Tag Archives: Food

Lantern Town

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Pretty lights and calm nights - Hoi An the Lantern Town

Pretty lights and calm nights – Hoi An the Lantern Town

A million moons ago, when we were marooned by the rain in Tonga and seriously considering building an ark, we met a few travelling Norwegians who asked us about our plans and on finding out that we were going through Vietnam, turned and said, ‘Just wait until you get to Hoi An. It is the most beautiful place that we have ever been to. ‘ (Isn’t Norway beautiful??) ‘You won’t want to leave’. We nodded and smiled and politely registered their opinion but at that point in time, we had no idea. Hoi An was just two syllables that sounded a bit like an Asian condiment. We didn’t forget though, and despite trying our utmost not to arrive in a place with high preconceptions, it was a good thing that Hoi An met and surpassed all our expectations.

Casual commute

Casual commute

It’s picture postcard old style Vietnam in all it’s glory: hanging baskets, multi-coloured lanterns, mollusc hats, Chinese temples, ancient tea shops..it’s every cliche that the camera-wielding tourist could ever want. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and for a modest fee, you buy an admission ticket that allows entry to five heritage sites, including a traditional musical concert or stage play. To be fair, it is a steal, although hard to know what to choose as the town is saturated with historical buildings. We were lucky enough to catch a traditional music performance in an old wooden hall, decorated with bright lanterns and guilded Chinese calligraphy. Virtuoso musicians on bamboo flutes, zithers and animal skin drums; operatic singing; and traditional dance-drama.

Lanterns and a typical street by the river

Lanterns and a typical street by the river

Our wily entertainers

Our wily entertainers

Operatic singing and traditionally dressed musicians

Operatic singing and traditionally dressed musicians

Vietnamese dance-drama

Vietnamese dance-drama

The water-carriers dance

The water-carriers dance

Another string to Hoi An’s bow is the proliferation of shops offering tailor-made clothing, and there are more than 200 tailors in town. Obviously, Celyn and I being the high-flying yo-pros that we are, we bought five trouser suits and some snakeskin moccasins each (um…) OK, so we might not have splashed out, but you can find some beautiful clothes, including handmade shoes and silk ao dai (the traditional Vietnamese tunic and trousers).

At one end of the Old Town is the grocery market, a walk through which is akin to running a gauntlet. It is definitely the domain of the female and there are hundreds of women sellers, all sporting the typical woven hats to protect them from the sun, clucking and cooing at one another while they barter back and forth. Women carrying two heavy baskets balanced on their shoulders saunter past, some sleep in the shade of their stall, others call out for you to come and look at their wares – ‘Hey lady, lady. Come buy something’. How can you resist? All the while, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians push for a passage through, which was near impossible and every so often you would feel a light tap on the back of your leg and turn to see a moped carrying a family of four patiently trying to run you down.

Some market sellers

Some market sellers

Selling pho (rice noodle soup) at the roadside

Selling pho (rice noodle soup) at the roadside

The actual food in the market was plentiful; greenery and bright vegetables everywhere, live chickens in cages, baskets of ducks with their legs and wings tied shaking and quacking nervously amid the chaos. Hoi An is famed for it’s food and cooking courses and we had planned to do one – an excursion that started in (semi-)disaster but ended rather well. On one of our two precious days in Hoi An, we arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed at a course that we had booked the day before only to be told that the chef was ‘too tired’ and couldn’t be bothered so could we come back tomorrow? We were leaving the following morning so were turned out into the streets rather like Oliver Twist when asks for more gruel (we hadn’t  had any breakfast). All was saved in the afternoon as we managed to find a restaurant with space on a short afternoon course and, as it was pricier than we had hoped, we did this strange ‘sharing’ of the work. I.e. The chef did the cooking, I stood around and looked professional in a nice white apron, and Celyn was put through his paces as he scribble down everything that was being done. Still, with a finished menu of fresh spring rolls with pork and shrimp, grilled fish in a banana leaf with lemongrass, and pork in a clay pot, we left feeling thoroughly educated and very full. Nyom.

Imminent digit damage
Imminent digit damage
Just call me Nigella..

Just call me Nigella..

Team effort finally paid off..

Team effort finally paid off..

Hoi An was beautiful by day, but magnificent at night. All the shops had hanging coloured lanterns which lit up like luminous balloons when the sun set.  Little girls bedecked in gorgeous traditional silk dresses sold candles in coloured card which were set afloat and bobbed on the dark surface of the river. Music floated down the streets and people gathered on the illuminated bridge to watch the reflections below. In the darkness, with only lantern and candle light against the inky blackness, you couldn’t tell where the ground met the river or the river met the sky. It had this sort of other-world-ly feel. Either that or it was like the Green Fields of Glastonbury just after sunset.

A lantern seller and his son at the night market

A lantern seller and his son at the night market

Even the street signs were picturesque!

Even the street signs were picturesque!

Stopping for some 'fresh beer' - brewed in Hoi An and costs about 12.5p

Stopping for some ‘fresh beer’ – brewed in Hoi An and costs about 12.5p

Some of the lights on display

Some of the lights on display

I think the pictures speak for themselves.

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A Culinary Tour of Bangkok

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Oh, Bangkok. Not only do you have a hilarious name, but you also have a bit of a hilarious reputation. People who haven’t been to Bangkok are convinced that it really is the home of the debauched chaos oh so delicately portrayed in cinematic classics such as ‘The Hangover’ and that-scene-where-Tilda-Swinton-and-Leo-get-together from ‘The Beach’; and those who have been often feel that they deserve some sort of medal for surviving it.

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And surviving is the right verb. Bangkok is like nothing else. Home to 9.1 million people and sprawling over a 1569 square kilometre area, it is MENTAL. Honestly, we cannot even begin to describe how hectic it is. There are people everywhere and they are always trying to sell you something or entice you to come with them or get a taxi. The streets are packed with myriad clothes stalls and food stalls, patronised by dazed looking farang, sweating more than should be humanly possible. When people say ‘an assault on the senses’, you can completely understand what they mean; you are constantly marvelling at new sights, wrinkling up your nose at the smell of an open drain before catching a delicious whiff of fresh Pad Thai, getting an aural medley (it sounds nicer than it is) from the vying sound systems of bars spilling out onto the streets, being blinded by laser pens (of all things) wielded aggressively at you by curiously dressed street sellers.

