Sunisa Srisuwanno raises her wooden pan with a cluster of gleaming specks trapped in the middle as the yellowish mud whirls away in the waters of Thailand’s Sai Buri river.
“That’s 100 baht,” she exclaimed, pointing to grains worth about $3.30 after working with her gold panning partner, Boonsom Aeamprasert, for just a little more than 15 minutes.
Women are a rare bright spot for an economy hard hit by the decline of tourism in the midst of coronavirus travel constraints, with global gold prices near an all-time high.
“The gold panning business is doing well, especially during COVID-19,” said Sunisa, a 37-year-old who is a mother of two. “Panning gold is our main staple. We sell gold today, we are able to buy food to feed the family.”
The name of the place – Gold Mountain – symbolic that in Sukhirin District, on Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia, mining has gone on longer than anyone can recall!
However, rising gold rates, up almost a quarter over the past year, have made this trade more lucrative.
The majority of Thailand’s economy is struggling, with a 6.6 percent contraction expected this year by the central bank.
The deep south of Thailand, the scene of a decades-old Muslim separatist uprising, lacks the beach resorts, nightlife or temples that attract so many visitors to the country.
Nevertheless, visitors coming to Sukhirin for hiking, kayaking and wildlife, however, are still an important source of income – at least during the pandemic hit.
“As the community was forced to shut down the attractions, we had to switch from welcoming tourists to digging and sifting for gold,” feels Wari Bantakit, 40, who is employed with a community tourism group.
Only a shovel, a pan and a plastic squeezy bottle are used by certain gold sifters to suck up the grains – and of-course the occasional nugget. Others strive to locate the best opportunities by scrabbling using a snorkel mask, going underwater.
Among the gold panners, there are men, but miners said the drawing of gold is especially appealing to women. Traditionally, men collect wood and forage in the woods.
“Housewives who used to sell stuff, vegetables, food to tourists were forced to stop,” said Wari. “They had to turn to gold panning. It’s become the main job.”