Gem-mining is primitive and dangerous; miners dig a circular hole about 1m in diameter and as deep as 10m, without any internal supports or reinforcement, and with only candles for light. As the miner goes deeper, the earth is hauled to the surface in a wicker basket using a variety of low-tech winches made of bamboo and rope. A series of small steps are dug in the wall so that the miner can climb out. The main gemstone found in the area is semiprecious zircon, which looks like brown glass in its raw state but turns pale blue when heated. Also found in Rattanakiri are yellowish green peridot, pale purple amethyst, clear quartz and shiny black onyx.

The sites where gems are mined in Rattanakiri province change regularly, so it’s best to check in Banlung before setting out to look for them. Most activity currently centres around Chum Rum Bai Srok, in Bokeo district. There’s not much to see – once you’ve seen one mining pit, you’ve seen them all – but the 35km trip from Banlung is interesting for the scenery, the awfulness of the track and for the sheer exhilaration of having made it. The gem-mining camp is difficult to find without a guide (around $15–20/day; ask at your guesthouse) or a good command of Khmer. South of Ka Chhang, the road soon turns into a narrow churned-up track that winds up and down valleys and forks off left and right through encroaching jungle, until it deteriorates into an even narrower rutted path. If it starts to rain, the track can become impassable and visitors have had to spend the night in the site’s blue-tarpaulin-covered shacks.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

Cambodia features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

The truth about elephant tourism in Asia

The truth about elephant tourism in Asia

Elephants are born free, but are everywhere in chains – and it’s tourism which is increasingly to blame. Riding an elephant used to be on every visitor’s …

25 Nov 2016 • Gavin Thomas insert_drive_file Article
11 gorgeous pictures of Cambodia

11 gorgeous pictures of Cambodia

This beguiling country in Southeast Asia has captured the hearts and imaginations of travellers from all over the world. Travel photographer Fiona Campbell is …

11 Jan 2016 • Fiona Campbell insert_drive_file Article
How to see Angkor Wat without the crowds

How to see Angkor Wat without the crowds

The sky is lightening. Squint and you can just about make out a change in the colour of it, a shift from inky-black to blue-black. As the sun rises further it c…

03 Jun 2015 • Helen Ochyra insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month