Not that this is all a bad thing, it is the Bangkok way. And as we found out, a lot of it is due to the fact that we were frequenting the heavily trodden tourist territories. Get out of Kaoh San Road and the surrounding LP sights, and you’ve got a totally different story.

Fortunately for us, after one or two days getting lost in the city, we found our very own tour guide, Wan; who I had the pleasure to teach last year during her 9-month stint at EC Bristol. What a difference it makes to have some insider knowledge! After plying us with gifts – including traditional Thai soaps, beautiful bracelets, mango and durian biscuits and crab crisps – she ushered us into her car and took it upon herself to show us (the poor ignorant farang) the REAL Bangkok. Like many Thais, she was keen to show visitors that Thailand is more than drink and dirt, ladyboys and scammers. And she more than won us over…

The lovely Wan

The lovely Wan

First stop, Koh Kret – an island in the Chao Phraya river about 30-40 minutes outside the city. She described the area (which is essentially a small satellite town) in relation to Bangkok as Bath is to Bristol (although you’d have to SERIOUSLY multiply the scale.) Koh Kret is home to a Buddhist temple, complete with a Pisa-esque leaning tower, and lots of winding streets filled with traditional Thai food and an extensive arts and crafts market. As Wan pointed out, only Thai people come here, which became immediately evident in both the demographic and the prices.

The leaning tower of Koh Kret

The leaning tower of Koh Kret

Young Thai dancer and musicians.. just another day at Koh Kret

Young Thai dancer and musicians.. just another day at Koh Kret

Now, just as a word of warning, Wan told us that in order to show us the traditional Thailand, we had to eat all the traditional food. The Thais are extremely proud of their cuisine and it’s no secret that Thai food is renowned throughout the world. We were warned early in the day not to get too full too quickly (it was so hard!) as we had A LOT of eating to do…

We started off with some traditional sweets. Perching on wooden stools at a market café, we were given a plate of small ceramic cups filled with a white gelatinous substance. You were also given a flat wooden spatula in which to scoop them out – round the sides, under the bottom and into your mouth in one go. They were double-layered, with thick white paste on the top and a thicker yellow goo underneath and an unusual consistency; similar to Chinese dumplings, but sweet. I loved them, but I think Celyn was having a few reservations.

His taste buds were satisfied, however, with the accompanying snack of breaded fried fish. They were small, like a sardine, but full of fish eggs (does this mean that they were preggers when they were cooked??!). Kind of like fish fingers filled with caviar. Plus an accompanying spicy sauce. NYOM!

Next stop, lunch. Finding a place in the market, we shared some bowls of Tom Yam – a spicy soup which is extremely popular in Thailand. This was a bit of a variation on Tom Yam as there were thick rice noodles in the soup mix (and one bowl wasn’t as spicy because I am a spice-weakling). Still, it was delicious – all crumbly meat, crunchy veg and thick noodles drenched in spicy sauce.

As if this wasn’t enough, we passed a traditional Thai sweet stall on our way out and Wan stocked up! The sweets were more like works of art – each brightly coloured, meticulously decorated and almost too beautiful to eat.

The sweetie assortment

We still ate them.

Our collection of sweets.. they didn''t last too long

Our collection of sweets.. they didn’t last too long

Thai sweets may be sweet, but they’re not overly sugary and have a strange flavour that sits right in between sweet and savoury. They like mixing the two here, as is evident from their world famous sweet-and-sour dishes, their sausage-in-a-sweet-pancake stalls and penchant for having sugar in their bread. The sweets, as with the cup dessert we had just tasted, had a doughy consistency (like suet, perhaps?) and came in more designs than we thought possible. There were perfumed jelly roses, sticky rice with egg custard in a banana leaf, fondant frosted fruit, cinnamon-y cups, orange coloured marzipan baskets and pearls…

We told Wan that we’d get fat, but she assured us that it didn’t matter. Well, not today, at least! We heaved our full bellies off the island and drove towards Bang Bua Thong – a suburb of Bangkok – to Leng Nein Lee, the Chinese Buddhist temple. As with many cities in SE Asia, there is a large and lively Chinese population and the scale of this temple was paramount to the strength and closeness of the Chinese community.

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Wan and I outside the Chinese Temple

Wan and I outside the Chinese Temple

Buddha and a framed photo of the King and Queen

Buddha and a framed photo of the King and Queen

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From the temple, we headed towards Bangkok city centre – all glistening malls and upmarket restaurants. This was not unlike Bukit Bitang in Kuala Lumpur – you know, that place of a thousand malls that Cel and I managed to lose ourselves (literally) in. She took us to the Siam Centre and Discovery and we all just wandered open mouthed along the brightly lit marble floors, gawping at shop displays which seemed more like modern art than consumer culture.

Seeing as we hadn’t eaten in a few hours, it was time for another meal. Naturally. We scooted above the heaving roads on a concrete skywalk and found ourselves in Central Plaza. Yet another mall with yet more square metres of shop, we bypassed Hermes and Gucci and headed to the restaurant area. I hesitate to say ‘food court’ because that conjures up images of Millie’s Cookies and dirty McDonald’s seating – this was far nicer.

Seated comfortably in MK restaurant, we were treated to another Thai favourite – Suki Yaki. I think it may have originated in Japan but it has been wholeheartedly adopted in Thailand and has become the quintessential pan-Asian feed. Basically, you choose a variety of raw meats, fish and veggies. You all sit around a table with a hob in the middle and are provided with a pan filled with stock. As the dishes arrive, you add them one by one to the bubbling stock pot, crack an egg over it when you’re done and… voila: your meal! You can put anything and everything into the pot – crab meat, pork balls, tofu, jellyfish, pak choi, cabbage, raw sliced pork, mushrooms… whatever takes your fancy. The secret (and most important) ingredient is Suki Yaki sauce – a semi-spicy thick relish that you ladle over your steaming broth before you eat it.

