Phantassie: Five Weeks of Friends, Food and Fun on the Farm

The hare stops in its tracks, suddenly aware of Nick’s presence. It’s 6:24am on a Friday, and it’s not expecting to see him sitting on the veranda of our shepherd’s hut, waiting for the sunrise. They make eye contact and share a moment of stillness before the hare carries on along the gravel track, past the polytunnels and through the hedge to the wheat field. This moment alone was worth our stay at Phantassie. But a magical moment with a hare isn’t the only reason we’d recommend WWOOFing at this organic veg farm just outside of Edinburgh. In fact, we’d go further than recommend it – if you’re planning on WWOOFing in Scotland at all, it is an essential stop on your journey.

The owners of the farm, Ralph and Patricia, take a stonkingly fair approach to work life balance for a commercial operation. WWOOFers at Phantassie are expected to work 4 days a week in return for accommodation and some of the finest fresh food available in the UK. Work began at 8, a little early compared to other WWOOF places, but a half hour tea break at 10:00am meant this wasn’t a problem. Lunch was from 12 until 1:00pm, plenty of time to devour the daily feasts, and we worked through the afternoon until 4:30pm, usually with a quick cup of tea around 3:00pm to keep us going. Not bad, eh?

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Guy, the ever cheery head gardener and one of the most passionate people we’ve met on our travels, led his band of WWOOFers with pride. He worked insanely hard, but he was never too busy to take time to teach us about organic growing, always willing to share his worldly wisdom and have a good laugh over a cup of strong coffee.

The farm work was varied, always wholesome and with friends. Think the opposite of working in an office and you’ll have a good idea of the working conditions. Sometimes we’d be outside in the big field, planting hundreds of herbs in great rows or hoeing weeds away from long lines of beetroot. Other times we’d work in the gorgeous walled garden, protected, like the plants, from the harsh coastal wind as we hand-weeded rows of fragrant coriander or picked apples from a huge variety of trees, one of which was actually called a Bonzo Dog Doo Da. On one occasion, we had to pick the sweetest little mirabelle plums you’ve ever tasted. This involved Flic climbing the tree and shaking its branches to relieve them of the out of reach fruits. We’d cry “Plum on!” to get her shaking, then “Plum off!” once the bombardment of gages became unbearable and we scrambled around to collect them all. Incredibly, this was considered an afternoon’s good work.

Being Scotland, you’d expect it to rain fairly frequently, but the East coast is blessed with warm weather and clear skies. When that Scottish rain did descend on us, we’d retreat to the polytunnels to sow rows of salad leaves, tend to the out of control courgettes or plant lines of delicate shimonitas, punchy Japanese spring onions.

Our accommodation was a beautifully handcrafted shepherd’s hut, nicknamed ‘The Dascha’ by the joiner who built it due to its Russian architectural influences. Essentially a stripped-back tiny-home furnished with a bed and a desk, we learned the joy of living simply, with just enough room for our meagre belongings stowed away in their right places, and space for one of us to get dressed whilst the other had a bonus 5 minutes’ extra sleep. The sun would rise up to fill the cabin with light each morning and at night we’d sit on our veranda, wondering at the sheer number of stars above us – we often had to remind ourselves that we were in Scotland, not Thailand.

If we weren’t out and about exploring East Lothian’s dramatic coastline, working or sleeping, it’s safe to say we were eating. One of the first things we were told at Phantassie was that we could help ourselves to any of the produce being grown on the farm. “Really?” we asked, “Anything? Even the cavolo nero or the giant crown prince squash?” Guy nodded and smiled, used to these queries. We really were allowed to help ourselves to the abundant crops, whether it was the plump tomatillos ripening in the polytunnel or the plums hanging from the trees. It was all fair game. Obviously, if you knew that cucumbers were in high demand that week and there were only a few on the vines, you wouldn’t take them all, but that’s just common sense.

Our supply of dry goods, bread and jam was kept well stocked by Phil, a long-term volunteer nicknamed the “WWOOF Mum”, denoting his responsibilities at the WWOOF camp which also included preparing accommodation for new WWOOFers, welcoming them to the team and generally keeping the place ship-shape. The rest of our fruit and veg came from the stable, a red whinstone barn where all the wholesale produce was packed. Each day we would stroll up with an empty crate, and fill it with fruit and veg that would otherwise have been destined for veg box schemes, organic grocery stores and some of the swankiest restaurants in Edinburgh. The quality of the produce was astounding. It has left us utterly disappointed, now that we have returned to reality, by the tasteless array of vegetables on offer in most supermarkets. We now seek out organic grocers like pigs hunting truffles, poring over their produce with embarrassing enthusiasm, all thanks to the generosity of Ralph and Patricia.

Perhaps the best part of being a volunteer at Phantassie was the Green Goddess. The Green Goddess is where the magic happens. It’s where friendships are formed, stories are shared and, most importantly, food is eaten. Formerly a mobile breast screening unit, the big metal hut had been kitted out with a just about functional gas cooker, stainless steel sink and handmade wooden banquet table. Worker’s canteen by day, hippy hangout by night, the Green Goddess can be whatever you want it to be.

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It might have been a bit grubby from all the muddy wellies and damp from the rain leaking in through the roof, but with shelves stocked full of herbs and spices, saucepans of every size hanging from the ceiling and cupboards full of top quality organic dry-goods, it was a delight to cook up a feast in there. This was lucky, because most days one of the WWOOFers would take on lunch duty, serving a buffet lunch for a working community of anything from 5 to 25 people. We loved lunch duty, even if there were a myriad of dietary requirements to navigate. It gave us a chance to try out new dishes on the ever grateful staff and gain invaluable experience in mass catering. With all the hazards and quirks of the Goddess, like the dodgy oven door and the unpredictable gas burners, we used to joke that a round of MasterChef was nothing compared to cooking in our kitchen. At evenings and weekends, we’d spend ages preparing feasts for our fellow volunteers, baking cakes full of raspberries freshly picked from the garden, devouring it all whilst cracking open a cold can of Tennents.

There was a neat little gang of us at Phantassie, and firm friendships were formed out in those fields. There was Jess, a kind and generous local lass, now a close pal, always up for road trips to nearby seaside towns and French jazz nights in the city; Tim, a swaggering, snickering, extremely talented chef with a thirst for gin, far from his home in New Zealand, finding his feet in Edinburgh; laid back Louis, so laid back that he missed his own leaving party, which went ahead without him, and others, like Phil, Gerda and Ian that were a delight to live and work with. There were local folk too, like Sam, a Scottish nomad with a woolly jumper and his friend, a big souled bearded Mexican whose name we won’t attempt to spell, who would swing by unannounced and stay for dinner. Needless to say, when we all got together, things could get out of hand. The Goddess could handle it though, and the great wooden table seemed incapable of overflowing with beer cans, wine bottles and board games no matter how hard we tried. And, because the standard of cleanliness was already a little dubious, it made the after party clean up even easier!

All things must come to an end, and so it was that in the midst of autumn, we found ourselves saying goodbye to our Phantassie family. Our parting was sad, but it was what WWOOFing was always meant to be: a place where we learnt something new every day, doing good, honest work, eating fine food, all held together with a deep sense of community.

 


 

Not just bagpipes and Irn Bru – why we love Scotland and wish we were Scottish

We can’t stand the drone of bagpipes and, frankly, Irn Bru tastes like sweetened spew. But we do love Scotland. After WWOOFing there for a couple of months, we fell head over heels for Britain’s most Scottish country. It turns out that the rest of the world has too, since a recent Rough Guide poll placed it at the top of a list of the world’s most beautiful countries.

We might be a bit late to the party, but we’re going to throw back a couple of glasses of Scotch and get stuck in with our very own list of why this cold, drizzly land, long ago fought over by the Picts, the Celts, the Romans, and sometimes just angry Scottish clans, has stolen our hearts.

Scotland Wants to be Explored – We grew up in England, where everyone keeps very quiet about how wonderful Scotland is. One fact that no one ever talks about is a little piece of Scottish legislation known as the right to roam. In England, if you want to explore the countryside on foot, you need to stick to the public footpaths and bridleways. Failure to do so will result in an aggressive farmer hurling abuse at you and ruining your day. To top this off, most local authorities appear to neglect the footpaths, so unless you have an OS map, a compass and mad map reading skills, it’s pretty much impossible to work out where they are.

