An American traveler seeks out an Indiana Jones adventure in Thailand’s gem country.

By Rolf Potts

Standing wild-haired, sunburnt and jelly-bellied in the Thailand sun, Mr. X looks like an endearing folk-tale character gone bad — Bilbo Baggins with syphilis and a reefer habit, maybe. Or perhaps Santa Claus, if ol’ St. Nick had chosen to swap his factory and elves for a couple cases of whiskey and some hookers.

I have been following Mr. X through the Thai back roads all morning because he has promised to show me some gem mines near the Cambodian border. I have known him for only a day, but I somehow feel I can trust him. After all, Santa Claus Gone Bad is still Santa Claus.

Furthermore, I know that Mr. X’s real name is Stjepan Jozic, that he is a naturalized Australian citizen originally from Sarajevo and that he is 58 years old and dropped out of normal society 20 years go. The Thai villagers and shopkeepers who know him call him “Papa,” and he insists everyone else call him “Mr. X,” since nobody can pronounce his real name. He has a patchy beard, a limping gait and a butterfly-shaped scar over his heart. If he owns a pair of shoes, he doesn’t wear them in public.

I met him two days ago on Koh Samet island in the Gulf of Thailand, where he subsidizes his Australian welfare pension by running an as-yet uncompleted guesthouse. When I arrived on the island late one night to discover there was no legitimate lodging available, some Swedish backpackers directed me to Mr. X.

“Tonight you are milking the cow,” he had told me, showing me a place to unroll my sleeping pad amid the brooms and paint cans of his semi-constructed guesthouse. “That is better than paying for nice hotel.”

The next morning over breakfast, he told me he was going to go to the mainland to buy some rough gemstones. I elected to join him less for my interest in gems than for the simple fact that it sounded like an adventure.

“I’m going to explore some gem mines on the Cambodian border,” I’d told the Swedes later that morning, feeling a little bit like Indiana Jones.

At this moment, Mr. X is haggling over the price of the truck that will take us to the gem mines. We have already traveled by motorcycle, ferry, jeepney (called songthaew here in Thailand) and bus, and have arrived in a tiny town called Makham. Our prospective driver is a small Thai fellow who sports flip-flop sandals, aviator sunglasses and smeared indigo tattoos that burst up from the collar of his shirt and snake over his throat. The driver agrees on a rate of 100 baht (almost $3), and soon we are bumping down a red-dirt road toward the Cambodian border.

Sitting in the back of the yellow Mazda, Mr. X pats his belly and lectures me on his philosophy of life, which I have been learning in bits and pieces ever since I met him.

“If you’re smart, you don’t get any free money,” he says. “I am a stupid man, so the Australian government gives me money. Smart men, what do they use their money for? A place to live and food to eat, and when they work they dream of beach holiday. Me? I live on beach holiday, and my home and my food is free. It’s milking the cow. That’s what I do. Why buy a cow just to get milk when other men pay you to milk their cow?”

Since Mr. X’s philosophy could qualify him as a welfare-reform poster boy, I press him a little bit. “The government pays you,” I say, “but what about the people who pay the government? Don’t you feel bad for them?”

“I used to be like those people! ” he exclaims. “I worked to be a rich man, and the government took my money. The government was milking the cow, see? But when I learned that just a little money is enough — that’s when I became rich man. When you are born, you have no money, but you have eyes. You are already rich man! You wouldn’t sell your eyes for a million dollars, would you? Of course not! I was born with the best parts, even if they are ugly. So now I just milk the cow, and I am happy.”

For all his talking, Mr. X has made no mention of what his life was like before he dropped out and started milking the cow. I suspect he was once married and gainfully employed, but he refuses to talk about it. For him, life began at age 38, when he walked into the Australian bush and spent six years learning how to prospect and mine opals. The opal trade eventually led him to travel — and when he discovered that Thailand had friendly prostitutes and a low cost of living, he decided to stay here.

