Let me start by briefly saying, the Tao Experience was one of the most amazing trips I have been on. The sheer number of interestingly unexpected things that happened during our time together had a few of us considering if there was something going on...something Truman Show-esque. Every day something happened that surprised both the passengers and the crew.
I have written two separate parts regarding our experience with Tao. In the first part, below, I describe some basic info and answer a few of the questions and doubts I had before I started out with Tao. The second part is a travel diary; documenting our four days and five nights with Tao and some of the cool shit that happened.
A Note: If you are planning on going on the Tao Experience, here is my advice: if you have any concerns, perhaps read the information below, as it may answer some of your questions. However please consider NOT reading the travel diary until after you have been on your expedition.
As Tao state on their website every Tao experience is different. There are many factors that will influence each trip. The weather, the passengers, the crew. Hell, just plain old luck. Part of the fun of this experience was the unknown. Hold onto that if you can. You’ll thank me later. And come back to share what you did as well. I would love to know what else there is to see.
What is Tao?
For those that have no idea what Tao is and are too lazy to read their website, here’s a brief run down. You get a group of people on a boat together and sail between Coron and El Nido, or vice versa, over a few days, stopping to a lot of cool shit on the way. It is not your average group tour. It really is an experience to remember.
Tao was founded by two guys who were travelling through the area, found an old shitty boat, fixed it up and went for a sail around. They loved the area so much, they started an organisation that allowed other people to do the same. Thanks to them, we get to share a part of it. This organisation is a now a social enterprise that aims to support the local community, through encouraging education and collaboration. They have a farm on Palawan that has a goal to provide all of the food on the Tao experience boats and acts as a base of operations for Tao.
Tao operate nine boats, staying at 13 base camps. Tao own some of the camps and rent the others from local villages which they collaborate and work with.
Where do you sleep?
We slept in small huts on the beach. Some are shared, others are only big enough for two. Some have walls, others do not. You are given a mosquito net, a sheet sown into a sleeping bag, a small pillow and a foam mattress. It is not luxurious and there is little in the way of privacy, however you go to sleep listening to the whisper of the waves against the shore and wake with the sun peeking over the horizon. I found it fairly comfortable.
What do you eat?
There is a cook on board the boat who prepares your food while you spend your time swimming or snorkelling or trying desperately to get a tan without frying yourself to a crisp. Our food was excellent. Vege curries, grilled fish, fresh mango...I mean picked off the tree fresh. Oh the pineapple! The sweetest I have ever tasted. There was calamari from a cuttlefish one of the crew caught with his bare hands. And one of our group caught a tuna so we had fresh sashimi for lunch. And of course; Filipino Power!!! aka rice! I found the food to be nutritious and fairly healthy, though of course that depends on what you class as healthy. Someone our there is probably saying "You ate fresh coconut? Don't you know that gives you stomach ulcers and rectal protrusions? You're gambling with your ass!"
The food is Filipino. If you’re precious about something, you might have to miss some of the dishes. There was generally rice and a vege or fruit dish for each meal. I have to watch gluten, so couldn't over-indulge in the banana pancakes one day and homemade bread another. There was still plenty of other things to eat though.
"Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”
The boats have a lot of drinking water on board and it is available constantly. There is also good coffee and ginger tea, for those who suffer from a touch of morning-itis or travel sickness.
Toilets and Showers
There are wet toilets. Basically they are toilet bowls with no seats. There are no cisterns, so you scoop water from a big bucket to flush. You cannot flush toilet paper down these toilets, so you have to place it in a rubbish bin. Alternatively you can learn to wash like a local. Use your left hand...eat with your right. It takes a lot of washing to make it feel clean again though
Showers are generally buckets and scoops for the most part. Privacy isn't guaranteed either. It is more than enough to get yourself clean. Just imagine how good a thorough shower will feel at the end.
We had one powered site of the four nights we were there. Generally there is no power. If you have a camera you need to charge, I recommend taking a power bank or a solar panel. I have a 20000mah Xiaomi power bank and it did what I needed it to.
How long do you spend on the boat each day?
Generally you travel for around an hour between stops and there are three or four stops each day. There were a couple of longer trips though; one of 2.5 hours moving across one of the straits.