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Nick on a typically well maintained footpath in Shropshire

In Scotland, however, since the 2003 Land Reform Act, citizens and visitors alike have had the right to roam the countryside enshrined in law. Not only does this mean that you can explore the wilds of Scotland with a clear conscience, it also obliges land owners to positively enable passage through their land. As a hiker in Scotland, you can expect to find well maintained stiles, easy to climb fences and unlocked gates. If you see a beautiful river and want a closer look, just stroll on down to it. Fancy wandering through an enchanted looking woodland? Go ahead and wander.

We’ve heard that a lot of international visitors simply don’t believe that this right to roam exists. This is understandable given that many countries have strict property laws and disproportionate measures in place to stop trespassing, such as the possibility of being shot at. But it’s true, and all the details can be found on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code website.

All that roaming can be tiring, and the thought of finding nowhere to sleep out in the wilderness can be a daunting prospect. Not in Scotland though, because you’re free to pitch your tent up wherever you please so long as you leave the land as you found it. If you’re lucky you might find a bothie, a basic mountain lodge, free and open to all for shelter. We’re told that most don’t have running water and you need to find your own fuel if it gets chilly, but it’s comforting to know that the option is out there should you need it. We’ve found that Scottish folk seem far more eager to explore the wild and have a deep understanding of their land. Is it any surprise when it’s so accessible?

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Tunskeen bothy. Photo credit to Geoff Allan @bothiesonabike.com

Lochs, Glens and Bens – We spent a month WWOOFing at Tombreck, helping out on a farm in this friendly community, tucked away between Killin and Aberfeldy in Perthshire, at the foot of Ben Lawers as it sweeps down to Loch Tay. Each morning, as we ate our breakfast of pinhead oat porridge and homemade sourdough toast, we felt the great Ben looming over us, daring us to climb its craggy peak. Most often the mountain would be shrouded in mist, keeping us novice mountaineers at bay, working out in the wet fields instead. Finally a cloudless day arrived, our hosts forbade us to work and sent us up the mountain with a packed lunch and a pair of binoculars.

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The climb was tough, but thankfully National Trust for Scotland keep a well maintained ‘tourist trail’ for those of us who don’t have goat’s legs. As an aside – National Trust  for Scotland do a fine job of managing the land, and we’re always happy to see the iconic NTS road signs pointing out the local landmarks. Anyway, we scrambled up the mountain, taking a good 2 hours to reach the cairn. Standing atop the munro, The Highlands stretched out before us, we were astounded by the wild beauty. Mountains merged with more mountains, each with their own distinct character. Beneath us, roughly to the North, Glen Lyon, known as Scotland’s bonniest glen, lay like an ornate entrance hall to a giant’s palace. To the South, Loch Tay glistened in the sun, its deep waters hiding mysteries never to be solved. We were enrapt, enthralled by the majesty of the mountains. We would have stayed to look upon those views forever, but it was extraordinarily windy to the point that it was unbearable. So we headed back down, windswept and wowed by the sights we’d seen.

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Also worth a mention is Glen Coe, probably the most famous glen. It’s out to the West of Scotland, not quite as far as Fort William and Ben Nevis. The road cuts through the bottom of the valley and makes for a stunning drive. There’s also plenty of easy to reach (and free) parking spots along the route so you can stop off to admire the views and exercise your right to roam wherever you wish.

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Glasgow and Edinburgh: The UK’s Best Cities – It’s not all just wild mountains and lonely lochs in Scotland. It also boasts two of the the UK’s finest cities. Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, comes alive in August for the infamous Fringe, a month long romp of comedy, drama and general lunacy. There’s also an International Festival that takes place at the same time, but sadly for the organisers, this doesn’t seem to have caught on quite as well. We saw 6-7 shows each day for a whole week. That’s a lot of (mostly free) comedy. Out of all that, our 2017 Fringe highlights included Trevor Lock’s Community Circle, a show with no jokes but plenty of audience interaction; Betty Grumble’s in your face feminist, naked cabaret with free lady parts print and Sam & Tom: Unrectifiable, a bonkers sketch show written by two comedy geniuses, thankfully still going strong since we first saw them back in 2012. We saw some dreadful stuff too, but that’s the price you pay for free comedy.

The joy of the Fringe comes not just from the magic of live performance and the sense of community that comes from being part of a challenged, chuckling audience, but from dashing from show to show around the hilly, cobbled streets of old Edinburgh. We watched people make jokes in damp caves, in dark nightclubs at midday and sometimes just in a quiet corner of a pub. By the end of the festival, we knew those streets like the back of our hand.

There is, as most Scottish people like to say, much more to Edinburgh than the Fringe. We’ve been fortunate to see the city post-festival, and with its quiet charm, lamplit streets and laid back nightlife, we have to agree. Even so, for us it is a festival city and all the better for it.

Scotland’s largest city (population 600,000 or a whopping 2,000,000 if you include the suburbs) and the UK’s third largest, is Glasgow. Renowned in England for bad food and bad people, us Southerners have got it all wrong. What we found is a city full of some of the friendliest people in the world. And if there’s anything we’ve learned on our travels, it’s that where there’s community, there’s always good food and drink to be had. Glasgow has a cosmopolitan selection of eateries, organic grocers and watering holes selling a whole lot more than the city’s very own ubiquitous Tennents lager. However, with our budget in mind, we had a coffee in the thriving Botanic Gardens and a picnic of sandwiches and crisps under the trees in the vibrant Kelvingrove Park.

The city also hosts a fine selection of galleries and museums, most of which are free to enter. Our highlight was the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, worthy of a visit for the building’s architecture alone. Beyond that, there were superbly laid out exhibitions focusing on Scottish art movements, as well as collections of art from around the world. The overall tone of the curation, particularly in the exhibition about the emotions and feelings conjured by art, was playful yet sincere, much like Glasgow itself.

Highland Games – No summer trip to Scotland would be complete without attending one of the many Highland Games. Held in towns and villages across Scotland, these festivals are a unique celebration of strength, folklore and food. We visited the Killin International Highland Games, where the action takes place in the wake of several looming mountains, accompanied by the constant hum of bagpipes, often with 4 or 5 pipers piping different tunes, just close enough to each other so that they can all be heard at once. With competitors from far flung lands like Iceland and Hungary squaring up to the Scots, this might as well have been the World’s Strongest Man competition. Hammers were thrown, shots were putted and cabers were tossed, interspersed with folk music dance offs and a ridiculously tough race up and down a hill.

Standing in the drizzle, picking at a delicious Arbroath Smokie (haddock smoked in a big barrel with hessian sacks), watching a bearded highlander tossing a caber, it occurred to us that it couldn’t get much more Scottish than this. But then drizzle turned to rain, the rain became a storm and we bumped into a friendly neighbour who offered us a lift home. Yes, that’s about as Scottish as it gets.

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A Year on the Road – What we’ve Learned from 365 Days of Travel

The 29th August will always be a special day for us. It marks the anniversary of the day we gave up our ordinary lives, packed our essentials, and some not-so-essentials (two person travel hammock anyone?), into our backpacks and headed for the unknown. As the Airbus A380 left the damp tarmac at Heathrow, we had no idea how much our lives would change. Since then, we’ve roamed through Oceania and Southeast Asia and returned to the UK as WWOOFers, learning how to live from the land and exploring our homeland with fresh eyes. If you’d told us this time last year that we’d still be wandering along the weary wild road, living in a little cabin in Scotland working on an organic farm, we’d have said you were crazy. With life turned upside down, and no sign of righting itself anytime soon, it seems appropriate to reflect on what we’ve learnt on our travels so far.

Slow travel is the best travel – Tourists travel quickly. It’s all about seeing the sights, ticking the boxes, exiting through the gift shop. In Fiji, we met folks visiting as many islands as possible, spending just one night at each place before heading to the next beach. Often friends we made had visited 4 different countries before we’d even left the hostel where those friendships were struck up. For us, travel is about taking time to absorb the culture of a place, getting to know the locals and sampling as much of the food as possible. It’s about making a strange land feel normal, forming routines and almost becoming bored with the exotic. Wherever we took our time, whether volunteering in jungle of Koh Lanta, immersing ourselves in the bustle of Penang or farming in the highlands of Scotland, we formed deep connections with the land and the people we met there. These places will remain long in our memories, far longer than the guided tours and coach window photo opportunities.

