Tranquil Thai Retreat: A Home Stay Experience

Last night was our first time experiencing what is referred to as a “Home Stay” in Thailand. It might loosely be considered a type of resort, I suppose. The draw of this particular Home Stay facility is the proximity to a small river that touts waterfalls, which were of minor scale, perhaps due to the low rainfall at this time of year. The water still flowed gently among the weathered rocks, creating the soothing sound of cascading water.

The sleeping facilities are very large rooms with several beds. From what our friends tell us, these type of facilities are typically rented by families or groups of friends. Our room was appointed with two bathrooms and a little porch area with tables and chairs in front. In addition to that, our room had its own assigned riverfront platform, which included tables, chairs, coffee pot, toaster, utensils, plates, glasses, an outdoor sink, charcoal grill, and a selection of seasonings. There was also an enormous cooler filled with ice.

Our assigned platform was perhaps fifty feet from our room. When we first arrived at our assigned platform, there was a selection of freshly picked local fruits and a pitcher of sweet juice made from the extract of some purple flowers, which give it an ultramarine blue color. It is very tasty, but quite sweet. I diluted mine with some water to lessen the sweetness.

Earlier in the day, I had enjoyed a tea made with peaches and extract from roses which was very delicious, and enjoyed a beverage made with chrysanthemum extracts a few days earlier. Morning glory and other flowers are also occasionally used as ingredients in Thai food. Flowers can be very tasty.

Shortly after we sat down with our beverages, platters of food began to arrive. One platter of cooked vegetables topped with shrimp, another platter of raw vegetables and dip, another platter of noodles topped with shrimp, a crock with pork stew, chicken and vegetable soup, eggs, and fried chicken. Although there were only four of us, the quantity could easily feed eight people. We never finished even a single dish and hardly made a dent in others.

I was the first person up and out of our room just after six this morning. I made my way over to our riverfront platform and was delighted to find cups, saucers, spoons, an electric pot filled with boiling water, and a selection of coffee or Ovaltine mixes. The toaster was also plugged in with a loaf of bread beside it and jam on the table. When Jim, Atsuko, and Gift had awakened and joined me, a platter of fried rice and fried eggs arrived.

All of the food is included in the cost of the stay, which is priced per person rather than a flat room rate. At about $24 per person, I thought it was an attractive deal and a very relaxing experience. We intend to try a Home Stay experience again on our visit to Thailand next year.

A Journey From Vacationer to Gem Merchant

Jim, my longtime friend, understudy, and budding sapphire merchant, arrived in Bangkok at about midnight on Tuesday. He had a bit of a panic when he couldn’t locate us at the airport after clearing customs. Suvarnabhumi is a huge airport with more than one way to exit through immigration and customs. We were patiently awaiting him at the wrong exit. He eventually contacted a mutual friend, who contacted us with Jim’s location within the airport. A few minutes later, we were united, to Jim’s relief. Back at the hotel, we had Jim’s favorite Thai dish of Mangos and sticky rice waiting for him.

After making our way out to the gem district of Chanthaburi, we were greeted by friends who had bought a mini keg of our favorite beer to celebrate Jim’s arrival. Shortly after being presented with our beer, the food started arriving on the table and just seemed to keep coming as we celebrated the evening. Dishes of fish, pork, chicken, vegetables, shellfish, fruits, confections, and more were strewn about our table as we enjoyed glass after glass of ice-cold beer. Finally, with the little keg tapped out around 9:30, we said our goodnights and headed back to our hotel to prepare for a day of serious gem work in the morning.

Jim first came to Thailand in 2017 to join my wife and I as his vacation. He became captivated by the gem business and began taking courses in gemology shortly after that trip. Jim is well along in his academic gemological education, which will serve him well. He has also been learning the ropes and tricks of the trade of gem buying when he joins me here on buying trips.

When I say tricks of the trade, it’s mostly about knowing what techniques gem dealers frequently employ. Most selling techniques are considered ethical and just considered part of hard bargaining. Puffery and bluffing are considered a normal part of the negotiation process. A dealer claiming no one can beat his/her quality or claim that he/she has already received an offer 20% higher than your offer in hopes of luring you into increasing your offer.

