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With over 7000 islands throughout the Philippines, there’s plenty of tropical paradise for everyone. But with so many beautiful islands to visit in the Philippines, where do you start?
What is TAO Philippines?
TAO in the Filipino language means ‘human’, and there’s no better name to describe the social enterprise TAO Philippines, that organises unforgettable (the best) island hopping in Palawan, around some of the most beautiful seascapes in the world.
TAO does the most fantastic job at immersing participants in the authentic Filipino island life, while at the same time helping the remote island communities in Northern Palawan. It is an experience not to be missed if you are seeking paradise, adventure and sustainability all rolled into one. It's not only a wonderful experience but a great way to be a responsible traveler and enjoy slow travel.
Community-based ecotourism at its best
TAO uses tourism as a tool to build resilient communities throughout Palawan. During the tour, you will see examples of projects that TAO has established to help the local communities, and how they are making a difference in the lives of locals.
You’ll be able to visit local basecamps during the expedition where you can learn more about TAO’s community projects. where TAO works with local communities to reintroduce natural, non-invasive farming based around seasonal availability and an interplay between different crops and livestock — based on permaculture principles. They conduct their own research in the construction of their boats and beach camps, using several types of local bamboo. TAO also provides training to local women to work as massage therapists and they have constructed and managed learning centres in remote villages to help future generations. They even provide full-scholarships to talented students to continue their studies at colleges in Manila and Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan. A proportion of each guest's payment is donated to the TAO Kalahi Foundation Projects that support all of the above.
How does TAO work?
TAO organises boat tours or expeditions across Palawan, one of the Philippines most cherished archipelago of islands. TAO is all about taking in your surroundings by partaking in local activities, whilst enjoying local interactions and supporting local communities. You can ditch your smartphone because all that matters is ‘island time’. You won’t be finding any wifi or connectivity in the middle of the ocean! Embrace this and get off the grid!
First Things First
You first need to understand whether the season you are visiting the Philippine is the dry season. Generally, the best time to take this tour is between October and May. There is also the possibility to book an expedition during the rainy season from June till September, but expect some rainy days! It is not possible to book during the month of September.
The next thing you need to decide is how long you want to island hop for and book well in advance on their website. You can choose between 3, 5 and 7 days. We chose 5 days as we felt this would give us a good enough experience of living it the local way.
How much does the TAO Experience Cost?
A 5-day TAO Expedition will cost you $USD 550 in low season and $USD 670 in peak season and will take you from the major islands of Coron to El Nido or vice-versa.
You’ll also have to pay an environmental fee of about $USD4-5 called TDF (Eco-Tourism Development Fee), compulsory taxes by the local governments for everyone, local and foreign visitors which is collected before getting into the port.
You will need extra cash for alcoholic beverages and merchandise as you will most likely stop at one of the local basecamps where you can buy local products like coconut oil, natural soaps and trinkets. I also recommend you bring some extra cash to tip the crew as a gesture of goodwill.
Whilst this may seem pricey, particularly for a place like the Philippines, I assure that spending about $USD110-134 a night for full day activities, full board and lodging in the most magical of landscapes is truly justified. And don’t forget that you are doing good by supporting local communities.
What is included in the 5-Day TAO Expedition?
This TAO Experience includes:
- 5 days of travel
- 4 nights of TAO style camping
- Wild open nature and island living
- Freshly prepared meals, snacks and drinks (drinking water, ginger lemon tea, coffee, jungle juice (a strong rum-based cocktail))
- Mask and snorkels (no fins)
All of the base camps have western toilets, and they were all pretty clean. The base camps also have simple showers inside a bamboo hut.
Electricity is available at some of the basecamps. They even had individual plugs in the bamboo huts so you could charge your electronics overnight. I recommend bringing a portable battery bank to charge your electronics on the days you don’t have electricity, and then charge the battery when you can.
What’s not included:
- Transportation and accommodation before and after the trip
- Towels and toiletries
- Perfect weather
- Cashless Bracelet Credit for drinks from the bar, massages, community products, and merchandise. You will receive your bracelet and can load it up before boarding your boat. We recommend you load $USD50. They refund what you don’t consume.
- Payment transfer fees
- Tips for the crew
Where do you sail to?
First of all, the great thing about this trip is that you are never sure where you end up. Because of the climate in the Philippines the weather isn’t always your best friend. At the beginning of each day, our tour leader would bring out a map of the area and we would discuss where we were going that day and where we would end up camping out at one of the 13 basecamps throughout Palawan. Therefore they change routes all the time and you are never sure what you see/do and where you will be sleeping.
It was so much fun to feel like a true explorer charting our course according to nature’s will. However there are some highlights you are definitely NOT going to miss while exploring the islands and waters between Coron and El Nido and you can always confirm with the expedition’s leader if you’re really keen on visiting a specific location.
What activities are included in the expedition?
The beautiful thing about the TAO Experience is that there is a perfect balance of rest and activity. Here are a few activities you can expect during your 5-day Expedition.
Snorkelling in the South China Sea
You’ll be doing a hell of a lot of snorkelling.
We went snorkelling about 2-3 times each day. It was some of the best snorkelling I’ve ever done because the water is so clean, clear, and full of abundant marine life. At one site we saw sea turtles, cuttlefish, and sea snakes. We were meant to also see reef sharks but they decided not to turn up! The sites are all full of beautiful corals, and we even got to explore a sunken ship on the last day.
Kayaking and Swimming
The boat also had a few kayaks onboard which guests could take out while we stopped for snorkelling. As a safety precaution, two of the TAO staff would go out in the kayaks while we snorkelled to make sure everyone was okay. The water is beautiful, but the currents are strong in the Philippines so it’s easy to get tired out fast! The Kayaks were also used to transfer our belongings to each island where we would stay the night.
