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