Sri Lanka Gem Tour 2011
Ever since visiting Sri Lanka in January 2009, I’ve been eager to return to this beautiful island of gems. I constantly check airfares to various parts of the world, and when I found an excellent price to Colombo I knew that this was the perfect time to go. I also wanted to take my 16 year old son along to let him experience a part of the world that most people rarely get to see. I wished to see a bit more of Sri Lanka on this trip, so arrangements were made to see Kandy (a world heritage site) and the central highlands in addition to the gem mines and dealers that I visited last time.
The flight to Colombo was long but uneventful (other than my luggage getting lost), and we arrived at the hotel very early in the morning. A few hours sleep, then we were up to change money, explore the historic sections of Colombo and walk along the Galle Face oceanfront park. The civil war was now over, so the army presence appeared much less noticeable than the last trip and the locals were more upbeat about the future. A great seafood dinner during a raging thunderstorm finished up the evening.
Road to Kandy
The next morning our van and driver showed up to take us to Kandy. Kandy is the religious and cultural center of Sri Lanka, a few hours drive east of Colombo in the central highlands. The drive was stop-and-go at first, but city traffic gradually gave way to small villages, rice fields, coconut plantations, and jungles. Gradually we climbed the hills up to Kandy. Our van was often stuck behind heavily-laden trucks, and our driver was constantly dodging tri-shaws and the ubiquitous Tata or Leyland buses while passing. Sometimes it was better not to watch!
Halfway to Kandy we made a stop at the Pinnawela elephant orphanage, which began in 1975 with five orphaned baby elephants. It has now grown to about 65 elephants and has become quite a popular tourist attraction. They are walked to the river twice a day so we were lucky to see them there in a less-touristy natural habitat.
We finally arrived in Kandy in early afternoon and took the winding one-lane road up to the hilltop hotel. We had a great lunch while enjoying the view, and then the driver arrived to take us into Kandy center. First we visited the botanical gardens with its friendly monkeys; then we took a scenic drive around the lake. In the evening we took a guided tour of The Temple of the Tooth, which reportedly houses one of Buddha’s teeth and is Sri Lanka’s most revered Buddist site. It was fascinating to me because I had been to several important Buddist sites in India and Nepal. While no one actually gets to see the tooth due to heavy security, we were able to view the golden and gem-laden container that holds the relic.
The next morning we made the drive down from the hills of Kandy to the gem mines near Ratnapura. Along the way we met up with my friend Hirosha Yahampath, who was my guide on my last trip and now owns and operates the Yahampath Gemological Institute (www.gemexpeditions.com). We soon arrived at one of the mines and walked from the road through the fields. As we approached, we could hear a motor running and saw that water was being pumped from the mine at a furious rate. Because of the high water table in the area, water needs to be pumped out every morning so that the miners can work down below. This particular mine was not yet at the level of the gem-bearing gravels, so additional timbers were being prepared for mine supports as the pit was dug to lower levels. The miners showed us how the gravel was washed and sorted, and which times and dates were more opportune for sorting and selecting the gemstones. A small parcel of rough stones was shown to us, but since the export of rough stones is prohibited I passed on these. A local dealer of cut stones was called, and soon he arrived with some interesting stones including chrysoberyl, star sapphires and moonstones. Wanting to see more, we moved to his nearby office, where I was able to purchase small sapphires, zircons, spinels and chrysoberyls.
Initially I had hoped we would have time to visit additional dealers in Ratnapura, but it was already quite late by then and I knew we had a three hour drive back to Colombo. We did make one stop for tea at a locally known waterfall and park, and then the rest of the day was spent driving back to the hotel, where we were finally reunited with our luggage.
The next day was my big buying day. I had befriended a sapphire wholesaler whom I had met on my last trips to Colombo and Hong Kong, so I was looking forward to seeing what he had for me. The first thing I noticed on entering his office was a large parcel of unheated rough sapphires that was destined for the Indian market. I would love to cut a few of those, but as the parcel was already spoken for (and valued at over six figures), I had to “settle” for his cut gemstone selection. I went through dozens of his gemstones, finally selecting several large blue and pink sapphires, a classic padparascha sapphire, a pink spinel, and a nice pair of tsavorite garnets.
In the afternoon I met with another known dealer who specializes in chrysoberyl. His selection on this trip was smaller than I expected, but I did find a few good stones along with some nice zircons. Later in the day I gave a gemstone photography presentation to members of the Yahampath Gemological Institute and Sri Lanka Gemmologists Association. This was very rewarding, as I felt I was giving something back to my hosts for their hospitality.
The final day was spent shopping and completing the import paperwork for arrival back in the US. The return flight was less pleasant due to overcrowded flights, but we finally arrived and made it through immigration and customs with no issues.
We had enjoyed the trip thoroughly, but next time we’ll have to make it longer so we can visit other areas of this beautiful island of gems.