Wan persuing the menu

Wan persuing the menu

Can't believe his luck!

Can’t believe his luck!

It is DELICIOUS, and a really sociable way to eat too. If you want the recipe, have a look at the bottom of the page…

Post-food coma

Post-meal lethargy

As if this wasn’t enough, Wan insisted that we try an egg tart in the Siam Paragon as well as a milk tea shake with tapioca. Again, the egg tart was that strange mix of sweet and savoury – sweet pastry but just an egg in the middle. It’s not half bad you know, perhaps we should write to Greggs…!

By this point you can imagine how full our stomachs were. Even Celyn (eater extraordinaire) was getting a bit of a straining gut so although we were tempted by all sorts of weird and wonderful smells as we went on an evening stroll through China Town, we couldn’t eat another thing.

Actually, that’s a lie. We had some roasted chestnuts. Chinese special apparently so it’d have been rude to say no.

Nursing our swollen stomachs, we parted ways and headed home. But what an experience we had had in Bangkok. We are so grateful to Wan for her kindness and generosity and for all the amazing tastes we have discovered. Without her, we would most certainly have left Bangkok with a less tasteful (‘scuse the pun) impression of the city, not to mention far fewer memories.

Wan, thank you once again and remember that you are always welcome to stay in the U.K. Although not sure how haggis compares to Suki Yaki…

RECIPE:

Suki Yaki

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Ingredients:

300 grams of sliced beef
1 Carrot – sliced
1 Onion – sliced
250 grams of Shiitake mushrooms whole
250 grams of tofu
2/3 cup of chopped cabbage
100 grams of Enoki mushrooms
1 cup of chopped morning glory
100 grams of Pak Choi (Chinese cabbage)
2 cubes of chicken oxo
1 package of glass noodles
1 larger turnip chopped

Cooking Instructions:

1: In a large pot, boil the turnip, carrots and chicken stock for 30 minutes

2: Drain the water from the pot into a large wok

3: Bring the water to a boil and begin to add the meat and vegetables.

4: When the vegetables are almost cooked, add the glass noodles.

5: Turn off the heat source and let sit for a few minutes.

6: Serve in a bowl with Suki sauce (sweet spicy Thai chili sauce) – available in most Chinese and Asian shops in the UK. This is INDISPENSABLE so don’t sack it off!

PS. This is most definitely a GUIDELINE.. add what you want!

Thailand Island Hopping

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Our route.. in minature

Follow the yellow stars from left to right: Koh Phi Phi (bottom left), then across the mainland to the Gulf of Thailand and the islands of Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao.

 

 

Here we go….

Koh Phi Phi

“Oh how beauty can be a burden. Like Marilyn Monroe, Phi Phi’s stunning looks have become its own demise”

Thank you Lonely Planet. For once, you’re absolutely spot on.

Of course, we can’t exactly speak PERSONALLY from experience of the burden of beauty, but we have become aware of  it’s bittersweet truth having spent a few days  on the Thai island of Phi Phi (Pee Pee.. it never gets old).

As you catch the boat over the Andaman Sea towards the island, the sparkling azure waters, fine white sand, and towering cliffs rising over great lagoons give you every reason to think that you are in paradise. But it’s this appeal that is killing it – it’s a hidden treasure that is not so hidden any more, and the island’s resources and infrastructure are buckling under the swelling tourist demand.

The views towards Phi Phi

The views towards Phi Phi

 

Of course, there’s plenty to see and do. The actual island is tiny; home to a minute resident population and completely devoid of cars. The tourist village of Tonsai, once consisting of a handful of hotels and completely battered in the 2004 tsunami, has grown and re-grown to a beach holiday mecca; plenty of accommodation, any style of food, all-night bars spilling out the streets, dive centres, beaches, pharmacies, 7/11s – you name it, in terms of convenience, Phi Phi has probably got it. Although most of the accommodation is centred around Tonsai, there is a clear divide between the more upmarket hotel-resorts of the south side, and the lashtastic hostel holes of the town centre.

This works well for both parties; those who want a relaxing holiday pay that little bit extra and avoid the town chaos, and those who are having a bit of a blow-out don’t have to worry about making too much noise. If you are going to stay in Tonsai, you’ll have a tough time escaping the tween traveller trail. Who can blame them? Phi Phi is every 18-year olds dream; dirt-cheap alcohol buckets, streetside tattoo parlours, bunches of sexy farang (foreigners.. that’s you and me) touting for bars on the streets in exchange for free booze and a guaranteed good time, and absolutely no one to tell you that the sea isn’t a bin, the street isn’t a toilet, and flailing about with a Bacardi Breezer and sunburn isn’t a good look.

Thankfully, Phi Phi isn’t all rum and neon, it’s also a great place to make the most of the sea, and is the starting point for some fantastic day boat trips. It only takes a few hours to go round the whole island, including stop off points at uninhabited Mosquito and Bamboo islands as well as Monkey Bay on the main isle. Depending on which boat trip you have, you are more than likely to be able to stop and jump off for a bit of snorkelling whenever you want.

 

Most trips continue onto the neighbouring island, Phi Phi Leh, which ticks every box in terms of an antidote to the rowdy main island. It was here where Alex Garland’s cult classic, The Beach, was filmed, and naturally has become a sort of pilgramage for the modern day traveller. The scenery is stunning – so much so that you can easily forget that you are sharing the water with hundreds of other boats, and there is almost no accommodation, which means the island remains largely unspoilt. This is one experience not to miss – swimming in deep clear lagoons in the shadow of craggy cliffs. You know that typical postcard perfect ‘image of Thailand’? Longtail boat, turquoise sea, rugged rock face in the background…? Well, this was it in the flesh.

 

Picture postcard image of Thailand..check

Picture postcard image of Thailand..check

 

So, that was it. Phi Phi Don (lash) and Phi Phi Leh (beaut). To be fair, although I’ve definitely had a good old moan (M.A.I = Middle-aged Imogen…I should probably get back to my knitting), it’s not all bad. Despite feeling like we weren’t young enough or our clothes weren’t neon enough, we did adopt an ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ attitude fairly quickly. Which was fun. Very fun.

