WHEN the famous traveler Marco Polo journeyed to the grand court of Kublai Khan in the 13th century, he passed through northern Myanmar and was awestruck by the sight of a golden land that glittered with the spires of thousands of pagodas.

Thus was born the legend of the Golden Land of Myanmar, but the explorer would have been perhaps more fascinated if he knew about the mother lode of precious stones buried beneath the earth’s surface.

Visitors to the Myanma Gems Museum in Yangon have a chance to see what Marco Polo never did.

The government-administered museum was opened in 1996 on World Peace Pagoda Road, Mayangon township, to showcase unique Myanmar gems and minerals, and to give visitors the chance to purchase precious stones at the Gems Market located in the same building.

Exhibits at the museum, which are limited only to items found in Myanmar, are divided into five sections: jade, gems, jewellery, pearls and minerals.

According to the museum’s deputy director, Major Thit Lwin, most visitors, especially foreigners, spend more rime in the jade section than anywhere else in the museum.

Among the exhibits there are imperial and commercial jade, as well as well-crafted figurines studded with gold and gems. Also on display is a miniature jade, gold and ruby version of the Shwedagon Pagoda.

The gem portion of the museum features 22 varieties of precious and semiprecious stones, including the world’s largest star sapphire, which weighs in at 63,000 carats.

Other record holders on display include the world’s largest rough ruby at a weight of 21,450 carats, and, in the pearl section, the largest natural pearl, found at Myanma Pearl Island on April 18, 2001.

The jewellery section showcases the craft and workmanship of Myanmar goldsmiths and silversmiths. Among the more eye-catching items is a pure gold replica of the Thiharthana (Lion Throne ), which harkens back to the days before British colonialists brought an end to the long line of Myanmar kings.

Visitors will find a wide variety of natural resources on display in the minerals section, including samples of iron or zinc, lead, silver, copper, tin, antimony, gold, diamond, ruby, jade, sapphire and other gem-stones.

Apart from tourists and gem traders, the museum attracts state guests, and gemology and geology students who visit to gain practical knowledge of gems and minerals.

The admission.fee is K30 for Myanmar residents and FEC 5 for foreigners.