Indiana Jones is the patron saint of cable TV history hosts. His grizzled ghost influences the clothes they wear, their stylish stubble, and the very aesthetics of their programs. Expedition Unknown is no exception, and while host Josh Gates is too goofy to be Indiana Jones, that doesn’t stop the Travel Channel from using Raiders of the Lost Ark as a template. Or, rather, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, since this episode is actually titled “Temple of Doom.”
We open in Gates’s quite likely fictitious office, a set designed to look like a Victorian-era Explorers’ Club library. (Victorians are second only to Indiana Jones in influencing the aesthetics of televised archaeology.) Gates tells us about this week’s mission: the search for mystical stones just like those depicted in the movie Temple of Doom, predicated on the discovery of the lost city of Jayavarman II (c. 770 or 802 to 835 or 850 CE) of the medieval Cambodian Khmer Empire. These stones, called lingams (but here given as “linga,” the Cambodian variant), are meant to symbolize the penis of the god Shiva, and Gates tells us that they might have deadly magic powers. In other words, this is pretty much an America Unearthed adventure set in Cambodia.
Arriving in Cambodia, Gates eats a bug and tells us that Phnom Penh is extremely hot. He gives us a potted history of the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities. Gates is moved by memorials to the dead, and the camera captures him overcome with emotion after viewing pictures of children who were later killed by the communist government. He then tells us that “everywhere you look life is returning to normal,” which is a bit of an odd claim since the Khmer Rouge period was forty years ago (1975-1979), and I’m not sure what “normal” would have been in the preceding brief Khmer Republic or the earlier monarchy or French colonial periods. After the Khmer Rouge period, Cambodia was occupied by Vietnam for a decade and then restored its monarchy, though it remains a de facto communist one-party state run by the party of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian People’s Party.
Gates drives out into rural Cambodia and tells us that the way of life in the countryside is much the same as it was a thousand years ago. This apparently includes the road construction crews that stop him from traveling in any way other than through an open-air local train car known as the Bamboo Railroad. The segment ends with Gates speeding headlong into an oncoming train car going in the opposite direction on a rusty old track. I can’t help but think that the scene was staged to recall the famous mining cart scene in Temple of Doom, since there is no way he just happened to choose to abandon his SUV for a wacky trip on a crazy train with camera crew staged and ready.
Anyway, with the crisis averted, Gates meets with an informant who tells him that tomb raiders and looters are taking statues from the lost city and selling them for more than $10,000. It’s a horrible fact, but an undeniable one: The antiquities trade is insatiable.
Gates switches from the rickety old train to a series of rickety boats to reach Siem Reap, the city serving the Angkor region and the hub for tourism to the Angkor area. As a major tourism hub, one does not need to take an open train car or a rickety schooner to reach the city. It’s less than 7 km from the Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport, which Gates could have flown into easily, as millions of tourists have done and continue to do. It is Cambodia’s busiest airport. There is also a bus that travels to the city from Phnom Penh. Gates’s presentation is designed to heighten the drama of his travels and cast him as an adventurer, but by leaving out the airport it also contributes to the image of Cambodia as a backward, inferior place trapped in history, an image reinforced by the subsequent segment in which Gates goes hunting for land mines with a mine clearing crew, reminding viewers once again that Cambodia is a poor, primitive land full of reminders of barbaric violence. But on the plus side, Gates gets to blow up a land mine.
As we hit the halfway point, Gates explains a bit about the connection between Jayavarman II and his successors, particularly their gradual creation of Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples. Gates takes a helicopter in search of the Phnom Kulen, the holy mountain, and the ruins of the city of Jayavarman II. Here is probably as good a place as any to stop and note that the lingam (or linga) stone was the symbol of Jayavarman II, a Hindu monarch who took Shiva as his tutelary deity, just as it was for earlier kings, like Pushkaraksha, who raised the first royal lingam in 716. (The neighboring Champa culture, under Bhadravarman, had had royal lingam stones since the fourth century—the oldest in Indochina.) Jayavarman II instituted a cult of lingam worship designed to reinforce the connection between the people, the king, and Shiva. One of his lingam stones is in the collection of a museum in Australia, though oddly we never actually see one on Expedition Unknown despite them being well known. The lingam would continue to be a symbol of the Khmer monarchs for several centuries, until Jayavarman IV universalized the lingam in the 930s, making it no longer the personal symbol of the king but of the monarchy as an institution. His successor built a pyramid-temple to worship the royal lingam housed within. A later monarch, Udayadityavarman II, built a still larger pyramid to worship the lingam, one as big as the still-extant Angkor Thom.
Anyway, when Gates makes it to the lost city of Mahendraparvata, he admits that the ruins have been known since the 1930s, so it isn’t so much a “newly” discovered city as one that only recently has received modern archaeological attention because of the use of modern technology to map the ruins beneath the jungle canopy. Gates meets with an archaeology crew working on the city, excavating what they believe was Jayavarman II’s royal compound. For a while Gates and the archaeologists discuss the excavation of the site, but little information is actually presented before Gates shouts “Scorpion!” and we cut to commercial as a black scorpion waves its pincers at a conveniently placed camera.
After another break, Gates jumps in terror at seeing the scorpion, and a local named Pick is brought in to pick up and take away the poisonous creature. The scorpion-wrangler tells Gates that he can take him to a secret location where Jayavarman once conducted ceremonies. They reach the site by motorcycle and traverse the woods with flaming torches. Gates wants to find the spot where Jayavarman worshiped the lingam, but instead they find a poisonous snake, which slithers away after posing for pictures. The men enter into a low cave and view some relief carvings which are truly impressive. Gates and Pick cross a rickety bridge that again echoes one from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (It’s a theme!) And we cut to commercial.
After the break, Gates and Pick finish crossing the bridge and view a stone yoni, a vessel for holding the lingam stone. Then a thunderstorm strikes, and Gates suggests that the spirit of Jayavarman and local legends of hauntings on the mountain perhaps echo the ancient magic of the god-king. Gates leaves the mountain during the storm and spends the night with what he describes as “old Khmer Rouge soldiers” in a jungle shelter. He concludes by offering his admiration for the Cambodian people and his puzzlement over why Cambodia remains such a mystery to him. Then, because this is cable TV, he throws in some references to powerful magic that these exotic foreigners might have secretly possessed. You know, the mysteries of the East and all that.
Overall, the show is a solid enough hour of travel that does a better job of locating its target than America Unearthed, but it is light on information. I understand that the purpose of the show is about the journey rather than the destination, but there is so much more information that Gates could present to help viewers better understand the concept of the lingam, the history of the Khmer Empire, and the practical and architectural achievements of Jayavarman II, rather than some crazy half-baked notion of magic tied to a Western, almost neo-colonial view of Cambodia and the need to pay homage to Indiana Jones. The Smithsonian Channel (I believe) did a documentary on Jayavarman II a while back, and it was much stronger. Even given the different purpose of this show, it wouldn’t hurt Gates to add a little more educational value to offset the gawking and theatrics.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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