I guess it’s just a word of warning: we were under the impression that Koh Phangnan was the party island and Phi Phi was the calm before the storm, but this is not the case. If you go to Phi Phi Don expecting deserted beaches and a true taste of Thailand, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But go for some cheap voddie and maybe a tattoo or two, and you’ll have a blast.

 

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From here we sweated on to the ferry to Krabi, bussed it across to Surat Thani, on the Gulf of Thailand, and landed on the shores of Koh Phangnan as the sun was setting…

Koh Pha-Ngan

 

Look for the two red circles - First stop: Hat Rin (South East peninsula), Second stop: Hat Yao, (North West)

Look for the two orange circles – First stop: Hat Rin (South East peninsula), Second stop: Hat Yao, (North West)

 

Everyone knows about Koh Pha-Ngan. That’s where the Full Moon Party is, right? So it’s going to be crazy and drunken and dirty and loud and generally a bit minging, yes?

Well, not really. At all.

For a start, Koh Pha-Ngan, although smaller than neighbouring Koh Samui (which we didn’t have time to go to), is much bigger than Phi-Phi. And you can feel it. There are people who live permanently on the island and it doesn’t have that feeling of a purpose-built resort about it. Cars, pick-up truck-taxis and mopeds storm about on concrete roads and authentic Thai street food stalls far outnumber the dodgy western fare. Yes, this may be the site of one of the most famous parties on the planet, but its overall appeal is immediately evident

So we started off with the Full Moon Party. Sorry, Mum, but as someone said to us when we arrived, ‘The Full Moon Party is kind of like smoking. You know it’s not very healthy, but you have to try it once to see what it’s like’.

 

Gearing / painting up for the Full Moon

 

It all takes place in Hat Rin (Haad Rin), a town set on a peninsula on the southernmost tip of the island and geared up in every way possible for the monthly influx of full mooners. The tongue of land jutting out into the gulf has a beach on either side; handily called Hat Rin Nai and Hat Rin Nok, Sunset and Sunrise respectively. Sunset is smaller and quieter, whereas Sunrise is where all the lunar madness happens.

You can tell that the Hat-Rin-ers are used to the parties because they are absolute pros. As the sun goes down, makeshift bars pop up on the street sides and along the beaches, tattoo artists sit outside their shops drawing swirling patterns in UV paint on the bodies of willing tattoo-ees, EVERYONE has some sort of neon item of clothing or paint on and the streets are packed, which gives the whole town a kind of eerie glow, as though you are seeing everything through a phosphorescent lens. The actual party doesn’t kick off ‘till late, when the whole town is sufficiently fed, painted and lubricated.

As for the party itself, there is no doubt that this is one of the best parties we’ve ever been to. The music is phenomenal, there are literally thousands of people and it all takes place on this paradise island moonlit beach. And if it all becomes a bit too much, you take time out and marvel at the revelry on Mellow Mountain or Kangaroo Bar set on the rocks above the beach. Recounting stories is probably going to be mighty dull (you had to be there, mrah), so if anyone fancies going, here are a couple of tips:

 

Some of our lovely roommates (we were in an 18-bed dorm) .. I think the girl’s expression on the left says it all…!

 

1. If you go to the island but miss the Full Moon, don’t fret. The enterprising Thai locals have cottoned on to just how lucrative the blow-out traveller trail can be, and have created an array of almost-but-not-quite Full Moon parties; Shiva Moon, Black Moon, Moon-Set – it’s all just an excuse really.

2. If you do make it to a Full Moon Party, you MUST book accommodation in advance. This does include weird and wonderful deposits which nearly always get declined and leave you with some very confused email conversations with hostels. Obviously the town is full to the brim around party time and most places want you to stay for between 3 and 5 nights. So get organised.

3. DON’T TRY TO LEAVE TO GO TO KOH TAO just after Full Moon. It’s where the party continues and everyone has the same bright idea – ferries are packed, and more often than not you spend a couple of hours in the merciless sunshine only to spend the next two tucked up in a sweaty corner of a jam-packed ferry.

In fact, thanks to some good advice from Luke ‘I’ve-been-here-so-many-times-I’m-basically-a-local’ Farley, we managed to totally avoid the Koh Tao crush and instead spent a few days discovering the rest of Koh Pha-Ngan…

Haad Salad/ Hat Yao

What. A. Place.

If anyone is planning a honeymoon anytime soon, you should seriously consider spending it here. Haad Salad, set on the northern side of the island, seems like an undiscovered chunk of paradise. Far less busy yet far more beautiful, this gives you an insight into true Thailand island life. From hammocks and beach bungalows at Lucky Resort (gorgeous family-run resort, unbelievable value) to freshly caught fish at the seafood market in Chalok Lam and lonely longtails silhouetted against a pink sky, this was such a find.

 

Hammock love at Lucky

 

During our few days of R&R in the north, we managed to rent a jeep for 24-hours, which gave us access to the whole island. OK, so the roads sometimes just descended into sheer drops of terrifying terrain and we may have come across a couple of wandering elephants on the roadside, but honestly, having the freedom to discover a place for yourself is ideal. Hats off to; Cel, who managed to get us out of the clay rut on an almost vertical hill with minimal clutch damage; Ali, who proved herself to be a ridiculously good cruiser after having been sans voiture for more than 2 years; Farles, for being reckless but really really knowledgeable; and Imogen, for not crashing.

 

Local Thailander behind the wheel

 

Perhaps three days wasn’t enough, but time is of the essence and we had to continue onwards and upwards to…

Koh Tao

 

Koh Tao

 

There is no doubt about it, Koh Tao is cute.

At only 21km2, the place seems tiny in comparison to the other islands of the Gulf, but that is most definitely part of its charm. It doesn’t have the holiday hedonism atmosphere of Phi Phi and is famed for it’s deep sea diving, so the sunburned Thailash-heads are diluted with cool-looking active types sporting six-packs and oxygen tanks.