Coffee is very important – It was all very well saying goodbye to our middle class lifestyle, but we couldn’t leave it all behind. We realised early on that we can’t live without fresh coffee. For the most part, this hasn’t been a problem. Singapore has its typically complex kopi scene, Vietnamese coffee has the power of petrol and the thickness of crude oil and most towns in the UK have at least one cafe that serves a decent flat white (but let’s not get on to the tricky subject of gentrification here). But can you imagine that in some places, people just don’t care about coffee? In Malaysia, cafes don’t serve proper coffee and even have the cheek to charge you extra for a cup of upmarket Nescafe. So it was here that we procured a french press to brew our own coffee, only to find it nigh on impossible to score any fresh beans. Instant coffee is all the rage, with supermarkets dedicating a whole two aisles to the dreadful stuff whilst stocking no real coffee at all. Disheartened, we gave our press away to the Tipsy Tiger Hostel in the hope that it might be of use to some caffeine craving travellers, before heading to the Thai island of Koh Lanta. Lo and behold, here we found the famous Lanta Mart, which sold coffee grown and roasted in Chiang Mai. However, we were living in a bamboo hut in the jungle with no brewing equipment. Lesson learned, we now take our Aeropress everywhere with us. It’s light, robust and makes delicious coffee even with the cheapest beans. Waking up has never been so easy!

Don’t skimp on experiences – Travelling on a budget can make you tighter than a Conservative chancellor reviewing Local Authority funding. That’s ok when it comes to food because we all know that street food is superior to the fancy restaurants, and you find the most interesting people in the cheapest hostels. But when it comes to experiences, like white water rafting in the Upper Navua River in Fiji, diving in the crystal clear waters of Koh Lipe or trekking the mountains from Kalaw to Inle Lake in Myanmar, you have to loosen the purse strings. You may never visit these places again, so put aside financial fears and worries of being a tourist for a few days – it may well be the highlight of your trip.

Don’t always trust your guidebook – It’s cliché for travel bloggers to bash the guidebooks. We have to, given that we’re the underdog in the industry that they rule. But we don’t want to be too harsh here. Our hefty Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guide was often invaluable when we had absolutely no idea where we were or what we ought to be doing there. Nick also delights in planning adventures, and the guidebook, along with the superb Travelfish website, can be be a rich resource here. But sometimes the guidebooks give places a little too much credit. They over egg the pudding leaving you in a scrambled egg scenario. Take Myanmar, an undiscovered land, according to Lonely Planet. Unblemished by the acne of tourism and cheap to boot. That’s not what we found, as we stumped up huge sums for flea ridden hotel rooms and navigated crowds pouring from their luxury air conditioned coaches wherever they went. What should have been a well planned month of intrepid travel became 4 weeks of overpriced disappointment.

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Always listen to advice – Whether it’s advice from fellow travellers or helpful locals, it always pays to heed their words of wisdom. Many times our plans have changed thanks to insider tips, and our travels have been all the better for it. It’s also become a rule for us to always try food if it’s recommended, and every time this has worked out to be a winner. It gives you the excuse to treat yourself, which is how we ended up buying a dozen slices of gingerbread from the Grasmere Gingerbread Shop and gorging on fried bread with condensed milk in Thailand. Similarly, if a local tells you not to try a dish on the menu because it’s not for tourists, don’t try to be clever and order it regardless. We did this with fermented crab papaya salad in Thailand. With the inedible crab shells and slimy sewage innards, it was the most disgusting thing we’ve ever eaten.

Stockpile Ear Plugs – Ear plugs don’t weigh anything. It’s true. We just tried to weigh a pair on some old scales we’ve found in the kitchen on the farm we’re staying at and they didn’t even register. This means you can stockpile as many as you like, deep down in your backpack and it won’t affect the weight of your luggage at all. Then, whenever you share a dorm with someone that snores like a drunken gorilla with long term sinus issues, you’ll be fine.

Long journeys are usually worth it – How many times we’ve told people we’re heading to the next place and it’ll be a 12 hour bus ride and they reply “That’s a long journey…”, as if to say, it’s probably not worth it, you should just stay at home. But so many times we have found this not to be the case. Take the 11 hour slow train from Inle Lake to Thazi, where the journey truly is the destination, as we passed through astounding mountain passes in rickety old carriages full of friendly faces. Or the 7 hour drive from Shropshire to the Lake District, admittedly mostly on dull-as-ditchwater motorways, but when we arrived in that land of mountains, wow! What a surprise to have lived in England all our lives and to have never known such awesome landscapes and wild expanses. Never overlook the long road.

Sitting on the beach does get boring – Now, don’t get us wrong, we love sitting on the beach. It’s just that sometimes it really does get boring. Of course, take time to sit on the beach and chill out with a beer and a book, but if you plan to do only that you may end up regretting it. Especially with the sunburn, the sand flies and the drunk lads from Leeds. Instead, break up the trips to the beach with a bit of culture or a foodie day, then you’ll really appreciate taking some time out to relax. A holiday isn’t a holiday if you’re always on holiday – that’s what we always say.

Always wear a watch – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had it right with the advice to always bring a towel. We use those neat little travel towels that dry off quickly but feel distinctly unsatisfying on the skin. However, what good old Douglas Adams didn’t mention is that the seasoned traveller should always wear a watch. Most obviously, it’s handy to know the time when you have a plane/boat/horse and cart to catch, and you’d be surprised how many hostels and hotels forget the necessity of a clock on the wall. What’s more, when you get on the plane/boat/horse and cart, you’d be surprised how often the pilot/captain/horse driver (?) doesn’t know the time. Having a watch means that you and your fellow passengers will be more likely, but by no means guaranteed, to leave on time. We also recommend getting a watch that tells you the date and the day of the week because travelling can become something of a dateless existence, what with the absence of a real job and any significant commitments.

The worst moments make the best stories – Despite popular opinion, travelling isn’t all wondrous experiences, lazy days and forever friends. No. Frequently it’s overwhelming confusion, frustrating delays and terrible, terrible people. Yet these moments, hellish as they feel at the time, often make the best stories. Oh, how we laugh at the time we volunteered to clean a beach on an island near Langkawi, only to be forced to do hard labour with nothing but cheap noodles and a bumper size tin of peaches to sustain us for a month. Oh, how we chuckle at the time we had to take a night bus from Surat Thani to Bangkok because the devastating flooding meant the night train was cancelled, and our backpacks were completely soaked because the water was so high it flooded the baggage compartment. Oh, how we look back fondly at the time Nick got a crippling UTI in Malaysia, could barely walk out of the hospital, and later proposed to Flic from his sickbed in a haze of drugs and fever (this was actually quite a tender moment, but you get the drift). Do we ever wish we were back home on our reclining sofa, cat by our side, Netflix on the telly? Of course we do, but we’ve fallen hard for the road and we’ll sticking with it for a few years yet…


 

Top 10 WWOOFing Moments

It’s been about 4 months since we decided to WWOOF our way around the UK for 8 months, a decision that puzzled our parents, flummoxed our friends and confused our cat. Driving out of a ubiquitous Aldi car park last week, boot full of our 3 luxury items – chocolate, wine and proper coffee – we noticed that we’d driven 2000 miles since we started out, zig zagging our way up the country from Somerset to the Lake District. Reaching this milestone, it seems like a good time to reflect on the finer moments of our green fingered journey so far.

Picking Up Lambs

Could there be a better way to spend a springtime afternoon than driving across rural Oxfordshire to pick up 4 new born lambs? We sped through the English countryside with our good friend Jeannie to a local agricultural college, full of excitement, eager to meet the orphaned woolly cuties. Everything was ready – their cage, milk replacement, washed out beer bottles with rubber teats – we just needed the lambs. When we arrived and they gambled across the tarmac car park towards us, there was magic in the air. Heading back to our hosts’ beautiful smallholding, with Radio 2 at full blast, Nick sat in the back singing along to ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, accompanied by four very confused sheep bleating to the beat. A joyous moment indeed.

Songs Around the Campfire

Not a single moment really, more a series of moments connected by combustion. We’ve spent many an evening sitting around fires, staring into the flames and contemplating our primitive past. Usually there’s someone, if not our hosts themselves, willing to play the guitar, be it a friendly neighbour, an accomplished resident of a community or even Flic if she’s had a gin or two. Often we have the classics: No Woman No Cry, House of the Rising Sun, Redemption Song, but we had Radiohead in Oxfordshire (very fitting, given the band’s origins), ukulele hits at Old Hall Community in Suffolk, as well as tin whistle tunes and original folk music in Shropshire. Why pay to go to a gig when you can WWOOF for your evening entertainment instead?

