It has become the 3-letter word of backpacker legend – TAO. People told me to ‘do Tao’ long before I booked my flights to the Philippines. Embarrassed to admit I didn’t actually have a clue what or who Tao was, I nodded along enthusiastically and consulted my trusty guidebook. There was no place by this name in the index, no secluded beach or off-the-beaten-track town. I looked online and discovered that in the Filipino language of Tagalog, ‘tao’ means ‘human’.
Even more bewildered, I scrolled down to find a travel company offering something called Tao Expedition Philippines and learnt it is essentially just a boat trip. I was intrigued as to how this 5-day boat trip defined and topped most people’s trip to the Philippines. And as with anything that the backpacking community collectively wax lyrical about, I was suspicious of the hype.
I wanted to understand why travellers I met told me not to miss it and that ‘we can’t explain, you just have to go’. I was initially a bit put off by the hard sell I’d heard, not to mention the intimidating ‘application process’ and hefty price tag. In a country as cheap as the Philippines, I seriously questioned whether I could justify the expense of it and whether it could possibly live up to its reputation. The problem was, I had already been brain-washed by friends raving about this almost mythical-like trip, shrouded in mystery and promises of the most breath-taking beaches and isolated snorkelling spots I’ll ever experience.
So in short, this blog post is an attempt to demystify the trip without giving too much away, to give you a small insight so you’re adequately equipped to decide if it’s for you. I want to give you realistic expectations of the onboard living conditions and convey how magical the trip is without over-hyping like all who have gone before me.
IT’S NOT FOR EVERYONE
This was evident on the first night’s induction, when our Expedition Leader made clear that we would have basic wash and toilet facilities, sleep al fresco on the beach and spend much of our days at sea. This alone was enough to put off two well-preened French-Canadians who, as predicted by some of the group, didn’t show up for our morning’s departure time. Furthermore, we were told in no uncertain terms that this was NOT a party boat. Most of us smiled in relief but the two young Canadians shot each other alarmed looks. Tao Expedition was clearly not for them as booze cruise this is not. Whilst you can take as much of your own alcohol as you can carry (and buy more from the crew if your supplies run out), there’s nothing worse than being hungover and contended with sea sickness at the same time so perhaps it’s a good job they discourage hardcore drinking onboard.
In short, if the idea of bucket showers beneath the stars, swimming to shore sometimes with your essentials in a dry bag and spending 5 days living with complete strangers in a confined space doesn’t appeal, this is probably not the trip for you. Tao are famous for their slightly pretentious ‘application process’ designed to weed out people who are embarking on the trip with unrealistic expectations or for the wrong reasons but I would also encourage you to take a leap of faith. If you’ve done Glastonbury or ever been camping, this is a walk in the park.
YOU CAN BUY EVERYTHING THE NIGHT BEFORE
On Tao’s website, there is a somewhat overwhelming list of things to bring but rest assured, you can buy EVERYTHING very last minute from the shops in and around the Tao office. My somewhat controversial top tip – don’t buy anything from Tao office shop itself as it’s expensive (although I did stock up on coconut oil here as it is sold by women running a social enterprise). Also, don’t buy from the first shop you go to – gently barter and shop around – and despite the long list of ‘essentials’, you only really need a dry bag and sun cream. The rest, from sand fly oil and rash vests, are optional. You’ll spend the best part of the trip in your bikini / shorts, face down in the aquamarine water, gazing at the shoals of tropical fish. A t-shirt / cover up is essential as you’re in the sun most of the day, sunglasses, a hat, plenty of sun cream of course and a good book are all you really need.
Rum and spirits are dirt cheap so definitely buy more than you think you’ll need – your new crewmates will thank you for it.
IT’S BEST TO START IN CORON.
