Hidden gems

After a rather long drive on pot-holed roads covered in red dust, we got out of the car in the middle of a rubber plantation, but it looked as though the whole plantation was scarred, full of holes and mole mounds. You certainly had to watch where you put your feet in order not to twist your ankle or fall into one of the holes, which were sometimes invisible under a layer of leaves and red sand.

But of course it wasn’t some kind of giant species of mole that was responsible for the treacherous terrain: this was a gem mining field in very rural Cambodia, in the northeastern province of Ratanakiri, and soon we met a worker.

To earn their living, the workers here risk their lives daily by climbing into these incredibly narrow holes, which lead to incredibly narrow tunnels with walls that might collapse any moment, all in the hope of finding an amethyst or other gem stones, such as blue zircon or black opal.

After a strenuous underground session it’s nice to rest for a while.

Some women were trying to make business selling the gems that had been found. The ones pictured below are blue zircons.

Children were running around and playing, they certainly didn’t watch their steps but seemed to intuitively know where the holes were. And they were watched over by their mothers.

Just as we were leaving, one of the ladies came running with a small amethyst which had just been found. Did I want to buy it? Yes, of course, how could I possibly say no? I had it made into a pendant in the market in Banlung, the provincial capital, and have been wearing it around my neck ever since.

I asked our guide about accidents in these mining fields, which are common in Ratanakiri. She didn’t know – or didn’t want to say. Safety concerns are secondary to survival …

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