Harvesting Leeks

There’s been a lot of weeding to be done everywhere we’ve WWOOFed. We can’t grumble about this – it’s incredibly therapeutic, often essential to the success of more desirable plants and a good opportunity to get to know our hosts and fellow WWOOFers. Even so, it was a pleasant surprise to find out one April afternoon that we’d be harvesting leeks, after hoeing the potatoes, of course. So there we were, out in the field at Old Hall with Richard, a wise oak of a man, sticking our fork into the clumpy, rocky soil, levering up the last of the spectacular spring leeks. Finally, we were pulling something out of the ground that we could eat! And eat them we did, the very next day.

Finding 4 Secret Eggs

Every morning at Long View Farm in Shropshire, we’d wake up, slide into our wellies and wander across the garden to set the chickens free. We loved this so much that we did it before coffee. Sometimes we’d find a few eggs had been laid overnight, but the egg count was suspiciously low for a brood of 13 hens. We guessed that the ladies were hiding themselves away in the tall grass to lay during the day. After work each day we would go on an egg hunt around the field. On one occasion, Flic found a neat pile of 4 eggs in a sheltered patch and carried them proudly back to the farmhouse. Yet on every other search we found nothing. Our host promised us a Cadbury’s Creme Egg for each egg found outside of the hen house but we have yet to receive this reward. Never mind, we’ll be back there soon for sure!

Finding freshly laid eggs in Shropshire

Going Back

Unlike most fellow travellers we meet on the road, we like to plan our trips in great detail. For Nick, making a plan is part of the adventure, embracing the excitement of the expected. The plan doesn’t always work out, however, and we find that having a plan in place often makes it even easier to be flexible. So, when things didn’t go as planned at a farm in Derbyshire – a whole other story – we wrote to two of our previous hosts in Oxordshire and Suffolk to see if we could stay with them again for a couple of weeks each. It was delightful to see our friends again, comforting to fall back in to familiar routines and it gave us a chance to do all the things we didn’t have time to do the first time around. It brought us all closer together and we will never forget that month we never planned. If you’re a WWOOFer yourself, never be afraid to ask to go back – it might be the highlight of your journey!

Cherry tree in bloom at Old Hall Community Suffolk

Partying in Our Dressing Gowns

One of the main reasons for returning to Oxfordshire, besides unforeseen circumstances, was that our host was having a fancy dress birthday party. The theme? 42: Life, the Universe and Everything. If ever anyone was to come up with a theme that left people baffled, it would be Jeannie. Those unfamiliar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had no idea how to dress for the occasion. The advice offered was that people could come as things that were meaningful to them, or go down a political, religious or philosophical route. This didn’t help much either. Finally it was suggested that people could just wear a silly hat.

We embraced our inner Arthur Dents and proudly wore our dressing gowns (yes, we are travelling with our towelled robes), as did many other guests. Strolling about the fairy light lit garden, to the roaring sing song fire pit, back inside to the kitchen packed with people, hot nettle soup and fresh bread, cans of Old Speckled Hen hanging in our deep gown pockets, we found the meaning of life.

Tim’s Boat on the Thames

Does your next door neighbour own a boat on the Thames? No? Thought not. We will also never have a next door neighbour who owns a boat on the Thames. But some people do have a next door neighbour who owns a boat on the Thames. If you WWOOF with these people, then by proxy you have a next door neighbour who owns a boat on the Thames. If you are a friendly, community spirited sort of person, it’s likely that the next door neighbour will take you out in the boat on the Thames for the afternoon. A boat with your friends on it. A boat with a pirate flag. If you’re really lucky, they’ll offer you a beer from their beer fridge, and you can drink that beer whilst gliding down the Thames through the heart of Oxfordshire in the sunshine. The same river that Henry VIII used as a watery highway to visit his mistress in Shillingford. On a boat. A boat on the Thames.

Naming A Calf

Bringing the cows back from the top field for milking one afternoon, it seemed that Daisy hadn’t come along with the rest of the herd. Whilst Lorna set to with the milking, Flic and Angela went back to the field to find out what she was up to. Flic spotted her first, sat in a patch of clover below the crest of a hillock, nursing a new born calf. Now, finding a new born calf at Old Hall is a special moment indeed. As the finder of that calf, you earn the right to name it. Once its private parts had been checked, Flic chose the name and called her Clover. She will keep that name for the rest of her life, a gentle imprint of our time spent at that wondrous place.

Clover the calf

Cooking Dinner Off Grid

Cooking in different places takes a bit of getting used to. You have to work out where everything is kept in the kitchen, which lids fit which saucepans and how quickly the oven can burn things. During our time in Shropshire, we were invited to cook dinner over the campfire one evening. We accepted the challenge with no hesitation. Once the fire was burning good and hot, we used a strong and stable casserole dish to cook shakshuka, an Israeli dish that’s all cumin, hot paprika, garlic and onions in a tomato sauce. Raking hot embers out every so often, we kept the pot at a consistent heat and brewed up a spicy stew, topped off with fresh eggs laid by the chickens just beyond the hedgerow. It was much easier than expected, being simplified by necessity, and a real joy to be cooking outside with fine friends in the evening sunshine. We made plans to do it again as soon as possible. Being England in June, it rained every day after that.

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Cats

When we left our old lives behind, saying farewell to our cat was one of the hardest goodbyes. The best thing about living on farms is that there are so many mice, which usually means a cat is a necessity. We’ve had the pleasure of staying with some fine cats, from self assured Cake at Old Hall, wise old (and dribbly) Custard in Oxfordshire and ginger Jingo in Shropshire. Jingo has to be one of the friendliest cats we’ve ever known. When we were working in the garden, he was never far away, even in the rain when he’d retreat to the poly-tunnel with us. At night, he would sleep in our bed, curled up under the duvet, or sometimes just spread out across our pillows. The only downside to having a living hot water bottle was when he started coughing up fur balls at 3.00am…


 

Chiltern Brewery – The Best of Bucks

Ah, Buckinghamshire. That fine old English county, famous for… something, surely? We would never have made a trip to Buckinghamshire on purpose but our second WWOOF host lived there, which meant we had to visit. Our first impression of this twee home county was that it was rather dull. People seem to live there primarily because it’s close to London – so much so that it even feels a bit like London, with the overpriced sports cars, unaffordable housing and lack of community, just with more hedgerows.

So what’s a visitor to do there? Visit Aylesbury and browse the usual British high street stores? Take a walk up in the Chilterns, on hills so high you can look down on red kites gliding over Chequers, the UK Prime Minister’s country retreat? These are options, but we recommend visiting the Chiltern Brewery instead and, if not just to buy their delicious beer, taking their bespoke tour too.

display of malt selection for brewing ale

On arrival, we were welcomed with a warm smile from Andy, front of house extraordinaire and keeper of the shop that day. He treated us to a complimentary half pint of our choice, with Nick opting for the Pride of Bucks & Berks, a smooth, citrusy ale with a charitable twist – the brewery donates 5p for every pint sold to Horatio’s Garden, who are running a project to create a peaceful garden for folks recovering from spinal injuries at a nearby hospital. Flic went for the Chiltern Black, a Guinness lookalike but completely different in every other way. Complex flavours of cherry, coffee and a hint of treacle were captured within a light, quaffable brew. We hadn’t even started the tour and already we were bowled over by the beer.

Andy the bartender and front of house at the chiltern brewery

After a few minutes browsing the bountiful brewery shop, we were introduced to Nigel, our host for the springtime afternoon. An ex-fireman, proudly imparting his knowledge of the family run brewery with a no-nonsense East London accent, could there be a better guide for a brewery tour?

Leaving the shop, the tour commenced in earnest. We wandered round the back of the car park and entered the microbrewery itself. We must stress the micro aspect of the brewery here – it was just one tiny room in an old garage. Think Heisenberg’s lab, but smaller and above ground. There was a big old brew tank, sackfuls of hops, bags of barley and a jumbo sized jotter covered in equations. This is old school brewing, the brewers using wisdom passed down a generation to get the job done. Given the limited space the brewery have, they manage to brew a couple of times a week, supplying their own shop, an affiliated pub (The Kings Head in Aylesbury) and a few other local taverns.

kegs of ale and personalised numberplate at the chilterns brewery

After a few interesting anecdotes about family squabbles and the awkwardness of cleaning out the brew tank from the inside whilst being 6ft tall, we made our way out of the shed. We milled about outside for a bit, looking at different types of beer barrels and sniffing discarded grain that would be fed to a nearby farmer’s pigs. And that was it. The tour had finished. It was time for the tasting.

There were 5 of us on the tour that Friday afternoon. On a Saturday, it’s usual for there to be a crowd of 25 or more, which would probably make the tasting considerably more rowdy than our civilised session. Even better, Nigel let slip that there would be more freedom with the sample sizes, increasing our cash to lash ratio so to speak.

