Lights Camera Backpack are back on the road!

To the East, to the East, the road beneath my feet,
To the West, to the West, I haven’t got there yet,
And to the North, to the North, never to be caught,
To the South, to the South, my time is running out.

From ‘The Road’ by Frank Turner

 

When do you know you’ve finally settled somewhere? Is it when everything in life starts to fall into place? Your favourite mug at breakfast, every morning; effortless evenings in with friends; the easy familiarity of the once daunting workplace; the satisfaction of routine jobs, taking out the bins, keeping the firewood stocked up, feeding the rabbits; the joy of watching the same garden bloom from tiny seeds to abundant food? Yes, that was when we knew we’d settled down.

For those that don’t know, we took some time out from travelling and spent the last year in Cumbria, out in the wild North West of England. We wintered in Ennerdale Bridge, chilled by the harsh weather but warmed by the people, safe among the mountains, and spent summer out on the coast, living in a castle, of all places. This land became our home, the people our family. Finally we had put down roots and found our place. But all this would come to pass because, in the bleak midwinter last year, we booked one-way tickets to New Zealand for November 2018. There was no way we were going to put up with another winter like that for some time. A trip to the Southern Hemisphere seemed like a brilliant idea.

So here we are, in New Zealand, back on the road. We’ve only been here for about a month we’ve already fallen in love with this beautiful country. Friendly people, awesome scenery and abundant wildlife. What more could you want? That’s right, a burgeoning craft beer scene and top notch coffee culture. Well, it turns out they have that sorted too.

After a four day stopover in Singapore – all familiar streets, hawker centres for mala hotpot to melt our faces all over again, the super-trees all lit up at night, hawker centres for the best laksa we’ve ever tasted, the superbly curated National Gallery and more hawker centres for insanely delicious barbeque pork rice – we arrived in Wellington, its bay stretched out before us, its mountains cloaked in lush greenery hiding mysteries beneath and its short runway causing our Boeing 777 to hit the ground with rather more force than we’d have liked.

Jet-lagged and haggard, Hollie, a friend from way back, met us at the airport. Just for clarity, it was us that were jet-lagged and haggard, not Hollie. And so we spent a week in absolute luxury, hosted by Hollie and Tom, her fiance, enjoying the spectacular views from their hillside home, whiling away the evenings playing board games, reminiscing about the old days in the West Country and looking forward to the new days to come.

Unlike us, Hollie and Tom are respectable(ish) people with respectable jobs, which meant that during the day we were free to explore windy Wellington. Why ‘windy’ you ask? Not because it doesn’t have straight streets – the city is laid out quite sensibly – but because of the incessant wind that batters the place. Sometimes it’s a warm, welcome kind of wind and sometimes it’s a bitter wind from the South, straight from Antarctica, but it’s always there. Fortunately, the best bits of Wellington aren’t on the outside, but in its bars, cafes and museums, so we ducked out of the gales and checked them all out. More on this in our next post.

Stay tuned.


 

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.

the green goddess

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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Nick on a typically well maintained footpath in Shropshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Top 10 WWOOFing Moments

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

Picking Up Lambs

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

Songs Around the Campfire

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

Harvesting Leeks

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

Finding 4 Secret Eggs

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

Finding freshly laid eggs in Shropshire

Going Back

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

Cherry tree in bloom at Old Hall Community Suffolk

Partying in Our Dressing Gowns

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

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

Tim’s Boat on the Thames

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

Naming A Calf

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

Clover the calf

Cooking Dinner Off Grid

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

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Cats

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


 

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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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!



Going under water in Koh Lipe – Why you should learn to dive TODAY

Flic has been a qualified diver for about 12 years, whilst my biggest diving achievement is that I once free-dived so deep that it broke my Casio watch. This was probably because the watch was a dodgy fake, because I only went down about 2 metres. We’ve visited so many acclaimed dive spots on this trip (we may have mentioned Fiji) that it seemed about time I caught up.

