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Exploring a wreck that failed the Mekong gauntlet

Exploring a wreck that failed the Mekong gauntlet

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

April 1975.

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

Chan Tourn.

"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.

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