Journey to Mogok’s Elusive Valley of Rubies

20 February 2019

YANGON—In March 2018, more than 100,000 visitors flocked to the famous ruby mining town of Mogok, 200 km north of Mandalay, to celebrate a festival commemorating 800 years since its foundation. Organizers hoped the event would boost tourism in the town which had been completely shut off to travelers until 2013 and since then has only been accessible with a special permit.

Mogok isn’t famous as a travel destination, but rather as the source of the highest quality of rubies in the world. The current global record for the most valuable ruby is held by a 25 carat “pigeon’s blood” ruby sourced in Mogok which sold in 2015 for $30 million at auction in Switzerland. In fact, all top 10 of the most valuable rubies in the world were sourced in this town, which has earned the moniker Rubyland.

Rubies and other gems are sold in all shapes, sizes and qualities at markets in Mogok and sent around the world. / Marie Starr

Despite the festival organizers’ best intentions, the number of foreign travelers who make their way to the town remains small. Those that do, find Mogok’s combined renown and elusiveness an irresistible combination.

Mogok is located a six-hour drive north of Mandalay. The second half of the route is mountainous and hair-raising but offers beautiful views.

Kyauk Pyat Thut Pagoda in west Mogok Township. / Marie Starr

Before reaching the urban limits of Mogok, the town of Kyatpyin in west Mogok Township usually beckons travelers to stop after the long drive from Mandalay, and walk around the network of staircases and stupas and a temple set atop a rocky outcrop at Kyauk Pyat Thut Pagoda. The view from the top—rolling green mountains pockmarked by patches of exposed red soil of active gems mines and wooden houses teetering on the slopes—is a great prelude to Myanmar’s Rubyland.

Mogok lies in a picturesque valley centered around Mogok Lake which was formed by a colonial-era mine. In the mornings a mystical fog sits over the town. Blue-gray peaks loom ahead of you in every direction at all times. Private transport is required to get around and foreigners must be accompanied by a licensed guide at all times.

The Lisu are one of a large number of ethnic groups living in Mogok. / Marie Starr

After the heavenly vistas of Rubyland, the next most notable feature of the town is the diversity of its population. Over a dozen races have settled in the region over the centuries, lured by the possibility of finding that gem that would bring them fortunes. Gurkha, Sikh, Chinese, Shan, Lisu, Kachin, Ta’ang, and of course, Burmese, live together peacefully in the city and in a single quarter you might find a Chinese temple, a pagoda, a church, a Hindu temple and a mosque.

Next, you’ll want to experience the hubbub of the legendary gems markets where fortunes are supposedly made and lost. Unfortunately, foreigners are not allowed into the more serious trading markets. There’s a fairly tame and formal gems market located next to the lake where you can see a variety of rubies, sapphire, onyx, quartz and other valuable stones clearly displayed in raw form, polished and as finished pieces of jewelry—but you won’t see any $30 million stones here.

This Chinese-style Buddhist temple has a natural cave to the rear where one thousand Buddha images decorate the walls. / Marie Starr

The most active gems market which foreigners are permitted to visit is Peik Swe Garden. Professional dealers and merchants gather here to buy and sell more valuable gems and the atmosphere is lively. Because of their high value however, the gems are generally not on display but kept wrapped up in the pockets of the dealers. You’re likely you be approached by people selling stones worth anywhere upwards of $100 but beware: bluffers abound. Even without making a purchase, it’s well worth spending some time here observing the workings of the smartly-dressed dealers who sit in groups chatting and drinking tea, occasionally taking out a flashlight and peering closely at a gem, turning it round in their fingers before making an offer or turning it away.

Request to visit a gems workshop and you may never look at a one in the same way again. Workshops, both formal and homegrown, are dotted around Mogok and show just how much effort and skill—including shaping and polishing—goes into the process of making something refined and beautiful from a rough stone.

One of Mogok’s most famous persons, U Vimala, a monk more commonly known as the Mogok Sayadaw, earned fame for his extreme meditation capabilities which led him to attaining nirvana, and for his teachings in vipassana meditation which has become known as the Mogok style of meditation. Although he died in 1962, he is still revered by those who continue to learn from recordings of his meditation guides. For this reason, the monastery where he spent most of his life, and especially the tiny cave in which he is said to have meditated for four years in order to attain nirvana, are must-visit sites for many in Mogok.

Gems dealers gather at Peik Swe Garden gems market. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

Just before sunset, make your way up to Padamyar Pagoda which sits at an elevated spot overlooking the town and is one of the best places to catch the final rays of sun on Mogok reflected in the lake below. Standing there above the town, it’s quite mind-boggling to think of the total value of the precious stones found over the centuries in the soil you stand on and just what might yet be found.

After sundown, head down to the night market located along a street at the east end of the lake next to Mogok Motel. This is a very popular outdoor food market and possibly one of the best places to try Mogok’s delicious local dishes. Mustard leaf, or mone nyint in Burmese, features in many Mogok dishes. Order a couple of parcels of hot steamed mustard leaf enfolded in rice flour, which is warming and tangy. If you’re a fungi fan, try steamed mushroom, or hmote baung, also served in banana leaf parcels and deliciously flavored with local herbs. The Mogok version of tofu nway can be ordered right through the evening here and is slightly different to other varieties in Myanmar and very tasty.

The cave in which the Mogok Sayadaw U Vimala meditated for four years before attaining nirvana. / Marie Starr

Mogok is a popular with local travelers looking to visit the religious sites as well as the gems markets and a vast majority of foreign visitors to the town are gems dealers from neighboring countries. For international tourists, Mogok is well worth a visit but requires some extra expenses and forward planning.

Mogok style tofu nway (L) and Mogok mee shay (R) are delicious local versions of nationally popular dishes which can be ordered at the night market. / Marie Starr

A permission letter from the regional government must be obtained through a specially appointed agency based in Mogok, such as Jewellery City Travels and Tours. It costs $100 for permission or less when applying as a group, and should be applied for at least two weeks in advance of the trip. Foreigners are not allowed to take public transport into Mogok and must hire a car and driver from the appointed agency. Additionally, all foreign tourists in Mogok should be accompanied by a registered guide at all times and, as of the time of writing, are not permitted into active mines. There are four hotels in Mogok where foreign visitors are permitted to stay. Generally, the travel agency you connect with can arrange the full package. Green Season Travel is a reliable agency for arranging the trip.