Borneo Rainforest and Seoul, Korea; December 31, 2009 - January 3, 2010

All of the photos in this travelog are Jennifer's. Not that Tim hasn't been as busy as ever with his photography (photo 2). He captured some great wildlife shots from this part of the trip, but he ran out of space on his laptop for photo downloads & editing, and the travelog isn't willing to wait.

After leaving the "dive rig," which we'd become quite fond of in our six days, we spent a night in the port town of Semporna (photo 1) -- somewhat run-down but with a reasonable hotel and interesting markets. We then set out for part three of our trip: visiting Borneo's interior rainforest. Our base was the Bilit Rainforest Lodge (photos 3 & 4), located on the banks of the Kinabatangan River, the longest river in Sabah. We've stayed in many eco-lodges all over the world; this one stands up to the best of them in accommodations, food, and general atmosphere. We were assigned an enthusiastic and knowledgeable young Malay guide, Andy, for our entire stay.

Most of our wildlife-watching took place from boat rides on the river. With Andy's keen eyes and ears, we easily spotted a huge variety of birds (including several species of Hornbill, Southeast Asia's signature bird), numerous crocodiles (photo 5), troops of proboscis monkeys, and several other monkey species.

Compared to the boat trips, our forays into the jungle by foot were much higher on adventure but much lower on wildlife-spotting. A good part of the time we followed elephant trails, plodding through shin-deep water or mud (photos 6 & 7); fortunately, the lodge provided us with knee-deep boots. A major distraction, other than the mud, was the leeches. We've encountered an occasional leech or two in our past jungle travels, but their prevalence here, waving enthusiastically from the trailside foliage hoping for victims, was a new level altogether. Even with our special leech socks, tucked-in clothing, and rubber bands on our sleeves, frequent "leech checks" were required for psychological well-being, though eventually everyone took it in good humor. We all flicked more leeches off our boots and clothes than we cared to count; only Alex was actually bitten.

We took two excursions some distance from the lodge, both of which were excellent. First, we visited Gomantong Cave, which not only is an interesting large cave for its own sake, but it's also a major harvesting location for bird's nests -- so valuable that guards are posted around the cave 24/7. Near the cave we spotted an ultra-poisonous viper, as well as an orangutan in the wild, a lucky encounter indeed.

Our other excursion was to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, a center for orphaned orangs that rehabilitates them before returning them to the wild. Alex and Jennifer visited Sepilok in 1992. The center most definitely has changed, with a much steeper entrance fee, ten-fold the number of visitors, and a little more distance required from the animals. Still, by hanging around after feeding time, the crowds thinned and we very much enjoyed watching the semi-wild orangs playing around in their natural habitat (photo 8).

A quick flight from Sandakan (near the rainforest) back to Kota Kinabalu connected to our flight to Seoul, where we had a long daytime layover. When planning the layover before the trip, it somehow slipped our notice that it would be deep winter in Korea. Fortunately, by excavating our long underwear, fleece jackets, hats, and gloves that we'd brought for Mt. Kinabalu, we were able to bundle up enough to endure the well-below-freezing temperatures. Despite an only four-hour "overnight" flight from Borneo, spirits were high and we had a very nice time visiting Seoul's Gyeongbokgung Palace (photo 9) and the lively-artsy neighborhood of  Insa-Dong. It was a brief but enjoyable glimpse of Korea before heading home.


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