Conversely, a buyer might also say that he/she has been offered similar goods for 20% less in hope of inducing the seller to lower the price. Dealers sometimes select certain times of the day to offer particular colors of gems. Warm colors tend to look better later in the day, and cool color gems tend to look better earlier in the day due to slight changes in the spectrum of daylight throughout the day. A buyer can counteract this by asking the seller to come back later if they are offering cool color gems or come back tomorrow morning if offering warm color gems. Sometimes gem sellers will work as a team to pressure, distract, or confuse buyers. This can be counteracted by insisting that each seller wait for his/her turn to offer their goods.

Occasionally sellers will exhibit downright deceptive behavior. “Salting parcels” happens from time to time, where the seller will mix a certain percentage of fake or synthetic gems along with the natural gems. A buyer might look at a few gems showing natural characteristics and assume that all of them are natural. To avoid this pitfall, I examine every single gem before making an offer. Offering gems that have been treated with glass filling to improve clarity or color-enhancing diffusion, without disclosure is considered unethical. Glass filling is fairly easy for most gemologists to detect. Still, we rely on local gem labs to detect diffusion if we suspect it.

Jim is becoming a good gem buyer and can conduct his own gem inspections, evaluation, and formulate his own offers without assistance for the most part. If he needs advice, Noi and I are usually on hand, but he is pretty much self-sufficient now. 

Back home, Jim is gaining recognition within the jewelry community as a knowledgeable sapphire merchant with attractive prices for high-quality gems. Occasionally, Jim supplies sapphires for the Trade Wind collection when I run low on particular sizes or qualities. I expect Jim will enjoy a bright future in the sapphire business.

A Swashbuckling Gem Hunter

Ran across an old friend on the gem market today, and we sat down for a nice cup of coffee. Latte for Pino and espresso for myself. Over coffee, we discussed the latest challenges facing miners in various places, the growing shortage of gem cutters, and what types of gems could be bought at fair prices on the market.

I can’t exactly recall when we first met, but we have crossed paths on the world’s gem markets for decades. Not that gem guys are of a particular look or type, but Pino never really seemed to fit the part to me. With the appearance of a biker and the attitude of a pirate, he is more of a swashbuckling risk-taker than any gem guy I have ever known. He thinks nothing of venturing into the jungles of Columbia or seeking out diamonds in remote parts of Sierra Leone, often fleeing places one step ahead of authorities hot on his trail. I do love listening to his adventures! He’s the real-life Indiana Jones.

Every couple of years, our paths will cross, as happened this weekend in Chanthaburi, Thailand. His official nationality is Italian, and his residence is Sicily, but he can be found wandering almost anywhere gems are being mined, traded, bought, or sold.

His latest venture is ownership in some gem mines in Madagascar. He has invited me to come down and spend some time with him there, but I would prefer to stay in the relative comfort and safety of the more established gem markets than deal with the dangers, corruption, and uncertainties of the mining districts in Madagascar.

Pino is a very educated guy when it comes to gems. Not only is he a GIA gemologist, but a university graduate of geology as well. He deals in crystal specimens, gem rough, and finished gems. Although he deals in millions upon millions of dollars worth of gems, when speaking with him, it’s obvious that he isn’t in it for the money but for the pure love of the business.

Pino has been sporting a beautiful emerald crystal that is suspended from a chain around his neck ever since I’ve known him. It must be his good luck charm. In a business where we deal in rarities, Pino stands out as one of a kind.

Uncovering the Unofficial Thai Dress Code

Nearly every morning at dawn, I walk to the park where various exercise groups congregate. One group does aerobics, which my wife enjoys joining. Another group does Tai Chi. A third group does some sort of martial arts routine with these four-foot sections of pipe.

I have often noticed that most of the people in these exercise groups wore the same color and just figured it was some team symbolism or something. Suddenly, after all these years, I noticed that one team was wearing a different color than it was the day before. The next day I noticed that the same group was wearing a different color again.

