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.
1/16/2015 07:01:34 am
It was the Smithsonian Channel that ran that. I had no idea why I knew everything you were saying about Jayavarman and such till you mentioned it.
6/7/2015 11:35:52 am
Man if this shit you say is true then why els thai mother fucker try to say is there, what I dont understand is what your trying to tell everyone it's ancient and old, but why you have to say it's thailand temple cause it's in Thailand but has Khmer feature.
1/16/2015 07:20:24 am
Aww, come on, it's just a TV show!
1/16/2015 08:34:48 am
After all the efforts to "raise awareness" about the landmines, with Angkor being a major focus of that, I can't really blame them for running with that angle. It's relatively easy in terms of research/writing, but it could be a lot worse (they did they promote white supremacy? No? Then they're already ahead of some of their compatriots on History/H2)
1/16/2015 08:53:31 am
It is the Travel Channel, so of course they're going with a travel angle and want to explore the broader story of the country. I just wish they were a little more honest about it. Is it really that hard to say that you could fly to the airport but that he wanted to experience the real Cambodia? Just from a practical point of view: How many viewers would get turned off of an Angkor vacation if they thought they had to spend a couple of days essentially hitchhiking out there?
1/16/2015 11:53:20 am
I wish I could say most anyone with the wherewithal to think traveling to Angkor (celebrities and other rich folk who can pay to make things happen without seeing them, excluded) is a good idea probably doesn't take a show like this seriously, but that's almost certainly a sucker's bet.
1/16/2015 12:32:35 pm
I suspect the purpose of the Travel Channel isn't for people who actually travel, but people who'd like to travel if it wasn't so dang-nab hard to go to those foreign places. So making it seem hard to get to makes viewers feel better about not actually going. Just speculation though.
1/16/2015 02:08:14 pm
A lot of their earlier shows were either the "Rough Guide" type that emphasized actual tips for backpackers and the like, or those Hotels shows with Samantha Brown that likewise were at least vaguely in a "here's a place you might want to stay" mode.
1/17/2015 02:18:06 am
"My experience with travel is significant but narrow... so I don't claim to have any insight into how people make vacation plans."
1/17/2015 02:27:22 am
A couple of years ago, I had a bad case of the flu and was stuck at home for three days. My cable wasn't working and I wasn't feeling well enough to have someone show up to fix it. One of the few channels I could still get was the travel channel. It had two shows on when I watched. One was of some silly asshole who traveled around the country making a pig of himself. I believe it was called "Man vs Food". The other was of a big fat turd who travelled around the world eating disgusting local fare. I forget the name of the show.
2/10/2015 06:55:10 am
I loved watching destination truth more. That show gave us more of Josh Gates sense of humor and I loved watching the way he joked with the other cast mates.
2/18/2015 06:05:38 pm
I think the show is highly entertaining, and wish people with no agenda other than talking crap on a great show, would keep their unsolicited opinion to themselves.
3/22/2015 10:04:38 am
Why can't yall just enjoy the show?!? I am a history major n knw the difference btwn hyped up tv n real knowledge; however if I'm gnna watch tv it is definately preferential to the kardashians or swamp people - plus josh gates is totally my celebrity history crush so.... Back off ..... Heehee
3/22/2015 11:18:18 am
That's right Kelly. You tell em;-)
2/24/2016 08:51:19 pm
The more episodes I watch, the more everything seems staged. All the carvings, paintings, rock walls, etc, all look so dang fake! Like they did it themselves, rubbed in some dirt and called it as good as ancient...
4/6/2016 11:05:54 pm
Do you personally not like Josh Gates or something? That was very scathing and you critize him almost relentlessly throughout. I'm just wondering because that was obvious I believe 2 sentences into it.
6/25/2020 04:09:38 pm
Ironically enough, there is supposedly a major international movie as well as a Cambodian film on the life of Jayavarman II. Believe it or not the title role of the first was assigned to ex-wrestler John Cena (supported by the likes of Jet Li, Angelina Jolie, etc.). The locally produced movie was to "star" the same Cambodian bodybuilder who featured as the Khmer emperor in the Smithsonian documentary. But just like a later namesake Khmer ruler it was halted amid squabbling internal political issues.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.