Thailand's Gem Border Towns • Mae Sot & Mae Sai

1 September 1997
By Richard Hughes
Thailand's Gem Border Towns • Mae Sot & Mae Sai

An exploration of Thailand's gem border towns with Myanmar (Burma), Mae Sot and Mae Sai.

Thailand's Gem Border Towns • Mae Sot & Mae Sai

Air travel is like TV – safe, squeaky clean, an anesthetized experience for which only the bland need apply. Ah, but land travel is different – the experience seethes with atmosphere, menace. Crossing a land border is the Anti-Dull, a sensory gang rape, an out-of-country caesarean culture transplant where one is grabbed rudely from one body politic and roughly shoved into another.

There is nothing I like better than visiting borderlands. My love for these areas was first kindled at age eighteen, when I set off overland to Asia from Europe. I can still remember my first border encounter of consequence, crossing from eastern Turkey into the Shah's Iran. The Persian immigration official handed back my passport and hissed: "You pig, you American garbage, you imperialistic swine…!" I smiled nervously. Then, at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a Pathan tribesman tossed a small chunk of hashish at me while I waited to pass through customs. That brought a skittish giggle. And I'll never forget the Pakistan-India border, which featured a female psychic for locating contraband. By now, I was laughing out loud. Whatever, bring it on.

In Southeast Asia, perhaps no border is more interesting than that separating Thailand from Burma. First is the variety of peoples, which include Burmese, Thai, Shan, Indian, Chinese, Malay and a smattering of unusual hilltribes. Then there is the never-never land quality of Burma itself, which until recently was largely closed off to the outside world. And of course there is another factor that draws me in – these frontiers are the main entry point for some of the planet's finest precious stones.

map of Burma showing gem smuggling routesFigure 1  Map of Thailand and Burma, showing the locations of important mines, smuggling towns and major smuggling routes. (© R.W. Hughes)

Burma is Myanmar

Over the past twenty years I have visited the border towns of Mae Sot and Mae Sai dozens of times, but it had been over a year since my last visit. Thus in June of 1997 I set out to make a fresh survey of these borderlands. But first a little background.

Burma is home to one of the planet's richest sources of gem wealth. Rubies and sapphires from Mogok, rubies from Möng Hsu, jade from Hpakan, pearls from the Mergui Archipelago, these are but a few of her treasures. But since 1962, Burma has also achieved notoriety of a different sort – home to one of the planet's most repressive regimes.

The country today known as Myanmar was, before the British colonial period, a patchwork of tributary states populated by diverse ethnic groups, including Shan, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Pa-O, Mon, Wa and others, loosely ruled by the Burmese monarch. Under the Burmese monarchs, such groups paid tribute, but the capital had little direct influence. British rule succeeded in uniting the country in the 19th century, but when it became clear that colonialism was at an end, long-simmering dreams of ethnic independence quickly boiled over. In order to prevent fragmentation of the country in the late 1940s, a constitution was drawn up allowing any of the member states to secede from the Union of Burma if they felt it necessary. It was only by adding this clause that the non-Burmese ethnic states agreed to join the Union.

Independence came in 1948, but problems arose almost immediately, with the ethnic states feeling neglected in terms of development money and support. The Karens were the first to resort to armed struggle, shortly after independence. In 1958, the Shans followed, and, in 1961, the Kachins. This was the beginning of the still-ongoing civil war.

Burmese road to poverty

To compound the problem, the Burmese government set the country down a path they termed the "Burmese Road to Socialism," but which most citizens labelled the "Burmese Road to Poverty." Overnight, one of Southeast Asia's richest countries was impoverished. Virtually all businesses were nationalized, giving rise to smuggling on a scale so large and ubiquitous that locals called it the "brown market."

Many rebel groups use smuggling to raise revenue. Whether by foot, road, river, rail, elephant or mule, manufactured goods from Thailand and elsewhere travel into Burma, while gems, narcotics, gold, silver and other raw materials move outward in a never-ending stream.

