Together with Hpa-Kant – the largest jadeite mine of Myanmar and Mongmit – the nation’s diamond and gold reserve, Mogok – the Valley of Rubies makes up the pillars of the emerging Burmese economy. Mogok is located 200 kilometer north of Mandalay and is said to be home to 90% of the world’s high-grade rubies.
A tale, dating back to the age of King Mindon, illustrated how Mogok rubies were coveted. It is said that a French emissary sought a royal audience with the penultimate sovereign of Myanmar – King Mindon – to elaborate on a deal that would have allowed the French to commercialize the Mogok mine. The King, apparently detesting foreign presence on his motherland, showed off the distinguished Nga Mauk ruby and demanded the emissary to evaluate it. The emissary, totally taken aback by such an exceptional gem, was unable to utter a price and the King sent him away saying:
“If you cannot give me an estimate for that stone, how do you expect me to give you an estimate for the mine that produced it?”
Located in Mandalay Division and bordering Shan State, the Mogok area hosts a diverse ethnic population, including Bamar, Shan, Lisu, Palaung, and Karen ethnic groups.
Like Hpa-Kant and Mongmit, Mogok is notorious for its very bad working conditions and ravages of heroin addiction among the laborers. It also witnesses chronic ethnic unrests between the prevailing Bamar and the minorities inhabiting the region over the possession of the mines – their living source. In a move to keep the situation under control, the government merged Pyin Oo Lwin and Mogok from the self-ruled Shan State to the more centrally regulated Mandalay Region. Nevertheless, the township remained off-limited to tourists until recently as the government relaxed the restrictions and improved the condition of the road connecting Pyin Oo Lwin and Mogok.
The altitude (3500 feet above water level) and the interaction among various ethnics render Mogok an interesting place to see even without the contentious ruby mine.
How to get there
A non-extendable permit from the government is required for the visitors – which takes around three weeks to obtain. In the past, it took forever to get it; presently, it takes three weeks through the arrangement of a local agency.
Once you have secured the permit, there are two routes from Mandalay leading to Mogok. The older one, at the same time the bumpier one, links Mandalay and Mogok directly, spanning a total distance of 200km. The road is poorly maintained and requires a 4wd car to handle. Despite the flaws, it offers the chance to visit some mining sites and a well-known pagoda along the way. The newer one, connecting Mandalay and Mogok through Pyin Oo Lwin, is longer but smoothly paved and can be conquered just using a normal car.
What to do there
Visit the Gem Bazaar
The Gem Bazaar of Mogok with its hundreds of brokers and dealers can be compared
in terms of hustle and bustle to the renowned Jade Market of Mandalay. It is even a colorful feast with the ethnic people moving around and bargaining for raw and refined gemstones alike. While the experience can be entertaining, be cautious when making purchase and remember that you can only take gems sold by certified traders out of Myanmar.
Visit the mines
The mines of Mogok are not necessary the dusty ones shrouded in the mist of toxic fumes as depicted in televised discovery programs. The process used to extract precious and semi-precious stones is manual, cost-efficient and sustainable as evaluated by experts. It is interesting to observe the ethnic people doing their jobs and in some mines the bonus is a sight of wildlife in action – what about a peacock wandering around?
Apart from the main mine in Mogok, visitors undertaking the direct route from Mandalay to Mogok can visit smaller mines like Chaunggyi and Shwenyaungbin. These two mines are known to contain sapphires of significant quality.
Visit the pagodas
As spectacular as the gemstones of Mogok are the town’s lake and the pagoda-covered mountains surrounding the city.
Being rich in gems and being devoted to Buddhism just as people from other part of Myanmar, the people in Mogok adorn their sacred Buddhist monuments with lavish gemstones. Some pagodas dedicate a part of it to exhibit gemstones donated by their patrons. Some even hold gem cutting workshop within its premises. A prominent one, Kyatpyin, told the tragic story revolving around the Nga Mauk Ruby.
Hiking and sightseeing
The eastern part of Mogok, more affiliated to Shan State, provides a scenic base for some physical exercise and interaction with the Lisu ethnic. The food of this region, which is of Shan origin, is not to be missed as well.