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. Having previously written about the Philippines, I’m now going to talk about its fellow Southeast Asian neighbour, the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Cambodia has hosted two seasons of the show, Season 31 (Survivor: Cambodia aka Second Chance) and Season 32 (Survivor: Kaoh Rong, aka the second Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty season). Both seasons were filmed in Koh Rong, the second largest island in Cambodia. You may remember Cambodia for its brutal heat that caused the frightening evacuation of Caleb Reynolds during a reward challenge early in Kaoh Rong. The country is fully in the tropics, with 60 islands all located in the Gulf of Thailand, at the mercies of humidity and warm temperatures for most of the year.
As with most seasons of Survivor, local culture is referenced most prominently in the naming of tribes. In Cambodia, the starting tribes were named after temples, reflecting the country’s rich heritage sites. “Ta Keo” was named after a Shaivite temple with much less exterior design than most other Cambodian temples. It is said that Ta Keo was struck by lightning during its construction, and this was seen as a bad omen that put a stop to the temple’s decoration.
“Bayon,” on the other hand, is widely regarded as the most notable temple in Angkor Tham, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire. It’s known for its 200+ gigantic but gentle smiling stone faces. The identity of these faces is unknown. Some historians posit them to depict the Buddhist bodhisattva. Others believe them to be the face of King Jayavarman VII, who is considered to be one of the most powerful monarchs of the Khmer Empire.
One of the most striking parts of Khmer culture reflected on the show is a tribal Immunity challenge in Cambodia, aptly named “Cambodian Catering.” As I mentioned when writing about the Philippines’ food culture, I feel that food from this region often has an unfortunate reputation of being inedible or off-putting. Unsurprisingly, this is indicated by the immediate shock and disgust on the faces of Woo Huang and Spencer Bledsoe as Jeff Probst describes the challenge as a “race to get down local Cambodian delicacies.” However, I have to emphasise again that how these food items are served on Survivor isn’t all that true to how they are typically served as a dish.
For example, the first item of the challenge is a tarantula, a popular street food snack typically seasoned with salt, sugar, and garlic. The tarantula would be deep-fried until crispy, with much less juice and guts than what Jeff comments on during the challenge. A snack much like a soft-shell crab, if you will. We also see the giant water bugs taken on by Jeremy Collins, Keith Nale, Andrew Savage, and Ciera Eastin, admittedly one of the more challenging local delicacies. There’s a technique to enjoy this critter—remove its wings and head, then suck the meat out of the body. You don’t actually eat the “shell,” like what the players are made to do here.
The pig snout attempted by Kass McQuillen, Abi-Maria Gomes, Kelley Wentworth, and Stephen Fishbach is not a mainstream Cambodian delicacy. And when prepared, it’s made into a soup or fried into a garnish. I could go on about the other food items of the challenge—deep-fried frog, pong tia koun (the Cambodian version of the Filipino balut)—but what I’m essentially trying to put forth is to give these street food snacks a chance. Try them in the form they’re typically served rather than the intentionally gross versions seen on Survivor.
In the opening of Cambodia, all 20 returning players walk through the Angkor Wat temple complex. Later in the season, it is revisited by Keith, Spencer, and Wentworth as a challenge reward. Angkor Wat is probably the most well-known location in Cambodia—it even features on the national flag as a symbol of the country. Commercially, it’s also plastered on postcards and travel commercials as the iconic and defining tourist attraction that is a must-see when visiting Cambodia.
Angkor Wat is a magnificent ancient architectural feat filled with cultural, political, and religious history. In popular Western media, it is often associated with the temple ruins of Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones, as pointed out by Keith and Spencer when they were walking through the grounds. In fact, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed in Ta Prohm, another temple in Siem Reap.
The Angkor Wat temple was dedicated to Vishnu, a Hindu God, during its construction, but gradually incorporated Buddhism shortly after it was built. This explains the ceremony performed by the Buddhist monks when Spencer, Keith, and Wentworth visit the site. It’s now regarded as a Hindu-Buddhist temple and a place of worship for both religions. This co-existence of two great religions has always fascinated me, and I’m reminded about how the game of Survivor calls for multiple truths to operate in the same space as well. I’m sure the show producers did not think this when choosing to film at Angkor Wat, but it’s a parallel I mused about when I first saw the temple featured on the season in 2015.
Spencer comments on how, at Day 33, the three players are “as disintegrated as [the temple] is.” To extend his metaphor with slightly more positivity, even though we now experience Angkor Wat largely as ancient ruins, this aftermath also reflects its resilience since the heyday of the Khmer empire in the 12th century. Just as Angkor Wat withstood the passing of time, the players have survived whatever number of days they’ve played, “still in it,” as Jeff often quips.
It’s worth noting that Angkor Wat was never completed. This open-endedness ties in nicely with the theme of a second chance and unfinished business of Cambodia. Kimmi Kappenberg alludes to this idea of restoration in the season premiere as she comments, “damaged, but you build yourself up” when referring to how Angkor Wat is just like the second chance game they’re about to embark on.
On the same reward trip, Wentworth, Spencer, and Keith are also treated to an Apsara dance performance. The Apsaras are believed to be beautiful maidens that descended from the heavens to entertain the gods and Khmer kings with their enthralling dancing. The practice dates as far back as the 7th century and is characterised by the slow hand movements that are meant to captivate and even hypnotise its audience. The Apsara dance is deeply meaningful as each of the numerous hand positions has its own unique interpretation.
In the background of the same scene, you may have caught a glimpse of a musical ensemble too. The pinpeat is a traditional Khmer orchestra made up of wind and percussion instruments. Even though it isn’t visually or aurally highlighted on the show, the pinpeat ensemble is just as important in providing musical accompaniment to royal court dances and religious ceremonies such as the one performed for the three players.
At an earlier reward, the team of Abi, Ciera, Tasha Fox, Spencer, and Joe Anglim are treated to a feast while watching a Cambodia circus. This performance was actually a show by Phare: The Cambodian Circus, a famous entertainment troupe in Siem Reap. It combines various performance acts to tell stories based on anything from traditional folktales to modern quotidian experiences. In the episode, we see short snippets of juggling, acrobatics, and even a fire performance act. You can catch a performance by the spectacular Phare Circus the next time you visit Siem Reap!
Cambodia is a country with a rich heritage, often represented by its religious history and iconic temples. Cambodia and Kaoh Rong have shown snippets of natural beauty on its unspoiled islands, and that the country boasts many other customs such as its food scene and performance arts culture. Hopefully, this article helped to provide some interesting extensions of what we briefly saw on Survivor!