Last year – the day after Christmas – I packed up my stuff after a lovely 2 weeks at home in Glasgow spending time with my amazing family and friends, and left to catch a flight that would take me out of the UK for a very long time, and en route to the Philippines.
If you haven’t been reading my blogs religiously (shame on you – but here’s the full story), I recently left my job in London to start a new adventure and continue my career in Sydney (new job still TBC; in other words I’m currently unemployed). I’m being sponsored on my boyfriend’s working Visa and the process has been taking a while, so of course before facing reality and securing a role and all of that adult stuff, I decided to do the rational thing any person with no income would do and… book a holiday to the Philippines. OK – maybe not so rational; but I swear the trip was worth the debt.
After some surreal goodbyes, a lot of crying, 4 flights, 2 stopovers (in London and then in Singapore), 25+ hours worth of travelling, 2 tantrum-causing naps, and some Imodium tablets (I had caught a stomach bug on Boxing Day and spent the entire day throwing up and worrying I was going to shit myself on the impending journey), I finally arrived at Busuanga airport in Palawan feeling very rough and jetlagged, but happy to have met up with my boyfriend and 3 friends along the way to start our holiday.
The route for our Palawan trip was based around our booking with TAO Philippines – a 5-day boat trip down Palawan that I’ll tell you more about later. So the plan was:
2 days in Busuanga –> 5 days with TAO Philippines travelling down Palawan –> 1 day in El Nido –> 4 days in Puerto Princesa.
Sleeping with bugs in Busuanga
Our meeting place for the TAO trip was in Coron town on Busuanga island, so we gave ourselves a few days there to settle in and get over the jetlag before the main trip began.
On our first night we stayed at Sanctuaria Treehouses, which we booked on a whim thinking it would be an outdoorsy ‘experience’ to kick off the holiday. The name did not lie – we arrived to find an array of wooden houses dotted around a tranquil little site in the hills.
An extremely mellow man called Dave – who obviously smoked a lot of weed and said ‘dude’ a lot – ran the site. He was super friendly and keen to tell us about the island, but most importantly introduced us to the best card game of all time called Exploding Kittens (I won’t bog you down with the details, but it is very important that you order it for your next group holiday for endless entertainment).
The Treehouses themselves are definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for something a bit different (and dirt cheap – I’m talking around £35 for a 4-man treehouse for a night; after all it is just a bunk bed inside a wooden hut) – the views are amazing, the food is also ridiculously cheap and tasty, and it’s definitely a way to get in touch with your inner-hippy. BUT if you’re like me and get completely freaked out by bugs, expect to be lying awake all night in fear of being eaten alive by spiders.
After a night sleeping in a proper bed in a hotel in Coron town, we were prepped and ready to set off for our 5-day boat trip with TAO.
TAO (meaning ‘human’ in the Filipino language) is a social enterprise that partners with local communities on untouched islands of Palawan and gives travellers the opportunity to experience ‘island life’. The amazing thing about it is that not only does it give visitors the chance to see a completely different, non-touristy side of Palawan, but it also gives back to the local communities; the staff are local people who are trained up in things like English, cooking, farming, sailing – the list goes on. It’s also a really sustainable and eco-friendly system; all food cooked on the trip is grown organically in the local farm and fish caught fresh from the sea or bought from local sources.
Our group (of around 25 people from lots of different countries) was taken island-hopping on the way down to El Nido on a sailing boat, and each night we stayed in a different island ‘camp’, sleeping in bamboo huts with no electricity or running water (or even mirrors – whaaaat?!).
They say TAO is ‘not for everyone’ – and to be honest when we booked it, I didn’t think it would be for me. I’m used to holidays where I sunbathe, drink wine by the pool from 10am (yup), and then get glammed up later for dinner and a night out. I have the frizziest hair (Monica when she has to get cornrows in Barbados kinda frizzy) and panic when I’m unable to blow-dry and style it. I’ve never been that big a fan of camping; I’m not even that good a swimmer, so thinking about snorkelling and being on a boat every day made my anxiety levels sky high – but when it came to the actual trip, I surprised myself to find that none of these paranoid thoughts even came to mind (apart from the odd occasion when I was positive I was going to be eaten by a shark while snorkelling).
The crew were absolutely amazing – led by a fun and charming guy called Dodo who never failed to keep our spirits high even when we got sea-sick, or stupidly sunburnt, or caught in terrifying typhoon-like weather conditions.
