A trip to Mogok

The lake in Mogok

The gem city of Mogok has about 150,000 inhabitants. Her residents are a colorful mix of ethnic Burmese (Bamar), Shan, Lisu, Palaung, Kachin and Karen. As in other hill stations in Myanmar, numerous Indians and Gurkhas (Nepali) have settled there over the years. There are many ethnic Chinese, too. The city was founded about 800 years ago. Rubies have been mined in the area since the Bronze Age. The city was considerably more attractive than we expected. There is still a lot of wooden architecture left to be admired which needs to be preserved for future generations. In the center of the city is Mogok Lake. It can be circled at a leisurely pace in half an hour. Mogok is located in the Shan Highlands northeast of the region’s capital, Mandalay. It is a part of the old Mandalay Division (recently renamed: region) since the country gained independence in 1948. The same is true for the former British Hill Station Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin). The reasons are evident: The Burmese want to be prepared for all eventualities and are determined to keep control of these two important regions – come what may …

Mogok is located in a large valley which is famous for its gems, mainly rubies but also importantly sapphires. The colour of her best rubies resemble that of pigeon blood. They are considered by gemologists to be of prime quality. Sapphires from Mogok enjoy a similar reputation. For the trip to Mogok, foreign tourists need a permit. We will gladly arrange that for you. The city may be visited only as part of a package tour. You are required to take a local guide along. From Mandalay to Mogok it takes about 6 hours.

Following is the  report of our trip in April 2019: We left Mandalay at 11.30 am and after 86 km (2 pm) stopped in the village of Let Pan Hla for a lunch stop in the rather good Panngabar restaurant. From there it is not far to the check post in Wa Phyu Taung, where the road branches out: The eastern one leads to Mogok, the northern one into the Ayeyarwady Valley. Both these roads lead to the Chinese border. Your documents will be checked there and two hours later you’ll reach Kyatpyin, the gateway to Ruby Land. There is another road to Mogok, too, from Pyin Oo Lwin. But that route is closed to foreigners. From the entrance gate it is still half an hour to Mogok. However, we made a short detour to the Kyat Pin Kyauk That Pagoda (see photo), which is spectacularly located between huge granite boulders, similar to the Golden Rock with its interesting wool sack weathering. From there you have a nice view over the surrounding countryside. We reached Mogok in the early evening and went straight to our accommodation, the Mogok Hill Hotel. It is one of the few that is allowed to cater to foreigners. Certainly not spectacular, but adequate for the location. There is another hotel, the Golden Butterfly. Online reviews are not very positive. The hotel is so far from downtown that you need your own transport to get around – which can be a problem.

Sunset at Kyat Pin pagoda
View over Mogok from our hotel
A young lady selling gems on the market

The terrace of the Mogok Hill Hotel offers a great view of the city and the temples in the south across the lake: The Phaung Daw Oo and the (Ruby) Pagoda (Sunset Pagoda) in particular stand out. Especially at night – as long as the temples are brightly lit: A picture like from a fairy tale book! Even though things look less impressive on closer inspection. Activities: Well, what do you do in Mogok? Look for gemstones, of course! There are two gem markets: one that takes place in the morning and another one that takes place in the afternoon. The latter is supposedly for the big deals, the former is for the small fry only. At least that’s what they told us. There were many Indian, Nepali, and Lisu traders at the morning market. Including many pretty girls who like to be photographed. 

As the photo on the right proves! If you like, you can buy a few beautiful stones from them for little money. However, you should be aware that there are significant differences in quality – to put it kindly. A handful of real rubies can be bought for ten dollars! But it’s fun! If you are not interested in stones, you can take a tour around the lake. Ruby trading, although done openly at local wayside stalls, still has its ‘trade secrets’ namely the price paid for important stones.  When both sellers and buyers are negotiating their ‘final’ offers for good quality rubies, it can be done confidentially by the buyer inserting his hand up the baggy sleeve of  the seller to signal his acceptance of the deal. Onlookers are none the wiser as to the price paid even as they can see the rubies for sale on the scales.

Washing calcite in a ruby mine

The highlight of our visit took place in the afternoon: a visit to a ruby mine! The excavation of rubies is rather gruelling and dangerous! Some mine shafts reach down to 300 meters below the surface. Safety precautions for the workers – if any – are almost non-existent. Serious accidents and even deaths occur almost daily. The quarried rock (calcite) is loaded into trolleys.  These are pulled up by means of a primitive diesel-powered winch. The pieces of rocks are dumped into large stone crushers to break them down. The crushed material ends up in primitive washing plants and is then sluiced into hovels where many diligent hands and sharp eyes are used to search the fist-sized stones for rubies. And usually, they are very successful! Even though the chances of finding a ruby like the famous Sunrise Ruby (more than 25 carat!) is rather slim. See photo of this Sunrise Ruby. This world famous gem fetched nearly 30 million US dollars when it was auctioned. The whole business is supervised strictly by the Myanmar government controllers. However, as the owner of a mine confided to us, about half of the really valuable stones are moved out of the mines without the authorities knowing. i.e. being  illegally smuggled out. If a particularly beautiful ruby turns up, the owner of the mine informs his best (usually Chinese) customers. Understandably, those deals are done with the utmost discretion and confidentiality.

Nonetheless, by selling gems (rubies and sapphires) at the annual gemstone auction in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw, the government is still making millions of dollars. A very important source of income for the government coffers. And, of course, for those in charge … In the afternoon we paid a visit to the ‘professional market’. It was less interesting than the morning market – at least for amateurs like us. We enjoyed the sunset at Ruby Pagoda and then continued to Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. From a culinary point of view, Mogok certainly is not our favourite destination in Myanmar. We had dinner at the Agaung Kyaik restaurant. It was tasty and inexpensive. You can also eat well at the night market in front of it. After another visit to the morning market, we hit the road back to Mandalay.


Calcite with embedded rubies

Azure Sky offers this tour as follows:

Duration: three days, two nights. Pick up from your hotel in Mandalay on the first day, visit the valley of Mogok including gem markets and Kyat Pin pagoda. Arrive back in Mandalay in the evening of the third day.   

Transport: in air-conditioned car

Guide services: English-speaking guide throughout

Overnights: two, at Mogok Hill Hotel, deluxe room

Meal plan: breakfast only