We started off with their signature, the Chiltern Ale, a classic session ale at an easy going 3.7%. According to Nigel, this is a popular choice for people in the age range of 18-80, so it has a fairly wide demographic. Our notes say that the bitterness of the hops combined with fresh apple and the sweetness of hops would work wonders with poultry, fish and curry. We also wrote that it was cracking with a slice of ale bread from the local Cottage Bakery in Thame, and we stand by this. Sadly we didn’t get to visit the bakery, but the thick, wholegrain bread was delicious, baked full of beery brilliance and slathered in butter.

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As we quaffed the next beverage, the robust and nutty Three Hundreds Old Ale, we were invited to pair it with a selection of cheese, a mustard seed cheddar being the highlight. By this point we stopped making sensible, or particularly legible, notes. Take this as a sign that we were taking advantage of the light refreshments.

The last ale we tasted was Bodger’s Barley Wine, not a wine as such, but a thicker, treacle sweet ale. We swigged down this heady brew with a slice of ale infused fruit cake, a perfect way to round off our liquid lunch. The tour aimed to open up the possibilities of flavour pairings with ale, treating it more like wine. As Nigel pointed out, it’s not uncommon for trendy hipster restaurants to have a beer list or an ale sommelier. This is the first brewery tour we’ve been on that brought food to the tasting table, and we think it’s all the better for it.

bespoke stoneware at the chiltern brewery buckinghamshire

It wasn’t over yet though, as Nigel announced he had a few spare jugs to use up. The group of 3 on our tour had to leave. Maybe they had jobs or something. With little else to do that day, we knocked back a few more glasses and chatted with our new found friend. Our 2 hour tour soon became a 4 hour session. The tour cost us £15 each, a little pricey perhaps, but not if you consider that given the local clientele, we could be paying London prices. Try having an afternoon out on the craft ales in Shoreditch for £15!

When they started closing up the shop and shutting down the barrels, we took the hint and said our goodbyes. We made our way back to our host’s smallholding, carrying two bottles on the house and a recycled plastic milk bottle full of Chiltern Ale, winding our way along public foot paths, stumbling over stiles and taking our chances on the country lane verges. Ah, Buckinghamshire, famous for the Chiltern Brewery.


 

Oxford in a Day – Books, Boffins and Beer

Our first week of WWOOFing got off to a great start, with our adventure beginning in the ever so friendly village of Shillingford, at the heart of rural Oxfordshire. Spending our days outside, surrounded by tall trees, noisy geese and serene red kites gliding overhead, we thought we should visit the noble city of Oxford on our day off, giving us a refreshing contrast to village life.

According to Flic’s Google Fit app, we took 19,000 steps around this famous university city. We certainly packed plenty in. We didn’t even take the time to stop for a cup of coffee – usually an essential for us during any city visit. If you fancy a day of culture in this must-see English destination, here’s what we suggest you do:

Oxford Covered Market

Begin your tour with a visit to the covered market, situated appropriately on Market Street, where most local bus connections will drop you off. There’s a delightful selection of craft shops, coffee houses and a butchers with an interesting selection of meat hanging in the window (whole deer anyone?). We stopped off at the Sofie de France Café for hot pork paninis, smothered in tangy barbecue sauce and melted cheese. Should we return, we’d definitely consider Pieminister or the Colombia Coffee Roasters as alternative pit stops.

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Ashmolean

If you’re after a dash of curated culture, your next stop must be the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, about 500m north of the covered market. Wipe the sandwich grease from your fingers and put away your wallet because admission is free (although a donation is encouraged and some temporary exhibitions are ticketed). The museum collection is overseen by the city’s renowned university, and it’s clear the boffins know how to do history. With exhibitions of original artefacts spanning eras and continents, there’s something here to interest everyone. Our highlights were a carved Viking rune stone and an exhibition of Utagawa Hiroshige II’s study of Mount Fuji through the seasons – playful yet thoughtful illustrations of Japan’s most famous mountain. We recommend leaving before you get museum fatigue. Don’t try and cover it all. Just pick the bits that interest you, otherwise you could get lost in there all day.

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Blackwells

The same can be said for Blackwells, Oxford University’s original swatting-up shop. It’s perhaps our favourite book shop in the country, although it’s a tough call between this place and Foyle’s in London. Head here for a huge choice of books and while away a good hour with your head between pages. Make sure you explore the higgledy-piggledy building from top to bottom, and don’t miss the spectacular Norrington Room, a great colosseum of literature, or the selection of rare books on display. During our visit we saw a first edition set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, retailing at £14,000 – a little out of our budget.

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University Buildings

We understand that many tourists visit Oxford expecting to find the university as a single building. This is not the case, as the university is split into 38 colleges and 6 additional Permanent Private Halls. This is great for visitors to the city, as there’s plenty of grand university buildings to explore for free, each with their own character. We wandered around Wadham College, with its stunning garden and secretive staircases, and took a look at the brilliant Bodleian Library courtyard. Standing among these sandstone schools, we wished we tried a little harder in school…

You can find a handy list of the colleges online to help you plan your visit. They may be closed to the public at certain times, but there will usually be a sign at the entrance if this is the case.

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Pitt Rivers & Natural History Museum

Some may say that visiting three museums in one day is crazy, but it seems fitting to go intellectually wild in a city like Oxford. So, once you’ve had a peek at those fancy colleges, make your way to the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is helpfully attached to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Apparently 19th Century scholars wanted the two collections to be housed together, but it was very important that things that they thought were created by God, like the humble weasel, were displayed separately to those created by humans, like the samurai sword.

We suggest entering through the Museum of Natural History, immersing yourself in a world of stuffed animals from every continent, under the beautiful gothic revival ceiling. Once you’ve had your fill of taxidermy, head next door to the Pitt Rivers collection, choc full of stuff from all over the world. We started on the second floor, and made our way down from there. Each cabinet is full to the brim with artefacts, be they terrifying Tanzanian knuckle dusters with sharp steel spikes, Fijian children’s toys or, our favourite, keys and locks through the ages.

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Hertford Bridge, or, Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs

When you’ve finally had enough of looking through glass at old objects, clear your mind with a walk towards Magdalen Bridge for a punt, via the picturesque Hertford Bridge on New College Lane. This gently arching skyway joins two parts of Hertford College, presumably to stop the brainiacs’ gowns getting wet between lectures when it’s raining. The bridge is widely referred to as the Bridge of Sighs due to it’s similarities to the Venice landmark of the same name, but its designer Sir Thomas Jackson never intended this, and would presumably be rather irritated that people keep drawing this comparison.

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Punting

Once you’ve waited long enough to take a photo of the bridge without other people in your picture taking a photo for the bridge, stroll on to the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse where you can hire a punt for a trip around Oxford’s waterways. The punts can take up to 5 people and cost £22 per hour. Unfortunately the weather was a little bleak when we arrived, so we gave it a miss. But on a summer’s day, we can imagine no better way to see Oxford. There are several suggested routes, with some staying inside the city and others heading out to the surrounding countryside.

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Cowley Road

With waterways explored, the last stop on your tour should be Cowley Road, the multicultural heart of Oxford. Here, Mediterranean delis, hipster micro pubs, Polish skleps and Indian spice stores all hustle for business. There’s a big student population here too, so this vibrant artery out of the city is the place to go if you fancy something more reasonably priced, and probably tastier, than the rest of the city’s posh nosh.

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Oli’s Thai

For a real treat, we strongly suggest you visit Oli’s Thai on Magdalen Road, just off of Cowley Road. We were told about this place by a trustworthy local bloke, so we thought we ought to check it out. We were told that the restaurant is usually booked up 3 months in advance, but if you arrive just as they open, you may be able to get a seat at the bar. We made our way there for 4:30pm, and were waiting outside with a few other people who had the same idea. If you turn up later and the seats have been taken, fear not. The staff will take your number, point you in the direction of the nearest pub and give you a call when your seats are available.

We have been known to seek out other establishments when the only seats going are at the bar, but we put our prejudices back on the shelf here. We were pleased to see that we were given the same menu as customers that had made reservations, and the friendly bar staff were a cheerful addition to our meal. What’s more, we could just make out the Thai chef in the kitchen frying up pad thai, so we felt as though we had the best seats in the house. What’s more, for all its exclusivity, we left feeling full and a bit tipsy for just over £20 each.

