MYANMAR: WELCOME TO RUBY LAND
Myanmar. Wait, Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Wait, Burma?
Yes, “you most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.” – J Peterman
My family has been buying and selling the fabled Burmese Ruby for almost 40 years and, since I entered the business, I had always been interested in seeing exactly where those gems came from. Yes, Seinfeld played it for humour, but the history of Burma – errr Myanmar – has been anything but stable. It wasn’t until 2014 when travel restrictions were finally lifted for western foreigners; by this point, my curiosity was at it’s tip tip tipping point. But earlier this year, this happened. And yet, here I was.
Things I’ve learned: The ancient city of Bagan is one giant and astonishingly beautiful archeological zone while the country’s GDP is only marginally smaller than Mark Zuckerberg’s chequing account. Did I mention it shares an idyllic white sand coastline with neighboring Thailand. What’s not to like?
Incredibly, Myanmar’s 51 million inhabitants and 100 plus ethnic groups live across a deceptively diverse landscape nestled between India, Nepal, China, Laos and Thailand, and flanked by the Bay of Bengal to the west. If that reads like a sentence from a Wikipedia entry it shouldn’t – Wikipedia entries are typically neutral and would rarely have a word like “incredibly.”
But, above all of these allures, the only place I really had my eyes set on was the once-forbidden city of Mogok; the epicenter of the worlds finest ruby supply, located in the heart of the rural northern province Pyin Oo Lwin (say that three times fast). I bet this guy can.
Mogok is located in a 50km valley in what’s affectionately known as (you guessed it) “the valley of rubies”. Thick jungle hilltops are rich with vast deposits of ruby, sapphire, and spinel, and the town is home to a hearty population of miners, gem dealers, brokers and gemstone manufacturers.
Today, travel to the Mogok region takes some serious effort. To get there, Keith and I had to organize a specially permitted and guided tour through some connections in Bangkok. The area is only accessible by a rugged seven-hour car ride over 200km of mostly dirt road cut haphazardly out of the mountainside.
As soon as we landed at the Mandalay “airport” we knew we were in for a treat.
Myanmar has all the things you’d expect from most visa requiring nations; irregular airline service, well-documented political uncertainty, on-going war and instability in rural provinces, erratic canines drifting aimlessly on derelict roadways, non-existent wifi (gasp!), and, naturally, a booming opium harvesting ring.
The western media paints a pretty grim portrait of Myanmar but, as I mentioned, the beauty is there for those willing to look.
Cultivating roughly 25% of the worlds supply – rivaled only by Pakistan – is no small triumph by todays standards. Hell, if history has taught us anything it’s that HBO will likely be glorifying those local militia kingpins on primetime slots starting spring 2016.
The drive up to Mogok took us through the city of Mandalay, where we made a quick pit stop to grab the only beer the country has to offer, the aptly named Myanmar, before beginning the real trek into the mountains.
It’s impossible not to notice how culturally pure the Burmese people truly are. Even in the more populated areas – Mandalay is home to 3 million – you consistently see traditional mud painted faces, cows with farmers karts in tow and, the ultimate sign, orthodoxly dressed women carrying baskets of fruit on their heads.
They have a distinctive way about them that is humbling and undisrupted by western society. Aside from the swarms of motorbikes and the odd Pringles can, the cultural purity compared to neighboring Thailand is abundantly clear. No one makes a duck beak with their Pringles and there isn’t a single 7/11 as far as the eye can see.
Keith and I soak in the picturesque, pagoda dotted countryside and it’s rural inhabitants and quaint villages en route to Mogok, where we eventually arrive by nightfall. George Orwell’s depictions of people and overall sentiments still ring eerily true 80 years later after Burmese Days was published; the landscape feels almost unchanged between my minds eye and the real thing.
After a couple of days touring the primitive mine sites, we headed straight to Bagan to soak up the Pagodas up close. This area of the country is by far the most tourist friendly spot but compared to any other part of Asia I’ve experienced it truly still holds the belt as the last frontier.