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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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…


 

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.


A Trip to Tonsai

After a few glorious days being pampered at a Centara resort in built up Ao Nang, it was time to say goodbye to close friends from home and hit the road, or more precisely, the sea, again.

We were headed to Tonsai, just for one night, before settling down in Koh Lanta for a month. Our trip to Tonsai, totally unplanned, arose out of a desire never to return to boring old Krabi town. Why go back to that washed out transport hub, full of weary folk just passing through and taking depressing photos by the big crab, when we could take a long-tail to mythical Tonsai and a ferry onward to Lanta?

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This turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. Tonsai is a truly exceptional place, so exceptional that it is incredible that it really exists. Indeed, most of the time we were there we felt far removed from reality.

Cut off from civilisation due to the enormous limestone cliffs that form the bay, Tonsai feels like an island. People there often talk of it being on island time, or comment on the joys of island life, but it is firmly attached to the mainland. It is inaccessible by road, like neighbouring and more upmarket Railay, preventing busloads of tourists arriving on day trips from Krabi. You can only reach it by long-tail boat, either direct from Ao Nang or transferring from an island hopping ferry.

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Do not go to Tonsai if you want efficient service, constant access to electricity or a quiet evening. You will not find them here.

The good folks renting out the bungalows barely know what day it is, let alone whether they have any vacancies. You can find a place to rest your head from around 200 – 700 Baht depending on the size and the view. We can recommend Jungle View Resort for a clean, spacious bungalow high up in the canopy with the monkeys for 400 Baht per night (like most places in Tonsai, you can’t book in advance so just show up on the day). Whilst choosing our abode, we noticed a few places expanding and building more concrete apartments. Not only is this material awful at keeping out the heat in the tropical climate, it’s also pretty unsustainable. Vote with your feet and choose bamboo over concrete where you can.

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In most places, electricity runs from 6pm until 6am (sunset to sunrise) because why should they keep the generators running all day long? The joys of being off grid are numerous, but bear in mind that your chicken burger has probably not been refrigerated all day and may lead to the infamous Tonsai belly. That being said, the barbecue chicken at Mama’s Chicken‘ was delicious and left our guts intact.

As for a quiet night, this is a place to indulge your senses, open your mind and share your dreams. With several bars to choose from in this tiny enclave, there’s no shortage of nightlife and you’ll be welcomed in by the friendly community.

If you’re thinking of staying at the fairly new Tonsai Bay Resort and you reckon you’ll be cut off from the hippy free for all, think again. Those limestone cliffs have amazing acoustics and our midnight stroll through the swanky settlement showed us sad, sleepless souls. This resort is not Tonsai.

The real Tonsai village is set back from the sandy beach, which is fringed with rocks, a couple of longtails and crystal clear waters. The village is hidden by jungle and backed by enormous cliffs, creating a refreshing feeling of isolation. A friend tells us that years ago, everything was located on the beach but has been moved back over time. Sadly, and probably because of the above mentioned resort, the Great Wall of Tonsai has been built along the main road, cutting the village off from the jungle and keeping the ruffians in their place. On the plus side, this totalitarian concrete erection has become a canvas for astoundingly good street art. Sources inform us that it looks great after a mushroom shake.

In the village, among the rainbow painted, driftwood pillared bars, you’ll find an array of restaurants, as well as shacks serving shakes of all kinds. Some of them happy, some of them just fruity.

A good number of people visit Tonsai for the awesome rock climbing scene. We’re told it’s one of the best climbing sites in the world, and it certainly is a beautiful spot to climb. Looking up at the climbers, we noticed that their muscles were much larger than ours and decided to give it a miss. If we stayed for longer, we would have been convinced by someone to have a go. We’d also have gone for a kayak around the craggy bays and trekked to the Emerald Lake. Instead, we found a spot in Chill Out Bar and chilled out.

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During this time, we met Kev and Frankii, a formerly hard grafting, but now happily unemployed (this isn’t quite true as they do a lot of volunteering out here) couple from Bournemouth, where we used to live. It was a surreal experience talking about our town, hearing all the place names spoken aloud in a place so different, so far away. But surreal is what Tonsai does best.

We spent our evening with these beautiful people, becoming one with the soft furnishings, watching the world drift gently by, reflecting on every passing moment.

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When it became apparent that the scheduled fire show would not be happening (the word ‘scheduled’ means nothing in Tonsai), we took a walk on the beach. We were stunned by the majesty of the lit up cliffs, the colours emphasising their power, giving every nook and cranny an eerie consciousness. Beyond the clifftops, the stars glittered like whispers, forming patterns we’d never seen before. These distant suns reminded us of our insignificance and eventually guided us to bed.