We brought in the new year on a deserted island on the first night of the trip, after which each stop-off brought something different: exploring beautiful white islands, meeting locals, eating delicious, fresh food (and lots of rice – they called it ‘Filipino power’), learning about their farm, playing volleyball, fishing for our meals, drinking deadly, homemade punch called ‘Jungle Juice’, meeting countless stray but surprisingly friendly dogs and giving them all nicknames, and FINDING NEMO – YES I FOUND NEMO.
After the 5 days, we ended the trip visiting the Big Lagoon near El Nido and snorkelled through crystal blue waters, explored a limestone cave and drank beer on the secret beach before being dropped off at the harbour. I may have been absolutely knackered, covered in sea salt and mosquito bites, and ugly as hell, but I could easily have done the whole trip over again. To risk sounding cheesy, it was a once in a lifetime experience and I’d recommend it to anyone; even for the not-amazingly-travelled, frizzy-haired, scaredy-cat humans like myself.
Time to relax: Puerto Princesa
When we planned the Philippines trip, I was adamant that we’d visit a list of tourist attractions like Starfish Island and other Instagrammable locations, but to be honest, after visiting around 10 of Palawan’s islands and snorkelling until our skin pruned up, we felt the need to just chill and enjoy the luxury of a hot shower and resort life.
We stayed in 2 resorts in Puerto Princesa but one was specifically memorable – Dos Palmas – situated on an island called Arrecefi just an hour ferry ride from Honda Bay. I think it was the fact it was on a private island that made it particularly special – not to mention seeing BABY REEF SHARKS just casually swimming around in the clear blue water crazily close to the shore as we walked into the resort from the pier. From that moment on I was completely obsessed with the sharks and kept going back to visit, trying to get footage of them on the GoPro but failing miserably because they would swim away as soon as I got too close. I suppose the best memories are recorded in the mind’s eye, am I right? Nah, who am I kidding – I’m still crying at the fact I couldn’t include those little sharkbaes in my video.
Moving on from crazy shark lady talk – Dos Palmas is well worth a visit. Everything from food and drink to beauty treatments was extremely cheap despite it being a more high-end place to stay – I got a pedicure for £3; I literally couldn’t believe it. The staff were super cute and friendly, and to top it off there was a private karaoke room that we obviously absolutely tore apart with ‘Barbie Girl’ after downing 25,000 cocktails.
Looking back on this summary of the trip, I’ve just realised how old and boring I now am for having no nightlife included here. TAO took up most of the trip and we did plan on going out after that – but each of us got the classic ‘travel tummy’ (be careful with getting any tap water anywhere near your mouth) at different times so we tended to just stick to the resorts and drink there. I also was so jetlagged I kept having to have naps at 9pm or just literally go to bed, because apparently I am 95. On our last night in Puerto Princesa we did go to a cool bar with live music and beer pong, pool etc. called Tiki Bar that was really fun, but if you wanted to know about nightlife, sorry you wasted 10 minutes of your life reading this I suppose? What I can tell you:
- Exploding Kittens.
- Strong mosquito repellent – those little bastards will eat you alive otherwise.
- Waterproof cover for your camera for sick Instagram footage.
- Reef shoes – if you’re snorkelling. You can get them in shops everywhere in Palawan. They’re so ugly but useful for protecting your feet against sharp coral (I got camouflaged print ones so that my feet would just be invisible and you wouldn’t see them at all – smart move).
- Sun cream! And lots of it. I am so guilty of being one of those Brits who wears oil on the first day of the holiday because I want to get as tanned as possible, but you really can’t do that in the Philippines, especially if spending a lot of time on a boat or snorkelling – you will literally fry. I would even go as far as to suggest wearing a t-shirt while snorkelling – it killed me on my first day even when wearing factor 30.
- Dioralyte – to rehydrate if you get the shits (you’re around 90% likely to get the shits, I’m sorry to say) or just to help a hangover.
From this massive essay I’ve just written, it’s clear to see that I absolutely loved Palawan, and I’ll definitely be back to the Philippines again to see more of its beautiful islands. If you’re planning to visit Palawan this year, I hope you find this useful – and I’m also extremely jealous!
If you have any questions about my travels, TAO Philippines, or anything else (apart from maybe my apparent bowel issues), feel free to get in touch at email@example.com.