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Trip Report: Malaysian Borneo and Singapore

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Mar 21st, 2014, 12:44 PM
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Trip Report: Malaysian Borneo and Singapore

Mr frogoutofwater and I just got back from a wonderful, 50th birthday trip to Malaysian Borneo and Singapore. I don't plan to write a detailed trip report, but I thought Fodorites might be interested in a few aspects of our trip:

1) itinerary;
2) photography; and
3) clothes and gear.

First, if you're interested in photos (mostly of animals) from the trip, you can find them on my Smugmug site. Scroll down on the homepage to see highlights of the trip. Click on any photo in the highlights section and you'll go to the full gallery.

http://frogoutofwater.smugmug.com/

1) Itinerary. We were lucky enough to secure 3 weeks (plus a day) for this vacation, as it was a special occasion (our 50th birthdays). I started planning the trip for 2013, but we postponed it to 2014 because we got kittens in 2012 and wanted them to be a little older before we went away for such a long period.

I found it very hard to contact some of the lodges (Lankayan Island, Borneo Rainforest Lodge, etc) on my own, so I ended up using Borneo Eco Tours to book Sukau Rainforest Lodge and Lankayan Island. They were great - superb service, always friendly, very timely in responding to queries, and excellent service on the ground in Borneo. I worked with Nasatia and she was excellent.

Flights: I used United Airlines miles and booked 1st class tickets Washington (Dulles) to Singapore, and business class tickets on Asiana (Singapore-Seoul-JFK) for the return trip. The connecting flight from NYC to Washington would have required us to get up at 4 am and there was always the risk of missing a flight in winter weather, so we took the train from NYC to Washington, DC the night before, after the end of the working day. I booked SilkAir (a Singapore Airlines sub) to fly from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu and from Kuching to Singapore. I booked business class for the SIN-KK flight because that meant we would have lounge access at a stage when we were staggeringly tired after the long trip from NYC but booked Economy for the short Kuching-SIN flight. Within Borneo, we flew on Malaysia Airlines.

We arrived in Kota Kinabalu around mid-day (on a Friday) and stayed for 2 nights at the Meridien. This gave us a chance to recover from jet lag and do a little exploring.

We flew to Sandakan early on the Sunday morning, were met by the Borneo Eco Tours guide, taken to Sepilok for the morning feeding, and then took a boat to Sukau Rainforest Lodge in the afternoon after lunch. We stayed for 3 nights at Sukau and loved it.

(I considered Borneo Rainforest Lodge but Sukau combined better with our plan to dive at Lankayan Island.)

On our return from Sukau, we stayed overnight at the Four Points Sheraton and then transferred to Lankayan Island for 4 nights. We also loved our stay here. The diving was good (but not spectacular). I think non-divers might be happy with a 3 night stay, but 4 nights is a good length of stay for divers.

On our return from Lankayan, we decided to spend another night in Sandakan, in part so we didn't have to rush with getting to the airport and in part because we wanted the opportunity to go back to certain places (e.g., Sepilok) if we felt we didn't get enough of wildlife viewing. I think there is enough in and around Sandakan to keep you busy for a few spare mornings and afternoons. We visited the War Memorial, the Rainforest Discovery Centre, Sepilok, and walked around a water village, among other activities.

The next day we flew from Sandakan to Kuching via Kota Kinabalu, arriving mid-afternoon. We stayed at the Hilton for 3 nights - as a Diamond member, we were upgraded to a suite on one of the executive floors. We quite enjoyed our stay there - lounge staff were very friendly and helpful with various arrangements.

Kuching is definitely worth a few days and for those who can only afford to spend 4-5 days in Borneo, I would even recommend that they base themselves in Kuching (with a night in Bako National Park), since Kuching provides relatively easy access to wilderness (e.g., Bako), a great orangutan reserve (Semenggoh), culture (some very interesting museums, the orchid garden), and good food.

We flew out of Kuching in mid-evening and continued to Singapore, where we spent 4 nights/4 days based at the Conrad (used points for this stay). I have friends (and a branch of my office) in Singapore, so we allocated a little more time than some might to Singapore. We're glad we had 4 days, though, because it rained fairly frequently and we ended up having to adjust planned activities to work around the downpours.