Mong Hsu ruby, Mae Sot, Mae Sai, Burmese gems, Burma ruby, gem trading, gem enhancement Figure 2a  The Moei river separating Thailand from Burma at Want Kha, near Mae Sot in Thailand. On the opposite bank, the bamboo blind hid a bustling market with close to 1000 people from all over Asia. Wang Kha was one of several smuggling camps operated by Karen rebels along the Thai border.

Mong Hsu ruby, Mae Sot, Mae Sai, Burmese gems, Burma ruby, gem trading, gem enhancementFigure 2b  Porters leave Wang Kha, bound for Moulmein with Thai manufactured goods. This camp was once a major transit point for Burmese gems smuggled into Thailand, but several years after this photo was taken the Burmese military attacked the site and burned it to the ground. All that remain today are a few charred timbers amidst the ever-encroaching jungle.

Mong Hsu ruby, Mae Sot, Mae Sai, Burmese gems, Burma ruby, gem trading, gem enhancementFigure 2c  Elephants arrive at Wang Kha. After this photo was taken, the two mahouts climbed down off their rides and undid their longyis (sarongs), revealing special cotton belts with slots containing silver bars. (Photos: R.W. Hughes)

Smuggling routes from Burma's gem mines to the outside world are varied and constantly changing. From Mogok's ruby and sapphire mines, gems may pass by road east through Kengtung, to reach Mae Sai in northern Thailand. This route has, of late, become particularly popular for the new ruby from the Shan State's Möng Hsu (Maing Hsu) mines. Another popular route, which has been eclipsed to some degree, takes one by rail or road to Moulmein, south of Rangoon. From here, it is but a short 1–2 day walk to Mae Sot in Thailand's Tak province. Still another route leads westward into India or Bangladesh.

With the opening up of China's economy, much jade now proceeds directly from the mines in Kachin State, to Kunming, capital of China's Yunnan province. And some rubies and sapphires are also finding their way along this route.

Current government policy is to make peace with the ethnic guerilla groups. To date, a number of them have laid down their arms, the Karen being the notable exception. They have also liberalized the local economy, greatly reducing the size of the black market.

Dick’s Law

There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages.

Mark Twain, Following the Equator

Many gem novices are under the impression that the peasants of Southeast Asia wander the jungles with pockets bulging from the weight of valuable rubies, searching for foreigners who can lighten their load in exchange for colored beads or, perhaps, a digital wristwatch or three. Reality sets in when, back home, the purchases prove to be cleverly-disguised Verneuil synthetics. This brings us to the main purpose of this box – Dick's Law – which is as follows:

Basic Statement

The closer you get to the mines, the more synthetics you find

So next time you find yourself in some dusty Third-World backwater, about to take a poor native for a ride, remember one thing – the native may have the same low opinion of your sophistication as you have of his.


Mae Sot: Edge City

Border towns typically suffer from a bad image – outlaw zones where, no matter which side of the line you find yourself on, it's the wrong one. The small Thai town of Mae Sot is no different. It lies, like a UN conference afterthought – stapled onto Thailand – a remote valley along the western border with Burma.

Mae Sot has grown a great deal over the past two decades, fuelled mainly by the Burmese thirst for manufactured goods, and a similar Thai hunger for raw materials. Today, its markets are home to a broad array of goods from both sides of the border. Manufactured goods head west to Burma. Moving in the other direction are the products for which Burma is so famous. Antiques, crafts, teak and other timber and, most importantly, precious stones, jade, pearls and narcotics.

Using your illusion

Twenty years ago, Mae Sot featured just a small handful of jewelers and gem dealers. Today the town is crowded with vendors, all eager to service the tourists who come to purchase precious baubles.

While Thailand can meet Burma's needs, the reverse is not the case. Precious stones are always a scarce commodity and, today, with the world's thirst increasing with its population, the supply is not enough.

So what's a Mae Sot dealer to do when Burma's production falls short? Bring in goods from elsewhere. And that's what they do. Mae Sot's markets are today crowded with Burma look-alikes. Rubies from Africa and India, sapphires from Cambodia, Australia and Thailand, pearls from China, and, in the case of jadeite, where Burma's mines are the world's only source, jade look-alikes from abroad. After all, the customer is always right. Since customers go to Mae Sot in search of Burmese gems, they give them "Burmese" gems. This is not to say that Burmese gems are not found in Mae Sot, for they are. But today, they are in the minority.

