Saturday, April 8, 2023

Visiting “Survivor Island,” Pulau Tiga, Malaysia

Part of a series: Asia, March 2023:

I’ve watched every episode of the U.S. version of Survivor. It debuted in 2000, and, except for fall 2020 and spring 2021 (for the obvious reason), has aired continuously since. 

I planned not one but two Survivor-themed birthday parties for my daughter (age 10 and 12).

Yet I did not know till I landed in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia to present at a conference how close I’d be to Survivor history. 

In the short ride from the airport to the hotel, I heard or saw the word “Borneo” and my geography-challenged brain caught up. 

Borneo is an island split among a trio of countries: Malaysia (including Kota Kinabalu), Brunei, and Indonesia. (The only one of the three that exists solely on Borneo is Brunei.) 

Borneo—specifically a smaller island orbiting Borneo called Pulau Tiga—was the setting for the game-changing first U.S. season of Survivor.

And Pulau Tiga was only 2.5 hours away from my KK hotel (two hours by car + 30 minutes by boat).

That meant I was going there, somehow.

I had only one available day—Saturday 3/25/23—and only the two days prior to arrange it.

Even when the first half-dozen tour companies I contacted said they currently don’t offer trips to Pulau Tiga, even when I was told that the one resort on the island had closed during the pandemic (which I guess was the explanation for why tours were no longer going there), even when multiple concierges at my hotel were unsuccessful in helping, I was undeterred. 

(I would soon learn that there are at least two resorts there, both open.)

Thanks to intrepid traveloguer Justin Walter for trying to help me find a way there. (His own trip to Pulau Tiga in 2015 included some especially enviable moments.) 

I went to bed early Friday night, not knowing if any plan would come together but wanting to be rested if it did. 

I woke at 6 am and began my last-ditch attempts to make this happen. The kind driver who’d taken me to the hotel the first night connected me with someone named Alex, and thanks to Alex, I found both a ride to the jetty and a boat to the island. I set out before 9 am, almost as excited as if I was going to be on the show.

Almost immediately after we began to drive from Kota Kinabalu to the Kuala Penyu jetty, the driver I’d hired, Fitri, said he’d like to accompany me to the island. I said if the boat operator was okay with it, I’d be okay with it. He was a friendly person and offered to take photos for me, which is merciful for anyone reading this post because it means fewer selfies. He also spoke English, which was allayed some concern because I was told the boat operator—nickname PP—may not. (Turns out he did.)

Another small point of concern: because it was Ramadan (day 3), Fitri would not eat till after sunset. By his own admission, he could get woozier as the day went on. At the same time, he told me not to worry. Early in the drive, he said he was at about 90%. 

Yet another concern: multiple user reviews online said the landing beach was dirty—littered with plastic and other trash that had washed up. I was relieved to see that was not the case—perhaps those who work on the island now do a better job keeping it clean than when those reviews were posted, or perhaps those reviews were inaccurate.

Seeing the island loom and first stepping foot there were instant life highlights for this pop culture archaeologist.

I managed to miss not one but three animals that I have never seen in person: a whale shark as we drove to the island, a green (non-venomous) snake on the island, and a monitor lizard on the jetty upon our return. The whale shark went in a different direction and the other two split when they saw humans but before this human saw them.

Roughly halfway through my exploration, Fitri said he was then at 60%. But he rallied and we made it back without incident. 

This ended up being the priciest of the seven day excursions (Taiwan: Yangmingshan, Taroko, JCC, Tianmu Trail; Malaysia: this; Cambodia: Killing Fields, Angkor Wat/temples) during my three weeks in Asia; the cost breakdown, in ringgits:

  • 10 tip for concierge
  • 450 taxi
  • 110 tip for taxi driver
  • 1000 boat
  • 50 tip for boat operator
  • 10 entrance to the area with volcanic mud
  • 20 conservation fee

This equals about $375. And totally worth it.

Only after my trip did I find out that Alex worked on season 1 of Survivor. Naturally I sent him a bunch of questions, and if he answers any, I may share that here.

The illustrated highlights:

King of the world. Wait, wrong cultural touchstone.

Meet Fitri, driver and fellow explorer.

Yes, I had to document the sign in multiple ways. 
(It obviously was not even there when the contestants were.)

start of the path to the volcanic mud,
which some Survivors rolled around in

new volcanic mud bath survivors

newly formed mud eruption
(hard to gauge scale in this photo, but it is fairly small)

Here stood the first Tribal Council:

No trace of the set now, except perhaps a certain tree that only the most fervent of fans would pinpoint. The walk from the camps to here would have taken an estimated hour and a half.

The Survivor crew spent about four months on the island. After they cleared out in 2000, their quarters were converted to a resort, which has since closed. But others have risen elsewhere on the island, while the ruins of this one beckon intrepid explorers—and bats(If this was in my neck of the world, it would surely be fenced off or demolished. Some of the floors had rotted and could easily give out from under you.)

once a game/karaoke room

abandoned keys were everywhere

Meet boat operator PP.

Tagi Beach, home to one of the two season 1 tribes
(including eventual winner Richard Hatch)

Squint Eastwood.

reviewing the day with PP and Fitri

voted off the island

So long, Survivor Island, birthplace of a phenomenon.

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