Would I change anything in the itinerary? Probably not. Kota Kinabalu was probably the least interesting part of our stay, but because of the risk of misconnections on the long trip to Borneo, it seemed prudent to stay there for at least 2 nights before the pre-paid tour (Sukau etc) part of our trip started. Maybe the only change I'd make would be to spend 2 nights in Kuching and one night in Bako National Park (or add one day to the trip so we could spend a night in Bako). To get the most out of the wildlife viewing opportunities there, I think it would be best to stay overnight so that you can get into the forest early in the morning and late in the afternoon, and that works best if you stay overnight.
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Mar 21st, 2014, 01:14 PM
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2) Photography. Our planned trip to Borneo inspired Mr frogoutofwater and I to get decent cameras and learn how to use them. I ended up getting bitten by the photography bug and in the past year, I've become a rather avid photographer. The investment in decent cameras and a basic photography course (about 6, 2-hour lessons) was really worth it. (I ended up going beyond the basics in terms of instruction and have been taking courses or workshops almost every month for the past year.)

Cameras. We chose Pentax DSLRs because of their high degree of weather resistance, which comes in handy in a rainforest. Hubby has an intro-level camera (the K-30) and my dad gave me the new, top-of-the-line K-3 as a Christmas/birthday present. It was useful to have the same camera brand because that meant we could share some lenses, although we each have our own walk-around lenses. Hubby's main lens was an 18-250 zoom (Sigma, I think). I brought a Pentax 18-135 and a 55-300 lens. The extra 50mm of reach made quite a difference when it came to wildlife photography expeditions. The 18-135 was used a lot for city explorations. We also brought a couple of fast prime lenses for dusk and evening photography (a 50mm f/1.8 and a 77mm f/1.8) as well as a 90mm f/2.8 macro lens.

Memory cards, batteries, laptops and hard drives. Because my camera's RAW image files are huge, I needed cards with faster speeds, so I splurged on 80 MB/s cards - mostly 16GB cards plus a few 32GB cards. I wanted to have enough cards so that I didn't need to reformat them during the trip. I ended up with more than I needed. I brought 5 32GB cards and 12 16GB cards - I think I ended up filling 3 32GB cards and 8 16GB cards. (This is mainly because there weren't a lot of photo opportunities above the water line at Lankayan Island.) On average, I used about 3/4 of a 16GB card each day on the wildlife viewing days (e.g., at Sukau, Sepilok, Singapore Zoo etc) and about 1/3-1/2 a card on other days.

We each brought a laptop and uploaded our images each day and backed them up on a portable hard drive at least every other day. I bought a very small, lightweight (and fairly cheap) laptop to use for this trip and for other photography workshops that I expect to take, because my regular laptop weighs almost 6 pounds. I got an Asus 11" Vivobook for about $400 and it worked quite well. It's a bit slow (only an i3 processor) and the screen is a bit small for major photo editing, but it worked well for this trip. I put Lightroom on it (but not Photoshop) because I didn't want to do any major editing while we travelled.

I packed a spare battery and found that it came in handy.

Camera bags: I used two bags. I used a LowePro Photo Sport 200 as my "travel" pack (and airplane carry-on). It's quite lightweight (important because I have a bad back) but still was large enough to carry my camera body, 3 lenses, flash, laptop (in the hydration reservoir), phone, and assorted bits and bobs (including a change of shirt for the long trips). The pack was very comfortable and distributed the weight well. It has a lightly padded hip belt with a couple of small pockets that came in handy. It also has a rain cover (which we didn't need).

http://store.lowepro.com/backpacks/photo-sport-200-aw

Once I got to my destination, though, I used a much smaller Tamrac Aria 3 (which also doubled as my purse). I was particularly glad to have this smaller bag because when we got to Sepilok, we were told that we couldn't bring a backpack or large bag into the forest (Mr frogoutofwater had to check his larger sling bag). Although the Aria 3 looks fairly compact, it actually was large enough to fit my camera with the 55-300 lens attached, with room to spare for the 18-135 lens, my wallet, my phone, a map and various bits and bobs.

http://www.tamrac.com/products/aria3/

Other camera accessories. Other essential camera gear included a good rocket blower and PEC-PAD lint-free wipes. I also brought a small (12") reflector with me, in case we did some portraits, but I only ended up using it a couple of times. It took up very little space, though, so I'm glad I had it. We didn't bring a tripod or monopod with us and there were probably only a couple of times when we wished we had one (not so much for wildlife photography but for some landscape photography). But our gear was pretty heavy to begin with, so we decided to skip tripods.
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Mar 21st, 2014, 01:52 PM
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3) Clothes, etc.

I am mosquito-phobic and so one of my biggest concerns about this trip was protecting myself against mosquito bites. (Borneo is in a malaria zone and they're also having quite a bad outbreak of Dengue Fever.) As it turned out, we didn't encounter a lot of mosquitoes because the weather had been unusually dry before we got there and for most of the trip, but I'm glad I was prepared for the worst.