One major landmine for novice gem buyers is the fact that 99% of production from even the best mines is low-grade material, gems which are not worth buying – at any price. It's not that good stones don't pass through these places, for they do. It's just that one needs expertise to separate the wheat from the chaff. Today there is an awful lot of chaff. At the border, it's strictly buyer beware – the inexperienced need not (and should not) apply.

Another danger with buying gems at the border (or at mining areas) is synthetic and imitation gems. Novices generally suffer from the illusion that only natural stones are found at the borders and/or mines. Unfortunately, the reverse is the case (see box). Synthetics and imitations are abundant.Mong Hsu ruby, Mae Sot, Mae Sai, Burmese gems, Burma ruby, gem trading, gem enhancementFigure 3  Möng Hsu rubies on offer in Mae Sai's Ruby Lane. (Photo: R.W. Hughes)

Mae Sai: Top of the north

Mae Sai, at the northern tip of Thailand, stands opposite the Burmese border burg of Tachilek. In recent years it has grown tremendously, fuelled by the opening up of Burma's economy and the discovery of rubies at Möng Hsu.

Mogok is not the only active ruby mining area in Burma. Stones from the Möng Hsu (pronounced 'Maing Shu') deposit, located in the Shan State northeast of Taunggyi, first began appearing in Bangkok in mid-1992. Since that time they have completely dominated the world's ruby trade in sizes of less than 3 ct. Indeed, most of the rubies traded today in Chanthaburi (Thailand) are from Möng Hsu.

Mae Sai ruby market

While the Burmese government has moved to control the trade in Möng Hsu ruby, much of it makes its way straight to Mae Sai. The Mae Sai ruby market is located in Soi Taub Tim ('Ruby Lane'), next to the Mae Sai Hotel. Last year there were upwards of 500 people engaged in selling rough ruby from Möng Hsu. Perhaps 50 kg of rough was on display in the market; no doubt much more was being held behind closed doors. This year business is much slower, with only a handful of traders in the market.

Heat treatment

Prior to treatment, the Möng Hsu ruby is certainly an ugly duckling – most stones look like sub-cabochon-grade rhodolite garnet. This is largely due to the crystals' unusual blue cores. Heat-treatment removes the blue, as well as removing silk, making the final product a rich, clear red. Without heat treatment, most Möng Hsu ruby would be virtually unsalable.

Other gems

But ruby is not the only gem found in the border markets. Spinels, peridots, tourmalines and others gems from Burma's famed Mogok Stone tract are a common sight. There is also much jade on display and Mae Sai contains two excellent jade cutting factories. The jade originates in Burma's Kachin State and has traditionally made its way to Thailand before moving on to Hong Kong and the important Chinese markets. After the 1962 Ne Win coup in Burma, jade moved south, crossing the border at Mae Sai, and from there down to Chiang Mai, where Hong Kong buyers made their purchases. Today, like many of the Burmese smuggling paths, this route is in decline. With the legalization of the gem business in Burma, much jade is simply purchased directly in that country.

Life on the edge

Mong Hsu ruby, Mae Sot, Mae Sai, Burmese gems, Burma ruby, gem trading, gem enhancementBorderlands. The towns and areas along these artificial lines in the sand are always fascinating places, places where the unexpected is an everyday occurrence. Here, a melting pot of ethnic groups, languages, politics, economic systems all overlap into one glorious stew.

Twenty-one years later, I'm still seeking adventure. Look for me on the outskirts, on the fringes, somewhere along the border. I'm sailing along wide-eyed, open to it all, crossing over from the familiar to the new, waiting for that magic moment when I'm spit out on the opposite side into a world far removed from the one I've just left. And when I see something amazing, I just laugh out loud. Whatever, bring it on. I love it.

R S end dingbat

Author's Afterword

This article was penned on assignment for Momentum magazine (1997, Vol. 5, No. 16, pp. 16–19) and was based on trips in April 1996 and June 1997. All photographs are © Richard W. Hughes.

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