Becoming more curious, I took note of each of the various groups and discovered they were all wearing predominantly the same color as each of the other groups on any particular day.

I asked a Thai friend about it, and she told me about the informal Thai dress code which goes as follows:

  • Monday- Yellow
  • Tuesday- Pink
  • Wednesday- Green
  • Thursday- Orange
  • Friday- Blue
  • Saturday- Purple
  • Sunday- Red

It is not only the people in these exercise groups, but I notice most Thai people in general sporting outfits that coordinate with the unofficial Thai dress code.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been coming here for over 25 years and am just now becoming aware of this Thai fashion etiquette. Next trip, I’ll try to bring along some garments that coordinate with the Thai fashions.

From Sketch to Reality: A Collaborative Mural Project

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my friends, Ton and Or, and their increasingly successful restaurant. As part of their expansion, they have erected a separate air-conditioned building to host groups for small events like birthday parties, business meetings, and such. This building is reaching the final stages of completion. I love Ton’s design concepts and unique choices of windows, building materials, and textures. One section of the north-facing exterior looked a little plain; one evening, Ton suggested that he might like to add some interest to that area.

The next day I bought some colored pencils, returned to my apartment, and drew a quick sketch. I brought the sketch to Ton and Or, asking if they would like me to paint a simple landscape like the one sketched. They liked the idea, so we set aside three days to complete the project, from Monday, the 19th, to Wednesday, the 21st

On Monday morning, we went to what looks like the Thai equivalent of Home Depot. The workers even wear the same orange aprons that we are all familiar with back home. I selected a few colors of exterior latex paint, some primer, painter’s tape, sandpaper, and a couple of brushes. The prior weekend, I found an artist’s supply store and bought a few fan brushes, a few smaller brushes, and a pallet knife. After all the supplies were bought, we went back to the restaurant, and I started scraping, sanding, masking, and applying two coats of primer by the end of the day.

On Tuesday morning, I started the actual painting of the mural. It took a while to get a feel for the paint’s viscosity and drying habits, but within an hour or so, I felt pretty comfortable with it. By late Tuesday afternoon, it seemed to be about halfway completed.

I got a late start on Wednesday for various reasons but finally got to working on the mural at 11AM. At about 3:30, I realized I was somewhat under the gun to finish this by 5PM when the dinner crowd would start to arrive. I didn’t get as much detail into the painting as I might have liked, but I finished on time and achieved the optic feel I was hoping for.

The concept was to use this rather awkward space to create a scene in which the viewer might envision themselves being able to walk into the painting. Not sure that I totally nailed it, but Ton, Or, the wait staff, and their customers seemed to universally approve. What do you think?

A Tale of Talent, Hard Work, and Resilience

Frank is the son of our oldest friends in Thailand. When I first met Frank, he was perhaps one or two years old, just learning to walk.

He was a gifted child and has become an impressive young man. When Frank was in elementary school, he would follow me around the golf course when I used to play golf in Thailand. Seeing Frank’s interest in golf, his father, Noi, got him a membership at a local driving range, and Frank would practice for hours a day at driving, chipping, sand shots, putting, and so forth. Like most young people, he was very limber and developed a beautiful golf swing, and became a very good golfer. Before long, guys from local country clubs were recruiting him to play on their teams, where he became associated with influential people in the community.

Around this time, it became apparent that Frank was gifted with numbers. His proficiency in math eventually earned him a spot on the Thailand academic Olympic team, which competed against other countries in mathematics and other academic disciplines.

Some combination of raw talent, excellent parenting, influential friends, and strong desire earned him a scholarship to Thailand’s military prep academy, which he attended for four years. Following his years of prep school, I was honored when he asked me to speak, even with my pathetic command of the Thai language, on stage during his graduation ceremony.

Subsequently, he entered the military academy. Unfortunately, about halfway through his years at the academy, he was stricken with stage three cancer. Somehow, the king’s daughter heard of his plight and personally intervened to arrange his care. He had to suspend his education at the academy to attend to his medical issues, but eventually, with the king’s daughter advocating for his treatment, he made a full recovery and is now cancer free. He returned to the military academy to finish his education and was commissioned as an officer in the Thai army.

