TAO Expedition in Palawan, Philippines
Sustainable Travel, what does that even mean? It seems like the latest fad word in the travel industry. Is it enough, if a hotel doesn’t change your towel every day, but is blatantly wasteful in other ways? Is it sustainable, if a foreign investor backed hotel chain develops a paradise island and hires the locals as groundskeepers and maids at a local salary, while the better positions go to well-paid expats? Whenever I hear that yet another huge hotel chain or tourism company slaps the label of Sustainable Travel on one of their properties, it usually makes me cringe. It is rare that you can find travel options that make a difference for the environment and the locals. The TAO Expedition Palawan is one of those sustainable travel gems that don’t just talk the talk and pat themselves on the back but walk the walk and live what they stand for.
What is the TAO Expedition Palawan?
In October, I was invited to join the TAO expedition Palawan, and it was an amazing experience. As the name suggests, this isn’t your average holiday. The TAO Expedition takes you deeper than a stay at a resort or even a backpacking trip around the area. Why? Because you get to interact and spend time with the locals and a glimpse of what their daily lives look like.
Camping and Sailing Expedition
When you join the TAO expedition, you sign up for a camping and sailing adventure. You and your fellow shipmates hop on a Bangka boat and sail around the islands of Palawan heading from Coron to El Nido or the other way around. During the day, you explore islands, go snorkeling or kayaking, relax on the beach or help the crew with their tasks. At night, you camp at one of the TAO base camps in traditional bamboo huts, enjoy delicious local dishes made from ingredients from the TAO farm and experience the laid back island life in the Philippines.
You’ll discover a side of the Philippines that most tourists or backpackers don’t get to see and experience and very different from the resort or hostel travel style. We visited some islands that have ZERO tourist infrastructure. You can’t go further off the beaten path than that. Instead, you get to hang out with the locals that have lived on their tiny island all their lives and live as they do for a few days. Pretty awesome, right?
Discover the most beautiful Island in the Philippines: Palawan
What’s more? Well, you get to experience this in one of the most picturesque places in the world. Palawan has been named the most beautiful island in the world several times in a row now by Travel and Leisure (http://www.travelandleisure.com/worlds-best/islands#palawan) as well as a few other lists. And there is no doubt why. You’ve probably read the cliché descriptions of tropical islands with their turquoise waters, emerald forests and the white sandy beaches a hundred times. And Palawan is the ultimate tropical island cliché. It doesn’t get more picturesque than this, don’t you think?
Sustainable Travel Philippines – TAO Expedition
But back to sustainable travel. The TAO expedition does not just comply with some arbitrary rules to get a sustainability certification for show. No, they live what they preach and take you along for the ride. Here is how:
TAO Expedition Farm
Each expedition spends at least one night at the TAO expedition base camp on a small island in El Nido Bay. This is where the operation has its headquarters and also its farm that supplies all TAO expedition with the food they need. From fresh produce to humanely raised animals, homemade vinegar, and a never-ending supply of fresh fruits, the farm produces almost everything you will consume during your TAO expedition. They re-use, recycle and come up with waste-reducing ideas, learning about the «old ways» of farming from the locals and adding modern technology to make it more efficient. I was super impressed when we took our tour around the TAO farm and learned about their farming methods.
Work with Locals
In my experience, many hotels and tours that are run by foreigners make their money on the backs of the locals, rather than working together with them and raising their standard of living. The TAO expedition founders are a mix of locals and foreigners, and they make it a point to work with the locals. They buy fish from local fishermen, hire locals to build the camps and so on.
Most impressively, all the crew members of the TAO expedition boats are also locals. They even send the expedition leaders to university to train them. This is amazing because it gives the local youth an opportunity to support their families and stay in the area instead of heading to one of the larger cities for better job opportunities. And it is perfect for you as a guest because they know the islands around Palawan like the back of their hand. They know the weather, plants and wildlife, the best spots for snorkeling and so much more.
The TAO Foundation is a non-profit that was started by the TAO expedition team to give back to the community. Currently, they run two programs:
1. The TAO Academy, a school for local children, so they can go to school on their island instead of having to forgo education or go to boarding school in the city.
2. The TAO Women’s Association that creates work opportunities for women through education and tools. For example, hire and train local women to sew the bedding and mattress covers for the TAO camps and as massage therapists to provide massages to the TAO guests.
Keep The Local Way of Life
Another point that is dear to me, when I travel. The TAO expedition is showing you an authentic experience of the local way of life on the islands of the Philippines. Not some touristy culture and dance show in a 5-star resort. No, with the TAO expedition, you sleep in the same huts that the locals live in, pump your water to take a shower, just like the locals do.
As a tourist, it is almost impossible to get a real view of how the locals live nowadays and with TAO, you still get that. I loved it, and I wish this kind of travel were more accessible. My favorite moment was when our crew pulled out a whole bucket full of sea urchins. They showed us how to open them without getting stung and the best way to clean them. Together, we polished off about 60 sea urchins, laughing, joking and enjoying ourselves. Heaven!
Is the TAO Expedition Palawan for you?
The TAO expedition is a unique travel experience and no for everyone. It may not be your cup of tea, and that is fine. Check out their website and make sure that you understand what you are getting yourself into. Are you up for the challenge? If the following points make you anxious and stressed out, it may not be for you. On the other hand, if they sound exciting, you should put the TAO expedition on top of your bucket list.
Adventurous and spontaneous
The nature of the TAO expedition is adventure and spontaneity. There is no fixed itinerary. The only fixed points are your departure and destination port and one night at the TAO base camp. The rest of the plan is up to the crew and the passengers, the weather and other outside factors. If your expedition leader sees that your group enjoys snorkeling, he’ll take you to the best snorkeling spots along the way. If you are a bunch of beach bums, he’ll stop at fantastic beaches.
It will also be up to you, to make it the experience that you want. Join the cooks in the kitchen or galley to learn how to cook some delicious Filipino food, grab a kayak and explore, or talk to the villagers.
Roughing it in Paradise
The TAO camps are also a unique experience. You stay in traditional bamboo huts on remote islands. There is no running water or flushing toilets. There are mosquitos, sand, and roosters that wake you up at night. The crew and expedition leaders will do their best to pamper you, though. They set up your camp, cook amazing food for you three times a day, bring you cold beers, kayak you to and from the islands, and you can even get massages on the islands. But keep in mind that this is still an expedition, not a 5-star hotel.
I had a fantastic time during the TAO expedition and our group bonded over the few days we spent together. I am still in contact with all of them, and we became fast friends. There is something about being thrown into an unfamiliar environment slightly outside your comfort zone that makes you bond more quickly with the people around.
If you are looking for an adventure or want to see the REAL Philippines, I think you should sign up for the TAO expedition. I, for one, can’t wait to go back and take the husband 🙂
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