I'm a fairly disciplined packer but we didn't feel the need to limit ourselves to carry-on, so we each brought a 24-inch, expandable suitcase, which was perfectly adequate. Overall, I had what I needed in terms of clothing, but I wish I had more of certain things and I didn't use some clothing at all.

What worked well: Except on Lankayan Island and in Singapore, I wore the same kind of outfit almost every day: a pair of long Travex pants from Eddie Bauer (which we treated with permethrin insect repellant) and a long-sleeved Ex Officio Bugsaway Halo long-sleeved shirt. I had 2 pairs of these pants and 2 of these shirts - I wish I'd packed 3 of each. Wearing long sleeves and long pants only made me marginally hotter than short sleeves and shorts or capris, but it meant that I didn't have to apply sunscreen or bugspray to the covered parts of me. I prefer being slightly warm to being sticky ... Also, you sweat so much that you need to reapply sunscreen and bug repellant over and over again, so wearing clothes with built-in protection provided better protection. I also had an Ex Officio hat with insect repellant built in - that also came in handy for sun and bug protection.

I also pre-treated some other clothes with permethrin - one of two dresses (wish I'd treated both), a couple of short sleeve shirts (I wore 2 of them but didn't wear 2 of the others), and a nightgown. The dresses I packed worked well - cap-sleeves, high V neck, slightly loose-fitting and mid-calf in length, and made from a poly/spandex material that dried quickly, scrunched up small and didn't wrinkle. This style of dress (from Title Nine) is similar to what I brought, except my dress was a little longer in length and the cap sleeves were a little longer, too.

http://www.titlenine.com/product/140...rPicks&from=fn

I did pack a cardigan and I think I wore it once. I was expecting cooler AC in restaurants, etc, but we mostly ate outside so a cover-up wasn't needed.

We also brought Sea to Summit sleeping bag liners with built-in insect repellent. We ended up not really needing these because the mosquito levels were unusually low (due to a drought) but they would have come in very handy if it had been buggy.

http://www.amazon.com/Sea-Summit-Coo.../dp/B003F4LIRW

We also brought a small spray bottle of DEET-based repellent and some individually packaged wet wipes with DEET-based repellent. I used these on exposed parts (hands, neck, ears etc). It was particularly useful to have the wet wipes because they're easy to carry without mucking up your purse and you can keep them in your carry-on (without them counting as liquids). The only place we saw a lot of mosquitoes was the Kota Kinabalu airport, so I was glad to have some repellent handy there.

It's not an item of clothing but one other thing I packed that came in incredibly handy was a small fast-drying towel (about the size of a facecloth). I kept it in my camera bag and used it dozens of times per day - I often found myself drenched in sweat, just standing around.

Undies and socks: Undies dried quickly when washed, bras not so much. I only had 2 bras and I really needed 3 (or even 4), because I'd sweat through one during the day and want to put on a fresh one at night before dinner (but bra #1 didn't dry fast enough to be wearable the next morning). So having 3 or 4 in rotation would have been better. I also wished I'd packed a few more pairs of socks - I think I had 5 sets, but they dried slowly so it would have been better to have more.

Footwear: I mostly wore a pair of Goretex-lined Nike runners (dark grey), which didn't look too hideous and that provided enough grip on trails. Travellers going to a lodge where there is more walking around on trails (e.g., Borneo Rainforest Lodge) might want to bring somewhat sturdier shoes with some ankles support) but for our trip, running shoes were just fine.

I also brought a pair of leather closed-toe sandals to wear with dresses. I decided against bringing a pair of Tevas because my suitcase was getting too full (and I had to pack dive booties), and I probably should have packed the Tevas, especially for Lankayan Island. My leather sandals got rather scuffed up. I also wish I'd brought a pair of "indoor-only" flip flops or something similar, because we were expected to take off our outdoor shoes when we were indoors (even in public areas like the restaurant at Lankayan Island and Sukau). They make flip flops available but I don't really want to wear "strangers' shoes" ... blech.

So that's pretty much it for my quickie trip report. Please feel free to ask questions if you want more details about any aspect of the trip.
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Mar 21st, 2014, 10:33 PM
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Thanks for sharing your trip with us. Loved your photos! As a fellow cat-lover, I had to look at all of your cat photos as well.

We went to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge about 10 years ago and absolutely loved it! Malaysian Borneo is a wonderful destination.
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Mar 22nd, 2014, 02:31 AM
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Wow great photos and I too HAD to look at your cat puctures ( I love cats) your Tonks are gorgeous.