Having spent 60 days in Thailand just a couple of months ago, we were missing Thai food a lot. Food in the UK is comforting, filling and flavoursome but it lacks the freshness, delicacy and sheer heat of Thai cooking. Yet we found all of these qualities in every dish, from the fresh apple and cashew salad that was the closest thing to som tam you’re likely to find on English soil, to the delicate Padang duck curry with a creamy coconut sauce bursting with spicy flavours. This was accompanied with a big plate of pad thai, cooked just how we like it with tofu, egg and crunchy vegetables. For dessert, we splashed out on a custard tart each, the soft, comforting centre and flakey pastry taking us back to breakfasts of dim sum in Penang (which is in Malaysia, but who cares?). As we sipped our bottles of properly regulated Chang, we could have been back on the beach in Koh Lanta, watching the sun go down across the Andaman Sea. Yet we were grateful to be in Oxford, as good a place as any when the food’s so good, the people so friendly and the museums so… museum-y. But enough gushing, it’s time to take the bus home.

It’s Called WWOOFing, Not Dogging

On our travels, two questions we often ask ourselves are, ‘Why did we come here?’ and ‘What are we going to do?’. When we’ve been roaming from place to place, sometimes with no particular purpose, we find it easy to forget why we chose to visit somewhere in the first place. Now we’re back in the UK, we know exactly why we returned sooner than expected, and we’ve taken to the road with a clearer plan than ever before.

For those that don’t already know, we left Vietnam early because our TEFL jobs didn’t work out. We’ve heard that many people have found teaching English in Vietnam to be a great way to make some cash, as well as offering a brilliant lifestyle. This was wasn’t the case for us. The school we had selected from the many that offered us teaching positions turned out to be what we can only describe as a shambles. The proposal that we sleep in a shipping container on the roof for a year, and use a shower in the only toilet in the school, which was also in reception, wasn’t overly appealing, either. When the loaded head teacher (luxury Audi, leather seats, sharp suit, full time banker) put us up in the dodgiest hotel we’d stayed in during our whole time of travelling, we thought it best to leave. This was an existential moment. Where would we go next?

A full survey of the finances and a sleepless night of research led us to the conclusion that we should return to the UK. It would be refreshing to see our friends and family again, winter was nearly over and we hadn’t eaten cheese for a long time.

Yet we didn’t want to return to Brexit Britain as we’d left it, back to a 9 – 5 job, pulling our hair out with stress, crushed by the daily grind. We know that we’re happiest when we’re working outside, alongside like minded people, learning new things. We wanted to find a way to see our own country through fresh eyes, exploring places we’ve never even considered visiting, despite living here for over 20 years. But would this be possible on a shoestring budget?

First of all we looked to Diggers and Dreamers, a directory of the UK’s many communities that friends in South East Asia had told us about. Many of these communities offer the chance to stay with them for a while in exchange for voluntary work, often through the WWOOF organisation. This led to the discovery of WWOOFing as a viable means to explore these fair isles, keeping us busy with a good day’s work, whilst drastically reducing the cost.

Let’s be clear, as many people have asked us the same questions – WWOOFing has nothing to do with dogging, the latter a sordid activity that takes place in laybys across the land. No, WWOOFing is not a cult, and communities are not all communes full of people smoking funny things and trying out tantric yoga (although there’s probably a community like this if you’re looking for it). As to what communities are really like, we’re not entirely sure, which is the main reason we’re taking the time to visit them.

WWOOF is a charity, set up by Sue Coppard in 1971, and it’s full name is ‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’, although it’s sometimes known as ‘Willing Workers On Organic Farms’. Either way, you get the gist. Members pay a £20 annual fee (or £30 for joint membership) giving them access to nearly 700 hosts across the UK, from the tip of Cornwall all the way up to the Shetland Islands, where you can join the UK’s most remote veg box scheme. WWOOFers, as the Willing Workers are affectionately known, receive bed and board in return for around 6 hours work per day, 5-6 days per week. Given that all of the hosts are organic farms, communities or smallholders in some respect, you can expect the food to be rather good.

As with all means of enriching but low cost travel, there are the usual horror stories about overworked WWOOFers being fed gruel and boarding with the pigs. How much of this is true remains to be seen. Besides, WWOOF actively checks its hosts through telephone interviews, and WWOOFers can report any issues in the knowledge that they’ll be investigated by the charity.

We are now proud WWOOFers, heading up the country from Oxford, over to Suffolk and then all the way to Scotland via the Peak District and the Lake District, before making our way back down through Wales in November. We’re hoping to learn as much as we possibly can about growing stuff, eating this stuff and living without so much other stuff that we’ve always taken for granted. We’re working the land in family smallholdings, small commercial operations and live-in communities. Yes, we will probably get tired, be rained on a lot and become well acquainted with steaming piles of manure, but it will all be worth it for the satisfaction of growing our own food and meeting inspirational people as we go.

So, in the immortal words of Wycliffe Jean, we’ll be gone ’til November


 

Kalaw to Inle Lake – What to Expect When You’re Trekking

Kalaw, the starting point for Myanmar’s finest treks, was one of our favourite places in the country. We stopped by the alpine town for a couple of days to refresh our souls in the crisp highland air. Tucked away in the mountains that join the vast Himalayan range, it’s a surprisingly lively place. There’re plenty of restaurants to replenish your energy before heading out for a few days on the hoof, some of them cheap – try one of the Shan tea houses – some of them pricey – check out the Everest Nepali Food Centre for curries bursting with flavour, but only if your wallet’s full of Kyat and you can bear the company of rich Westerners on luxury tours. There was more than enough to keep us entertained for a few days, between the large market, speakeasy style bars and the wonderful Sprouting Seeds cafe, which not only has a cracking selection of board games and serves the best guacamole in Myanmar, also helps young children learn catering and hospitality skills.

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Our main reason for heading to Kalaw was to take a trek to Inle Lake, about 70km West of the town. Having checked a few travel guides, we wandered around to price up the different treks offered by the many tour companies in town. At our first stop, the Golden Lily Guest House, we were welcomed in by Robin, a 70 year old Sikh with a gentle smile. He talked us through his 3 day trek, walking about 20-25km each day, with two overnight stays in mountain villages along the way. All together, including 3 meals a day (but not water) and a boat trip at the end, the trek cost about £65 for both of us, with an extra $10 fee each for our entry to the Inle Lake region, payed at the border. With prices this good and a seemingly unsurpassable knowledge of the area – Robin’s been doing this trek since the 90’s and has walked the equivalent distance of circumnavigating the world 3 times – we signed up without bothering to schlep around town and haggle with anyone else.

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The first thing you should know if you’re considering trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake is that this part of Myanmar (sort of North East-ish) is astoundingly cold in the cool season (November – February). This took us by surprise when we stepped off of our night bus from the burning hot, sweat patch South at 8:00am, wearing only flip flops, shorts and T-shirts in the 3 degree chill. If you do head out to these silent mountains, take some warm clothes and be prepared to shiver, especially at night. It’s not always cold, though. By about 11am when the searing sun takes its place in the tropical sky, the temperature rises to 30 degrees and higher, a change in temperature totally bewildering to the body. During the hot season (March – May), Robin told us that it gets unbearably hot and the air thick with insects. This doesn’t put him off though – he does the treks all year round, unless the monsoon season (June – October) makes the paths impassable. Crazy.

With cheap coats, gloves and hats purchased at the market, we set out on our trek. Our backpacks would be sent on to Inle Lake by truck, leaving us with our daypacks full of changes of clothes, sugary snacks for energy and our passports. Take as little with you as you possibly can. One hiker we met along the way had packed his laptop for fear of it being nabbed on route, by day 2 he was regretting carrying the extra weight.

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We walked straight out of town with our gang of hikers, just us, a honeymooning couple from Chile and three chatty Australian bro’s prepping for a trek to Everest basecamp. Strolling down country lanes, past avocado trees, old colonial houses and soon-to-be hotels, we were struck by a false optimism that the trek wouldn’t be too hard. Robin seemed pretty relaxed, certainly a lot more aged than all of us, and there was a distinct lack of hurry about the whole thing.

The first day took us through an area of conservation forest, out to stunning mountain passes, ridged with tea plantations and citrus orchards. Cunning Burmese farmers have perfected companion planting, and these cash crops are often grown side by side, benefiting each other with their pest resistance. This helps to keep their agriculture about 90% organic. Not bad for a country under intense pressure from neighbours like China to buy in to the agrochemical market.