After about 30 minutes of winding through a highland road in the monsoon forest, our truck descends into a dry flood-plain. Red dust swirls around in the back of the Mazda. My Indiana Jones fantasies are faltering; the Thai frontier looks a lot like Oklahoma. Mr. X pounds his fist on the cab, and we pull to the side of the road near a lone wooden house.

“I used to have my own mine in this land,” he says as we hop out of the truckbed.

“You owned land here?”

He laughs. “I didn’t own it, but it was my land.”

I stretch my legs and look around. About 20 miles to the east is the Cambodian town of Poipet, a longtime Khmer Rouge stronghold. Though Phnom Penh has accused Bangkok of being soft on Khmer Rouge activities inside the Thai border, there doesn’t seem to be much human activity whatsoever out here.

It occurs to me that half the thrill of travel is a matter of placing faith in strange people, strange places: If Mr. X felt like slitting my throat and helping himself to my Timex, my point-and-shoot Canon “Snappy” and $300 in traveler’s checks, he could probably get away with it. Instead, he takes me past a backhoe behind the wooden house and tells me about the mining operation — which to me just looks like a big pit and some rusty equipment.

“Look here,” he says, pointing at the piles of earth next to the hole. “What you do is dig dirt out of an area where you think the sapphires are. Over there is a washing plant. All the small stuff goes inside the sump. You put dirt in, big rocks come out this way and the smaller stuff will go inside this box. Then the women check it by hand. If you find some good stones, you sell them. If you find good stones under your house, you move the house.”

Since I had expected something more along the lines of a dark cave with jade idols and tiki torches, I am disappointed by these piles of dirt. To me, the mining operation doesn’t look much different from a suburban gravel pit — but Mr. X speaks of it with almost childlike enthusiasm. As he describes the workings of the mine, a Thai man comes out of the wooden house with a tray full of rough stones. Mr. X splashes some water onto the stones and holds them up to the sun one by one.

“This is star sapphire,” he says. “This is garnet. Here is sapphire. This is nice color, very blue. You want to pay him 1,000 baht for everything? We’ll take them home, cook them, seal the cracks, change the color.” He holds up a garnet, which glows dark purple in the sun. “Cut this one here, you get 6,000 baht. You want to buy?”

When I stammer out a few skeptical excuses, Mr. X shrugs and pays the 1,000 baht himself. “No worries,” he says. “We’re just playing games here.” The Thai man transfers the stones into a plastic grocery sack and our driver fires up the Mazda.

“Now we go to gemstone market in Chanthaburi town,” Mr. X says, climbing into the truckbed. He holds up the plastic bag full of stones. “Here is a different way of milking the cow.”

For the most part, the municipality of Chanthaburi is a sleepy and charming provincial Thai town, where roosters spar on the damp ground beneath tin-roofed houses, uniformed schoolgirls on mopeds weave past fruit stands in the center of town and stewed beetles are sold in the evening market alongside buckets of live frogs and fried grasshoppers. Near the river, Vietnamese Catholic men in straw fedoras use hoses to water the lawn of the local cathedral, and entire families sit on bamboo-piling platforms to eat dinner and listen to boom-box music. Across the water from downtown, the huge golden Buddha at Wat Pai Lom reclines half-lidded and blissful, as if drunkenly thinking of a lost love before drifting off.

By contrast, the gem district that covers several blocks in the southeast quarter of Chantaburi is all business. Apart from a few red-velveted display windows in the retail shops, Chantaburi’s gem district is packed with unadorned iron-gate and concrete trading halls, where nearly 1,000 brokers oversee wholesale gem transactions every weekend.

One of these brokers is a gregarious Chinese-Thai man named Smit Lohploy, and he waves Mr. X over to his table before we even have a chance to dust off from our truck ride. Though he owns a retail shop a couple blocks away, Smit spends his weekends overseeing this trading hall on Si Chan Road near the river.