Did you like Singapore? I have been many times ( sometimes for 7 day streteches) and always find loads to do ( like you I have friends there)
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Mar 22nd, 2014, 06:44 AM
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Wonderful photos! There iare so many, and I haven't finished looking at them but I was taken by a shot of 3 birds in a tree silhouetted against the sky. You have a wonderful eye and understand how to make something into a photo, not simply a snapshot.

Enjoying your TR and love all the info you've provided.

Paule
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Mar 22nd, 2014, 01:47 PM
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Thanks so much for posting this. Incredibly helpful as I have a very similar trip coming up in two months. I hope you don't mind receiving an email from me with some more specific questions (I loved the photos).
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Mar 22nd, 2014, 07:22 PM
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Warm Singapore morning greetings to the OP and thank you kindly for the wondrous writing and sublime photography - and so glad you had the opportunity to spend time in our cherished home of SIN. Your site is one to savour. (And a wise move you made, flying SilkAir business class out of our Changi; some rejuvenating lounges, indeed, after those long flights.)

Should travel take you back to SIN (or some of my current Asia business travel locales), would be honoured to suggest additional lodging, dining (and aviation) options. Keep up the exemplary work and best Sunday wishes to you and all from Singapore,

macintosh (robert)


... Singapore Airlines, You're a Great Way to Fly ...
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Mar 22nd, 2014, 09:53 PM
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Thanks for the great report. I loved the cat photos too!
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Mar 24th, 2014, 11:48 AM
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Thank you for the kind words about my photos. Pet photography is a new hobby of mine - I love photographing my cats of course but also other peoples' pets and I also photograph dogs and cats for a local animal rescue organization.

I do really like Singapore and while it probably wouldn't be the sole destination for a trip, I could easily see including it as an extended stopover for future trips to Asia. The only downside is that it's fairly expensive.

If anyone has questions about specific photography techniques I used for the trip, or would like to hear more about (online and live) photography courses and other resources I used to prepare for the trip, I'd be happy to provide more details.
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Mar 28th, 2014, 10:49 AM
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I have tried to send you a private message to [email protected] and it is telling me that it is not a valid email address. Is this a server issue on my end?
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Mar 28th, 2014, 07:31 PM
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Hi dpkmd2 - That address should work - someone else on the forum contacted me through the email address on my smugmug site. And it looks right the way you typed it above.
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Mar 30th, 2014, 12:22 PM
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I'll be doing a similar trip as yours in 6 weeks arriving KK May 8 at midnight.

Did you get the photo of the proboscis monkeys at the river lodge?
We are staying at Abai Jungle Lodge which is in the same area as yours I believe.
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Mar 31st, 2014, 05:04 AM
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Hi Susie - No, the close-up photo of the male proboscis monkey that is in the front page of my smugmug site was taken at the Singapore Zoo. There are a number of other photos of wild proboscis monkeys in the full gallery, but mainly of the females (and from further away). It was very hard to get a good photo of the proboscis monkeys in the wild because: 1) they tend to sit with their backs to the river; 2) they perch high up in the trees; and 3) their facial structure is such that much of their faces (especially the males) is in shadow. Macaques, on the other hand, look like they've had their make-up done to model (lots of lovely highlights to brighten their faces) and they also come closer to the boats
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Apr 8th, 2014, 07:37 PM
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Can you tell me about the experience at the jungle lodge? Did you need to use bug spray every day and night or not? Did you need to wear the rubber shoes for walking in the wet mud or was it dry?
Did your lodge have AC? How was it sleeping at night?
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Apr 9th, 2014, 10:33 AM
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Hi susiesan. I consistently wore clothing with built-in bug repellent (either Ex Officio clothes with Bugsaway or clothing we sprayed ourselves with permethrin (SP?) - that includes shirts and pants I wore out on the boat, dresses and even my nightgown (I REALLY hate mosquitoes). I sprayed exposed areas with DEET. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the good thing about having the repellent built into your clothes is not having to re-apply repellent - I was sweating so much during the day, I would have had to apply very frequently. I didn't get a single bite.

I also mentioned in my original report having a wicking, lightweight sleeping bag liner (made by Sea-to-Summit) that was impregnated with permethryn. They're about $60 (e.g., REI). It was roomy and cool and I used it as my only bedding at the river lodge and on Lankayan Island.

However, we only saw mosquitoes in any kind of concentration in the airport in Kota Kinabalu. We were there during an unusually dry spell, and everyone said that mosquito levels were (temporarily) low.