This is how I found myself, just two days after being seriously ill with a mysterious Malaysian UTI, sat in a dive centre with a long haired Spaniard named Manu, learning about the effects of depth pressure on the air in our lungs. I’d embarked on my PADI Open Water course at the chilled out and comfortable Adang Sea Divers Eco Lodge, and, along with a cheery Swedish lady called Debbie, I’d be getting to grips with the basics of diving. PADI courses are often more expensive than SSI  qualifications, but they have a big lead in the diving industry and the qualifications are recognised worldwide.

The PADI course is made up of 5 theory units, which are then put in to practice in the water. A bit like learning to drive, but without the creepy driving instructor and largely ignored Highway Code. We spent a lot of time watching videos, and at the end of each unit we’d take a little test. The subjects ranged from the rules of diving – NEVER hold your breath because your lungs will explode, don’t be pregnant, always dive with a buddy etc. – to the super cool hand signals and how to take care of your kit.

With this out of the way, we took to the ocean to do a confined dive. Wading into the turquoise water of Koh Lipe, over the white sand and past the Thai longboats, we went down to about 2 meters. This was so safe that if there was any problem at all, we could simply stand up and be above the water. Here, we learned how to inflate and deflate our Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), a fancy waist coat that allows you to fine tune your buoyancy, came to terms with the fact that we could breathe underwater, and did some silly but useful things like pulling each other to safety. My biggest issue at this point was that I was just so buoyant. I kept on floating up to surface until I was weighed down with about 6 kilos of dive weights. That aside, things were going swimmingly.

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After a bit more theory and a good night’s sleep, it was time for us to head out for our first real dive. We clambered on to the traditional Thai longboat with all of our gear, and made our way out to sea. What would await us under the surface? Would I be able to control my buoyancy and stay under water? What would Flic, who was diving with us as part of her refresher course, look like under water? These were the questions floating through my mind as we moored up to the dive line.

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Deflating my BCD, I soon found out the answers. The under water world is weird. Everything sounds kind of strange as surface sounds swirl around you in great echoing reverberations. You shouldn’t be able to breathe down there, it’s just not right, and I don’t think I will ever get used to it. The increased pressure makes the air in your ears contract, doing crazy stuff to your ear drums. It’s easy to equalize, either by swallowing and moving your jaw from side to side, or holding your nose and breathing through it – my preferred method – but it still feels freaky.

At first we didn’t see many fish. We stopped at around 5 metres, kneeling on a sandy patch, watching out for stingrays and practising our technical skills. This included filling our masks with water and then clearing them by blowing air out of our noses, losing our regulators on purpose so we could find them again using a nifty trick and clearing our regulators. Slightly unsettling stuff over with, we continued descending.

I admit here that I didn’t see much at all on that first dive. I couldn’t control my buoyancy at all, so I spent most of the time clinging on to Manu with my face next to his crotch. Every time I breathed in, I’d ascend about a metre, and the opposite would happen when I breathed out. It was pretty disorientating, but the corals and fish I could see were beautiful, keeping me calm as I bobbed up and down erratically. I also got a glimpse Flic occasionally. She had the cool breezy air of a Frenchman smoking a cigarette, but also a strange bubbly beard as the bubbles from her regulator clung to her face. As I said, the under water world is weird.

We came back to shore with big smiles on our faces, elated by the experience of staying alive in a place where we should have perished. Everyone was talking about the fish they’d seen, and I kept quiet about the fact that I’d mostly seen the groin of my Spanish instructor.

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After a second dive that day, where I finally managed to control my buoyancy, I started to understand why people love to dive. It’s a whole new world to explore, and once you have the skills to keep steady down there, it’s wondrous from start to finish. I went to bed thinking of parrot fish and giant chimney corals, counting sea cucumbers instead of sheep.

