by Julia Escano
Tawi-tawi’s neighboring islands: Basilan and Sulu may still be war-torn, and the rest of Southern Mindanao may still get a bad rap, but the province itself is working hard to shed these negative images. Through tourism, the country’s southwestern-most island is slowly but surely building a reputation around its natural beauty, cultural charm, and peace-loving people. According to the Philippine Star, Tawi-tawi made a revenue of P965 million last year from tourism alone. With such numbers, the 50,000+ local and foreign tourists must have been on to something.
Tawi-tawi has always been questioned because of its proximity to volatile provinces. But a handful of reputable bloggers, like Ferdz Decena of Ironwulf.net, and travelers, like American photographer Jacob Maentz of Jacobimages.com, among many others have documented that a trip to the province is nothing but a positive experience. The key is to abide by the government’s stringent safety precautions and respect the local culture, and you should have nothing to worry about, as Pia Ranada of Rappler shares from a trip last year.
It’s best to coordinate with a local contact or the province’s tourism office even before you facilitate booking accommodations, find a transportation service, make an itinerary, and have someone aware of your whereabouts. Since Tawi-tawi is new to the tourism scene, hotels and tour companies are still rare – but that just makes it all the more intriguing and exciting to visit.
If you’re ready to venture into the unknown and have an unparalleled adventure, check out the raw splendor and undiscovered beauty of the many things to see in Tawi-tawi.
Bongao Town Proper
The capital of Tawi-tawi is a necessary stop for all tourists. This is where everyone is required to register at the tourism office as a safety precaution. But while the town proper looks like any other town in the country, it’s the little details and the surrounds that give it an extra charm. The market is lined with stalls, filled with many local delicacies like marang, durian, shells, fresh fish, and the province’s biggest product, seaweed. From the colors you see to the sounds you hear, it’s a definite indication that you’re in another world.
Bongao is also where you can appreciate Islamic architecture. The Provincial Capitol Building is built in the Islamic domed style and rises above the town at the foot of Bud Bongao, the mountain looming over the island. The famous White Masjid of Bongao, meanwhile, sits almost on the edge of the coast. The small white and blue mosque against the coconut trees and the ocean is a surreal sight emphasizing the quiet beauty of the province.
Bud Bongao is a sacred peak where many locals make regular pilgrimages. It takes about 30 minutes to an hour to get to the top, where unobstructed views of the town below and blue seas beyond can be seen. Locals pay a visit to the mountain to pray for illnesses, ask for blessings, and make prayer offerings. The way up is relatively easy. It’s also filled with monkeys, waiting for “blessings” from humans. It’s advisable to bring bananas on your way up to share some food for the mountain’s furry guardians.
Balobok Rock Shelter
The way to Barangay Lakit-lakit, where the Balobok Cave and Rock Shelter can be found, is not for the faint of heart. Apart from being a rough road, it is mostly uninhabited and is lined with thick vegetation. For those with overactive imaginations, it’s easy to think that it’s the kind of place where something can go horribly wrong, in the way many people fear in Tawi-tawi. But for those who persist, absolute adventure awaits. At the end of the road is the Balobok Rock Shelter, an expanse of karst formations significant for the archaeological finds discovered there.
Ancient tools, earthenware, and polished stones found on the spot date back to more than 5000 years old. Getting down to the actual cove is an experience in itself as well. The old boardwalk that led down to the cove is now completely washed away by typhoons, and the only way down is a lone log. Once down, there isn’t much to see except for the rock formations and the secluded cove. But the isolation and intactness of the place give the feeling of fulfillment upon discovering a secret.
The Turtle Islands Heritage Protected area comprises of 9 islands between the Philippines and Malaysia lying in the Greater Sulu-Sulawesi Corridor. Of the 9 islands, 6 are under the Philippines’ jurisdiction and belong to the province of Tawi-tawi. The islands of Baguan, Great Bakkungan, Boan, Langaan, Lihiman, and Taganak, collectively known as Turtle Islands, are major breeding grounds for green sea turtles and hawksbill turtles. They are a major tourism draw for the region, along with the rich marine biodiversity of the area.