You will quickly learn, if you haven't already getting to Tao, that much of the area, in fact much of the Philippines, operate on Island Time. If you've travelled through places like this before, you will know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, then be prepared to show a little...or sometimes a lot, of patience.
Things happen when they happen. They do not happen when you want them to happen. "After breakfast" is a perfectly good time to be somewhere. Getting somewhere "before lunch" means you'll get there, before lunch. If you expect to get an exact time, you will be sorely disappointed. Learn to live with it. It works in your favour too. You can take your time in the morning. You can take your time when you're snorkelling. You might get a hurry along, but things are more flexible and flowing.
Being fit would help a bit, but didn't really seem to be necessary. You will definitely have more fun being comfortable in the water though. If you hate water based activities, then I doubt you’d be wanting to go on a boat for five days anyway.
What were the crew like?
The crew are amazing and a lot of fun. They know the area and were genuinely interested in getting to know all the people on board. We had so much fun with them. They joined in on our games, our jokes, karaoke and still managed to do everything else they needed to. They really helped make the entire experience what it was.
Is it safe?
Well shit. This is a hard one to answer. Yes, but you need to be responsible for your own ass. You sign a waiver at the beginning stating there are dangers involved, because there are. You spend a lot of time in the water and in remote camps. We got bitten by sea lice and stung by jellyfish. There were mosquitoes and other bugs. We saw sharks, sea urchins and sea snakes. You have to be careful what water you drink. You have to avoid standing on coral or slipping over on the boat. Roosters woke us up early in the morning. We were sunburned and salty and sticky. It is not a trip for everyone.
We had a passenger get very sick at one point. Tao called their office and a fast boat came to pick him up and take him to hospital. It took time though. The experience operates in a fairly remote area. There are emergency services, so make sure you have adequate insurance cover.
Some things I'd recommend:
Get all the things on their list:
- Dry bag. Large bags stay on the boat so you pack your overnight stuff into a dry bag. Get a 20-30 litre one.
- Sunscreen, sun hat and sun glasses.
- Sarong. For guys and girls. They come in really handy when trying to stay out of the sun.
- Water bottle
- Long sleeved rash guard. I'd recommend getting one. It will keep the jelly fish, the sea lice and the sun away from you while snorkelling.
- Long pants and long sleeve shirt. There are definitely mosquitoes. Get some light weight long clothes.
- Towel. Tao do not provide them.
- Insect repellent. Mosquitoes. And flying ants. And flies. You get the idea. Sunscreen off. Insect repellent on.
- Flashlight/Torch/Headlamp. It gets dark. There may be spiders in the toilets.
- Sandals or reef shoes. I recommend reef shoes. Some of the beaches have large coral chunks.
- Fins. If you want them. Tao will provide a mask and snorkel, but bring fins if you want them.
Wash your hands. It’s easy to slip with hygiene when you don't have the normal facilities, but make sure you wash your hands with soap and water, especially before eating. 24 hours of vomiting and bum wees will remind you that catching a stomach bug on a boat might be funny when you’re recalling it to your friends, but it sucks when you’re missing out on fun.
Drink LOTS of water.
When you’re in the water, don’t put your feet down. Coral takes a long, long time to grow and it really grinds my gears when I see people standing on coral. It does a huge amount of damage and disrupts an ecosystem that is delicate and slow to repair itself. Don’t be a lumbering oaf. If you can’t swim then ask the crew for a lifejacket and you can bob around to your hearts content.
Avoid mosquitoes. They're not just annoying, they also spread diseases like malaria and dengue. You do not want either of those. Talk to your travel doctor about current health warnings for the area.
Do not try to squeeze all of your tanning into the first day. This should be obvious.
It was partly the people, partly the crew, partly our attitude towards the entire thing. Sam and I had an amazing time with Tao Experience. I would sincerely recommend it...just not to everyone. Basically if you can see yourself whining because you haven’t washed your hair for two days and you didn't get to sleep for your normal 8 hours, perhaps have another think about it. Likewise, if you think kung fu fighting a bear while juggling grenades while sliding down an active volcano is just another day at the office, this might be a little tame.
However, if you don't mind giving up a few of your comforts for a few days, in exchange for seeing some amazing places and hanging out with some cool people, then definitely check it out.