gravel by size in each of the parallel sieves. The smaller stones with high density (corundum) don't offer much surface to the vertical blow, so they will be found at the bottom of the sieves. On the top will remain the medium size stones with low density (not interesting) which are removed with a rake.


Parallel sieves.


Down in the hole, the minors use a water-jet on the inner walls made of rounded water worn stones. Those pebbles are indicators that we are in a former river bed where alluvial secondary deposit of corundum can be found.


The water drags the gravel in the deepest part of the hole where a powerful pump is hanged in the air. The biggest stones are separated by some big rakes and the gravel is sent 10 meters up to the sorting machine.


Water is an essential part of the minig activity therefor the minors have to share this ressource in a smart way. Depending on the position of the current mining facility, the water is sent back where it has been pumped, or it will just continue it's way down to another mine located bellow the current one. (Here you can see the rounded shape of the rocks boardind the river)


Late afternoon the owner arrives, stop the pumps and unlock the security wire net of the sorting machine (the man with a pink shirt and round hat). He will sort himself the two or three sieves where the biggest rubies and sapphires would be found.


But the first step, before to sort the sieves, is to check the big stone that stay on the top of all the sieves. The minor will collect them using a rack and present them to the owner in a wire basket made of osiers (kind of big sieve). You can notice the concentration on his face. This is the moment when he has a chance to find a big rough. He knows that he must pay the minors and the 40 liters of fuel squandered everyday by the machine and the pumps.


Here is the crop of the day: Some tiny rubies, trapiches sapphires (left), some clean sapphires (bottom), some zirconium silicate (right), and some mixed sapphires of low value (top).

The bargaining will start at the sun set : Amm the sapphires seem to have a poor colour and rubies look fantastic because of the lighting of the late afternoon in South asia.
"- Hey look ! Your stone is full of cracks ! Come on, the price is too high !
- Yes put look at the nice colour, I can burn it and sell it at good price !!
- Ooooh !!! Are you sure ? You will need to do some glass filling in Thailand, then the stone won't  be natural ... Crazy price , I'm telling you !!!
- Ok ... if you take the lot i will a good price for you ..."


It was a pretty bad day for the mine so th owner invited us to his house the next morning to show us some more interesting stones.

Rough and cut stones, heated and unheated...

Aaah !! I found a clean unheated sapphire, nice colour, 1.57 carat "water worn" (rounded) typical from the alluvial deposit around Pailin. I want it for my collection and I know that I could get it cut around 1 ct with perfect cut.  My interest for the stone is obvious and the owner will be unflexible one the price... I got better prices on other stones of higher value with him, just because I didn't show much interest. The bargaining is all about acting and bluff, very funny.

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