Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Round the World Trip: Tao Philippines

For the previous post, go here.

The next morning, Sunday, we took a tuk-tuk five minutes back along the road we’d driven into El Nido on to the main office of Tao Philippines. All 28 of assembled there for an overview from the two founders. It was an assorted bunch: two couples from Belgium, a German couple, a lone Filipino guy, a couple different groups of Brits, and a couple different small groups from Australia. Besides a woman from Canada and a guy living in Australia but born in the U.S., Sharon and I were the only North Americans.

Tao was founded by two guys about six years ago. Jack, a Brit from London, had met Eddie, a native Filipino while both were attending school in Scotland. After school they’d spent time on a small boat just cruising the Palawans, visiting empty or mostly empty islands and generally just enjoying life. After running out of money they began advertising in one of the larger towns in the islands, Coron, for a few people to hang out on the boat with them and cruise around. They got a lot of takers and enough money to stay on the boat a long time. Tao was born. They now have several custom bangkas of various sizes and offer private expeditions as well.

With Tao there’s no set itinerary. Based on the ocean currents and weather the expedition leader decides where to go. They’ve got simple base camps throughout the islands where the trips spend the night.

After giving us a background on Tao and what to expect we left the office, walked across the road and down to the beach, and climbed into kayaks for the short ride to the boat. We would be traveling on their largest bangka, custom designed by Jack, who was an architect by training. It had two main deck areas, which the second deck sitting above a small kitchen, bathroom, and the pilot house. The lower deck sat above the storage area for all our bags. Before departing they served us an amazing breakfast of eggs and fresh bread.
Jack and Eddie weren’t coming along but introduced us to our crew before they got back on kayaks for the return trip to the beach. Ollie was our expedition leader. Toto was our cook. Lito was our captain. Edrian, Wasay, Jun-Jun were the gofers – they’d raise and lower the anchor, handle supplies, and set up the base camps each night. Mike, who was Lito’s son and currently out of school, had come along as well. We were also joined by Tiger, Ollie’s dog, who had gotten used to boat life.


We stayed near El Nido our first day, with a morning stop at a hidden lagoon. Nothing around El Nido is really hidden since all the day tours also visit these locations, but it was beautiful nonetheless. We then went to another spot with coral to snorkel while the crew prepared lunch. The coral went right up to the beach and the water was quite shallow in places, so Sharon and I both managed to kick it with our bare feet (Tao recommended bringing water shoes) and cutting ourselves.
Our base camp that night was nestled under a hill on an empty beach. It consisted of a few large bamboo huts and an outhouse. There was no running water. To shower you stood behind a bamboo wall and poured fresh water on yourself from a large plastic barrel. There was a smaller hut further up the hill, away from the others. This, we learning, was Jack’s private hut. I’ve never used the pickup line “Hey, do you want to go to my private beach?” but I’m sure it’s quite successful. Since Jack wasn’t here romancing anyone four British girls got assigned the hut.
Our bucket showers
The crew set up the bedding for us and made dinner while we all swam in the warm water, sat on the beach, or got free massages from one of the few masseuses Tao had hired from a nearby fishing village. We sat down in the dark to a meal of rice, vegetables, and freshly caught fish. A bonfire of dried palm fronds and coconut shells was set and burned brightly for ten minutes. After that, exhausted from a day of swimming, Sharon and I crashed in the hut we shared with two other couples.
I had initially been bummed that we had 28 people on our boat. We had heard a rumor earlier in the day before leavening that only 12 had booked and we were looking forward to more space. But as Jack explained prior to our departure, small groups weren’t always a good thing. Five days on a boat with 10 or 15 people gets boring, he explained. With a larger group you’ll have more jokers, storytellers, and other fun people. And he was right.
We quickly made friends with the people from Australia, who – no surprise – turned out to be the most fun.

Each day consisted of getting up and enjoying breakfast while the crew packed up the camp and returned gear to the boat, cruising in the general direction of our final destination, stops for snorkeling or hanging out on a beach, lunch on the boat, more cruising, and finally arriving at our next base camp.
Our second night was our only break from seafood – we had an entire pig that had been spit roasting all day long waiting for us. It was the juiciest pork I ever ate. The pig’s buddies were still running around the camp, which reminded us all that our pig had been in the same situation that morning.
Relaxing before after dinner

On day three we ran out of ice. This was important not just to keep our beer cold, but also to keep the fish fresh until we cooked it. We would have to find more ice. Since most of the people in the area made their living from fishing there some ice plants in a couple towns so the people could ice pack their catch before shipping it off. We went to the first ice plant. It was closed – the ice maker was broken. We cruised another hour to a second ice plant, also closed. We sent crew into a small village to see if they had any ice. They didn’t.

