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.

 


 

Koh Phi Phi – Don’t Go There

Ugh. Where to begin with Koh Phi Phi? Maybe 20 years ago: a curious man from Finland arrives on Phi Phi Don with his friend, finding just one restaurant that doubles up as a bar. He stays in a tree house, high up in a huge tree, with ants making trails across his room and only a candle for light after sunset. During the day, he swims naked on the beach because there is absolutely no one around to be offended by the sight of his bare flesh.

Our new year’s eve arrival at this National Park site was somewhat different. We hopped off a long-tail from one of the most calm, peaceful and beautiful Thai islands (which will not be named in relation to Phi Phi for safety reasons) and joined a crowd of a thousand tourists, all desperate to consume, to flog this dead community some more, to take selfies with their buckets of SangSom and their new ill judged tattoos.

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Once you become part of this sweaty, braying mob, there is little you can do to escape it. The restaurants, bars and shops are so crammed in that finding a quiet spot is a futile quest. Even hiding out in our shabby, bed bug infested bungalow offered no relief because we could still hear the tourist torrent rushing past.

One option is to head to the beach, but this is not so easy on this tiny island. Ton Sai beach is lined with longtails and serves mostly as a ferry port, so swimming from its golden sands is pretty perilous. On the other side of the thin strip of human habitation, there’s Lo Dallam beach. Aside from the name sounding like one of those floodlit sports shops from the 90’s, this beach serves as the main party scene and is therefore awful. During the day you’ll find some peace here, but the sand is full of glass from the night before, making swimming and a stroll on the sand too dangerous. By early evening, the various bars pumping out house music, and only house music because apparently there are no other genres of music suitable for parties, make this an awful place to watch the light fade over the beautiful limestone cliffs that frame the island. By night, the party goers eschew the pay-to-pee toilets and use the sea instead, so think twice before taking a midnight amble along the shore.

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We took a lengthy walk over to long beach and found this to be a reasonably nice spot to spend the afternoon. It’s still over crowded but this is a different crowd. Think well groomed Scandinavian families on holiday instead of lads in vests from Manchester on the pull, and you get the idea. Even so, there are far too many long-tails lining the shore and not enough shady spots. By Thai standards, it is not a great beach.

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We recommend hiking up to the various viewpoints from Long Beach, rather than from Ton Sai. You’ll avoid walking up hundreds of steps, teeming with hungover tourists, taking a free gentle hike up to the island’s ridge instead. On this mostly solitary amble, you’ll pass surprisingly friendly locals living in Tsunami Village, hastily erected after the 2004 disaster that struck the island, and become immersed in the lush rainforest that covers the highland. The actual viewpoints themselves are disappointing, offering views of an island that has been utterly destroyed by tourism, from spots that are themselves packed with lager swilling, selfie snapping tourists, but the hike was a high point for us.

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From the viewpoints, it’s obvious that Phi Phi has grown far too fast for its own good. Although much of the island’s infrastructure was destroyed by the tsunami, the money that flooded in its wake has evidently been used to build massive new hotels and resorts, alongside row upon row of bars, restaurants and tourist tat shops, instead of proper sewage facilities and safely habitable spaces. Whilst the central garden, irrigated purely by sewage runoff, is a step in the direction of sustainability, it stinks and we saw no one, apart from ourselves, wandering through it. More must be done to solve the sanitation crisis that everyone is just turning their noses from.

The result of all of this is an artificial town that smells worse than anywhere we’ve visited, and a constant risk of death by fire or cholera. If one of the shops were to catch fire, this would quickly spread throughout the whole town. We have no idea how the hordes of visitors, most of them drunk, would find their way to safety in the panic of the crowd. You’re probably not meant to think about this and just drink more cheap rum, but the reality of the situation is fairly alarming.