Frank recently finished flight school training, graduating number one in his class, and is now a helicopter pilot.

I hadn’t seen Frank since 2019, when he accompanied me to Sri Lanka during his recovery period. I was delighted that he took a few day’s leave to see Atsuko and me in Chanthaburi. He is fit as a fiddle with muscles hard as a rock!

Today, he is driving his mom to Bangkok but plans to join us at the beach in Chao Lao tomorrow or the next day for a little R&R before returning to his squadron.

A Thai Valentine’s Day to Remember

Today has been a five-star day. We have enjoyed blue skies all day long and temperatures ranging from about 80 to 90 degrees with a gentle breeze coming off the ocean.

We are at the ocean again, and the water is warm and comfortable. On days like this, I like to wade out until neck-deep water and just float on my back as the swells gently rock up and down, back and forth. It occurs to me that we very rarely have this sensation because normally, our feet are in contact with the ground, our behinds are in contact with a seat or our bodies are in contact with our bed. How splendid and relaxing it is to effortlessly float on my back without contacting anything but the water that surrounds me. I often find myself drifting off to sleep, completely relaxed in the rolling swells, sometimes awakening to find that I have drifted some 50 yards or so out to sea and have to swim shoreward to find contact with the bottom again. Occasionally little fish will discover me out there and gently poke their noses against me, which tends to tickle. Today, as I was wading back toward shore, a little shark of a foot or eighteen inches long came over and started swimming circles around my body. It was undoubtedly curious about who was invading its peaceful aquatic home. I think the sharks here are harmless, something like the dogfish we see in the waters near Old Orchard at times.

I have purchased a woven straw mat which I spread on the sand near the little grass hut we occupy along the waterfront. The caretakers at the place we are staying have even found us some ancient wooden beach chairs which have been reupholstered with some new nylon fabric. Sunbathing is something Thai people don’t engage in. In fact, they generally go out of their way to avoid the sun, seeking out shade and carrying parasols when shade can’t be found.

Today being Valentine’s Day, many of the huts are occupied by groups of young couples enjoying the food and drink which are offered here. It’s fun to lay on my mat and listen to the Thai conversations around me and see how many of the words I understand or if I can detect any meaning in the conversation. I am embarrassed to say that even after all these years, I can speak some Thai, but my ability to listen to and understand the Thai language still evades me.

Later in the afternoon, we took a two-hour walk along the beach at low tide. Along the walk, we came upon sections of beach where hundreds upon hundreds of sand dollars were sunning themselves, partially exposed from beneath the sand. Thinking back to my childhood days of collecting shells while vacationing at Old Orchard Beach, we would think it a treasure to find one or two unbroken sand dollars during our one-week stay.

We returned from our walk to enjoy fried fish with garlic and fried pork, rice, and a couple of bottles of cold beer under a little grass hut on the waterfront. As we were finishing our meal, there was a beautiful sunset over Bangkok bay. A perfect Valentine’s Day!

Phenomenal Gems!

During this trip, I’ve been inspired by some phenomenal gems. They may not be phenomenal in what readers might consider the traditional sense of the word. They are gems that exhibit unusual characteristics in how they transform light, known as optic phenomenon.

Chatoyance is when a gem creates an “eye” which moves back and forth across the gem but radiates from within the gem. This is most commonly seen in a gem called cat’s eye chrysoberyl which is generally unknown or underappreciated in America. It is a prized and coveted gem in most Asian countries. I have recently taken to wearing a man’s ring I created with a cat’s eye I purchased in Brazil about 40 years ago on one of my first gem-buying trips as a civilian. This phenomenon occasionally occurs in other gems too. Cross Jewelers offers a rare cat’s eye tourmaline in the magnificent gems collection.

Asterism is when a gem exhibits a star that moves about throughout as the gem is moved or as light sources change direction. The most notable are star sapphires and star rubies with six-rayed stars. One of my wife’s favorite rings is a sky-blue sapphire with a bright six-rayed star, flanked by channel set diamonds in white gold. Four rayed stars are also seen in some varieties of garnet and some lesser-known gems like diopside.