That night a few people forced down warm beer with the very salty dried fish we’d picked up in some village, but most of us turned our attention to the rum on the boat. This was followed by karaoke – despite only a few residents, we learned that nearly every island has a karaoke machine. The crew joined in and we soon noticed a distinct difference in song choice between crew and passenger.

Drinks made by the crew
The westerners sang typical karaoke fare: high-energy rock songs and other classics – Bohemian Rhapsody, Don’t Stop Believin’, Livin’ on a Prayer, Gangster’s Paradise (ok, maybe not the last one). When the crew got up to sing, they sang love songs. 80s love songs mostly, with a few Filipino ballads mixed in. It’s not exactly party material. The lone Filipino “tourist” on the boat, Carlos, used to wake up in the morning, sit on the beach, and blast Whitney Houston and Michael Bolton from his portable speakers. It was always funny for a few songs but then the rest of us would tell him to change it.
On day 4 the hunt for ice continued. Ollie made a few phone calls, including one back to Jack in El Nido, to see if he could find a solution. I joked to our companions that we were actually on a five day hunt for ice with a few stops along the way. But it wasn’t so amusing anymore since this was time we should have spent in the water or exploring islands. If they knew they’d need to refill ice halfway through the trip, I thought, they probably should have identified which places actually had ice before departing.

Finally, late in the morning, Ollie spotted a speck on the horizon. We couldn’t see anything, but he said it was three commercial fishing boats tied up together. They would probably have ice since they stayed out on the ocean for months at a time and had to ice pack their catch until it could be shipped out from time to time. From the time he was about 10 years old Ollie had worked as a fisherman until he was plucked by Tao to be an expedition guide, so if anyone could recognize fishing boats it was him.

We cruised towards the three boats. A motley crew stared at us in bewilderment as we approached, but the captain helped secure our boat to one of theirs. Ollie walked to the tip of the prow and made the request. It was all in their native language so it was hard to determine what was being said, but we knew it was a done deal when one of our crew tossed a few bottles of rum over. They tossed a few giant fish over to us and then Ollie, a couple crew members, and a girl from our group jumped the gap between our boat and theirs to go retrieve ice.

While this was happening a number of people on our boat were taking pictures of the scene before them: rusting hulks piled high with nets and buoys; Filipino standing around or lounging where they could find comfort. After a few minutes we noticed a few of them were taking pictures of us. We were probably a very unusual site. And we had females on the boat. Females in bikinis. These guys probably hadn’t seen women in a long time. “You might want to cover up,” I told Sharon, “or you’ll definitely be spank material later.”

After ten minutes our crew returned carrying massive bags of ice. A couple passengers and I helped them wrangle it over to our boat. Ice mission accomplished. We were free to continue cruising northward.

Our final basecamp was a disappointment despite the fact that we once again had cold beer and fresh fish. The water leading up to the stony beach was covered in rocks and urchins, so we had to take kayaks up to the shore and couldn’t exactly swim around in the water. 
Our last day we stopped to snorkel at two shipwreck sites. During World War II American forces sunk ten Japanese ships in the area and it was now very popular with divers. We couldn’t go very deep since we only had snorkels, but it was still eerie to get close to ships that were no doubt graveyards for a lot of people. We spent more time swimming and just generally relaxing.

Our Final Route      
Our Group!
We arrived in Coron, our final port and the end of the trip, early in the evening. “One more day!” we started chanting. We’d been living in an information blackout for five days where the only worry was whether to take a nap on the boat or read, or whether to have a beer on the beach or in the warm turquoise water each evening. It was hard to say goodbye, but Sharon and I were only now 2 weeks into our 10 weeks of travel.  Next stop: Thailand!


  1. Beautiful pictures of a beautiful country

  2. Whoa! i'm looking forward to book for this trip in January...

    1. I am jealous! Wish I was going on Tao again! Key essentials: lots of sunscreen and nothing else. You'd be surprised how much you can do without! Have fun!