To ensure that visitors don’t get in the way of nesting, sustainable tourism measures are being put in place. This allows the local community to create a livelihood while protecting their environment. For wildlife lovers, this isn’t only a place where you can witness baby turtles tasting the sea for the very first time, but also a way to help preserve and care for one of the most important ecosystems in the world.
Simunul is a quiet island about an hour away from Bongao. It holds the honor of being the cradle of Islam in the Philippines, with the first ever mosque in the country built here in 1380. The Sheikh Makhdum Mosque was constructed by Sheikh Karimul Makhdum using wood and other light materials. It stood for 500 years before getting ravaged by fire. Today the mosque has been rebuilt with concrete, but still retains the original pillars in the interiors. Near the mosque is the tomb of the Sheikh himself, where visitors can pay their respects.
Sitangkai and Omapuy
Sitangkai is the last municipality in Tawi-tawi before Sabah. Along with its neighboring island of Omapuy, it is populated by Badjao and Sama Dilaut peoples. Both towns are also two of the highest producing municipalities in the province for seaweed, Tawi-tawi’s main product. Here visitors can learn about seaweed cultivation and watch its farming process.
Entering Sitangkai is an experience on its own, as the clusters of stilt houses unfold along the water. Sitangkai and Omapuy have no roads. They are made up of waterways, canals, and footbridges which connect the towns in a complex web. For this, Sitangkai has been nicknamed “Venice of the South”. Watching the locals trade and conduct their businesses on water is a sight unique to this region. Unlike floating markets elsewhere in the world, there is an added layer of authenticity to the ones happening here.
Less than an hour by boat from Sitangkai is Sibutu. It is known for its boat builders and woodworkers, who are famous all over the region. It is even arguable that majority of the boats, locally knows as kumpit, plying the waters of the Sulu and Celebes Seas are from this small island. Watching these master craftsmen at work is very fascinating, as they put all their energy into creating the sleek wooden boats under the hot sun.
An unfinished shrine for Sheikh Makhdum, who brought Islam into the Philippines, can also be found on the island. Despite it being incomplete, it’s still a sight worth seeing, with its Islamic architectural details. The people of Sibutu, like those of Simunul, say that Sheikh Makhdum is buried in their island. Either way, it has paved for some interesting cultural sights and National Landmarks.
Sangasiapu and Panampangan Islands
The truth is, getting to these islands isn’t as easy because passenger boats don’t include them in their routes. Both are at least a 45-minute ride from the main island of Bongao, and boats aren’t as frequent. One reason is the very low population – Sangasiapu Island, for instance, is only inhabited by less than 10 families. That level of isolation though is also part of their appeal. Both islands are covered in powder white, fine sand and crystal clear turquoise waters. Because of their distance, they are more untouched than any other white sand beach in the country. Panampangan Island is even termed a “virgin island” because of this, and both remain largely undocumented.
Saluag Island sits at the southernmost tip of the Philippines, so far south that one of its closest neighbors is Sabah, Malaysia. This is evident in the abundance of Malaysian products in their stores and the fact that locals travel to Sabah more often than they do mainland Mindanao. Like Tawi-tawi’s other islets, Saluag is unassuming. Its Tausug and Sama Dilaut residents survive on a livelihood of seaweed farming and partake in no form of commercial tourism whatsoever. Its quiet stretches of white sand beach and intricate web of stilt houses offer a different level of escape. Notable sights on the island are the two lighthouses standing side by side near the shore. One is an old lighthouse with character, and one is a newer lighthouse which complements the old one perfectly. These are also the twin beacons that welcome visitors to the edge of the country.
*How to get to Tawi-tawi
From Manila, Cebu, and Davao, Tawi-tawi is accessible via flights to Zamboanga City. Cebu Pacific connects the Zamboanga City to Sanga-sanga Airport in Bongao with one flight a day, and two flights on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Tawi-tawi is also accessible by sea from Zamboanga, through Aleson Shipping, which travels to Bongao every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Once there, you can contact the Tawi-tawi Tourism Office for assistance with your accommodations and itinerary. Look for Ms. Salve Pescadera at (+63) 910-6716367 or (+63) 905-1547865.