Burma has always held a fascination for anyone seriously interested in gemstones. Burmese rubies, jade, sapphires, spinel, and peridot are considered among the the best in the world, however it's been difficult to do business there for several decades. Recent democratic reforms have cracked open the door to the outside world, so my friend Steve Wallner of Westview Gems (www.westviewgems.com) and I started planning a trip early in the year. Coincidentally the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences was offering a course in identification of ruby and sapphire treatments. We made our plans and waited anxiously all summer until it was finally time to leave.
After the long flight, we unwound the first day by visiting the main tourist sites in Bangkok. Saturday was the sapphire and ruby ID course at AIGS, where we examined dozens of rubies and sapphires (both untreated and treated). The course is highly recommended and well worth the modest cost. We both feel much more comfortable with microscopic examination of corundum and identification of possible treatments.
After two more days of tourism and gem window shopping we were on a plane to Yangon. I really didn’t know what to expect, but the airport was much more modern than anticipated – always a good sign. The ride to the hotel in a beat-up taxi was a hoot and after a cool drink at the hotel we were off to the Bogyoke Market – the famous market that has everything from wood carvings to clothing to gemstones. After a bit of looking we wandered further off the beaten track and found a informal sidewalk gem market. Stones started appearing out of nowhere, and some of the 10 carat spinels were enticing, but in the end we decided that it was a bit risky buying without government-approved export permits.
The next two days were spent visiting dozens of small dealers, and both of us came away with nice spinels and sapphires. The rubies and jade were tempting but imports into the US are still forbidden. We took some time off from buying to see the amazing gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, a must for every visitor to Yangon.
It was now time to leave, so after a long series of plane, taxi, train and bus rides we finally arrived in our next destination - Chanthaburi. This small city in remote southeast Thailand is well known as a gemstone sales and treatment center; in fact it is said that 80% of all rubies and sapphires in the world pass through Chanthaburi. Starting early Saturday morning at the weekly gem market, we found a friendly broker and soon had roaming gem dealers bringing us parcels of gemstones and gem carvings to examine. Fascinating stuff, especially watching the Chinese buyers at the next table buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rubies.
Hot, tired and our money spent, we took a relaxing side trip to a nearby national park well known by the locals for its waterfalls. Some too-spicy Thai food and karaoke, a long ride back to the airport hotel (which was hosting a cool feng shui rock show), an Octoberfest-themed meal, and we were finally back on the plane for long flight home. We were happy with the stones that we found, and are looking forward to another trip back to this intriguing country.