Outlasting the Cast

KOH RONG ISLAND, Preah Sihanouk province – The contestants are alone in the jungle, fighting to be the last one standing. But even the survivor eventually leaves the island. And when that happens, well, an entire village remains.

Sok San, a fishing community of some 360 residents on this 7,800-hectare island, boasts an unusual business. For the past four years, it has served as a production base camp for various iterations of the global reality television franchise “Survivor.”

The school buildings in Sok San village on Koh Rong island (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)
The school buildings in Sok San village on Koh Rong island (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

The village sits at the end of a 7-km white sand beach on the back side of the island. Villagers say people have been settling here since the end of the civil war, with the current residents having arrived in the early 1990s.

“There were no big houses like now; the fishermen built only small shelters that were only for living temporarily,” said village chief Ear Song Kheang, who first came to Koh Rong in 1994. “At that time, without tourism, they were all fishermen.”

It wasn’t until 2006 that the first foreigners appeared on this side of the island, about 25 km off the coast of Sihanoukville in the Gulf of Thailand.

“I don’t remember where they came from,” Mr. Song Kheang said of the backpackers who inexplicably turned up on his pier. “With no bungalows or restaurants, they slept on my jetty.”

But then, in 2011, the producers of France’s Survivor adaptation, Koh-Lanta, showed up with a crew of dozens. They returned in 2013 for another season and built the Sok San Base Camp—a sprawl of bungalows constructed specifically to serve as a production center. Since then, the village has hosted Swedish, Danish and Bulgarian versions of the show, and, in April, the franchise’s biggest.

Residents gather in front of a shop in Sok San village. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)
Residents gather in front of a shop in Sok San village. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

“U.S. Survivor, everything is bigger,” said Lionel Bonnet, unit production manager at Tunsay Khmer, the local production services company that facilitated the international shoots. “They came with 260 staff but they employed like 380 local staff,” Mr. Bonnet said. That nearly tripled  the village’s occupants.

At the base camp, the local crew scrambled to construct new bungalows and offices. “Originally, we had 54 rooms, and we built another 123 rooms,” said Mr. Bonnet, who was also the general manager of the base camp, which last weekend was converted into the luxury Sok San Beach Resort. U.S. Survivor also came with a fleet of speedboats and a helicopter.

“You have boats traveling—big marine activity,” Mr. Bonnet said, explaining that the boats ferried crew to different shooting locations: the contestants’ camps, the site of the show’s “tribal council” and competition areas.

“It’s 24-hour shooting, so you have shifts all the nights and all the days,” he added.

U.S. Survivor wrapped up its back-to-back filming of seasons 31 and 32 last month, and the foreign crew members have vacated the island. Now, there’s no sign it was once a bustling production hub, save the Survivor-branded T-shirts and caps many villagers now wear.

But what happens when you outlast Survivor?

Sok San Beach Resort, which was formerly the Sok San Base Camp, the production hub of several adaptations of the reality television show ‘Survivor’ (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)
Sok San Beach Resort, which was formerly the Sok San Base Camp, the production hub of several adaptations of the reality television show ‘Survivor’ (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

Since the concept was developed in the 1990s, Survivor has expanded into an international franchise: More than 40 countries have now aired some version of the show, in which contestants are marooned on a supposedly deserted island, left to fend for themselves while competing in various games. Contestants are voted off until only one remains.

But despite having been surrounded by all the commotion, the Sok San villagers know little about the show.

“I have no idea what they were shooting,” said Ros Ren, 50, a custodian at the Sok San Beach Resort who had also worked at the base camp. “When they were shooting, they didn’t allow us Khmers to stay close to them.”

“The Khmers working for them were only needed for hauling equipment…to the shooting site and back,” she said. “They had a translator to tell them to leave the shooting site after finishing their work.”

“I wasn’t interested at looking at their shooting activities, and I just fulfilled my job as a rubbish collector,” said Lim Da, 38, who has since reverted to selling desserts.

What little she knows of the show, Ms. Da had patched together from other villagers’ stories.

“I felt pity for those foreigners because they are used to living an urban life, but then were dropped in a remote area,” she said. “Those who sent them food told me that the conditions for those contestants were very poor.”

The pier next to village chief Ear Song Kheang's home, where Sok San's first foreign tourists slept in 2006 (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)
The pier next to village chief Ear Song Kheang’s home, where Sok San’s first foreign tourists slept in 2006 (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

U.S. Survivor, in particular, took security seriously, hiring about 80 guards from private firms and the navy base on Koh Rong, according to Mr. Bonnet.

“Shooting means no tourists,” Mr. Bonnet said. The location manager, he said, “contacted all the owners, all the authorities, all the people involved with activities on the island and said: ‘Be careful, tomorrow we shoot here.’ And we used security boats so tourists they can’t come, fishermen they can’t come.”

And the production company required all workers to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

“While working for the company here, everybody needed to sign a contract not to spread internal information to outsiders,” said Hien Sokhom, 30, a U.S. Survivor crew member who declined to describe his role during production.

Much of the island was still open to visitors, however. “In Koh Tuich,” Mr. Bonnet said of the tourist beach on another side of the island, “even the American staff they were happy to go there and to have parties and drinks.”

In Sok San, too, foreign crew members and villagers threw the occasional beach bash.

“More beer and more parties,” Thean Chantha, 36, a member of the base camp’s housekeeping staff, recalled of the U.S. Survivor production. “In one month, they threw parties two or three times, sometimes on the beach, in houses, or in the [base camp] restaurant.”