There is more than enough for everyone. We spent some middle-aged time (probably my idea) at Shark Bay (see the map) – a quiet cove renowned for it’s coral and impressive array of marine life. The adjacent bay, Chalok Ban Kao, went  down  well as somewhere to relax with a cold drink as the sun goes down and the tide comes up. We had something a little bit different at Hat Sai Ree, the ‘town’ in Koh Tao. Busier than the remote reaches of the south, this was like a really relaxed version of Sunrise Beach, Koh Phangnan. Some great bars spill onto the sands – chilled out music, giant beds, and mesmerizing fire shows. You can party hard here, but the nice thing is you definitely don’t have to.

 

One of the ridiculously talented fire dancers on the sands of Koh Tao

 

And so ends our trip to the islands of Thailand. Apologies for a mega post.. it’s hard to be concise when you’ve  got over two weeks to cover and you’re fighting with an internet connection. I’ll work on that.

Any last thoughts about the islands?

Yes, a few.

It is ridiculously easy to get to and from and around all of them. Because this is such a time worn travel destination, you’re ushered from boats to buses like a herd of very sweaty sheep. They have this almost fool-proof sticker system (except when you’re Celyn and manage to lose it) so it’s clear to everyone where you are going and where you should be. The infrastructure of the islands is exemplary, and the roads are crammed with Sorng-taa-ou – basically, pick-up trucks with benches on the back working as taxis. Prices are non-negotiable – word on the street (Farley) is that they’re owned by the Thai mafia, which seems plausible given that on Koh Phangnan the taxis would routinely stop and pay a sort of informal road tax. The trucks on Koh Tao don’t have any roofs, which makes for fun if not slightly hair-raising (literally) rides.

The Thai people are gorgeous. Nearly everyone we met was so friendly and helpful and they absolutely love a practical joke. The food has been spectacular, (Massaman Curry, Pad Thai, Banana Shakes, Flied Lice…), the service sporadic and the bars absolutely brilliant. Plus, there is no denying that this is paradise. We’ve been treated to beautiful sunset after beautiful sunset, snorkelling with tropical fish, eating deliciously fresh food, drinking chilled beer… it’s perfect. And although we all complain of profuse sweating ALL THE TIME, we’re not really that bothered. Heat is heat is GOOD. And sweat clears your pores and makes you lose weight… right?!

Of course, there are some glaring flaws; tourists often treat the islands like a theme park and possess an astonishing disrespect for the people and the places, stinking piles of rubbish line the streets and cups and wrappers can be found floating in the shallows of the beaches, and the eggy smell of full drains is never far away. Yet, tourism is a massive deal here, and for every tourist tyrant, there are a whole load of people who come and enjoy and spread the word. For our part, we hope that everyone has a chance to visit at least one of the Thai Islands. It’s well WELL worth it.

 

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Haere Ra Aotearoa

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So ends our little sojourn in Noble Zealand; six months and one week since we arrived, and 22 hours until we leave.

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And what a time we’ve had. No car crashes, no thefts (touch wood), no more tattoos, two birthdays, one lost wallet, one submerged watch, two pierced ears, a lot of pies, and a fair few hellos and goodbyes. Although we’d like to think we now understand the meaning of life and we are fully qualified to impart our VAST knowledge onto others, we’re pretty sure this is not the case. So instead of a ‘here’s what we’ve learnt’ polemic, we thought a little summary of the best and the rest might be more palatable…

HOSTEL

Best: The Tree House, Hokianga, North Island. Exactly what it says on the tin, a hostel in a tree house. Remote, quiet, beautiful.

Worst: Any Base X hostel. Only suitable if you’re 18, enjoy listening to Journey and Bon Jovi on repeat and don’t mind the reek of adolescence. 

The Tree House, Hokianga - for some reason the only picture we took here was in the garden. Duh.

The Tree House, Hokianga – for some reason the only picture we took here was in the garden. Duh.

CAMPSITE

Best: Gillespie’s Beach, Just outside Fox, South Island. Camping at a beach on the wild west coast with the Southern Alps a seeming stone’s throw away, this was unrivaled in terms of scenery.

Worst: Donegal’s, Kaikoura, South Island. The campsite is a car park. Have you ever tried putting pegs into gravel? It DOESN’T WORK.

Dawn at Gillespie's Beach. Told you it was good..!

Dawn at Gillespie’s Beach. Told you it was good..!

OK.. Base X might’ve been terrible, but we did manage to make lasagna.

DRIVE

Best: Miford Sound, Fjordland, South Island. There are few drives in the world where the scale and beauty of the scenery makes you stop, drop your jaw on the floor, and release a volley of expletives at every turn. But this one will. You have been warned.

Worst: Wairariki Beach, Golden Bay, South Island. As if driving alongside a sheer cliff drop isn’t terrifying enough, much of the road had crumbled and caved in down the hillside so you had to crawl along the wrong side of the road hoping desperately that it would hold. Not the most relaxing of drives.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Doing a victory handstand because the scenery was SO GOOD!

Doing a victory handstand on the Fjordland / Milford drive because the scenery was SO GOOD!

FOOD

Best: Anything at Blue Carrot Catering – especially the pork belly, savory muffins and RASPBERRY CHEESECAKE. Nyom.

Worst: Packet noodles and processed cheese sandwiches. Our stable diet for about 2 months. When everything you eat is yellow, there is something SERIOUSLY wrong.

PUB

Best: The Mussel Inn, Golden Bay, South Island. Quaint, homely, eco-friendly (standard), brews it’s own beers and serves seafood. What more could you want?

Worst: The Queens Street Tavern, Auckland, North Island. You know when you arrive in a new city and you don’t know where to go and you somehow end up in a dodgy pub with evil stares and pokie machines? Well, that about summarizes our experience in the QST. Bad shout.

The Mussel Inn

DRINK

Best: A Porsche Margarita – a sparkling tasty treat given as a free birthday offering after our shift at Flying Burrito Brothers.

Worst:  Michelada – Another FBB concoction but this time they didn’t do so well.This Tex-Mex mix of Sol, lemon juice and salt is about as far from the bona fide Mexican drink as you can get. Don’t try this at home.

PINT

Best: Macs Ginger Brew – delicious alcoholic ginger beer. Crabbies better watch out.