At this moment, the dim, sweaty trading hall is packed with an eccentric international array of gem-buyers and gem-brokers, all of them clustered around the worn wooden tables. Turbaned Indians rub elbows with mustachioed Malaysians and khaki-shirted Brits. Gem-runners — mostly locals who work on commission for wholesalers and lapidary operations — move from table to table, flashing their supply of rubies or sapphires at buyers and scribbling down offers. The white walls of the trading hall are marbled brown with accumulated grime, and the energetic frenzy of buying and selling resembles a dingy sort of back-alley Wall Street. My Indiana Jones fantasies are suddenly rekindled.

One of the buyers, an American, immediately recognizes Mr. X. “Hey X,” he says. “Did you already blow all your money on the girls? What did you bring in for me?”

Mr. X starts to show him the rough stones. “Look here,” he says to the American. “This garnet is winking at you. What do you give me for this?”

The American laughs. “What do you say I give you a case of Viagra?”

As Mr. X and the American buyer begin to banter out a negotiation, Smit shows me to a seat at his table and gives me a lamp and a magnifying glass. Immediately, I am surrounded by gem-runners, who slide plastic bags of gemstones in front of me. I have no idea what to look for in these stones, so I just grab a pair of forceps and feign expertise.

As I squint and frown and hold the gems up to the light, Smit explains the business to me. “The stones you’re looking at probably come from Cambodia or Burma. Most of the gems in this part of Thailand have already been picked over.”

“Mr. X got those rough stones out by the Cambodian border this afternoon.”

Smit laughs. “Well, X isn’t as stupid as he wants everyone to think he is. If there are any good mines left in Thailand, he knows how to find them.”

“Why is the Chanthaburi market so popular if most of the gems have been picked over?”

“Reputation. Wholesalers from Bangkok have been coming here for 50 years. Plus a lot of foreign buyers are discovering that you can cut out the Bangkok middleman by coming here first.” Smit grabs his cell phone and stands up. “Come with me,” he says. “I’ll show you the future of the stone market in this town.”

Smit flags a taxi and takes me across the river to the edge of the city, where he is building a new gem market next to the Robinson’s department store. As Smit walks me through the nearly completed complex, he lists the advantages: air-conditioning, more parking, cleaner atmosphere, better merchandising, better prices for the buyers. After 50 years in the sweaty trading halls on Si Chan Road, Chanthaburi’s gem market is finally going suburban. It makes sense — if Smit didn’t do it, someone else would — but it makes me wonder what will happen to the old-style operations on the other side of the river.

As with any place touched by the market-driven hegemony of the outside world, Chanthaburi is changing.

When we get back to the Si Chan market, Mr. X has sold off the rough stones for 4,000 baht — a profit of almost $80 for the day. “A good man from Bangkok wanted our stones,” he tells me. “Tonight, he will probably tell his friends that he tricked a stupid Sarajevo man into great bargain.” Mr. X holds up the wad of cash with a stump-toothed grin. “Milking the cow, right?”

I find a hotel room for the night in Chanthaburi, but Mr. X — his business finished — is ready to go back to Koh Samet. Before he leaves, he treats me to some of the local rice noodles at a streetside food stand. When I express interest in his Australian opals, he pulls a pouch from his pocket, takes out a stone, and sets it on the table.

“How much you pay for this opal?”

“How much do you want?”

“We’re just playing games, here. A stone is a stone. You put your own value on it. How much?”

“I don’t know. What’s a good price?”

“1,000 baht.”

“OK, 1,000 baht.”

Mr. X slaps his hand against his forehead. “No! Never take first price. Whenever I give you first price, you tell me I’m full of shit.”

“OK, you’re full of shit.”

“Good. Now make me a better offer.”

“950 baht?”

Mr. X sighs. “I can tell you are smart man, but you are giving a stupid man too much trust.” He pushes the opal over to me. “Here, you were good luck for me today. You keep it.”

Thanking him, I take the small, milky stone and carefully drop it into a film canister. “What makes you think I’m good luck?”

He shrugs. “I am just stupid man.”

When we’re finished eating, I shake Mr. X’s hand and watch as he limps down to the corner — a lone, disheveled rich man looking to bum a ride in this humid corner of Thailand.

This essay originally appeared in Salon on April 20, 1999.