The ancient, abandoned capital of Pagan had flourished from about the ninth century until-as one theory goes-the armies of Kublai Khan overran the city and its one million inhabitants for not paying tribute, thus causing the entire population to flee. Whatever the true reason for Pagan's demise, the city's thousands of magnificent temples, stupas, and pagodas were left to stand abandoned, silently and intact, for many centuries. The huge city-situated on a plain as flat as a drum, and bordered by the gigantic Irrawaddy River on one side, and mountains on the other-remains one of the great wonders of the world.
I left Taunggyi in the Shan State heading for Pagan. There were at least 25 people crammed into every space of the truck. People hacked out the portals and they smoked nonstop, next to the gasoline drums; babies, held by their mothers, pissed from the tailgate and it flew back into our faces; and old ladies leaned on me and dug their bony elbows into my ribs. My ass felt as red and swollen as a baboon's from sitting on the truck's wooden bench for ten hours. All the while the eyes drilled me, and there were probing questions.
"Are you a tourist? Where is your group?"
"Have you been to Burma before? How many times?"
"Where have you been? Where are you going?"
I finally arrived in Pagan. Nearly two years before, I had ordered a lacquered table in five different colors from the best shop in Pagan. the table would take a full year to make, so I'd left a deposit of 1,000 Kyats. The lacquer ware of Pagan, in all of its applications, has been produced for centuries. The extremely dry climate is ideal for the drying processes, which must be undertaken for every layer of lacquer applied. Lacquer can be painted on teak furniture, applied to woven bamboo for utilitarian articles (such as monk's alms bowls), and even to woven horse hair that is so delicate and flexible that one side of a cup lacquered with it can be pressed to touch the opposite side. It can be etched and is waterproof. I paid the balance, and a final hand-polishing with petrified wood dust and teak charcoal made it gleam.
I invited a group of local friends out for dinner to feast on fresh river prawns.
One friend named Mya Mya had a sincere appreciation for Burmese arts and culture, and mentioned to me that several stone fragments of a Buddha statue dating from the late eleventh or early twelfth century had just been unearthed near the huge Sulamani Temple.
The next day Jizshe and I drove on a dirt track lined with cactus and thorny scrub brush that could only be eaten by goats. We plodded on along a rutted track until he pulled his sweat-glistening horse to a stop at a lonely enclosure within sight of Sulamani Temple. Here, a long wooden table was covered with chicken-wire to protect artifacts that had been unearthed from near the temple. A family lived near this enclosure, a husband and wife with two daughters, whose sold job was to guard the relics. Their house was more like a temporary shelter built of bamboo.
As I leaned forward to get a better look at the massive fragment of the Buddha's head-classic, with fine lines and curves, indicating that it was from the twelfth century-I noticed a girl with a radiant smile standing beside me. When I drew back to look at her, I saw that she used a crutch and was missing her left leg below the knee. I asked Jizshe to ask the family how this had happened, and they said she had simply been born that way. By the glow of her smile I could see that in no way did she see her condition as any particular impediment.
Hkay Ti Win was twelve years old and had huge sparkling eyes. Something in her spirit inspired me. So many people with no handicaps defeat themselves in life, while this girl, hobbling along on one leg, was filled with hope. I took some pictures of her, some with the Canon and others with the Polaroid, which I gave to her. She was attending school and was obviously a bright student. I could clearly see her family's love for her, as they dressed her in the best cloths they could afford, and her sister tied ribbons in her hair.
One of my dearest friends in Rangoon, then eighty years old, was Dr. Maung Maung Taik, who was the chief forensic pathologist in Burma. He estimated that he had conducted over 30,000 autopsies, in various cases, including one on his own son, who had died of a drug overdose years before, I couldn't even imagine a man conducting an autopsy on his own son! He had also performed the autopsy on General Aung San, Aung San Su Kyi's father, after he was assassinated in July 1947. Dr. Taik had trained hundreds, perhaps thousands, of doctors, and he was looked upon with the great respect that only a lifetime of service can merit. He was also a noted golfer, who still played several rounds a week. He used to play with General Ne Win, who in his paranoia, wore a metal helmet, even on the course, as he expected to be shot by his political enemies.
Dr. Taik drank a few glasses of single-malt whiskey every day, and was one of the best cooks I know. He probably spoke better English than me, and during my visits we often debated the origins of words, consulting a dog-eared dictionary several inches thick. He would often invite me over for a dinner, and during the frequent electrical blackouts in Rangoon, would start up his 100-year-old gramophone with a hand crank, and we would listen to thick scratchy records.
The beauty of the statue fragments I had seen in Pagan remained in my head, but Hkay Ti Win's family were the guardians of the pieces and I could never have compromised them because the archaeological authorities in Pagan would certainly have known about them. When I got back to Rangoon, I mentioned to Dr. Taik that I had met a girl of twelve years old near the Sulamani Temple, and that she had been born without the lower half of one leg. he asked me where the leg ended, and I told him just below the knee. the joint at the knee functioned perfectly and the upper tibia and fibula were present, ending in a blunt stump.
