Palawan by Paraw Boat
March 26, 2015
The aged craft of paraw boat building is coming alive again in the Philippines. Isobel Diamond boards the just-finished Balatik for a voyage through Bacuit Bay and Palawan’s remote northerly islands. Photographed by Katherine Jack.
Published on Mar 26, 2015
I first met this ship in 2013. She was little more than wooden bones docked in the mouth of the Babuyan River, in a jungle clearing on the outskirts of Puerto Princesa. It was a thrilling sight: her bare, coffee-brown timber engraved in intricate patterns by the local Palawan tribe.
Built entirely by hand, the exquisite craftsmanship hearkens back to the 11th century when 22-meter paraws were an invaluable commodity in Palawan, transporting cargo on pre-Hispanic trade routes. The skills to build, sail and navigate were vital art forms handed down through generations. But as engines came, sailing went, and the full-sized paraw vanished from the seas.
Cruising Palawan's waters.
As the centuries passed, marine artistry faded from the mainstream, but a niche group of craftsmen kept sailing and boatbuilding skills alive. One such artisan, Gener Paduga, ran expeditions on a small, self-built paraw in Honda Bay, Palawan's eastern shore. In the quest to build a large-scale version of this native double-outrigger boat, and bring this lost chapter of Filipino history back to life, he joined forces with local expedition company, Tao, and the Balatik (Orion) was born.
From a stately skeleton, Paduga and his team have built a vessel so striking it turns heads. As sleek as a Viking ship, her creamy sails billow from the 13-meter mast and the outriggers outstretch three meters across the ocean like giant insect legs.
Today, I'm embarking on a three-day expedition aboard the Balatik, which began tours this May. It is a peerless adventure on the only sailboat in Palawan taking guests to both the secluded islands of the remote north and across the karst-studded landscapes of Bacuit Bay.
Local carvers etch detailed traditional motifs into the Balatik.
Palawan Province is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve; its ecology is astounding and diverse. As annual visitor numbers increase, protection and care of the region become all the more important, making sustainability central to Tao's tourism approach. Sailboats can play a part in protecting Palawan's environment by reducing pollution caused by engine use. Out of season the Balatik will be a tool to teach local communities sailing and boatbuilding skills, reigniting a passion for lost traditions.
On the Balatik journey, accompanied by three fellow guests, I cruise among karsts and forest-capped islets and lie on bone-white beaches in empty coves. On Daracaton, a tiny fishing island, we greet villagers and watch children racing toy boats in the shallows. In Bacuit Bay we clamber through cool, dark caves and snorkel among Jurassic coral gardens and schools of brilliant fish. We swim in the evenings, dazzled by plankton glowing brighter than disco lights against the inky sea. Each night I sleep as if soothed by a lullaby. We stay both on board the ship in cabin bunks below deck and in wooden cabanas in Tao basecamps dotted across the archipelago.
It is the snapshot of an era past, the drama of prehistoric scenery and the thrill of sailing that should point every explorer towards this Palawan voyage. Aboard the Balatik, plucked from antiquity, a gentle calm sets in, and the ageless splendors of nature seem closer, somehow, within reach.
Palawan Province is a unesco Biosphere Reserve.
Book the five-day, four-night Paraw Expedition through Tao Philippines; taophilippines.com; P26,500 per person, including full board and a donation to Tao Kalahi Foundation projects, the company's charitable arm.