Sailing on the TAO ‘Paraw’
You’ll also be spending a good part of your time sailing in a traditional Philippines Bangka (a traditional Filipino boat). Expect hours full of contact with nature and the ocean: think stunning atolls with pristine fringing reefs, massive limestone karst drenched in jungle, deserted palm fringed beaches and timeless fishing villages. You'll also be accompanied by the leader's dog. Ours was named Rosa.
Eating the freshest local food
You’ll have experienced, local chefs on board who prepare the most mouthwatering meals. The food cooked each day is locally sourced and fresh. Meals were largely fish based, served with sides of rice, also known as 'Filipino Power' and vegetables. But we also had a BBQ at times.
On the fourth night of the expedition, we had a traditional Filipino pig roast for us. This is another example of a project they run. They get locals within the community to raise pigs and then buy them back when they are ready to eat.
You’ll also eat sashimi (raw fish) as the crew fishes for tuna as the boat sails. You’ll also be able to get involved in catching local fish and helping prepare meals.
TAO also provides coffee, ginger tea and water on the boat at all times. You will also be offered jungle juice (rum and juice) included in the price of the tour.
Massages by Local Women
On the first night, everyone got a free massage at the basecamp by local women. It was a great massage. You can pay for a second one, but the price is more than reasonable.
Interactions with Local Children
Some islands are uninhabited but we occasionally camped out on islands with the smallest of communities. There you will be able to play with the local children and interact with locals.
Making New Friends
You’ll be spending time with like-minded individuals. We were left to our own devices most evenings so it is a great opportunity to hang out with others and make friendships. You’ll also get to know your crew, known as the Lost Boys. It truly reminds you of a scene from Peter Pan, when you’re surrounded by darkness, the sounds of the waves lapping up the shores and the sparkling galaxy.
As we took the tour over Christmas, we also had prepared for a Secret Santa Exchange followed by Karaoke with the locals. I’ll never forget the scene of the tide rising as we sat out on the beach, passing bottles of rum and singing to a TV which was taken out of its home and placed above the sand.
Prepare in advance
Despite TAO being an unforgettable experience and one of my best travel adventures in Asia, it is not everyone’s idea of a holiday. It might be bad weather, the sea may be choppy, you’ll have limited privacy, barking dogs, crowing roosters, mosquito bites, jellyfish stings, sunburns. But that is all part of the experience: the unexpected, the unknown, stepping outside of your comfort zone.
Still interested? Here are a few tips to make sure you get the most out of your TAO experience.
What to bring on a TAO Expedition
You’re allowed to bring all your bags on the boat, but your large bag gets locked away behind the captain’s area. On the website, it says you can access it twice a day, but in my experience they let me access it whenever I wanted. However, it’s difficult to get your bag as they pile them on top of each other.
Your daypack will stay in the sheltered area in the back (not locked). Your dry bag stays in the main area at the front of the boat so this is where you put the items that you access frequently. You NEED a dry bag for this area as water will splash in the boat. You will also need the dry bag for carrying items from the boat to the islands over kayaks.
Packing list for a TAO Philippines Expedition
- Reef Sunscreen – It’s so important to use sunscreen and not get burnt, but since you’ll be swimming in fragile ecosystems it’s important to use a sunscreen labeled as reef safe.
- Sarong – great for lying on the beach and protecting you from the sun.
- Sun hat & Sunglasses
- Towel – A towel for after swimming. I recommend the microfibre towels as they pack super light!
- Moisturiser/after sun
- Insect repellant
- Refillable water bottle (no plastic allowed)
- Reusable Straw – Straws are great for drinking out of coconuts but the plastic ones are terrible for the environment. Take a reusable straw on your trip to cut back on your environmental footprint!
- Clothing: 1 – 2 pairs of shorts, 3 – 4 tops, 2 – 3 swimwear, & 1 pair long sleeve shirt/pants for mosquitos
- Fins if you want them for snorkelling (masks and snorkel are provided)
- Sandals and Reef Shoes (the corals can be painful), and rash guard for snorkelling if you want extra protection from the sun
- Dry bag
- Kindle – The upper deck of the boat is the perfect place to kick back and relax with a good book. Save on space and bring a kindle with books downloaded beforehand. Plus the new Kindle is waterproof so you don’t need to worry about getting it wet!
- A deck of cards
- Portable battery bank – I love this one because it’s small and can charge your phone up to six times!
- A camera to capture the moment! GoPros are great for snorkelling. If you have a drone it’s an incredible place to use one. It’s also not a problem to use a drone on the islands, and you don’t need a permit.
- An open and adventurous mind!
If you don’t have these items, most can be picked up relatively cheap in El Nido or Coron beforehand.
Remember to book early to avoid disappointment (months in advance, especially during the high season) and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before your trip. Injury or illness means you end up with expensive medical bills, or even have to cancel your trip mid-way.
Would I do a TAO Experience Again?
Definitely. And I’m not the first to go for seconds. Taking part in a TAO expedition was not only the highlight of my time in the Philippines but one of my favourite island hopping experiences of all-time.
Everyday was different but one thing was constant. Island time: dictated by the cuckadoodledoo of the cocks at sunrise to the beautiful sunsets and the milky way gracing the sky.
This TAO expedition brings you back to basics, disconnecting you from the modern world and re-connecting you with the lust for raw adventure and cultural connection. It's also given me the courage to do more outdoor activities. My next big adventure would be a diving experience because the Philippines is more than well known for its beautiful corals and sardine runs. I recently came across a fantastic Philippines diving website called 'Philippine Dives' which has a fantastic repository of dive shops, dive centres, professionals and even ocean conservation programmes. So be sure to check them out if you plan a dive in the Philippines.
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