Stormy seas and high petrol costs have forced the Cambodian navy to abandon its guard
post above the sunken remains of the centuries old shipwreck discovered last year
off the coast of Koh Kong province.
Meanwhile, the government has also broken off negotiations with Russian dive experts
and is seeking assistance from Beijing in the recovery of what is believed to be
a 15th or 16th Century Chinese trading junk found laden with ancient oriental pottery
Yuth Phou Thang, governor of Koh Kong and the deputy chairman of the government commission
to collect the ship and its contents, said the government decided to stop negotiating
with the Russians after learning that they were operating independently of the Russian
government, and lacked adequate materials and experience.
"We have talked to Thai and Russian diving experts about recovering the pottery
and boat, but it's impossible," Phou Thang said.
"Now we'll wait to see the Chinese experts come."
An official at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA) told the Post that Khim
Sarith, MCFA secretary of state and chief negotiator for the shipwreck commission,
had met twice with Chinese Embassy officials in Phnom Penh and traveled to China
on May 16 to discuss the recovery efforts.
"The Chinese experts visited the site in late 2006 and claimed that some of
the pottery recovered from the seabed had been made in China," said the MCFA
official. "The government asked China to provide technical assistance and diving
Khim Sarith could not be contacted for comment.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy confirmed that they had submitted a proposal
from the Cambodian government to Beijing.
"We have paid much attention to this issue but it is related to the expenses
for the whole operation," the embassy official said. "We're waiting to
see the decision from our government."
The shipwreck was found in February 2006, about 20 km off the coast of Koh Sdech,
Kiri Sakor district, after the local fishing fleet reported that looters were plundering
the site with makeshift diving equipment.
"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've been months," said Chheng Chhek,
governor of Kiri Sakor, after the initial discovery in 2006. "We don't know
where they took the findings."
The looting prompted local authorities to launch a 24-man naval gunboat to guard
the site. Government sanctioned recovery, and exploratory dives by two Russian teams
yielded some 600 pieces of pottery, and some interesting findings.
Nikolai Doroshenko, a Russian biologist and Sihanoukville business owner who led
three separate Russian dive teams to the wreck, told the Post previously that the
seabed around the vessel is littered with pottery shards, wooden beams and elephant
tusks. According to Doroshenko, the ship is 32 meters under the sea and is approximately
27 meters long and 8 meters wide. He said the ship had a single mast, that its hull
was largely intact and that it was clear the ship had been burned.
"I'd say it's likely a Chinese trading ship. They followed the coastline going
south. In the times of the Indian Ocean expeditions that I wrote of (circa 1400-1500),
trading was less of a commercial enterprise for monetary gain and more of a court
exercise for curios and influence. I suspect that over time it became a commercial
enterprise and this was such," said Michael Bosworth, author of The Rise and
Fall of Chinese Sea Power, in a previous Post article.
At the time of its discovery, the ship caused a flurry of interest with naval historians
and treasure hunters. According to Phou Thang, Koh Kong casino tycoon Ly Yong Phat
paid his own money on behalf of the government for the dive team. He said the recovered
items and the ship itself would be put on display in a proposed Koh Kong tourist
Phou Thang said the monsoon season as well as high fuel prices forced the gunboat
to leave its post above the wreck earlier this year. Chhek said the navy patrols
the area once a week and that fishing has been prohibited in the area.
Hab Touch, deputy director of the National Museum, said the officials had diluted
the salt encrusted on the pottery by placing pieces in freshwater in order to keep
the pottery from breaking because the pottery had been buried in the seabed for about
"We're keeping the pottery in a warehouse with good temperature and proper condition,"