PATTANI: With bombings in the Deep South regrettably almost a daily occurrence, it comes as little surprise that some might refer to the region as a “boomtown”.

In fact, the Deep South is also in the middle of its own little “gold rush”, though the object of the hopeful prospectors desire isn’t gold, but a mysterious black ore thought to have magical health-giving powers.

Some people are saying that the rock is actually lek lai, a mythical metal that melts when held over a candle flame and confers invulnerability upon its owner – not a bad thing to possess in the Deep South these days.

The discovery was made in the village of Phru Jud, in Tambon Khuan Nori of Khok Pho district. When journalists arrived on November 1, they found the roads lined with cars, motorcycles and three-wheeled pig transporters.

The village was filled with people of all ages – from teens to grandparents – all lugging spades, pickaxes and buckets up to the hills where the rocks were to be found.

At the bottom of the path to the hills, groups of diggers were sitting around selling what they had found and discussing prices. Some had polished their specimens and were selling them as stones to embed in rings. Glittering black examples sold for 1,000 to 10,000 baht, matte black specimens were fetching between 100 and 800 baht and tea-colored rocks went for 100 to 500 baht.

Raw, unpolished rocks fetched between 50 and 2,000 baht, while large rocks infused with the mysterious black substance were selling for up to 15,000 baht.

Local rubber plantation owner Stapa Waesa, 56, said that the “rock” had first been discovered by Ma-ae Yusoh, another rubber plantation owner, about seven months ago.

Ma-ae, a member of Khuan Nori Tambon Administration Organization (OrBorTor), dreamed of an old man who told him to go and dig in the hills and then distribute what he found among the villagers, K. Stapa said.

“After the dream, Ma-ae and four relatives went to dig in the hills, where they found rocks different to everyday rocks. Ma-ae then went and gave them out to local villagers, telling them that an ancestor had appeared in his dream telling him about the rocks.

“I kept my share of the rocks and had a run of good luck, finding they could cure ailments including stomachache, toothache and fever. If you soak the rock in water then rub the water on the part that hurts for about half an hour, it gets better,” K. Stapa said.

Some unbelieving villagers threw their stones away, but others polished them and sold them to traders in the market for more than 1,000 baht each. As word of the stones spread, villagers began to go and dig for them themselves, K. Stapa said.

In the first month following their discovery, the stones were plentiful and especially beautiful, he said. Now, some days as many as 1,000 people come to look for the rocks.

People are not sure exactly what the rocks are, but there are many theories, K. Stapa said. Some are saying it is manganese, while others believe it to be a kind of lek lai. Some villagers have made the rock into amulets to protect them; others keep them in their cars to protect them while on the road.

Jintadi Phithamaethakul, Head of the Pattani Provincial Natural Resources and Environment Office, said he knew that the villagers were digging for a type of rock but could not yet say what the rock was, though it was likely to be manganese.

He has ordered for samples to be sent for examination in Songkhla.

K. Jintadi said that he could not confirm the health-giving properties ascribed to the substance, but that it was unlikely to be dangerous if just rubbed on the body and not ingested.