The next day, I woke early to prepare my gear for the first dive. We headed out to a rocky island just off the coast of Koh Lipe and descended once again. We stopped at around 5 meters to go over some skills again, this time taking our masks off completely and replacing them – not a pleasant task. We followed this with sitting like Buddha under water, which seemed appropriate because I’m sure Buddha would have got a kick out of diving if he had the chance to try it out.

We drifted past a great wall of coral, teeming with marine activity. I began to feel completely at ease under water, as if I’d been born down there. I still breathed a little too deeply at times, still in awe of the fact that I could breathe, but I had the buoyancy well under control. Still, I was not yet Open Water qualified and the dive wasn’t all fish and fun. It ended with Debbie and I having to perform the CESA, which is terrifying. This is a Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, to be used if you somehow manage to run out of air completely during your dive. This meant that, from about 4 metres, we had to pretend we’d run out of air and swim to the surface, all the while breathing out and making an ‘aaahhh’ sound so our lungs didn’t burst. That’s right – if we got it wrong, our lungs would burst.

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CESA out of the way and lungs still functioning correctly, we headed back to shore for some lunch and to prepare for the last dive. It took little effort to persuade Flic to join me on the dive – I was keen to see that bubbly beard again, but also I wanted to share my first proper dive without any heart stopping exercises with her.

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We took the boat out to a now familiar dive spot, next to another rocky atoll just off the shore. We descended with ease, and I found I wasn’t really thinking about every little thing I was doing, and I could just take in everything going on around me and keep close by to Flic like a good diving buddy should. We saw some awesome corals, almost as tall as us, but best of all we saw a sizeable trigger fish tear off some coral in its jaw and swim off like a cowboy leaving town. That damn trigger fish cut such a silhouette that we paused in awe of its viscous vibes.

After ascending and heading back to Lipe, all I had left to do was sit my theory test. I’m not so proud to say that I got 7 answers out of 50 incorrect, but so did Manu when he took his Open Water test, as did Debbie. We went over the wrong answers and that was that, I was a qualified diver at last.

The most important lesson I learned through all of this?– if you feel even the slightest inkling to dive, book your PADI Open Water today. When I think back to all of the places I have been where I could have dived, but couldn’t because I hadn’t got round to learning, I feel a deep sense of shame. Not only had I missed out on amazing experiences for myself, I’d also prevented Flic from taking part too. So do it. Jump off a boat, deflate your BCD and be prepare to be amazed.

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16 Penang Food Favourites and Where to Eat Them

Penang is the food capital of Malaysia and described by many an uber driver as a ‘food paradise’. For such a small island, the quality and diversity of the culinary scene is incredible and the influences of Penang’s rich history can be found in every dish. We’ve spent 3 weeks eating our way around Penang, seeking out the best food and where to find find it.