Coron is a world-class diving spot so it’s worth spending a few days here first to explore some of the best wreck diving. The town itself offers little more than a backpacker-riddled base to explore the islands or even get your PADI if you’re not certified but you’ll want to end your Tao experience in El Nido. El Nido is part of the Palawan islands, and is great for onward travel – you can rent a motorbike and embark on a road trip south, even visiting an open prison and chatting to inmates if this appeals. You’ll hopefully meet people on the expedition who you want to continue to travel with so I wouldn’t recommend making too many onward plans after Tao. Another reason it’s best to do the trip this way around is that the island hopping route down to El Nido concludes with the most impressive islands until last, meaning your trip will get better and better each day.
DON’T WORRY IF YOU CAN’T GET ON THE SAIL BOAT
This was my initial big disappointment with the Tao Expedition, as I loved the idea of ACTUALLY sailing on a tall ship and feeling like Christopher Columbus. This magnificent vessel books up months in advance sometimes but the less-expensive motorised version does an almost-identical itinerary and the catamarans are beautiful, albeit not as romantic. I definitely intend on doing this next time.
Also worth noting is that Tao Expedition is not a ‘real sailing trip’ – your crew will be sailing the vessel for you and there’s rarely enough wind to fill the sails. You’ll coast along on the engine mostly but it’s still pretty magical. But if you’re an adventurous type who relishes the simple pleasures and wants to meet other travellers, this trip is for you.
DON’T WORRY IF YOU EXPERIENCE POOR COMMUNICATION BEFORE THE TRIP
I had all but given up on hearing back from the guys at Tao and contemplated booking with a rival company, but you’ve got to remember they spend much of their weeks at sea and WIFI is almost non-existence even on the mainland of EL Nido, so you just need to be patient. Most queries are answered on their website if you look hard enough and they will respond to you whatsapp / application eventually.
GO WITH LOW EXPECTATIONS
I could big up every aspect of the Tao Expedition, from the food to the deserted islands, but in some ways that’s the problem with renowned trips like this – you hear so much propaganda and your expectations are so damn high that you end up leaving disappointed, underwhelmed or expecting there was ‘more to it’. It’s a simple premise – you board a boat with a group of like-minded strangers, explore breath-taking waters and uninhabited islands, feast on fresh seafood and local vegetables cooked by your onboard chef and escape air conditioned dorms in exchange for breezy beach huts.
GO WITH STRANGERS
Waking up at dawn to watch the sunrise from my palm-leaf-topped hut, skinny-dipping through luminescent plankton and climbing through narrow caves to explore hidden rock pools. These are all thrilling activities but what I remember about each of them is who I was with, the reactions we shared and the feeling of exploring new places with new people. I can’t stress enough that Tao Expedition is truly what you make it – sure, you’ll see beautiful things, but it’s also about the relationships you forge and not just keeping yourself to yourself. It’s an intense experience living in each other’s pockets for 5 days and not everybody will be your cup of tea so bite your tongue, embrace your differences and try to include everyone – it makes for a better experience all-round if the group gels.
RELISH THE SLOW PACE
Most people’s main criticism of the Tao Expedition is that you don’t need to do it for 5 days. People argue that once you’ve seen one island, you’ve seen them all. Or they muse that they got BORED of snorkelling, swimming and lounging on the boat every day. I strongly disagree (and my Mum always told me only boring people get bored). In the fast-paced, digitally connected world we live in, it’s liberating to realise you can indeed spend 5 days pretty much off-grid.
TO SUM UP TAO PHILIPPINES…
If you like the idea of being off grid, can cope without Insta storying your life for a few days and won’t have a meltdown if your devices run out of power, sign up right away. Tao Expedition really was one of the highlights of my time in the Philippines and whilst I acknowledge that is in the most part, was down to the group I went with and the life-long friendships I forged, I don’t think anyone can fail to be awe-struck by the snorkelling, scenery and secluded beaches.
You’ll see marine life that would wow Attenborough and sleep in beach huts which look like Bear Grills collaborated with Conde Nast. Don’t expect luxury but do embrace the fun of going back-to-basics, and savour its simplicity. If you loved The Beach and fantasise about skinny-dipping in effervescent plankton, sipping coconuts straight from the tree and snorkelling around seemingly endless desert islands, then Tao Expedition is the trip for you.