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As our longtail took us out to sea early next morning, the cliffs stood proud with their earthy silence, an unspoken promise that they would still be here when we return. Yet who knows what will remain of the Tonsai that we found?


 

6 Reasons to Volunteer in a Hostel while You’re Travelling

After a disastrous week at Pasir Panjang, we started to wonder whether volunteering whilst travelling was such a good idea after all. Working a few hours a day in exchange for accommodation and food sounded like a great deal – it would cut down our expenses, would be a great opportunity to meet new people, as well as integrating into local life. We decided to give it another shot, and using our favourite website Workaway, landed ourselves a couple of weeks working in a party hostel in Georgetown, Penang.

We like staying in party hostels almost as much as Vodaphone likes paying their taxes, but 2 weeks free accommodation in Georgetown was too good an offer to pass up. We packed our backpacks, jumped on the plane and started planning where to have our first proper coffee when we arrived.

The following fortnight was one of the strangest, most fun and surreal experiences of our lives and we’ll never forget it. This is why you should volunteer in a hostel while you’re travelling.

1. The other volunteers – There was Silvina, a feisty feminist from Uruguay who liked to discuss Derrida over instant coffee with vodka. Vanessa, a fresh-faced Chilean yoga instructor with an insatiable appetite for chips. Alex, who regaled us with tales of truckin’ and tankin’ in Nebraska while pouring endless tequila shots. Monika and Przemek, a gorgeous Polish couple who are so in love they changed the way we thought about marriage. Then there was Malik, technically not a volunteer but our sort of manager/ life coach/ the most positive person in the entire world. He would praise us constantly for completing the simplest of tasks and tell us to “Keep killin’ it killa,” if he caught us refilling the loo roll before being asked to do so. The only thing that could knock the Fresh Prince smile off of his face was the US election results. We danced in the street, drank too much and slept too little. It was the best of times and this beautiful bunch will be firm friends for the rest of our lives.

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2. The guests – Some guests leave a lasting impression. And some guests don’t leave. Zosia stayed so long, she quit her job in Australia and ended up becoming a volunteer. We’re glad she did, because with Nick’s suspected Dengue, we never would have been able to navigate Penang General Hospital without her. We formed the ‘Dengue Club’, and ever caring Zosia waited patiently for Nick’s test results and held his hand as he stumbled from room to room, to toilet, to room. Then there was Vinny, a dynamic Brazilian chef with a passion for samosas, who conspired with another guest to buy us a night in a hotel room because they thought we’d spent too long living in dorms. The kindness and generosity of people on the road never ceases to amaze us!

3. The perks – As well as free accommodation in the best part of town, we were treated to a little cash every day to pay for our food. We could have easily lived on this in Georgetown, but the food is so good that we usually spent a bit more. As well as this, we were given unlimited free drinks every night on the condition that we partied with the guests. This was bad news for our livers, but great news for our beer pong and flip cup skills.

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4.The satisfying work – Being unemployed and travelling the world is as fun as it sounds, but sometimes it’s nice to have a reason to get out of bed. Nick came to enjoy cleaning the bathrooms, using a high pressure bum gun to blast last night’s remnants off of the walls. He found a sense of satisfaction and pride in his work, especially when Silvina remarked that the bathrooms were now clean enough for her to shower without wearing flip flops. Ever competitive Flic found fun by racing to beat her personal best of changing 20 beds in 1 hour – a triumph that has not yet been bettered.

5. The food and drink – We’ve never been disappointed by the food in Penang, but working with people who are permanent residents took us to a new level of restaurant recommendations. We were invited to places the tourists don’t go and ate the best food we’ve ever tasted. We were also introduced to the last duty free off-licence on the island, and spent many late nights sitting on the plastic chairs that sprawled onto the road at beer corner, attempting to chat with locals and eating mysterious snacks from unmarked plastic bags.

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6. The adventures – We didn’t get to see much daylight during our time at the party hostel. Unusually for us, most of the adventures we had in Penang took place well after the sun set. We did plan to visit the Kek Lok Si temple one day, but it was raining, which was a great way of not admitting that we couldn’t get off of the sofa due to our earth shattering hangovers. Even so, we had a successful group outing to the cinema and managed an occasional afternoon stroll. The most notable soiree was when Monika and Przemek decided to buy a ticket for a bus leaving at 5am, and made the sensible decision to stay up all night. We wondered from bar to bar, eventually being pulled magnetically to Reggae Bar with 5 puppies and a Ukrainian guitarist playing Bob Marley covers. We bought towers of beer and shisha pipes, and danced in that way that just feels right but probably looks like you’re suffering a minor stroke.

Monkia and Przemek missed their bus.