  1. Char Kway Teow – This literally translates as ‘stir fried rice cake strips’, but it’s much better than it sounds. Thick strips of rice noodles are fried over a high heat with bean sprouts, chilli, prawns, egg, cockles, chopped Chinese chives and Chinese sausage or chicken, and seasoned with light and dark soy sauce and belachan. It’s kind of like a Malaysian version of Pad Thai and it’s Flic’s favourite dish in all of Penang. The best char kway teow we found was served by a woman we called ‘noodle lady’ (that’s probably not her real name) opposite the 7 Eleven on Chulia Street in Georgetown.char-kwey-teow
  2. Tandoori Chicken – What? That’s Indian food! Yes, we realise that tandoori chicken is traditionally an Indian dish, but Penang serves the best tandoori chicken we’ve ever tasted. Flic’s been to India 4 times, so we reckon she knows what she’s talking about. Our favourite place to eat tandoori chicken, and much more, is the 24 hour restaurant Nasi Dalcha Kassim Mustafa in Little India.tandoori-chicken
  3. Apam Balik – Somewhere between a pancake and a taco, apam balik is made from a coconut milk batter and fried in a deep pan in a thin layer. The cooked shell is folded into a pocket and traditionally filled with sugar, crushed peanuts and creamed corn. Nutella and banana ones the most! Our favourite apam balik is from a hawker stall on the main road in Batu Ferringhi.
  4. Beef Rendang – Traditionally an Indonesian dish, rendang is a rich, dry curry that balances a small amount of coconut milk with the strong flavours of ginger, galangal, turmeric leaves, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, chillies, cinnamon, star anise and a bunch of other spices. Basically, it’s everything you want in a curry. The Penang twist on rendang is to pile on the sugar, which isn’t surprising in a country that insists on adding sugar syrup to your pineapple juice. The best beef rendang we’ve ever had can be found at Helena Cafe in Batu Ferringhi.beef-rendang
  5.  Cendol – This is a bit of a weird one and it’s not something either of us really like, but the locals seem to love it! Penang’s cendol (sometimes spelled chendol or chendul) is famous and we think it’s worth trying whilst you’re here. Rice flour is mixed with green food colouring and formed into little worm-like jellies. These are served with shaved ice, coconut/soya milk, palm sugar (of course) and red beans. It’s refreshing on a hot day, but we’d rather have Maxim’s Gelato. Try Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul Ice Kacang for a big old bowl of strange.cendol
  6. Lor Bak – You’re going to like this one. Minced belly pork is marinated in 5 spice, then wrapped in a bean curd skin and deep fried. It’s the ultimate sausage. After frying, it’s chopped into bite sized pieces and served with a chilli dipping sauce. We love it, and we love it even more if it’s from the Lor Bak stand in CF Food Court.lor-bak
  7.  Bamboo Charcoal Noodle – Apparently these noodles have untold health benefits and over 400 different minerals. We’re not too concerned by this, but we think they taste pretty amazing! One of our favourite noodle shops in Georgetown – Yeap Noodles – make their own fresh noodles every day and serve a mean bamboo charcoal noodle in seaweed soup. They also sell some excellent chilli noodles that are insanely spicy. We ate a lot of these in Georgetown because most tourists were unable to handle the heat and would have to order a second, more tame dish, and pass the chilli noodles on to us!charcoal-bamboo-noodle
  8.  Double Roast Pork – Not the most imaginatively named dish, but probably one of the most delicious things we’ve ever eaten. Sorry, Fat Duck. The double roast pork is soft, succulent, sweet, salty, chewy and crispy in all the right places. This is not just a recommendation of a dish, but of a specific restaurant – Tek Sen. We’ve never seen Tek Sen mentioned in any guide books or food blogs, but it’s famous amongst Georgetown locals. After a while, we stopped asking for restaurant recommendations because everyone would tell us to go to Tek Sen. The sign is faded, but you’ll be able to spot it by the huge queue of diners waiting outside. It’s so popular that you’re given a menu whilst in the queue and asked to order before you sit down to save time. Get there early because the double roast pork is their most sought after dish, and it sells out quickly!
  9.  Fried Oyster – This is Nick’s favourite thing to eat in Penang. Succulent fresh oysters are garnished with coriander, parsley and basil, then mixed with a batter made from plain flour, tapioca flour, rice flour and egg. The omelet is seasoned with soya sauce and fish sauce before being fried to gooey perfection. Nick’s favourite place to eat fried oyster is the hawker stall in Long Beach Food Court in Batu Ferringhi.
