Many women who sold vegetables and food to tourists turned to panning, as gold prices nearly hit an all-time high.
As the yellowish mud swirls in the waters of the Sai Buri River in Thailand, Sunisa Srisuwanno lifts her wooden pan with a cluster of glowing dots caught in the center.
“It’s 100 baht,” she said, indicating grains worth around $ 3.30 after just over 15 minutes of working with her gold panning partner, Boonsom Aeamprasert.
With global gold prices nearing an all-time high, women are a rare bright spot for an economy hit hard by collapsing tourism amid coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
“The gold mining industry is doing well, especially during COVID-19,” said Sunisa, a 37-year-old mother of two. “Gold is our main staple food. We are selling gold today, we can buy food to feed the family.
The name of the region – Gold Mountain – indicates that mining lasted longer than anyone remembers in Sukhirin district, on Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia.
But it was made more lucrative by rising gold prices, up nearly a quarter from last year.
The rest of the Thai economy is suffering, with the central bank forecasting a 6.6% contraction this year.
Thailand’s deep south, the scene of a decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency, lacks the resorts, nightlife, or temples that draw so many tourists to the country.
But visitors who come to Sukhirin for hiking, kayaking and wildlife are still a significant source of income – at least until the pandemic hits.
“As the community was forced to close the attractions, we had to switch from welcoming tourists to looking for gold and digging,” said Wari Bantakit, 40, who works for a community tourism group.
Some gold screens only use a shovel, saucepan, and plastic bottle to suck up the grains – and sometimes the nugget. Others try to find the best prospects in scrabble underwater with a diving mask.
There are men among the gold miners, but the miners said that the gold draw is particularly attractive to women. Men traditionally collect wood and feed in the forests.
“The housewives who sold stuff, vegetables and food to tourists were forced to stop,” Wari said. “They had to turn to gold panning. It became the main job.