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It may be that the whole point of Phi Phi is to put yourself in danger and even in pain before you leave. We’re not just talking about hitting the jaeger bombs and battling a hangover later. Nope, we’re referring to Reggae Bar, a pub that boasts a full size muay Thai ring at its centre so that drunk tourists (mostly Brits, of course) can fight each other for a free bucket of booze. Fighting without any proper training is stupid and dangerous, but doing it drunk is really stupid and really dangerous. We saw 4 fights in the bleak half hour that we were in the bar, and while the bloodthirsty audience had a great time, we left feeling depressed, especially as they didn’t even play any reggae there.

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Sadly, the constant throb of greedy tourists has drained the island’s soul, creating an atmosphere of contempt from shopkeepers, hoteliers and restaurant staff. The massively inflated prices of everything, from food to accommodation, also suggest that the visitors are only tolerated because of their economic benefit. We felt unwelcome everywhere we went in town, and it’s easy to understand why when really we’re not any different from any one else visiting the island.

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Spending new year’s eve on Phi Phi was not one of our better ideas, in fact it may have be our worst decision on this trip. It made us question the reasons that we chose to travel in the first place, and whether this is such an honourable thing to be doing when the environmental consequences can be so obscene. These are questions we still haven’t answered, but we’re taking a much more measured approach to our journeying from now on. If it wasn’t for our excellent diving trip with Blue View Divers to Phi Phi Lae on our third day, we’d have nothing good to say about the whole trip. But swimming through an underwater cavern teeming with fish just about made up for the horrors we’d witnessed on the shore. When we inevitably return to Thailand, just like our friend from Finland, we will certainly not be heading back to Koh Phi Phi.


 

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!



High on Hedgehogs

It’s not every day you have the chance to attend a hedgehog appreciation evening, so when we saw an advert in the superb Penang Free Sheet calling all hedgehog owners and adorers to meet at The Lightbulb Cafe in George Town, we knew we had to go.

Leaving our Uber and heading through the monsoon rain to the ultra-hip Lightbulb, we didn’t know what to expect. As we introduced ourselves to the group of young hedgehog enthusiasts, they seemed baffled as to our presence there. However, far from giving us a prickly welcome, they were eager to get us acquainted with their cute little erinaceinae (that’s Latin for hedgehog in case you were wondering).

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We ordered some shockingly overpriced lemon and ginger teas, and without further ado we were we haphazardly handling hedgehogs in the hipster haunt. We learned that these spiny creatures are a popular pet in Malaysia, as well as many other parts of Asia. The majority are a breed of African hedgehog which is much smaller than the wild UK variety that we’re familiar with. Entirely domesticated, they are fed cat food, but also meal worms as a treat, and would probably not survive in the wild. Although feeding a hedgehog cat food sounds a bit odd, all of them looked very healthy so it must do them good!

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Neither of us had ever handled a hedgehog before, and it was pretty strange at first. Their spines weren’t as prickly as expected, but felt plasticy, as if they were made for a toy hedgehog instead. Their clawed feet were reminiscent of those on the pet guinea pigs and hamsters from our formative years, and their bellies were soft, silky and satisfying to tickle. All the while the little hogs sniffed away at us with their prominent snouts. Being virtually blind, they rely heavily on smell to guide them through life, so they like to become familiar with your aroma. This complete lack of spatial awareness also means that if you let them walk on a table, you have to be very careful that they don’t just walk right off the edge. It’s a responsibility we weren’t expecting to have.

Most of the hedgehog fanciers in attendance were breeders themselves, owning from 3 to 30 animals each. Breeding hedgehogs sounds like a lucrative operation. Some sought after breeds, such as the pasty albinos with bright red eyes, can sell for 600 RM each. When you consider that the median monthly income in Malaysia is only around 400 RM, they’re a potential goldmine.

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Whilst we’re still not sure if we’d ever own a hedgehog ourselves (they’ve got nothing on cats),  it’s obvious that they make nifty little pets. With their fluffy bellies crying out for a tickle, and their almost strokable spikes, they score high on the cute factor. The owners’ adoration for the rodents was infectious, and there was definitely something soothing about spending time in their presence.

Even though the price of the tea was extortionate, it was just about worth it for an evening with some delightfully friendly locals and the for their sniffling snugly hedgehogs.

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