If you are thinking of volunteering while you’re travelling, check out the Workaway website. There are thousands of great opportunities, from house sitting to teaching to animal care – you’re bound to find something you love!



Not quite paradise, but still quite nice – travelling Langkawi on a budget

Langkawi is undoubtedly a spectacular place. We wouldn’t go as far as calling it a paradise, as most travel sites do, but it’s worth stopping off there to refresh your soul as you make your way around South East Asia, especially if you’ve just come from the crazy urban hotbox of Georgetown.

We arrived a little baffled as to the best way to spend our time there. It’s not the kind of place you can just hop on a bus and hope for the best, mainly because there are no buses (it seems public transport is illegal here) and the taxi fares are extortionate. Langkawi is crying out for Uber, but that’s another story. Here’s a few ways to get the most out of your stay and keep within your budget.

How to Get There

Langkawi is an archipelago of over 99 islands, and most backpackers arrive by boat, taking the 3 hour ferry from Penang for 80RM. The ferry leaves at 8:30am and 2:00pm each day. Tickets are available online, or from the ticket office which is a 2 minute walk from the ferry terminal. We took this one way, but the sea was so rough that Nick spent the entire time outside, spewing up 3 full sick bags. On the plus side, they did show Ip Man 3 on TV.

If you prefer not to make this gut wrenching trip, you can get pretty cheap local flights from within Malaysia, as well as some international flights via Air Asia. We found that flying from Penang was about the same price as taking the ferry, and only takes 20 minutes. You do the maths.

If you’re coming to Langkawi the other way, from Thailand, you can take a speedboat from Koh Lipe. It’s a little pricey at 140RM each, but it only takes an hour and the sea was pleasantly calm for our trip. Plus, you have an excuse to visit Koh Lipe with it’s crystal clear waters and quality pancake scene.

Where to Stay

Langkawi can seem a bit anti-backpacker with it’s overpriced resorts and stately hotels lining the coast. Yet it is possible to have a good night’s sleep on a tight budget here. We strongly recommend that you stay at the cosy, clean and welcoming Soluna Guesthouse near Pantai Cenang. Tucked away amongst gorgeous rice paddies, complete with white heron and water buffalo, the main shopping strip and long sandy beach is only a 5 minute walk away, through some fields, past clucking chickens and cats lazing in the sun.

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Check their website for current prices, but when we stayed it was only 20RM for a dorm bed, or 45RM for a double room with a fan. They also have private A/C options, but Langkawi gets cool at night so we didn’t go for this. They’re not on booking.com, so you can just turn up. However, to avoid disappointment we advise you call or email them to book in advance. Oh, and they have hot showers too, in case you weren’t convinced already.

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What to Eat

As you’ve probably noticed by now, food is a priority for us wherever we go. Langkawi definitely loses a few paradise points for the lack of hawkers and it’s overpriced and uninspiring restaurants, especially on the main Pantai Cenang strip. Most blogs push the bbq seafood here, and we have no doubt that it tastes great. However, when the live seafood is priced per kg, it isn’t going to be kind to your wallet.

Yet you can still get some great meals here, and if you’re strapped for cash, we urge you to visit Bella Restaurant at Pantai Cenang. Here you’ll find mostly local food at fair prices. Breakfast here is a must – sip teh tarik and tuck in to  some nasi lemak, or order a kopi and treat yourself to some roti canai (Malayisan style pancakes) with a variety of flavours, including the winning banana and nutella. All for about 5RM too!

If you find it a cop out to eat in the same place all the time, explore the main strip for something that takes your fancy, and there sure is plenty of choice. A reasonable price per dish is 10-15 RM, although this is definitely unreasonable compared to elsewhere in Malaysia. It’s easy to get ripped off here, so always check the menu before taking a seat.

You should also try to visit a night market during your stay – check Travelfish for days and times. Here you can stock up on satay, pancakes, murtabak and that Malaysian delicacy, the deep fried burger! These markets, with their hawkers and hustlers, are bad for your health but great for your budget with each dish costing around 1-2RM.

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You’ve probably heard that Langkawi is duty free, and this is correct. However, don’t go expecting bargain booze on every corner (actually, the best corner for cheap beer in Malaysia is Georgetown’s Beer Corner). Remember, this is Malaysia, not Calais in the 90’s, so alcohol is frowned upon in most places. The majority of Malaysians come to Langkawi to avoid paying taxes on kitchenware and chocolate, which is interesting but doesn’t exactly scream ‘PARTYYY!’. Drinking out will cost about the same as anywhere else in Malaysia, and the discount on alcohol in shops is usually quite disappointing. Anyway, if you want to get tipsy, your best bet is to have a few tinnies on the beach and avoid the bars.