Adularia is referred to in gemological texts as a floating billowy light. This is most frequently seen in moonstones, such as can be seen in a ring in the Trade Wind collection. On this trip, I have seen this phenomenon in a cabochon ruby for the first time in my life. My friend, Noi, who lives on the gem market here, says he has only seen it in ruby very rarely during his lifetime. I am now the proud owner of that gem.

Finally, play of color is an optic phenomenon seen in opal, which breaks down white light into flashes of spectral color. This can be seen in Australian opals, which are featured in the Trade Wind collection, and African opals, which are featured in Cross Jewelers Garden of Eden collection.

Phenomenal gems are almost always cut in cabochon style.

For customers looking for something a little less traditional than the typical faceted gems, gems exhibiting optic phenomenon are an excellent choice.

The gem business is wonderful and also frustratingly unpredictable

Since childhood, I have been afflicted with a lifelong addiction to gems and crystals.

It started with collecting tumbled stones and pieces of agate, tiger-eye, and opal from little rock and mineral shops in my elementary school years. I would buy cheap metal chains and attachments, which I would glue to the tumbled stones and crystals to make jewelry for my mom, aunts, grandmothers, neighbors, and friends. During my high school years, my dad would drive me to abandoned mines in New Hampshire and Maine, where I would search for hours to find bits of aquamarine, tourmaline, and quartz crystals.

During five years of Navy service, I collected crystals and gems from various foreign ports. Cameos and coral from Italy, lapis lazuli from Chile, and emeralds from Columbia. Kunzite, tourmaline, aquamarine, and more from Brazil.

After discharge from the Navy and establishing my own jewelry business, I began making buying trips to the gem sources and cutting centers around the world and continue the same to this day. In recent years, I have concentrated my buying trips to southeast Asia. Primarily Thailand and Sri Lanka, and occasionally to Burma and Cambodia.

One thing I have learned for sure after nearly six decades is that the gem business is wonderful and also frustratingly unpredictable. Supply and prices can swing wildly from year to year as new discoveries come to market and old sources become extinct. Another factor affecting prices is the demand for certain gems, especially from large markets like China.

This year I am finding prices for fine rubies to be nearly double what they were a year ago. Prices for fine sapphires remain fairly stable so far. Prices of world-sourced tourmaline and tsavorite garnet are up about fivefold from a few years ago. Looking at the few pieces of ruby, tsavorite garnet, and world tourmaline pieces available in the Trade Wind collection, I realize that it would cost me more than the selling price to replace some of those pieces today.

On the disappointing side, sapphires mined in Kanchanaburi, Thailand and Pailine, Cambodia, have virtually disappeared from the market as the mines have played out. On the bright side, I have seen a few delightful deep blue star sapphires from the mines in Bangkacha, Thailand, which have never been on the market before.

There are also fairly new sources of sapphires coming from Kenya and Madagascar. The sapphires from Kenya have a greenish blue which can be quite pleasant. Some of the sapphires from Madagascar have a steely blue color and fantastic clarity, giving them exceptional brilliance. I have also seen a few velvety blue sapphires coming out of Burma.

Mangoes and Morning Coffee

It’s hard to believe that we have been here nearly two weeks. The time seems to be flying by.

The weather has turned warm and pleasant again, and we made our way to the beach yesterday. We’ll stay here for a few days and then join some friends in a neighboring province of Rayong on Wednesday.

It was so delightful to wake up to the nearly deserted oceanfront. It’s so peaceful and serene. The people who own the bungalow we rented brought us fresh mangos and sticky rice from town, which we thoroughly enjoyed with our morning coffee on the waterfront.

The mangos here are yellow, and unlike those red and green fibrous ones we get at home, these are yellow, sweet, and so tender that they almost melt in your mouth. The sticky rice is mixed with some sort of sweet coconut extract, which tastes like the inside of a Mounds bar. It is a traditional favorite of the people in Thailand.