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Thanks to the British, ahem, influence of Burmese agriculture, we gazed at patches of celery, strawberries, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as the expected rice paddies that keep the farmers fed. The hike was hilly in places, but Robin would pause while we caught our breath to show us a root of ginger, or a sprig of herb that can cure diarrhoea. We had a luxury lunch of curry and chapati in a remote village, all washed down with cupfuls of organic tea, grown and dried in the very same village. The afternoon was spent mostly walking along the train line that runs from Thazi to Inle Lake, with no fear of being run down by the trains with a top speed of 15kph. As an aside, the slow train from Inle Lake to Thazi is a spectacular journey and the best 11 hour train ride we’ve ever taken.

By the time we reached our first homestay, we were tired but not exhausted, aching but not in agony, and things were going well. We sat down to a Burmese banquet, joined by a few other people trekking the same route. We feasted on delicately stewed vegetables, lightly spiced meat  and plates of rice. We slept under the light of the moon that leaked through the farmhouse window, wrapped in several blankets to keep the cold at bay.

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The morning was misty and we drank our instant coffee overlooking the distant mountain ranges, hoping we wouldn’t be climbing them later. After a hearty breakfast of fresh fruit, omelettes and weary conversation, Robin explained our route and it seemed we would be scaling the mountains after all. A collective groan greeted this proposal and it became clear that we were all a little more fatigued than expected.

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Day 2 was full of yet more gorgeous valleys, friendly villagers greeting us and, in one case, a group of lads showing off a squirrel they’d knocked out with a well aimed sling shot. The hills were much harder, our legs becoming rods of pain. We had blisters on our heels, on our soles, on our toes, between our toes, pretty much everywhere. By midday we were far too hot, and every step was a whole new world of pain.

A break for a roadside bowl of creamy Shan noodles, accompanied by samosas and tea, did little to soothe our woes. We still had a long way to go, and it felt like our bodies were giving up on us. Strangely, everyone else in our group still seemed rather alive, laughing and joking whilst managing to keep up with Robin, who had inexplicably doubled the speed of the previous day’s pace, still without breaking a sweat.

By 4pm, things were looking bleak. We had forgotten why we thought it would be a good idea to go on a 3 day trek when we could have just taken a bus and looked out of the window. The Australian lad banter was wearing thin. Robin’s promises of ‘just one more hill’ were repeatedly broken, just like our resolve. If we had access to WiFi we would have hailed an Uber. But we didn’t. In fact, the village we stayed at that night had no electricity (except for a couple of DC solar panels) and no running water. This made showering by bucket a risky business, not only because of the icy chill of the water in the blistering heat, but because when the bucket became empty, it meant a 2km walk to the nearest well.

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That night, around 20 other travellers stopped by the village to rest their weary bones. There were folks from all over the world, a curious crowd of backpackers searching for the real Myanmar. In these highland valleys, with warm hearted locals, steaming tea and unbreakable language barriers, the general consensus was that we’d found it.

Myanmar is still a reasonably tricky country to travel around, with areas in the North closed off because this is where they grow lots of naughty crops, or as in the case of the Rakhine State to the West, because the UN believe there’s an ongoing genocide taking place (which is probably true). It’s illegal to host tourists without a hard to obtain licence, so you can’t just turn up at a village and hope to find a cheap hostel. Your movements are constantly tracked by the tourist police, making the whole notion of backpacking like a free spirit near impossible.

Even so, the villagers in the Shan mountains that are allowed to open their doors to foreigners do so with great pride, and passing through these villages gives you a true picture of life for many Burmese people. We saw children harvesting chillis with their mothers, hands burning from too much capsaicin. We stood around fires made from the discarded cores of corn on the cob to keep warm. We literally watched the cows come home at sunset, hundreds of bovine beasts tramping back from a hard day’s work in the fields, followed by hardy shepherds. Spending just a few days amongst these people, who live from the land and beam from ear to ear with the joy of self sufficiency, away from the coach parties who’ve paid far too much for a 2 week excursion, it was easy to forget that the luxury tourist industry was taking over the rest of accessible Myanmar.

Arriving at the national park checkpoint was a stark reminder that Myanmar is changing at a rapid pace. Having seen only 20 other tourists for 3 days, all of them backpackers, we naively expected to find an unspoiled lake with few foreign visitors. But things were different as soon as we reached the national park border. Suddenly we were joined on the road by several other trekking groups, our paths converging at this main point of entry. It became apparent that Robin’s promise that he had his own route, far from the tourist trail, was quite true. Now it was time for us to take that trail again.

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For the last 10 kilometres or so, Robin had us taking the slopes down towards the lake at the speed of an intermediate inner city jogger. We leapt across dusty crags of burnt orange rocks, raced down rural roads at the risk of being run down by loggers and eventually made it to Indein village, famous for its ruined pagodas. We sat down to lunch at a lakeside restaurant, overjoyed to have reached our destination. We began to feel distinctly out of place, covered in dust, dripping with sweat and crying with relief that our huge hike was finally over. We were surrounded by wealthy Europeans in crisply ironed shirts, and bored Russians with nervous private guides, most of them on day trips from their nearby hotels.

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We took a boat from this Southern village to Nyaungshwe at the North of the lake, where cheap but decent accommodation can be found. Passing boat loads of folks on luxury tours, snapping away at the sights of this fast changing country, it was clear that the best of Myanmar was behind us, shrouded in the blue mist of morning, with Robin one of the last true keepers of its keys.  

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How Koh Lanta Changed Our Lives

We left in the back of a truck, distraught that this moment had finally arrived. With tears threatening to run down our cheeks, we waved goodbye to our family in the jungle. Anke, lean, strong, light as a feather, called after us with her broad Dutch smile that promised we would return. Her husband Aoi held up his hand in a gesture of peace, sending us much needed Zen blessings for the road. Their daughter Asa, just over one and a half years old, called out our names as she always did when we departed, unaware of the finality of the situation. And Bob, curious adventurer, natural builder and broker from The Netherlands, bid us farewell with his customary wink before heading back up to the community kitchen for breakfast. Life would go on as usual at ASA Lanta, but our bamboo hut would stand empty until the next visitors arrived, filled only with our memories and a bamboo table that we’d made ourselves.

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We stayed with our friends Anke and Aoi for 5 weeks, from mid-November until late December, yet the experience was so profound, so life changing for us, that it is only now that we feel able to write about it. We did not expect that living in the rainforest on Koh Lanta, an island off the West coast of Thailand, surrounded by nature and truly amazing people, would change the course of our lives. But that’s why we gave it all up in the first place, for the unexpected moments and the unforeseen conclusions.

We arrived there with the aim of starting off an English language club for local children. However, when we arrived it became apparent that Anke and Aoi were not in a position to launch this project, but they hoped that we’d stay anyway. When we made it clear that we’re happy to do anything to fill our days and broaden our knowledge, their faces flooded with relief and we knew that this was going to be the start of something special.

We helped out wherever we were needed 5 days a week, taking Tuesdays and Wednesdays as the weekend with everyone else in the small jungle community. We were never short of things to do, from entertaining Asa whilst Anke ran the Organic Tea House and Aoi kept up with the maintenance of the education park, helping write copy for the new website and keeping the ever growing jungle at bay. In every task we did we were able to improve skills we already had, or learn something completely new, all the while having a good laugh and the occasional mojito to keep us cool.

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We shared our jungle home with a group of natural builders who were staying for three months, learning how to build a house using only the resources that the Earth provides. Led by American architect Amanda, whose passion for natural building was infectious and inspiring, we would join Bob, Rob (Irish wise man), James (North Carolina’s finest permaculture enthusiast) and Jenny (taking a well timed winter break from her London co-housing community) for Muddy Mondays. We’d get stuck in with whatever building they were doing, making mud bricks, building walls using cob and clay instead of cement, all the while having plenty of fun. Mixing clay, sand and sawdust with our bare feet, the fresh mud squishing satisfyingly between our city-soft toes, we realised that we are happiest when we’re stuck in the mud, down in the dirt.

Coming from our western lifestyles, with comfortable office jobs and all the spoils of civilization, we thought we had a pretty good idea about what we needed to feel satisfied. Spending time in the jungle showed us different. Most days we’d end up plastered in monsoon mud, worn out by the tropical heat and covered in insect bites. All we had to soothe our aching bodies was a cold, open air shower amongst the spiders, snakes and friendly frogs. We drank water from the freshwater lake on the hill, ate food foraged from the jungle and shopped at the local market. We had intermittent electricity and infrequent internet access. During the day, we sat cross legged on cushions, amongst the trees, on the bamboo veranda of the adobe community house, speaking from our hearts about the world around us. At night, we slept on the floor of our bamboo hut, perfectly at peace in the simple wooden shack. It’s corny to say it, but living closer to nature, with a stronger connection to the land, outweighed the pleasures of modernity that we’d come to take for granted.