Worst: Boundary Road Lawn Ranger – Beer with lime added in the bottle. Tastes like an alcopop gone wrong.

BOOK

Best: The Gods Drink Whiskey, Stephen T. Asma – a somewhat irreverent yet highly informative study on the application of Buddhism in Cambodia. Maybe not the best ‘relax-with-a-good-story’ read, but stuffed with facts and ridiculously well written.

Worst: Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps, Barbara and Alan Pease. Don’t. Just don’t.

FILM

Best: The Intouchables – Yes, yes, we know this is French. But it’s still AWESOME.

Worst: Lymelife – Another depressing American Beauty spin-off starring Macaulay Culkin’s brothers. There is a reason why they aren’t famous.

MEMORY

Best: Starting off Christmas day with a glass of bubbles, a Bavarian sausage and the paddling pool. There’s a first time for everything…!

Worst: Being really hungry and having no money in Dunedin but consoling ourselves in the knowledge that there was a packet of cookies on the back seat of the car. However, what we didn’t know was that there was actually both a bag with cookies in it and a bag of rubbish on the back seat of the car. Somehow, SOMEONE had managed to mix up the bags earlier, and we ended up with no cookies, smelly rubbish and A WHOLE LOT OF ANGER.

Dunedin - site of the cookie fiasco

Dunedin – site of the cookie fiasco

 

TOP 3 TRIP TUNES

(please note how it sounds like the lyrics are, ‘tidy as a sunbed’. See also if you can find the part that sounds like ‘shit job, thriller’. We never tired of this)

We may still be unaware of the meaning of life and path to follow and so on and so forth, but what we do know is that our trip would not have been what it was without all the people that we met and helped us on the way. They know who they are, but just in case they don’t, we would like to thank them…

Hobnob, Carl, Fiona, Anita, Jacqueline and all the extras at Prospect Terrace – home from home; Bart and Lucy, Parker, Tux and Boots; Randolph, Laura, Helena, Ira and Aly and the AIR BED; Miss Alice Mahy and Josh, Clover and Sabbath; Rosie Bates, her lovely housemates and the soft grass in the back garden; Gordon, Nicole, Aidy, Mark, Stefan, Kir, Hayden and everyone working at Blue Carrot; Dawie, Rahul, Bernie, Kuldeep, Joe, Josephine and the other Flying Burrito Brothers; Siggy, Marina, Ole, Amy, Sophie, Jostein and Rafa – the dream team; Mama Bilton and Jeffies old, new, future and honorary – Adam, Barbara, Georgie, Igor, Jasmine, Clare, Kim, Tawanda, Jen, Vaughn, Jeff, Oz, Mothership, Tonka and Tinkerbell; Anna and Simon, the brains behind the Masterton Expedition as well as the expedition-eers themselves, Lester, Charlie and other dice-weilding crazies; Joe the photographer who picked us up and managed to score us two free ferry tickets; Tom from the Welsh Bar and his disgusting cocktails; Soren and Thomas – we’ll see you at Rosskilde; Sam the German hitchhiker who was amazing company and knew Quentin in Berlin; Mel and Ollie – laughed so much; Tim Fox intrepid explorer – next time we’ll see you in Cali; All the people who picked us up when hitchhiking and the many that casually offered us a place to stay when we were stuck.

(Some of) The Dream Team

(Some of) The Dream Team

Standard night in at Jefferson…

If we’ve forgotten anyone, we’re mighty mighty sorry and did not do it intentionally (unless you’re the guy who picked us up, drove like a maniac and then dropped us off miles from anywhere.. argughgugh). We’ve had a blast.

Churr.

We. Are. Co-Creators.

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Luminate is an earth friendly festival of music, art, dance, creativity and sustainability.

Returning for an epic sixth year, Luminate 2013 is a place to re-energise on the dancefloor, participate in workshops, be inspired about living sustainably, receive a massage, join in drumming around the fire, relax with a warm chai, watch an enlightening movie, be in harmony with nature, and celebrate a sense of conscious community

 

Excuse the relative silence for the past week or two, we have been very busy enlightening ourselves, casting off the shackles of society, liberating our souls and spirits, joining in harmony with other creative beings…

 

That’s enough, Ed.

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OK, so perhaps we didn’t get THAT into it, but we have been at the hippiest, free-est and in our opinion, one of the loveliest festivals in Aotearoa. Very enlightening indeed.

 

The location, biblically named Canaan Downs on Takaka Hill, could not have been more fitting for this week-long ‘creative meeting of souls’. Much like Bristol’s Clifton Downs, Canaan Downs consists of an enormous flat expanse of grassy land although unlike Brizzal, they are located on a mountain top, surrounded by towering forested peaks. The Luminate Festival organisers must know how to sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of their punters, because actually getting there was almost off the scale in terms of effort. After a stomach-churning drive to the summit of Takaka Hill through a series of uphill hairpin bends, a 10km gravel track takes you alongside terrifyingly steep drops until you arrive at your destination, a veritable hilltop oasis. For the record, 10km is a VERY LONG WAY when you’re going about the same speed as a lame sloth, avoiding potholes deep and numerous enough to rival Edinburgh city centre, and getting gradually covered in fine film of white dust.

 

In spite of this, all 3,000 ticket holders, volunteers, artists, acrobats, animals, hare krishna fanatics and general weirdos managed it.

 

And it’s well worth it.

 

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Arriving was akin to reaching our very own hilltop paradise. The downs are covered in tufts of yellow-green grass (think Russell Crowe in Gladiator) and dotted with forests, handily separating the various areas. As if having a festival on a mountain wasn’t quirky enough, the whole site is covered with random sink holes. No, we don’t know how they were created (next 20 questions?) but we are taking about huge holes, almost inverted peaks, in the ground. Some might view this as irritating. The Luminators (can we say that?!) made them into features of the festival; for example, the epic (for that is the ONLY way we can describe it) opening ceremony took place in a giant sinkhole – think of it as a natural amphitheatre. Oh, and did we mention the crystal clear bubbling mountain stream about 10 minutes walk from the campsite. Most refreshing shower facilities we have ever experienced. FACT.

