Many women who used to sell vegetables and food to tourists have turned to pan as gold prices near an all-time high.
As the yellowish mud swirls away in the waters of Thailand’s Sai Buri river, Sunisa Srisuwanno lifts her wooden pan with a cluster of gleaming specks caught in the center.
“That’s 100 baht,” she said, pointing to grains worth about $3.30 after little more than 15 minutes of work with her gold panning partner, Boonsom Aeamprasert.
“The gold panning business is doing well, especially during COVID-19,” said Sunisa, a 37-year-old mother of two. “Panning gold is our main staple. We sell gold today, we are able to buy food to feed the family.”
The area’s name – Gold Mountain – indicates that mining has gone on longer than anyone can remember in Sukhirin District, on Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia.
But it has been made more lucrative by rising gold prices, up nearly a quarter over the past year.
The rest of Thailand’s economy is suffering, with the central bank forecasting a 6.6-percent contraction this year.
Thailand’s deep south, scene of a decades-old Muslim separatist armed uprising, lacks the beach resorts, nightlife, or temples that draw so many tourists to the country.
Sunisa holds up gold worth 3,000 baht ($100) from the Sai Buri River [File: Matthew Tostevin/Reuters]But visitors who come to Sukhirin for hiking, kayaking, and wildlife are still an important income source – at least until the pandemic struck.
“As the community was forced to shut down the attractions, we had to switch from welcoming tourists to digging and sifting for gold,” said Wari Bantakit, 40, who works for a community tourism group.
Some gold sifters use just a shovel, a pan, and a plastic squeezy bottle to suck up the grains – and the occasional nugget. Others try to find the best prospects by scrabbling underwater with a snorkel mask.
There are men among the gold panners, but miners said the draw of gold is particularly appealing for women. Men traditionally gather wood and forage in the forests.