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Anke and Aoi’s aim with ASA Lanta is to move ever more towards sustainable living, becoming more self sufficient in cooperation with the jungle. Of course, there are aways more ways to develop this, but living in buildings built from the resources that surround them, composting food (and human) waste, seed saving and cultivating numerous species of bamboo for both building and fuel, this is a much more sustainable way to live than we could ever have imagined.

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Yet, without wishing to be rude, there is nothing special about Anke and Aoi. They are ‘normal’ people, no different from you or I. It is just that they have dared to step off of the path that most of us follow, valuing long term fulfilment over short term pleasure. By making sacrifices to comfort, putting in hard work, inspiring others to help them along the way, they find themselves living in a beautiful safehaven, a community that will continue to grow organically just like the lush jungle that surrounds it. Spending time here, amongst people who are brave enough to live their dreams, made us realise that we could do this too, although we still have much to learn.

Over communal lunches of banana flower salads, spicy som tam and steaming whole grain rice, we learned of new places, like Pun Pun and Panya in Chiang Mai, where permaculture and natural building are taught to volunteers willing to make the trip. Distanced from global politics, social unrest and the incomprehensible challenges facing humanity, we learned to appreciate what was immediately around us. Suddenly everything felt possible. The world didn’t feel like such a mess after all.

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As we left ASA Lanta in the back of a truck, we knew we’d be back soon. But even on that short ride to the ferry port, we spoke quietly of plans for the future, of new ways of living. Now we find ourselves unexpectedly back on English soil, in the cold drizzle of Brexit Britain, we see the land in a new light. Thanks to the inspirational experience of ASA Lanta, we are planning a trip around these fair isles, from the South all the way up to Scotland, visiting organic farms, permaculture projects and natural building communities, getting stuck in wherever we can.

We might be far from the tropical sunshine, but our travels are far from over.


Photographing the Sunrise and Sunset in Bagan

It’s hard to believe that, many centuries ago, there were over 10,000 temples and pagodas in Bagan. Although only about a quarter of these are still standing, Bagan offers an unimaginably beautiful skyline and is quite unlike anywhere else on Earth. The best times of day to photograph this spectacular scene are sunrise and sunset, when the hot air balloons glide soundlessly over the silhouetted pinnacles. Simply stand atop an ancient pagoda, and you’ll have a breathtaking view of the vast, flat plains of Old Bagan and the thousands of temples between you and the horizon.

Easier said than done.

Recent regulations have stipulated that only 5 pagodas can now be climbed, due to tourists committing ‘culturally disgraceful’ acts. These 5 are: North and South Guni, Thitsarwady, Shwesandaw and Pyathetgyi. Whilst these 5 may be the best locations to see the sunrise and sunset due to their height, it is not entirely true that they are the only 5 you can climb. Firstly, North Guni was badly damaged in the 2016 earthquake and is now closed, so that takes you down to 4 locations. Secondly, Thitsarwady is not on Google Maps or the tourist map, and no one we asked had heard of it, so that’s not really an option either. Shwesandaw is the only pagoda easily accessible by road and is therefore bursting with over 1000 (we’re not exaggerating) aging Western tourists, shuffling off of their luxury air conditioned coaches and complaining about having to climb the steep steps. Unless you know how to deal with a broken hip in a country with one of the worst healthcare systems in the world, it’s probably best to avoid Shwesandaw.

Fortunately, there are lots of other temples you can still climb. Although you might not get much more than 20ft high, it’s great fun spending your day zooming around on your bike, finding secret passageways and staircases in forgotten temples. Basically, you are Lara Croft.

The lack of height of these temples is compensated by the fact that there are far fewer tourists there, and the other tourists that do make it to these places are often like-minded, happy to sit quietly and enjoy the peace.

Here are our top locations for viewing the sunrise and sunset in Bagan:

Sunrise

Bulethi

Bulethi is located in the east of Bagan, and we were therefore not expecting there to be many temples between Bulethi and the sunrise. We were wrong. There are temples everywhere in Bagan and Bulethi is in an excellent position to watch the hot air balloons silhouetted against the rising sun. The newly built viewing tower is a bit of an eyesore, but is understandably necessary given the huge numbers of visitors to this heritage site.

There is another temple just a few feet to the West of Bulethi which is technically closed, but we did see a few people climbing it for sunrise. It would probably offer a great view for the sunset (rather than the sunrise, which would be blocked by Bulethi) but we would not encourage anyone to climb temples that are not officially open. There is a polite red sign at the gate that ‘strongly requests’ no one enters, and we suggest you respect this.

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Law Ka Oushang

Slightly further along the path from Shwesandaw, you will find a quiet and well positioned temple to watch the sunrise. This offers the added smug bonus of driving past Shwesandaw and the hundreds of tourists already poised with their tripods and zoom lenses at 5am.

Law Ka Oushang is located in the West and therefore has an excellent view across the plains to the East. You can’t climb particularly high, and there are some trees around that may partially block your view, but it is still our favourite place to watch the sun rise in Bagan!

Watch out for the people demanding a ‘money present’ at the bottom of the stairs. You can give a donation if you wish, but bear in mind that it is not an entry fee and is unlikely to go towards maintenance of the temple.

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Sunset

Pyathetgyi Pagoda

The multi-level flat rooftops of Pyathetgyi offer plenty of space and height for great views of the sunset. Find the hidden staircase in the tower at the back left of the building and climb all the way to the top. It’s a bit off of the beaten track, but still attracts some large groups (watch out for coaches trying to squeeze past cows on the dirt roads!). Make sure you get there early and don’t set up a time lapse on your GoPro in a place that people are able to stand in front of.

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Taung (South) Guni

Easier the get to and much quieter than Pyathetgyi, South Guni is a great place to watch the sunset. There aren’t many temples directly West of Guni, so the sunset skyline isn’t quite as spectacular as it is from some other locations, but you get a great panoramic view of the whole of Bagan. Another plus is that there were only about 20 other people there.

Some people have complained about the kids selling postcards at the temple. Once we made it clear that we weren’t going to buy anything, they were quite happy to show off all of the foreign currency they had collected from tourists over the years. We gave them some post-it notes and they had great fun writing on them and sticking them on each other!

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Top Tips

Get there early and stay late

We saw people turning up 5 minutes before the sunrise and complaining that they couldn’t get a good spot. Seriously. You need to get there about an hour before sunrise and about 2 hours before sunset to claim your space, even at the quieter places. Similarly, some people would leave the second the sun dipped below the horizon. Be patient – sometimes the sky looks best after the sun has set.

Be respectful

Remind yourself that these are sacred religious sites, so take off your shoes and socks, dress appropriately, don’t make too much noise and don’t drink alcohol. You’d think this goes without saying, but apparently not.

These temples and pagodas were all built between 11-13 century, and as such are a little rickety. Be aware that there are loose bricks and the stone is crumbling. Don’t cause damage and don’t hurt yourself!

Wrap up warm

The temperature during the day in Bagan might reach the mid 30’s, but early in the morning it can get surprisingly cold. Make sure you have plenty of layers. We’ve even resorted to wearing socks with our flip flops – not a great look.

Make sure your e-bike is fully charged

The battery can run out quickly, particularly if you are sharing a bike and driving on the dirt roads. Most places will offer to recharge the bike for you while you’re having lunch, but make sure they understand that you aren’t just returning the bike early. We picked up a bike after a lunch time ‘charge’ to find the battery lower than when we dropped it off, and subsequently ran out of power on the way back. Towing an e-bike by holding on to it from the back of a motorbike at 50kmph is not the safest way to get back to your hotel. Trust us.

Have plenty of cash

The first thing you will notice when you arrive in Bagan is the demand to pay 25,000MYK for an archaeological zone pass. If you don’t have the right cash in Kyat, you’ll have to pay $20, which is a very poor exchange rate. If you don’t have any cash on you, you’ll be sent back to wherever you came from!

Use a tripod

One of our biggest regrets is not taking a tripod travelling. Some of the best shots can be taken in low light, and slow shutter speeds are necessary to avoid excessive noise. This will result in camera shake unless you have a tripod. It might add weight and take up space in your backpack, but we promise it will be worth it!

Don’t be shy of Photoshop

We battle with the ethics of using Photoshop on travel photos. For Bagan, we reason that the photographs taken here are for the sole purpose of looking beautiful, so it’s not totally unethical to take the sunrise sky from Law Ka Oushang and lend it to the view from Pyathetgyi Pagoda. Especially when it looks this good…

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