 

So we’re all set for our idyllic, at-one-with-the-earth, hippy fest. To be honest, we approached it with a little bit of trepidation. For a start, it was a strictly no alcohol no rubbish get up. As in NO ALCOHOL. AND NO RUBBISH. AT ALL.

 

Yeah, we were a bit confused too. In fact, it was utterly brilliant. The no rubbish thing was definitely something that we could use more of in the UK. Instead of wading through used noodle boxes and crushed Strongbow cans by day three, the site remained pristine for the duration of the festival. Each person was advised to bring their own mug or plate or bowl or fork or spoon or chopstick or whatever suited their culinary needs. Whenever you wanted something to eat, you merely handed over the required piece of crockery and it was promptly filled up. If you forgot it (which happened often) you could hire a piece of miscellaneous kitchenware for a pittance (50c) and return it when you were done. Absolute genius. On the campsite, it just made you a hell of a lot more aware of what you were wasting, and a lot more respectful of the environment because you knew that you’d have to clear it all up at the end (and no one wants to tidy up a broken tent that smells of fish. Ray)

 

The no-alcohol thing was a bit different. As confirmed beer-wine-whatever’s-going-we’re-not-fussy drinkers, we never thought we’d say this, but it actually wasn’t so bad. Although we definitely lost the ability to dance until the early hours (we just got SO TIRED so QUICKLY!), waking up each day without a sandpaper mouth and a brass-band headache was absolute bliss! Also, we remember the WHOLE THING. The names of each act, what we learnt in our Yogic Sleep and Mbira classes, how to do contact juggling – we REMEMBER IT ALL.

 

In fact, despite the clear no alcohol rule, there were definitely one or two or a few hundred people swigging suspiciously coloured liquids from water bottles. The same went for the ‘no dogs’ and the ‘no camping under trees’ enforcement; hush puppies were prancing around the grounds and people cheekily hooked guy ropes onto the signpost of the latter. Yet, the disregard for rules at Luminate was (if possible) the most amicable disregard that we have ever seen. Unlike other festivals, where there is a clear us vs them rapport between punters and security, this casual rule bending was taken as a given and any sense of insolence or tension was totally non-existent. The organisers knew that they had to state basic rules for box-ticking purposes only; if a tree falls on a tent, or an inebriated nutter falls into a sinkhole, any liability is tactically avoided. And with these stated rules (guidelines), the authorities can leave the hippies alone.

 

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For fear of boring you, we ain’t going to do a blow by blow account (we’ve just checked the time and using a computer is VEE EXPENSE here), so here are a couple of highlights.

 

THE MUSIC, of course. Some amazing global beats on the Live Stage, which would not be out of place on Glastonbury’s Glade Stage (if that even still exists). Check out Beyondsemble, The Underscore Orchestra, Matiu Te Huki, Carolina Moon and Adam Sheikh if you can. THE KIDS were also fantastic. Never before have we seen so many little ones running around a festival and what made it all the more cute was that they were all mini-hippies! Mullets, face-paints and mud everywhere. Very very sweet indeed. The array of MASTERCLASSES and WORKSHOPS made us do things that we would never have thought of doing before. Contact juggling, acrobalance (which ended up with a broken toe, but we have SO MANY tricks to show you on our return), yogic sleep (recommend this SO much), regular yoga (so sweaty. Regular exercise needs to be on the agenda from now on), contact staff, mbira and many others. Although we’re not accomplished in any of it, by any stretch of the imagination, at least we can say we tried. Another quirk (how bloomin’ quirky is this festival?!) was the proliferation of BIKES at the festival. Can’t be bothered to walk from your tent to the main stage, then cycle.. GENIUS! Standard mention to the FOOD – organic, handpicked, handmade, healthy, superfood goodness. Nyom. (And we did manage to find some meat. Win). There was also a hella lotta FIRE. Never quite appreciated how mesmerizing it is, nor how WARM it is. It gets awful chilly beans up the top of a mountain I’ll have you know. A final mention must go to the overall friendliness of everyone at the festival; volunteers, stall owners, artists and general punters, everyone was a bona fide happy camper.

 

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Saying that, I think we weren’t so fussed on the excess nakedness (including Naked Man. Always lived up to his name), nor were were taken by the slightly weirder masterclasses, such as Family Shamanism (eh??!), Mantra Music and a whole lot of Co-Creator bullsh….

 

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Is seven days of festival too long? Don’t think so. We had an absolute blast and it was the first time we’ve ever left a festival feeling more refreshed than when we went in. However, fun as it is talking about yoga and tantra and the importance of spirulina (?) in your diet and homeschooling and unicycling and doing fire-poi and dancing naked before having a cup of organic sugarless milkless everything-less herbal tea, we have come to the conclusion (in the words of Celyn Thomas) that being a hippy occasionally is fine, but perhaps ‘surf and beer’ is more our style.

 

 

For the time being, we’re still walking barefoot and learning how to do hairbraids..

 

 

PEACE

 

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Extended vacation

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It’s nearly the end of January, which means it’s nearly all over for our time in Wellington. T minus 1 day until the ferry over to Picton.

GAH!

Having just finished our last sweaty restaurant shift as well as two very warmish weddings, we’re done with work for the time being. And no, this isn’t going to be a rub-your-faces-in-it-I-hope-you’re-all-enjoying-getting-up-at-ridiculous-o’clock-and-I-bet-it’s-still-cold-and-dark kind of post. Quite the opposite. Although the prospect of the next few work-free months is unbelievably exciting (for us, yes; bank account, not so much), we’re in fact pretty darn sad to be leaving our jobs. We may have complained about working every evening and never getting any time to spend with housemates, or smelling so badly of fajita that we almost sweat it, and having to start work at 6am (not cool), we know full well that we were very lucky with what we had…

The Flying Burrito Brothers; sweaty, stressful, smelly, yet so much fun at the same time.  AND we’ve both learnt Spanish. Slash we now know that queso means cheese. USEFUL.

Blue Carrot Cateringif you ever need a catering company in Wellington, USE THIS ONE. So profesh and organised and flexible and sweary and tasty and generally very VERY GOOD. Absolute win.