“They played Western music, but when the Cambodians joined, they usually played both Western and Cambodian music and danced together,” he said.

Thean Chantha, right, makes a wastebasket at the Sok San Beach Resort. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)
Thean Chantha, right, makes a wastebasket at the Sok San Beach Resort. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

The producers of Koh-Lanta, the French adaptation, discovered Koh Rong by chance, Mr. Bonnet said.

“To do the Survivor show, you must find a country that is developed [but] not too developed, because I need to find pristine beaches with no hotels, no tourists. But I need to find, also, good modern communication,” explained Mr. Bonnet, who has worked on Koh-Lanta since 2004. “If it’s too remote, it’s too difficult in terms of logistics.”

“Looking at Koh Rong, it’s a very good spot. It’s still quite undeveloped,” he said. “And you have Sihanoukville not far. Sihanoukville is a good base for us because on this kind of show you need to buy plywood, food, water, gasoline, all things like that, so we need a big city.”

France’s Adventure Line Productions shot a season of Koh-Lanta on Koh Rong in 2012. At the time, the only accommodations were four bungalows belonging to the village chief. The rest of the crew was based out of the Sokha Beach Resort in Sihanoukville. “Every day, we organized trips by boats,” Mr. Bonnet said.

That season received high ratings in France, he said, encouraging the company to film a second. Tired of having to shuttle crew from Sihanoukville, the team decided to build the Sok San Base Camp, leasing the land from local conglomerate Royal Group, which was granted a concession to develop the island in 2008.

The second season of Koh-Lanta was canceled after a contestant died of a heart attack early on in the shoot. But Sok San continued to host other Survivor variants, culminating with the U.S. version, which filmed 28 episodes.

“It’s a lot in two years,” Mr. Bonnet said.

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Ros Ren, left, stands outside her home. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

For the villagers, the shoots meant one thing: jobs. The productions also drew Cambodians from other parts of the country, including Mr. Sokhom, who had been a part-time English teacher in Sihanoukville.

“I came here because, first, I wanted to get new experience working for a foreign company. Second, I could get more benefit than I did with my previous job,” he said.

Working for U.S. Survivor, he added, “I got around $900 per month, but normally, I was always paid more” for working overtime.

Ms. Ren, the custodian, said that while her job at the Sok San Beach Resort pays about $110 per month, “In the same post as a cleaner, Survivor paid around $300.”

The productions also gave villagers new experiences. Koh-Lanta, for example, hired Cambodians to test the games.

“I worked as a test person for their game equipment,” said Lim Phorn, 25, who worked alongside 15 others in the role. “Khmer people worked there to test the strength of the equipment that was built and installed, accompanied by some guys who tested camera movement.”

Lim Phorn, left, sits outside her home. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)
Lim Phorn, left, sits outside her home. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

Ms. Phorn described the games: “Like we do in military exercise: running, swimming, climbing, or diving…. The most difficult game was to bring a floating, burning stove from the sea to land, and take the fire to light a flame on a tower.”

“I didn’t think of possibilities of danger I might have faced; I only felt happy to work,” she said.

Having experienced the show’s challenges herself, Ms. Phorn expressed sympathy for the contestants. “Overall, the foreigners may have had it more difficult than us, handling the harder, real games, not the test ones,” she said.

Ms. Phorn said she had been looking forward to being a tester again when she heard about the plans for U.S. Survivor. But the Americans didn’t hire testers.

“When you see on TV the aerial view of the games, it’s sometimes done with contestants, sometimes without contestants, because we don’t want them to listen to the helicopter,” Mr. Bonnet explained of U.S. Survivor’s use of body doubles. “We make them redo the game and then we shoot them, far away so you cannot recognize them.”

“Specifically for the U.S., that’s why they don’t use local testers because they want those people to be doubles and testers at the same time, so they need to look like contestants,” he said.

“It’s difficult to find blonde Khmers,” he joked.

Thean Chantha wheels luggage to the Sok San Beach Resort, which opened to guests last Saturday after US Survivor wrapped up production. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)
Thean Chantha wheels luggage to the Sok San Beach Resort, which opened to guests last Saturday after US Survivor wrapped up production. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

Over four years, the Survivor franchise generated unprecedented income for the village. “It’s a big injection of money when we are shooting,” Mr. Bonnet said. And the village is better off, said Ms. Da, the dessert seller.

“Between 1995 and 2015, it is much different. Now, it’s happier, with a higher standard of living than before,” she said.

“When they [villagers] got the money, they could afford to buy something like gold or jewelry for themselves,” said Mr. Chantha, who now also works at the Sok San Beach Resort. “Before, when I came, I saw only one or two [people] with gold necklaces or gold bracelets or smartphones, but now I see many of them have it. I also have it,” he said, pulling a smartphone from his pocket.

“But now they’ve gone, so there is no money—just get back to fishing or to farming,” Mr. Chantha said.

The U.S. production officially wrapped up on July 22 with a champagne toast at an event in Phnom Penh attended by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son Hun Manet and other senior government officials.

Back on the island, while some of the villagers are now working for the Sok San Beach Resort, others have gone back to casting their nets or to tending to their small plots of land—though sporting Survivor swag.

And now that the island has been used for multiple productions, it may have outlived its role as an attractive shooting location, Mr. Bonnet said.

“We warned them [the villagers] at the beginning: ‘Be careful,’” he said. “‘What we do is not sustainable activity.’”

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