With memories of my 2012 Burma trip fresh on my mind (and with the Burmese stones purchased selling quite nicely) I decided in early 2013 that I needed to make another trip in October 2013, before it's "discovered" by the general traveling public. This time I wanted to see more of Burma, so I arranged to spend some time in Mandalay as well as Yangon.
After my arrival in Bangkok I spent a day recovering from jet lag and scouring the gem markets in Bangkok's Silom district. Seriously tempted by some nice spinels, I decided that I needed to save my money for Burma where I was sure to see similar stones at a lower price. The AirAsia flight to Mandalay was uneventful, and after exchanging my brand-new bills I was soon traveling through the countryside passing the iconic 200 year-old U Bein teak bridge over Taungthaman Lake, arriving at my hotel in the shadow of Mandalay Hill.
I had previously arranged for a local guide, who grew up near the Mogok gem mines and whose family was in the jade business. The first morning was spent in the huge Mandalay jade market, where i witnessed the sale of jade boulders, cutting, polishing and finally hundreds of dealers - each hoping to buy and sell enough stones to finance a trip direct to the Chinese market where jade is most appreciated. My guide said that 10% of the Mandalay population was invoiced in the jade business, and after seeing the size of the market I'm inclined to believe him! The rest of the time was spent visiting gem dealers, having lunch with monks at a Buddhist monastery, and then finishing with a beer while overlooking the Irrawaddy River, the historic lifeline of Burma.
The next stop was Yangon, where I visited many of the same dealers that I got to know from my first trip (and found a few new ones). With my focus on fine spinels and sapphires, I was able to find some nice stones after two days of serious gem hunting and haggling on prices. I even tried the street gem markets where buyers drink tea at small tables and dealers come by with small parcels of stones. Extremely fun, but I didn't see anything worth buying.
Another AirAsia flight back to Bangkok, then a very early morning flight back home. As Burma turns more democratic, I've heard rumors that the Mogok gem mining areas formerly closed to foreigners may be opening up to tourism. When that happens I'll definitely be planning another trip!