Dr. Taik mentioned that one of his former students was now the superintendent of the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Rangoon, and that he would be happy to introduce me, as they could provide a prosthetic leg for young Hkay Ti Win.
I immediately arranged to have her and her mother come to Rangoon for treatment. It was the first time she had ever left rural Pagan. the journey took twenty hours because the bus blew five tires on the way.
The hospital had open windows and overhead fans that didn't work. In a courtyard scores of patients awaited new limbs or learned to use their new prosthetics with nurses assisting them. Hkay Ti Win, her mother, and I were shown into the superintendent's office, where Dr. Taik introduced us to Dr. Min Lwin Ramu, who examined Hkay Ti Win's leg.
Dr. Min Lwin Ramu said that they would be glad to provide the new prosthesis and the training to walk on two feet. They would also provide lodging for Hkay Ti Win and her mom, as well as food. Dr. Taik said that if I didn't have the money, it wasn't a problem since they would provide all of this for free. I said thank you, but no, I was willing to pay. the entire cost was only a few hundred dollars, which I happily paid.
I learned later that Hkay Ti Win and her mom had stayed at the hospital for a few weeks, and Dr. Taik and some of my Rangoon friends visited often, bringing cookies and magazines. The cast for a new limb was being transformed into a new leg, which she would be taught to use by the staff. With her new leg cast fitted, Hkay Ti Win was soon able to run and ride a bicycle for the first time in her life. I asked her for only one thing in return-the well-worn, well polished wooden crutch that her father had made for her. I have that crutch now, in Bangkok.
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Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Monday, April 4, 2011
Since we were moving to a new house the next day, there was no use to put a new roll in the machine now. We would have a new phone number, and there is no such thing as a tape-recorded referral number in Bangkok. My old friend Dharmaratna in Sri Lanka, had he sent the fax just a few hours later, would not have been able to reach me. It had been five years since I had seen him, although I had briefly been in Sri lanka a year before, in 1996, shortly after the Tamil Tigers had blown up the Central Bank in Colombo, killing scores of people. I had had a specific job on that trip to deliver money and to pick up stones, I called nobody.
The fax read: "Urgent, there is a rare gem piece with me. Please contact me or my son immediately". I called him right back and he laughed mirthfully as he described finding a large gem crystal with his own hands that very day. He said it was found in the rain-soaked earth of his mine near the mist-shrouded mountains of Balangoda in southern-central Sri Lanka.
It was an orange sapphire of over 400 carats-clean, bright, and a deep orange. He had not seen a piece like this in thirty years of mining, and I could sense the confidence he felt in his luck. Knowing how very rare such a piece was, I wanted to be a part of it. I flew to Sri Lanka.
When I arrived in Colombo, Dharmaratna came immediately to my hotel. In my room. I held the crystal, which was as large as a chicken egg, 425 carats in the rough, with three natural crystal faces from the original hexagonal six till evident, yet frosted as if alluvial and water worn. One side was a concoidal fracture that was glassy and allowed a transparent, if concave, window through which I could see into the interior of the stone. This view showed that the stone was quite clean with none of the inclusions such as 'strong silk' or 'liquid feathers' that could impede the passage of light and affect the brilliancy once it was cut. The few cracks that it did have on the surface did not seem to extend deeply into the crystal and could easily be removed by cutting. On one of the frosted faces there were three or four parellel lines of blue caused by minute traces of titanium remaining from when the stone was formed, but they were confined to the outer skin. The stone told an interesting geological history, confirming that it had not been treated in any way.
The color was tangerine orange. Although not the salmon reddish-orange of a sunset, called padparadscha, it was surely colored by a combination of chromium and a slight bit of iron. On first inspection, the shape of the crystal seemed to lend itself to a 'cushion' cut, losing a minimum of weight while retaining the maximum of brilliancy and luster. The table cut seemed obvious, being the largest surface and slightly rounded, leaving room for graceful 'shoulders' and crown facets. What could become the pavillion, the bottom of the stone, already had its angles present, as if they had been formed into the crystal by Nature.
The stone seemed like it was born to be a 'cushion'. However, cupping it between my thumb and fingers and viewing it down the side rather than through the open face, I could see I was wrong. The stone would display a richer orange and the body color could be multiplied by cutting the table in the opposite direction, although the yield would be smaller. I figured that it could be cut into a single piece of 120 to 140 carats. The potential was there to produce perhaps one of the world's largest orange sapphires.
Dharmaratna only dealt in rough stones, since he was a mine owner, but I thought that if a cutter could just open a face, I could better determine the ultimate color and clarity. This however presented new problems. The first was the problem of secrecy. Could we find a cutter who would not betray to other dealers the existence of such a rare stone? Another problem was that after the stone had been opened, Dharmaratna would see clearly what the stone would become, and would thus raise his price if it exceeded his expectations. Not opening the stone presented the danger of finding some inclusions that could not be seen in the rough. Buying rough stones is a gamble, but uncut is where the big profit is, as well as the big loss.