What To Do

So, you’ve arrived, settled in to Soluna and checked out Pantai Cenang. We know what you’re thinking – the beach is ok, fairly long with off white sand, certainly better than England (although Langkawi often feels a lot like Cornwall). Still, you don’t want to pay to rent a deck chair and a parasol, and the watersports are lacklustre and overpriced. It’s probably raining too, just like Cornwall,  so the beach is not looking like a viable option for the next couple of days. Yeah, we’ve been here too.

Think you can tell the difference between Langkawi and Cornwall? Take our quiz!

What you want to do now is go back to Soluna and hire a scooter (usually about 35RM per day) or a car for about 60RM per day. We chose to hire a car because of the constant rain, but scooters are also rather nifty for exploring some of the smaller villages. Now you’ve got some wheels you are free to explore the interior of the island, which is where Langkawi’s true beauty lies.

First off, head out to the Langkawi Sky Cab for some awesome views of the island. It’ll cost you 45RM for the Sky Cab entry fee, plus an extra 5RM to walk the iconic Sky Bridge. But for 50RM, you get to travel on Malaysia’s longest mono-line cable car (it’s never been made clear if there are any others in the country) to the top of Machincang Mountain. Up there, you’ll be 708 metres above sea level, affording views of the entire archipelago, and even some of the Thai islands on a clear day. We admit that waking the Sky Bridge sounds a bit cheesy, but it was a fantastic experience and our friend Tugce absolutely loved it – except for the lengthy climb back up to the cable car station!

If you visited the Sky Cab at the weekend and it’s crammed with tourists, the best thing to do is to come back another day. But don’t head home just yet – keep going past the Sky Cab site and follow the signs to the Seven Wells Waterfall. Here, you can hike up to the various stages of the waterfall and swim wherever you want. We found that it wasn’t too busy, and as most people forget to bring their swimming costume, you’ll have the pools to yourself! Just watch out for the monkeys because they stole our crisps.

There are two other notable waterfalls on the island that are definitely worth a visit. Temerun Waterfall is a sight to behold, with several rapid courses flowing over the side. It’s an easy climb up to the main basin, and here you’re likely to find the local lads daring each other to jump from the rocks. Join them if you’re feeling brave – we weren’t. Before you leave, make sure you try the beef rendang burrito from the shack in the car park. Mexican-Malayisan fusion at its finest!

Durian Perangin Waterfall was also a majestic wonder, although the lack of durians there may disappoint some visitors – not Flic though, she detests the king of fruit. We found this to be a quiet spot to refresh after a humid day of hiking, and there was plenty of space to have a picnic and even a few hawkers selling cheap hot corn and noodles.

The next place you should visit is Air Hangat Village for the salt water hot springs. The salt water, present thanks to the area’s low water table, is renowned for its health benefits. The locals claim it will ease your arthritis, boost your immune system and increase your general wellbeing. Whether this is medically verifiable or not, it’s rather satisfying to sit knee deep in a hot spring amid the lush green plains of the island. There’s also a reflexology path made of small stones, arranged to inflict maximum pain and discomfort. Walk what may be the world’s only homeopathic gauntlet if you dare.

If you still have more time with your moped, we recommend visiting Mount Raya (also known as Gunung Raya) in the middle of the island for a superb view of the archipelago. It will take you about 30 minutes to drive all the way to the top, past cheeky monkeys and fallen trees, an adventure in itself. At the summit, you can pay 10RM to take a lift to the viewing tower, and you get a free drink with this too. With the low clouds and our stingy temperaments, we didn’t do this, but we have heard from other travellers that it’s well worth it on a clear day.

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Of course, if the weather is fine and you have more time on the island, Langkawi’s beaches are worth a look. Whilst we believe that the word ‘paradise’ is used far too often in connection with Langkawi, there are some cool coves to consider. We recommend visiting the section of Tanjung Rhu Beach by Teluk Ewa Jetty. To get there,  you have to drive through Tanjung Rhu Resort and agree to their terms and conditions, but entry is absolutely free. When you reach the beach, you’ll have a cracking view of a few atolls rising from the waters and it’s usually fairly quiet there. Surprisingly, the Malaysian restaurants there offer delicious meals at some of the lowest prices we found on the island.

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We had a great time just driving around the island, through the tiny kampongs, past highlighter-pen-green rice paddies and thriving woodlands. Just like a day out in Cornwall, you’ll come across tourist attractions that may take your fancy every few kilometers. Usually they have low entry fees so you may as well check them out. Just a final word of warning – avoid the Langkawi Buffalo Park because it was awful. Little more than a walk through a cow shed, we were deeply underwhelmed by this rural ‘attraction’, although Flic enjoyed taking photos of the photogenic buffalo.

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