Paradise in Palawan

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I’m not a religious man, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve found paradise.

Not the angels sitting around playing harps kind of paradise, nor the 1000 virgins in heaven kind of paradise.  No, I’m talking about the soft white sand beaches and swimming in a warm ocean teeming with life kind of paradise.  The lazy island hopping and dining on amazing fresh food every day kind of paradise.  The kind of paradise where you easily go days without meeting anybody else except local fishermen and gorgeous little kids playing amongst the coconut palms.

Yup, I’ve found paradise alright. It’s name is Palawan.

To say that this part of the Philippines is off the tourist trail is rather understating things.  Far from the pricey resorts and package holidaymakers in places like Boracay, Palawan is known as the ‘last frontier’ for a reason.

Once you leave the small towns of the mainland and head out into the islands, infrastructure changes from basic to non-existent and scenery changes from beautiful to jaw-dropping – to the extent that Jacques Cousteau reputedly commented that Palawan was the most beautiful place that he’d ever explored while filming a documentary here.

Four years ago a couple of university mates in the UK came up with the idea of restoring an old bangka (outrigger) boat in the Philippines and offering multi-day expeditions to adventurous travellers through the hundreds of unexplored islands of northern Palawan.  Tao Philippines was born and from the minute I stumbled across a review in a newspaper about a year ago, I knew that this trip was one that I was going to be taking at some point in my life.

The Tao owners – Eddie, a native Fillipino, and his English business partner Jack – are simply just a couple of great guys.   Fun, laid back and with a strong social conscience, these two are well aware of what makes this part of the world so special – and more importantly, what needs to happen to keep it that way.

Kids in Palawan

Caring for and about the fragile local environment, for example, promoting environmental responsibility and actively restricting both the numbers and makeup of people that come on their trips.  Enjoying these expeditions requires a certain mindset and they’re not for everyone, and the Tao guys make no bones about the fact that they would much rather have a small number of like-minded travellers on board than a large group of holiday makers that overtax the limited resources available and don’t really get along.

Rather than exploiting the local villagers or just handing out token charity money, Tao also co-ordinates several social welfare projects in remote islands where government funds don’t flow.  Jack and Eddie have partnered with various villages to build schoolhouses, provide materials and fund teachers for children who would otherwise receive little or no education.

The groups of laughing, chattering kids running and playing around us or proudly showing off the latest additions to their classroom – and it is undoubtedly their classroom, built and maintained by their own parents – shows that this approach is working wonders.

This is eco tourism as it should be, and there’s a lot of other companies out there that could learn a hell of a lot from what Tao is doing on a daily basis.

Tao Diwa

For five incredible days I and a small group of other intrepid travellers and crew hopped from island to island on the good ship Diwa, a small new boat purpose-built this year to be even more nimble than the other Tao vessels.  As a result we could literally glide up and anchor in the sand a few metres from the beach every night – try doing that on a cruise ship!  With the ability to get so close to the action there was virtually nowhere that was inaccessible, from the smallest uninhabited island to the quiet lagoons and shallow reefs that were perfect for snorkelling.

All of the Tao Open Expeditions run from Coron to El Nido (or vice versa) but have no set route or itinerary – weather, group consensus and a myriad of other factors determine where the boat goes each day.  There was a certain pattern that emerged after a few days though – up early to enjoy exceptional local coffee and breakfast, mid-morning departure, a couple of stops for swimming amongst the coral or perhaps to check out a hidden bay or cave system.

After a delicious lunch and a few more snorkelling stops, we’d usually tie up in the late afternoon and explore our island home for the night, shooting the breeze over dinner and drinks and eventually falling asleep to the sounds of the ocean every night.

Speaking of wonderful food and coffee, I was continually amazed by the skill and resourcefulness of the guys that work for Tao.  We were lucky enough to have Jack as our guide on this trip and to be in Palawan right at the start of the season with everyone full of energy so I don’t know whether that had anything to do with it, but the crew were nothing short of incredible.

From Willie the chef who somehow managed to whip up mouth-watering food multiple times a day from a boat kitchen with two hot plates and no refrigeration, to captain Jojo finding safe harbours everywhere and navigating safely through the occasional storm, to Wasoy and the rest of the lads who seemed to be able to do a bit of pretty much anything with ease, the trip would have been nothing without them.

The great thing was that they were obviously having as much fun as we were, laughing and messing about with each other, diving (or falling) overboard every chance they got and generally having a ball.  I take my sun-bleached cap off to each and every one.

Swimming in Palawan

Between all of the snorkelling, wandering, snoozing, eating and drinking, the hours soon started to blur and fade into each other in a way that only happens when you’re having the time of your life.  All too soon the five days were up and as we slowly motored into harbour a new group of friends looked sadly at each other, realising that a rare and wonderful travel experience was coming to an end.

