Two hundred kilometers north of Mandalay is Mogok, a town famous worldwide for its rubies. At the end of March it held a celebration for its 800th anniversary.
For centuries Mogok has amassed wealth and fame, producing all the rubies in Myanmar and the finest rubies in the world. Surrounded by mountains, the valley has an aura of mystery—partly because it has been off-limits to foreigners for most of five decades, until 2013 when the military-backed government allowed permit-holding visitors.
The official line for visitor restriction is for safety and security, although locals say it might also be to maintain control of the ruby trade. Recently though, Mogok has been looking to ease its dependence on dwindling gemstone deposits, and is toying with a new means of revenue: tourism.
During the last three days of March, Mogok celebrated its 800th anniversary with a series of singers, comedians, and traditional dancers performing on a stage next to Mogok Lake, an abandoned mining pit of the colonial-era Burma Ruby Mines Company. Thousands of mostly domestic travellers journeyed the ascending route—known locally as the “road of 999 bends”—past splashes of lilac and white bougainvillea into thick forest with bare mountainsides of ochre, a teaser of the spectrum of hues found in Mogok’s gemstone markets.
Ethnic Lisu, Pa-laung and Shan came in traditional dress from surrounding villages, as monasteries opened their doors to visitors. The city is fascinating enough on a quiet day; the type of place where noodle shop vendors carry US$1,500-dollar polished rubies the size of grapes in their pockets. But the events of these days, and the characters they attracted, will live long in the memories of those in the town.
Around midmorning on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, thousands of monks circled Mogok Lake, collecting donations. On the bank’s of the city’s brown river, a hustler-cum-preacher gathered a crowd, promising health and to rid them of evil. “You are all saints,” he shouted in front of a collection of curious items including a doll’s head and flute. “Give donations based on your kindness!”Mogok has a diverse community of Sikhs, Nepalese Ghurkhas, Burmese, Chinese, Indian and more. Members of these groups were handing out free food and joining in the fun.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to celebrate this anniversary,” Dr Khin Khin Kyaw, one of the organizers, told Myanmore at Mogok Motel near the lake.
As the founder of advertising firm Sail, Dr Khin Khin Kyaw helped promote the historic occasion for Mogok, where her mother was born.
She described the land as “beautiful,” a perfect place for hiking and a trove of religious and historical interest. Locals support the idea the place could be a trekking mecca, its history is fascinating and pagodas set among its hilltops appear as spectacular in the morning mist as they do twinkling when the sun sets.
Describing the local cuisine and choice of new resorts, Dr Khin Khin Kyaw added, “We have to remind the world that Mogok is the ruby land not of Myanmar but of the world.”
It became that way because, so the story goes, 800 hundred years ago three Shan hunters discovered a ruby while they were resting in the forest and presented it to their chief, who promptly established a village on the site. The settlement became known as ‘Mein Kut’ in Shan—‘contorted town’ named for the outlines of the surrounding mountains—which eventually formed into its present name of Mogok.
Still, local miners work daily in the hope of finding a valuable gemstone. In 2015 a Mogok gem dubbed the Sunrise Ruby and weighed at 25.59 carats became the most expensive ever ruby ever sold when it went for US$30 million at a Swiss auction.
Gems made the city, and gems are likely to play a part in its tourism—whether that means tourists visiting mines, or if all the gems eventually go, visiting historic sites about the precious stones.