I decided it best to bring a buyer here to see the stone himself, in the rough, and have him decide what to do. the questions which remained were how large, how clean, how brilliant, and how much.
Enter the buyers:
Teddy Doyle, and Australian ex-SAS commando, married to the daughter of a high-ranking Indonesian general, and Lee Wolf, who had a gem company in Bangkok called Pacific East Trading. Teddy had spent several years in Indonesia before moving to Thailand, where he met up with Lee. They decided to work together, and in 1997 formed a new company called the Opal Factory at Khao Yai, northeast of Bangkok, at the foot of some beautiful mountains near the entry to the national park there.
I found out later that the new company was financed by another Australian, a nerdy-looking guy named Max Green. Max, who I met several times at Pacific East Trading's office on Convent Road in Bangkok, turned out to have looted up to 20 million dollars from trust funds under his management. Of that sum, 10 million dollars was said to have been given to Teddy and Lee to run Pacific East Trading, the Opal Factory, and to purchase stones.
All of the stone-cutters and polishers at the Opal Factory were handicapped men and women in wheelchairs, and Paul Elmer, the manager, built modified three-wheeled motorcycles for each of them to ride to and from work. Teddy and Lee were very generous. As a practical joke, Teddy had imported real Australian road signs warning drivers of kangaroos, and put them up on signposts on the country roads around the Opal Factory and the national park. The local authorities never even noticed, and the signs weren't removed. Unsuspecting visitors to the area were fooled into thinking that wild kangaroos were hopping around this part of upcountry Thailand. For all I know, the signs are still there.
I called Lee from Colombo, and described the orange sapphire. Of course he was interested, he said, and was prepared to fly to Sri Lanka straight away to purchase the stone for cash.
Lee had his first chance to see the stone, and offered 25,000 dollars, eventually raising the bid to 40,000 after the first round of negotiation. Dharmaratna must have been disappointed with this bid, as he returned to Balangoda and called me later that afternoon, saying that he had found a buyer for 70,000. I asked him to return to Colombo immediately and to bring the stone with him. He asked me if there was really a reason to return, as the trip was a three-hour drive. I assured him that there was.
Calling him back again, he told me that a buyer in Ratnapura had offered him 90,000. Maybe he was bluffing, trying to drive up his price, but he knew we had cash and that we were scheduled to leave soon. His reluctance to return convinced me that he really did have that offer. I knew that if we did not get him back soon, the stone would be bid up beyond the gamble that we were willing to take.
Dharmaratna returned later that evening and Lee canceled his return flight to Bangkok. For four hours we negotiated back and forth and, exasperated, Lee finally bought the stone for an even 100,000 dollars. Later in a Chinese restaurant out of Lee's sight, Dharmaratna gave me 10,000 dollars.
What would happen now depended on what was inherent in the stone and the skill of the cutter.
Lee and I returned to Bangkok, where he and Teddy would decide what to do with the rough. They had paid for it, it was their stone and their decision.
Lee, who is not a gemologist, was convinced by somebody that the orange color could be enhanced by burning.
Burning a stone at a low temperature to remove 'silk' or to improve the brilliancy or color can be a way of completing Nature's process. It can also be a dangerous operation with unpredictable results. I cautioned them and said that, as it was, the stone would yield a flawless gem of over 100 carats and would be perhaps the finest of its kind in the world. My advice was ignored and they burned the stone.
The result was that the rich tangerine-orange was burned out, and what remained was a golden yellow-lemon. Rather than having a fabulous gem worth over a million dollars, they now had at best a 50,000 dollar stone.
Worse was to come later.
In the meantime, I joined up with a couple of Japanese gem-dealers to assist them in their buying. We bought large, sometimes 100 kilo boulders of jadeite, in Burma. These huge white-and-green streaked monsters were shipped to the Opal Factory at Khao Yai to be hollow drilled into long tubular seals which the Japanese, having the characters of their names etched in the bottoms, use to sign legal documents for real estate and banking transactions. They are called hanko. Some had a very fine medium emerald green color.
One afternoon in March 1998, I was with Teddy, waiting for a new batch of hanko to be polished by his workers, when his mobil phone rang. Max Green was dead. He had been murdered in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in room 511 of the Sofitel Cambodiana. It was a very professional job. The hallway cameras had either been disabled or the film removed.Whoever had murdered Max was extremely angry. Stealing 20 million dollars would make many people angry. Max's head had been smashed completely. His gold Cartier watch, his cash, passport, credit cards were still in the room. Only his laptop was missing. He was so disfigured that he could only be identified by dental records. Later in Melbourne, by court order, he was exhumed to prove it actually was him. It was.
So who killed Max Green? Who knows? I can say for sure that it was not Teddy Doyle, as the Australian press had suggested. I know because I was with Teddy at Khao Yai when Max was murdered in Cambodia.
After Max's death, the money dried up, and the businesses were closed. Teddy was said to have gone to England. Lee was said to have gone to Pattaya to manage a bar. I lost the share I would have received from that unrealized magnificent orange gem, but at least I did walk away with 10,000 bucks.