  10.  Assam Laksa – Differing hugely to the coconut based laksa we all know and love, Penang assam laksa is a hot and sour fish based noodle broth that offers a clean, minty mouthful. Assam is Malay for tamarind, which is what gives this laksa its sour taste. The dish varies from hawker to hawker, but usually incorporates poached and flaked mackerel, lemongrass, galangal, chilli, mint, pineapple, onion, shrimp paste, rice noodles and a sprinkling of beautiful, fiery bunga kantan (torch ginger flower). The best assam laksa in Penang, without a doubt, is cooked by the side of the road at the bottom on Penang Hill.
  11. Mee Rebus – Literally translating as ‘boiled noodles’, this doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing on this list, but Penang never disappoints when it comes to food. Yellow egg noodles are smothered in a sweet, spicy gravy made from shrimp broth, lemongrass, shallots, galangal, salam leaf (similar to bay leaf), kafir lime leaves, palm sugar and salt. This delicious concoction is topped with whatever you have to hand, preferably some beansprouts, lime juice, fried tofu, shredded chicken, Chinese celery, spring onions, green chilli, bombay potatoes, fried shallots, shrimp and some green leaves. Our favourite mee rebus is from a hawker stall on the corner of Armenian Street and Lorong Soo Hong in Georgetown.mee-rebus
  12. Nasi Lemak – Considered Malaysia’s national dish, nasi lemak is rice boiled with coconut milk and pandan leaves, topped with spicy sambal sauce, anchovies and boiled egg and wrapped into a pyramid shaped package in a banana leaf. Piles of these cute little parcels can be found at most cafes and hawker stalls in the morning because nasi lemak is usually eaten for breakfast. We prefer it as an afternoon snack, and like to grab one from the teh and kopi stall on the corner of Jalan Pintal Tali and Jalan Dr Lim Chwee Leon, along with Nick’s favourite drink – a bag of sugary teh tarik (best avoided if you are at all concerned about diabetes).
  13. Pasembur – Probably the least healthy salad you’ll ever eat. Pasembur is a selection of deep fried seafood, topped with julienned cucumber, potato, bean curd, turnip and bean sprouts. The ‘salad’ is smothered in a very sweet, thick potato based sauce. We found the sauce to be too sweet most of the time, but the best pasember in Penang can be found at the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre (although we did think it was a little overpriced).pasembur
  14. Popiah – Often referred to as a fresh spring roll, once you try popiah you’ll wonder why spring rolls are ever deep fried! It’s made with a paper thin crepe-like skin, which is filled with finely grated and steamed turnip, jicama, bean sprouts, green beans, grated carrots, lettuce, sliced tofu, chopped peanuts, fried shallots, shredded omelet and a delicious sauce of hoi sin, chilli, shrimp paste and garlic. Our favourite popiah is made in the evenings, down a small alleyway opposite the 7 Eleven on Chulia Street in Georgetown.
  15. Rojak – The term ‘rojak’ is Malay for ‘mixture’. Bite sized chunks of cucumber, pineapple, turnip, jicama, mango, apple, guava and jambu air are smothered in the same sweet brown sauce as pasembur and sprinkled with crushed peanuts and ground pepper. We’re not a fan of the sauce because we find it too sweet, but those with a sweet tooth are bound to enjoy this Penang speciality. Pick up a plate at the CF Food Court in Georgetown.rojak
  16. Satay – Probably Malaysia’s most famous dish and beloved by all. Strips of tender beef, chicken or pork are marinated in a mixture of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, galangal, ginger, chilli, ground turmeric (which gives satay its distinct yellow colour), coriander, cumin, soy sauce and brown sugar. The meat is skewered and cooked over hot coals, or a wood fire, until cooked through and slightly charred. Malaysians often brush coconut milk over the skewers during cooking, making it extra delicious and preventing the the outer edges from burning too much. Once cooked through, the satay are served with a peanut based sauce of dry roasted peanuts, garlic, chilli, coconut milk, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar and tamarind paste. Delicious! Our favourite satay can be found at Seaview Sizzle in Batu Ferringhi.satay

Choosing the tastiest food and the best places to eat them in Penang has been a difficult yet delicious task. We hope that our ‘hard’ work will help you to explore the island and make the most out of your time in this magnificent place. If you think we’ve missed something, or you find a great restaurant or hawker stall that we haven’t mentioned, please get in touch and let us know! We welcome any excuse to return to Penang, but for now, our stomachs are rumbling and the char kway teow is calling…