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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pailin's grandma of bountiful gemstones

Pailin's grandma of bountiful gemstones

pailin.jpg
pailin.jpg

At the corner of the main road leading to Pailin's town hall, there is a small

mountain popularly known as "Phnom Yat".

A new gateway welcomes visitors to Phnom Yat, at Pailin.

Phnom Yat was named in honor of

a legendary Buddhist pilgrim credited with starting the gem rush that made

Pailin the center of Cambodia's gem industry in the 20th Century.

Grandma

Yat and her husband are said to have showed up in Pailin in the late 19th

Century, where they took up residence on the mountain in order to do dharmic

meditation.

But even then Pailin was beset by the depredations of gem

miners out to seek their fortune with little regard for the surrounding

environment. As the Yats sought peace on the meditative plain, the miners

burrowing into the mountain around them were denuding the forests of wildlife

with unsustainable hunting.

In the absence of technical support from

conservation NGOs and foreign donor pressure, the mountain spirits sought

assistance from the Yats to mediate an end to the environmental destruction.

In return for a cease-fire in hunting, the spirits promised that they would

guarantee a ready supply of valuable gem stones. In addition, the spirits

required that the miners build pagodas and perform music and traditional dances

on Buddhist holy days.

 

Grandma Yat duly spread the word to the miners whose compliance helped make

Pailin a gem supply center for the next century and helped fund the Khmer Rouge

insurgency throughout the eighties and nineties.

Like much of the rest of

Pailin, present-day Phnom Yat is fast developing with new structures springing

up from the mountain's base to its peak.

In two shrines Grandma Yat has

not been forgotten, her statues holding pride of place behind constantly burning

pots of incense kept lit by still-hopeful locals seeking to wring the last of

Pailin's gems from the soil.

One of those prospectors is Soun Sarath, 23,

who places cakes and incense near where he digs to appease the spirits and pay

homage to Grandma Yat.

"I always pray to the land spirits and Yeay Yat to

provide us some gems, and I'm sure every one does the same like me," Sarath

said.

Nearby miner Keo Sotheary, 45, is also a Grandma Yat

devotee.

"We strongly believe in Yeay Yat, and we believe whether we find

big or small gems is up to her," said Keo Sotheary, a 45-year-old woman digging

nearby Sarath.

But not all is happy on Phnom Yat. As a former front-line

soldier during the civil war in the eighties and nineties, Phnom Yat bears less

happy reminders of its past - old bunkers and shrapnel damage. Rumors in Pailin

are rife that the stupa of Khun Neary, the daughter of French Protectorate era

gem magnate Chay Khun, was recently "rebuilt" in order to recover large

quantities of gems stored in its foundation.

Locals say that the time has

come for an end to gem mining on and around Phnom Yat both for posterity and to

finally allow Grandma Yat and the mountain spirits a measure of

peace.

"If they don't end mining on this mountain its history will be

destroyed and the young generation will not be available to see the mountain,"

said Pailin resident Sok Ma.

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