As I sit here on the balcony of my guesthouse in El Nido writing this post and gazing out at the gently lapping ocean, the temptation to put my plans on hold and head back out on the trip heading back to Coron tomorrow is almost overwhelming.  There’s still time.  Perhaps I’ll just pop back to the office now and see if there’s still a space available …

As I mentioned earlier, this kind of trip isn’t for everyone.  Conditions can be somewhat challenging at times with basic toilet facilities, bucket showers and communal sleeping huts.  You need to be fit and healthy to make the most of your time on the islands, and I’m still nursing the various bug bites, coral cuts and scrapes and bruises that inevitably come with a trip like this.  If you’re happy to rough it a bit in order to have what I truly believe is a unique and incredible experience, though, I would highly recommend checking out the Tao Philippines website.  Long after your suntan has faded and the last of the sand has finally gone from between your toes, you’ll still be dreaming of the little slice of paradise they call Palawan.  I know I will be.

23 Responses to “Paradise in Palawan

  • Must have been an amazing experience! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    • Hey no problem! If it inspires anybody else to go and have the same amazing experience, my work here is done! 😉

  • Hi Dave,

    Thanks for sharing your adventures. We are doing a trip with Tao next month, so it is great to know that they are amazing as they sound.

    Any tips for Coron or El Nido?

    Cheers
    Andrea

    • Yeah, they really are that amazing! Say hi to Jack and Eddie from me if you see them!

      Coron Town doesn’t have much to write home about, although there are some lovely areas outside the main town. Diving was great there – if you don’t dive, at least get a boat out to Barracuda Lake for a snorkel.

      El Nido is smaller and somewhat nicer than Coron, nestled at the base of a bunch of limestone cliffs. Not a vast amount to do there either, mind you, but apparently the diving and snorkelling in the area is also very good.

      The ocean and islands is really what makes this part of the world so amazing, in my opinion – the towns are nothing special.

      Hope that helps!

  • I’m in shock I didn’t make it to Philippines, the Chiang Mai vortex got me.

    Looks awesome. Hopefully Sri Lanka will resemble this place.

    • Damn Chiang Mai vortex! I know it well – it’s sucking me back towards it as we speak…

  • I’m so glad you had fun on your trip to the Philippines! It looks really beautiful 🙂

  • Palawan is high on our list. The more I read, the more pictures I see, the higher it climbs the ranks! We were in Boracay last year and have kicked ourselves for not making it to Palawan… although it does provide the perfect excuse to go back to the Philippines!

  • palawan is indeed a paradise… im thinking of living there after my backpacking trip… i cannot imagine living in manila again after i experienced staying in el nido, palawan for a month… gorgeous place

    • I’m not surprised … it’s just stunningly beautiful with a wonderful chilled out pace of life. Now I want to go back!!

  • When you say bugs… what kind of bugs?

    • Oh all sorts really … big, small, biting and non. It’s the tropics 🙂

  • Glad you love Palawan! 🙂 Been to El Nido and saw Tao there, for a Filipino like me, it sounds a bit expensive although it looks worth it since the package includes Coron already. thanks for sharing more info about Tao, I love their advocacy and their support for eco-tourism. I sure will drop by or perhaps use them when I revisit El Nido

  • I went on the expedition earlier this year and it was epic… the guys were great, the food amazing and I dont really need to say anything about the place, do I? Any recommendations for similarly unforgettable travel experiences? Time is the only issue… 15 days is the most I can off work… 🙁

  • Ah-mazing!! Now that last photo is my idea of paradise!!! Sounds like these guys are doing great things for the community as well.

  • hi dave, just came back from my Palawan trip last night. The thing is i got the tour which involves a lot of van trips to go to places and i was a bit disappointed to know that i had only a day to enjoy Palawan’s famous beaches. I was on the Puerto Princesa trip btw. I learned about Tao by reading it by chance on the in-flight mag going back home! 😀 figures! i’d miss the fun by a few kilometers! lol it sure gives a strong need to go back to Palawan next year for a Tao trip. Thanks for the review it’ll help me a lot in choosing which trip will be for me.

    • Ahh that’s a shame! The Tao trip was really amazing – I’d totally do it again tomorrow if I had the chance. Try to get back and take the trip if you can – it’s very much worth it!

  • Wow!great read!

  • A place this beautiful is worth a few dings, cuts, and discomforts. Can’t wait to see this place for myself!

  • Christopher
    3 years ago

    a couple of things about Palawan.. its one of the desperately poor places in the Philippines. there’s not a lot happening there economy-wise. and therefore there’s quite a bit of alcoholism there. there’s a lot of disease there like dengue, which is a huge problem. malaria is there, but dengue seems to really move around. TB is around. a few other things as well. its no joke.

    the New People’s Army is very active there. for example when i was last there in 13′ they attacked the police station ten minutes from where i was and killed an officer, wounded another. and there were in the town before and after while the police hid inside the station. and they’re in Taytay. and many other places. and the collect taxes. …and they started investigating me while i was there.

  • Ooh! I love Palawan! Looks like I got a good excuse to go back.

  • Good read. Thank you for sharing.

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