Survivor Wanderlust: Borneo

Steph Lauw takes a look into the culture of the countries that have hosted Survivor.


Survivor Wanderlust is a series looking more deeply into the culture of countries that have hosted Survivor as we wait out the prolonged off-season caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve previously written about Cambodia, China, and the Philippines, so now we move on to the location that hosted the show’s very first season, Borneo.

Borneo is an island right in the centre of Southeast Asia. It’s the third-largest island in the world and is bisected by the equator in the tropics. While most seasons of Survivor titled after locations are named after a country or an island belonging to a country, Borneo is a little special—it’s an island that’s divided among three independent countries, namely, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

The Indonesian portion of Borneo is known as Kalimantan, making up close to three-quarters of the island. The Malaysian portion comprises the two Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, collectively known as East Malaysia. And finally, the entire country of Brunei is located on the north coast of Borneo.

Borneo is filmed mainly on Pulau Tiga, a small island that is part of a state park in Sabah, Malaysia. Since rising to international prominence because of Survivor‘s inaugural season, Pulau Tiga is widely and fondly referred to as “Survivor Island” by many. Its tourism really leans into the fame brought upon by the reality competition, preserving set pieces and props left behind from the show.

Pulau Tiga offers dedicated Survivor tours taking eager fans to recognisable filming locations such as Larai-larai beach and Pagong beach. There is also a Survivor-themed resort that hosts screenings of Borneo for fans to enjoy while spending the night on the island that has welcomed the show since 2000.

One of these iconic filming spots on Pulau Tiga is Batu Burung, which translates to Bird Rock. It was featured briefly but strikingly in Borneo‘s opening sequence and in the third Immunity challenge of the season, where the winning tribe retrieved their tribal immunity idol hung on the single tree on Batu Burung.

Bird Rock
Photo: CBS

As the Batu Burung name suggests, it’s a lone rock curiously protruding from an otherwise flat coast, driving home the image of seclusion and isolation in the wild that’s so key to the premise of Survivor. Batu Burung is lauded as one of the most scenic and picturesque spots on Pulau Tiga and is well worth the hike to get there!

The food challenge is likely the most widely remembered challenge from Borneo and was certainly impactful enough to cement its return in subsequent seasons. You might recall the sequence for Gervase Peterson‘s squirming performance as the first from the Pagong tribe to eat a live grub and again during the tie-breaker round, which pit him against Stacey Stillman.

To quickly recap, the two tribes were served butod, the larvae grubs of the sago worm. It’s a delicacy of Kadazan-Dusan and Melanau people, two ethnic groups indigenous to Sabah and Sarawak, respectively. The grubs are traditionally eaten live, giving an explosion of creamy texture with each chew of its body. Today, butod is often grilled and served as satay or stir-fried till crispy, sold as street food at night markets in Sabah. Its recent spike in popularity has led to creative fusion dishes like butod pizza and butod sushi. Interestingly, host Jeff Probst had commented that “In Borneo, [butod] is considered like sushi.”

Photo: CBS

Another challenge that featured the local culture was the Reward challenge in episode 5, which Probst called “Battle Borneo.” Players took turns wielding weapons like blow darts and spears in an attempt to shoot at tropical fruits. Although blowguns as weapons are not unique to Borneo or even Southeast Asia, the sumpit darts used by native Dayak hunters were distinctively coated with natural poisonous sap and tipped with iron spearheads. Without the poison, the sumpit darts weren’t large enough to cause major damage to the animals that were being hunted. With the poisonous sap, however, they could cause deadly cardiac arrests. It was a good thing Borneo‘s challenge department didn’t cling strictly to the traditional weapon!

In earlier seasons of the show, we often saw more of the island’s wildlife and players engaging with the natural environment they had been sequestered in. For Borneo, Sue Hawk sums it up in her now-famous Final Tribal Council jury speech where she states, “This island is pretty much only full of two things: snakes and rats.” Metaphors aside, rats are apparently not native to Pulau Tiga. But the island is indeed home to plenty of venomous but unaggressive snakes, evidenced by the sea snakes which we often see in Borneo‘s B-roll sequences. In fact, some portions of the season were filmed on Pulau Tiga’s neighbouring island, Pulau Kalampunian Damit, which is also known as “Snake Island.”

Finally, we can’t appreciate the untouched landscape of Pulau Tiga without talking about its mud volcanoes. They were featured in the episode 12 Reward challenge, where players collected as much mud as possible with their bodies and dunked it in a bucket.

Mud Bath
Photo: CBS

These mud volcanoes are intertwined with Pulau Tiga’s history as the island was formed because of a series of eruptions in the 1890s. Immersing yourself in a natural mud volcano bath is a quintessential tourist attraction when you visit the island, but you’ll probably want to soak up the relaxing experience in a less competitive manner than the unceremonious slipping and sliding of the final 5 in Borneo!

For super fans, Pulau Tiga in Borneo could be one of the places to check off your travel bucket list when the pandemic is over! I hope this article helps us appreciate the little island in Southeast Asia where it all began in 2000.

Written by

Stephanie Lauw

Stephanie is an English literature and film graduate from Singapore who spends too much time analyzing her favorite TV shows. Besides patiently waiting for an Asian version of Survivor she can take part in, Stephanie enjoys dabbling with music, sound production, and writing, and would travel across the country for good Ayam Buah Keluak. Steph writes Inside Survivor’s weekly Next Time On Survivor feature.

2 responses to “Survivor Wanderlust: Borneo”

  1. Hey Stephanie,
    I’m a fan from Malaysia and I appreciate you writing this piece! Your details are solid.
    SEA represent!
    One day I’ll cross Laut China Selatan and make my way to Pulau Tiga for sure…

  2. Someone should really make a call back to the famous ‘Rats and Snakes’ in their next final tribal council speech. Pretty much every season sees someone got an ugly blindside, and it could make it an easy call back.

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