When I was out in the sun, I found it very hot and humid (probably 85F or a little higher), but not unbearably so for an hour or two. There was no A/C anywhere at our lodge, but the huge ceiling fans (in the main areas and in our room) were very effective. I found the temperature in our room not uncomfortable (not cool, but not uncomfortable). Mornings and evenings on the dock for breakfast and dinner were very pleasant, temperature-wise. I should add that I used to be super-sensitive to heat (having grown up in the temperate climate around Vancouver BC), but my tolerance for heat has increased in the past 10 years, since I lived without A/C in Paris for a couple of years, live in NYC now (with A/C but subways and streets are hot) and have travelled in the Middle East. So I'd say that I'm less tolerant of heat than, for example, someone who spends a fair bit of time outside in the American South, but more tolerant of heat than someone from the North or someone who mostly lives in an air-conditioned environment.

Also, because were touring the rainforest by boat, we didn't walk around on trails much, and it wasn't very wet. I packed the running shoes I wear for rainy days (Nikes with Goretex) and wore them most of the time. They're dark grey, so they blended more than running shoes usually do with "regular" clothes.
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Apr 9th, 2014, 10:34 AM
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Hi susiesan. I consistently wore clothing with built-in bug repellent (either Ex Officio clothes with Bugsaway or clothing we sprayed ourselves with permethrin (SP?) - that includes shirts and pants I wore out on the boat, dresses and even my nightgown (I REALLY hate mosquitoes). I sprayed exposed areas with DEET. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the good thing about having the repellent built into your clothes is not having to re-apply repellent - I was sweating so much during the day, I would have had to apply very frequently. I didn't get a single bite.

I also mentioned in my original report having a wicking, lightweight sleeping bag liner (made by Sea-to-Summit) that was impregnated with permethryn. They're about $60 (e.g., REI). It was roomy and cool and I used it as my only bedding at the river lodge and on Lankayan Island.

However, we only saw mosquitoes in any kind of concentration in the airport in Kota Kinabalu. We were there during an unusually dry spell, and everyone said that mosquito levels were (temporarily) low.

When I was out in the sun, I found it very hot and humid (probably 85F or a little higher), but not unbearably so for an hour or two. There was no A/C anywhere at our lodge, but the huge ceiling fans (in the main areas and in our room) were very effective. I found the temperature in our room not uncomfortable (not cool, but not uncomfortable). Mornings and evenings on the dock for breakfast and dinner were very pleasant, temperature-wise. I should add that I used to be super-sensitive to heat (having grown up in the temperate climate around Vancouver BC), but my tolerance for heat has increased in the past 10 years, since I lived without A/C in Paris for a couple of years, live in NYC now (with A/C but subways and streets are hot) and have travelled in the Middle East. So I'd say that I'm less tolerant of heat than, for example, someone who spends a fair bit of time outside in the American South, but more tolerant of heat than someone from the North or someone who mostly lives in an air-conditioned environment.

Also, because were touring the rainforest by boat, we didn't walk around on trails much, and it wasn't very wet. I packed the running shoes I wear for rainy days (Nikes with Goretex) and wore them most of the time. They're dark grey, so they blended more than running shoes usually do with "regular" clothes.
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Apr 9th, 2014, 10:37 AM
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Sorry, slow computer = accidental double-post
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Apr 12th, 2014, 05:12 PM
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I am planning on taking spray with DEET. I'm not going to buy special clothes with bug juice impregnated for just a few days as I wouldn't ever use it again.

Glad to know most of your touring was from a boat and didn't involve much walking. I don't know what it will be like at Mulu National park as we will be walking there. I'm recalling the time we were at an Amazon jungle lodge in Peru and I almost passed out at the beginning of a late afternoon jungle walk. it was so hot and humid and I wasn't drinking enough water over worries about finding a place to use a toilet. My husband sys I turned white as a sheet and he caught me before I hit the ground and poured water on my head. My tolerance for hot and humid goes down as I get older.
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Apr 14th, 2014, 10:00 AM
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Although I'm a city girl who doesn't spend a lot of time outdoors, I know that a few outfits with built-in insect repellent will come in handy from time to time, even in NYC. It can get buggy at dawn and dusk in the parks (when I do some of my photography) and I also have some other trips planned (e.g., to Montana in July for a baby wildlife photography workshop, scuba diving in 2015) where it's useful to have the combined, built-in sunscreen/bug repellent coverage. And of course, Dengue Fever is a risk in the daytime in many hot cities where I expect to travel. Plus, the clothes just look like regular clothing - in particular, I wear the pants almost every weekend spring-fall.
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