A painting of a 15th century Chinese junk. Hab Touch, deputy director of the National Museum, estimates that the Koh Sdech shipwreck is from the same era.
he unfolding story of the salvage of a centuries-old sunken ship, found laden with
Chinese pottery and elephant tusks, has broadened to include an unofficial Russian
dive team, unscrupulous looters and a famous Koh Kong casino tycoon.
According to Yuth Phou Thang, governor of Koh Kong province and deputy chairman of
the government's oversight committee, a team of Russian specialists has been assisting
in the recovery operation.
Although the project is suspended, Phou Thang said the government's plan is to retrieve
all the artifacts, raise the entire 30-meter long ship from the deep, and display
the whole package in a proposed Koh Kong museum.
"We cannot estimate how long it will take to bring the artifacts and the ship
from the seabed," Phou Thang said. "It depends on the Russian experts."
But Timur Zevathim, chief of the consular section of the Russian Embassy in Phnom
Penh, told the Post that "no official agreements have been signed."
"We don't know if any Russians are involved," Zevathin said. "We don't
know if any plans or contracts have been signed. We have no information."
This official statement clouds the role of Sihanoukville resident Nikolai Doroshenko,
who says he has led several dive teams to the site and has underwater photographs
of the wreckage.
It also raises questions about the two sets of Russian names found written in April
and March in the register of Koh Sdech's only guesthouse.
The shipwreck - roughly 20 km off the coast of Koh Sdech, Kiri Sakor district - is
now being guarded around the clock by a Royal Navy gunboat to prevent the rampant
looting that occurred prior to government intervention. Koh Kong police and military
officials described the previous pillagers as "Vietnamese fishermen." A
Koh Sdech fisherman named Heng Tong, 27, said he had seen three small boats filled
with looted items taken away from the area.
Hab Touch, deputy director of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, said more than 600
pieces of pottery have already been catalogued and are under the supervision of the
Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. Touch said the wreck was an international trading
ship and estimates that the recovered relics were produced around the 15th or 16th
But the unauthorized, and unmonitored, excavation has all parties involved wondering
where the looted relics eventually went, and debating whether what remains is a ship
full of sand or sunken treasure.
It all starts in Sihanoukville - in a snake house on Soviet Street. Here, Russian
national Doroshenko told the Post that since February he has led three separate dive
teams to examine the wreckage of what he believes to be a roughly 500-year-old Chinese
Doroshenko, a biologist, licensed diver and owner of the Snake House restaurant,
has taken extensive photographs of the site and prepared sketches of the vessel and
surrounding seabed. He said the ship is 32 meters under the sea and is approximately
27 meters long and 8 meters wide. The ship's hull is mostly intact, its contents
"Russian divers have taken pieces of pottery, elephant horns and wood from the
ship to laboratories in Russia and Germany," Doroshenko said. "They will
have the age and other results in the next few weeks."
Through his photos and drawings, Doroshenko depicts a seabed littered with shattered
pottery, ivory shards and encrusted wooden beans. He said the ship has a single massive
mast that his arms could not encircle and that it was clear the ship had been burned.
According to Doroshenko, diving to the wreck is difficult due to a powerful current,
billowing sediment and visibility at less than two meters. He said the ship has become
filled with sand and must be dredged if it is to be raised.
"The initial divers were not very professional," Doroshenko said. "Most
of the pottery and elephant tusks were broken when taken out because of amateur equipment."
An example of the shards of pottery that litter the seabed surrounding the Koh Sdech shipwreck.
Chheng Chhek, governor of Kiri Sakor and senior government official on Koh Sdech,
said the government first became aware of the shipwreck on February 23 after receiving
reports of looting from the local fishing fleet. He immediately contacted provincial
authorities who dispatched a 24-man naval force.
"Vietnamese fishermen noticed that fish in the area were acting strangely so
they dove to investigate. They found the ship and began looting. We don't know how
long they were taking items away-it could have been months," Chhek said. "We
don't know where they took the findings. It's gone now. It has disappeared."
According to Doroshenko, the Russian team will return soon with extensive diving
equipment. He claims that the government has agreed to allow the Russians to explore
the wreck and retrieve the relics in exchange for food, lodging and security.
On March 5, the Council of Ministers established an oversight committee, chaired
by National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy, to monitor the recovery operation. At
that time, the government also declared it would store all recovered items in Koh
Kong pending a government decision.
Touch said a museum will be built in Koh Kong to house the artifacts, but some will
be brought to the National Museum.
"These are very important findings, so we must protect them," Touch said.
"Many of the items were broken, so we must be careful."
Chhek said the government decided to keep the pottery in Koh Kong because Okhna Ly
Yong Phat, who owns the casino in Koh Kong, paid his own money on behalf of the government
for the diving. According to Chhek the government is allowing Ly Yong Phat to develop
tourism in the area.
"The government has given priority to Koh Kong province to keep the pottery
in order to attract tourists," he said.