Prey Bac, Kandal - Looming menacingly out of the Mekong river, about 40km downstream
of Phnom Penh, lies a jagged, rusting reminder of the Cambodia's troubled history.
Here is the resting place of one of dozens of barges and ships sunk by Khmer Rouge
attacks in the months before Phnom Penh, and Cambodia, fell to the guerrillas in
As the Capital was encircled by Khmer Rouge forces, the Vietnam-Phnom Penh river
route became a vital supply line for food, fuel and ammunition to the embattled city.
It was a gauntlet, as supply ships with armed escorts tried to run their way through
ambushes by guerrillas on both river banks.
This ship didn't make it, snared in an inventive trap by rebel forces and sent to
the bottom in February 1975, according to locals from nearby Prey Bac village.
This month, it became the subject of the first-ever known expert dive on a Mekong
wreck when four scuba divers from the Khmer Amateur Swimming Federation went down
to have a look.
The two Khmers and two French divers, trained and headed by Pascal Doussot (also
the supervisor of renovations to Olympic swimming pool) were greeted by throngs of
delighted villagers, some of whom remembered the ship's sinking.
"About fifty guerrillas laid a metal cable across the river," recalled
"The ship was stopped in its tracks by this ingenious blockade and, though escorted
by several armed barges, was then blown up by Khmer Rouge forces lining the banks
and in a flotilla of small boats."
After 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge regime,
the most accessible and valuable parts of the wreck began to be stripped.
Today, rusted storage tanks and metal scraps litter the river's west bank. Several
men, with basic equipment and their bare hands, make money from the dangerous work
of salvaging scrap metal to sell to a Phnom Penh company.
Last wet-season, the wreckage rotated and drifted downstream a little - it now lies
just 15 meters off the west bank - raising villagers' fears that it might move again,
altering the flow of the river and jeopardizing their farmland.
Undeterred by locals' warnings of "flesh-eating fish", the four-man dive
team from Phnom Penh, sporting modern imported scuba gear, plunged in for a look.
Former commercial diver Olivier Toupin, who ventured into the interior of the sunken
wreck, said visibility was as little as 20cm in places.
"I caught sight of a medium-sized fish in my torch-beam as it poked its head
through a porthole. Maneuvering around shards of twisted, rusting metal made it an
extremely dangerous if not surreal scene down below.
"I noticed untouched storage containers, some of which were leaking, and what
looked like an unopened tool-box about 8 meters down. Unfortunately, I couldn't reach
it because of all the ripped metal...I was relieved to find my way back along the
rope as the current was quite strong too."
There are no plans to do anything with the boat. Its inner secrets are likely to
remain unexplored, while local villagers continue to pick over its exterior remains.
The French trainers of the Khmer Amateur Swimming Federation divers, who are trying
to raise funds for under-water radios to make such dives safer, plan to turn their
attention to Cambodia's southern coast. They want to explore previously uncharted
coral reefs rumored to be home to turtles, dolphins, endangered dugong (sea cow)
and migratory whales.
The French are training young Cambodian scuba divers at the Olympic swimming pool
in Phnom Penh, preparing them for much-needed work in pipeline and salvage operations
in Cambodia's rivers and ports.