 

Plus casual shifts at Gaia Gardening, Te Papa (anti-recommendation) and various odd cleaning jobs. It’s all been DELIGHTFUL.

 

 

Cheers y’all.

Not-a-White Christmas (In the style of Seren Nia Thomas)

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12.01 am Realise it’s Christmas halfway through a tremendously long yet very well orchestrated church service. Whisper Happy Christmas to each other and notice that Georgie has gone to sleep. Wake her and sing the descant to Hark the Herald.

 

1.00 am Leave the Cathedral. Be shocked at how obscenely warm it is outside.

 

1.07 am Get lost on the way home. Drive the wrong way up the motorway.

 

1.15 am Manage to get off said motorway.

 

 

1.17 am Get back onto said motorway, but this time in the right direction.

 

1.40 am Get home and sit by the fire before one by one we all fall asleep and go to bed.

 

2.00 am Wake up to speak to Celyn’s family.

 

2.32 am Wake up again to speak to everyone on the ‘Christmas Eve Walk’ in Chepstow. Except it’s not a walk, it’s in the pub. Spend about half an hour doing sign language and telling Tom Heggs how disappointed we are in him. See almost everyone’s tonsils – apparently when in doubt about what the other party is saying, just open your mouth at the camera. Sorted.

 

3.30 am Actually go to sleep.

 

4.45 am Wake up and remember it’s Christmas Day. Smack Celyn in the face and shout, ‘Santa’s Come’.

 

Go back to sleep.

 

10.12 am Get woken up by everyone storming about the house shouting, ‘Merry Christmas’. Realise that it’s boiling hot. Get dressed in inappropriately warm attire and go out to the garden.

 

10.13 am Go back inside and get dressed properly (swimming stuff and nothing else)

 

10.30 am Skype Edinburgh. Play the head game. Forget Miss Fritton’s first name. Remember it’s Camilla. WIN THE GAME.

 

11 am Pump up paddling pool. Drink champagne (even though it’s not champagne) and eat German Sausages and Pretzels. Or Bretzels as they are apparently known in Bavaria.

 

11.14 am Get into paddling pool. Continue eating sausages.

 

11.26 am Get out of paddling pool as there are 12 people in it.

 

11.35 am Watch Barbara and Jess have a wrestling match in the paddling pool. Switch to beer. Reapply suncream. Choose factor 50.

 

12 pm Eat a pigs-in-a-blanket croissant. Think of home. Have another beer.

 

12.40 pm Get a bit burnt. Sit at the bar out of the sun for a while.

 

12.41 pm Realise that the bar is no cooler than outside. Get back in to paddling pool.

 

1.00 pm Transfer Secret Santa presents from the sellotape Xmas tree to the bar. Have a debate about whether to open the presents or not.

 

1.01 pm Open the presents.

 

1.05 pm Try to play the secret santa present game with dice.

 

1.06 pm Fail.

 

1.15 pm Play with new secret santa toys.

 

1.30 pm Go upstairs and open more presents. Say thank you to Parental Units in the UK (telepathically). Put on new clothes.

 

1.31 pm Take off new clothes as it is too hot.

 

3.00 pm Try to get stuff ready for going to the beach. End up just emptying the fridge into a portable fridge. Put portable fridge by front door.

 

3.30 pm Get into Rave Taxi. Rave all the way to the beach. Sing medley songs at a rate of knots and shout ‘Merry Christmas’ aggressively at everyone. Get aggressive ‘Merry Christmas’-es back.

 

3.42 pm Arrive at beach. GET INTO THE WATER.

 

4.00 pm Get out of water to have a G&T and a chicken, salsa and corn chip corn-chip-sandwich. (Don’t knock it till..)

 

5.30 pm Jump over Adam’s sand sculpture. Watch Celyn do a once again surprisingly-gymnastic front flip. Be impressed.

 

5.33 pm Watch a child ruin the sculpture.

 

5.34 pm Join in the sculpture-ruining-effort.

 

7 pm Leave beach and get back into Rave Taxi. Realise driver is a KFC Colonel in his spare time. Be VERY impressed. Sing songs all the way home and watch the sun set over the Cook Strait. Be more impressed at the beauty of the scenery than at anything else that has happened in the day. Including Gin.

 

7.28 pm Get home after very long detour. Wash. Wash again. Get dressed in new clothes. Make cheese board even though dinner is being prepared.

 

7.45 pm Get the cheese sweats. Play the dictionary game. Learn the meaning of autarchy, otiose, and piccalilli.

 

7.59 pm Eat Swedish meatballs and beetroot salad (courtesy of Igor and Georgie). Eat more sausage.

 

8.50 pm Start cooking the ham.

 

11 pm Start eating the ham. Enjoy the accompanying cinnamon carrots. Fall slightly asleep.

 

11.25 pm Sit on beanbags on the roof. Digest.

 

11.30 pm Notice clouds are starting to cover moon. Try to discern shapes in clouds.

 

11. 57 pm Fall asleep.

 

12.37 pm Move from roof to room.

 

12.38 pm Try to watch Love Actually. Fall asleep again. Admit that Christmas Day might be over. Sleep for real this time.

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS.

 

(from Igor, Jessica and Celwyn Jones in the paddling pool)

 

Homage to TimTams

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(This has to be done.)

 

Chocolatey biscuits

That you can dip in your tea.

Better than Penguins.

 

 

That is my haiku for a Timtam. It had to be done because we have reached the conclusion that they are possibly the best biscuit that have ever EVER been invented (more so than Pink Wafers and Fox’s Crunch Creams… we are being serious here).

What makes them so special?

The TimTam Slam

This is how to eat TimTams the New Zealand way. Bite off one corner of each side and use it as a straw for your coffee/tea/miscellaneous hot drink until the wafer is soaked in java goodness, at which point you “slam” it into your mouth and eat it. Unbelievable.

A young TimTam Slam-mer

**Disclaimer: This is uncommonly good. It can also be done with Twix’s and Penguins. We strongly recommend that you start doing this at home. **

 

Yes we are having fun.