Tawi-Tawi: A beautiful pearl in Sulu’s waterworld

In Photo Panampangan, Philippines’ longest sandbar

NO fear. That’s what can be said of my views on the southwestern Philippines, much more the Sulu island groups. I rarely believe the bad rep these islands get.

These stories are like ancient tales retold and rewoven by people who have not even been there, not seen the real picture and heard only “horror stories” from third party sources. Not only have they failed miserably to update old data on Tawi-Tawi but continue to use these to support biases.

Stunning white beach on Mapun Island

What’s also annoying is the tone of articles about Tawi-Tawi that portray the islands as a lair of bandits and its people as pirates. Some of these articles are based on information that is unreliable or came from people who may have gone to Tawi-Tawi years ago but haven’t acknowledged that situations have changed. These articles scare the hell out of innocent travelers.

Last year, around one million people visited Tawi-Tawi yet a few still ask if it is safe to travel there.

The night I mulled over accepting an invitation to go to Tawi-Tawi brought me to the eve of my first trip to New York City. My friends had bled my ears to death from unsolicited advice on how not get mugged in Manhattan—“Don’t stare at people;” “Never walk alone in Central Park,” etc., etc. All these “tips” turned out not to be true as with other pieces of advice I got before I went to several European cities after tasting a bit of life in the Big Apple.

The Adman cometh

I have always been adventurous. I stretch my boundaries at some point. I guess my being an adman made me that way; that the only way to find the truth is being actually there in the marketplace to be able to write truthfully.

Tawi-Tawi’s Sacred Mountain, Bud Bongao

I am referring to misconceptions about Sulu islands, the “hot spot” much maligned by bad press.

Still, my views should not be considered Gospel truth. I forward the view that some can interpret information differently by seeing people and situations in a positive light.

With that principle, I accepted the invitation to travel to the southwestern Philippines even if we were only four (two travel bloggers, a cameraman and myself). Usually, the regular entourage I travel with are composed of seven to ten people. I presumed the others had backed out or chose not to go. The lesser, the better (and quieter), I thought the day I waited for my flight.

What’s probably on the mind of the no-go people is the negative connotation associated with Tawi-Tawi.

But I could tell them right now that Tawi-Tawi is the safest province within the Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi archipelago. Pirates do not exist there because there is a naval base stationed in Panglima Sugala. The Philippine Coast Guard regularly patrols the shores, too.

Simunul Island, site of the oldest mosque in the Philippines

Smooth as silk

THE almost two-hour late afternoon flight to Zamboanga (where we would spend the night) was surprisingly smooth as silk, to use a foreign airline’s tagline.

After a quick check-in at Garden Orchid Hotel, we were brought to the Alavar Restaurant for the obligatory “Curacha” dinner.

The chi-chi members of Davao media were already comfortably seated when we got there. Their bandwidth frequency ran high as they dominated the dining chitchat airwaves. As in most media familiarity tours I’ve been to, no one introduced them to us, and us, to them, so we ended up gingerly, cautiously guessing who they were.

We were then told that our wake-up call would be at 5 a.m., which meant we should sleep early and all power bank batteries must be fully charged to the last bar. Like all my first nights in a new place, I would not be able to sleep and, much to my abomination, I had asthma, aggravated by a room reeking with chest-piercing scent of cigarette smoke.

Day one

I woke up at 3 a.m., ready for our much-awaited flight to Tawi-Tawi.

While counting sheep, I had mentally reviewed Sulu’s geography: which islets and island provinces we will be flying over. The thrill of hovering above them gave me goosebumps.

Mayor Jimuel Que, perhaps the youngest mayor in the Philippines

I also loved the fact our plane will be within striking distance to Borneo (Sabah) when we get to Sitangkai and Sibutu, islands that have always mystified me.

It was drizzling when we arrived in Zamboanga airport. I was expecting some turbulence across the Sulu Seas when the plane took off. But that did not happen.

The only thing that disturbed me was when we were already descending to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi’s capital town.

As we were approaching Sanga-Sanga airport, the plane abruptly maneuvered up and the pilot announced: “We apologize for the inconvenience but we will attempt to land for the second time because of poor visibility.”

Another fifteen minutes of circling the island, we were able to land.

Hello, Tawi-Tawi

AMERICAN documentary and travel photographer Jacob Maentz describes the Sulu Sea in his website as “one of the most beautiful seascapes on earth.”

I echo Maentz’s statement.

White Mosque in Bongao

Despite its reputation, the entire strings of islands look like an untouched tropical paradise with a huge tourism potential. From the air, every single islet is ringed with white sand: What a sight to behold!

As soon as we had set foot in Tawi-Tawi, I had thought I would be seeing a different country but no, it was just like another Philippine town, except for beautiful mosques, Islamic influences on house structures and the sound of the ‘kulintang’ gently thumping our ears with a warm welcome.

From the airport, we rolled through Bongao’s concrete roads and passed through the historic Ridjiki (“blessing”) boulevard, built near the big expanse of Sulu and Celebes seas.

We saw children jumping and swimming into its turquoise blue waters. We saw young men and women chatting on the sea wall. Had we came late in the afternoon on that day, we would have seen a gloriously spectacular sunset.

The seaport has served the local populace for hundreds of years, a docking place for motored ferry boats from the municipalities of Sitangkai, Sibutu, Simunul, Sapa-Sapa, Tandubas, Languyan, South Ubian, Mapun, Turtle Island and other far-flung islands.

Oldest mosque

AS we went past Ridjiki, a black mountain standing in solitude beckoned on the horizon. It was a mini-version of Australia’s Uluru Ayers Rock towering 342 meters above sea level amidst the flat island of Bongao.

We were heading to Simunul, an island town where one could see the country’s oldest mosque. Tour guide Tony Said brought us to a seaport where we would take our speedboat.

Nearby is the White Mosque, located in Barangay Tubig Tanah. Sitting quietly on a manicured carpet of grass, the mosque gleams against a backdrop of coconut trees; adjacent to the house of Tawi-Tawi’s provincial governor.

It was a quick ride to Simunul. The island has an attention-getting port entrance because of a big replica of a Koran on top of its archway. Crystal-clear blue waters, clean streets, symmetrical houses on stilts, the entire island was picture-perfect.

We walked around the island and we saw Sheik Karim al Makdum Mosque, the oldest mosque in the country. Declared a national cultural treasure, it was visited by the late President Ferdinand Marcos in 1965.

The newly renovated mosque still stands on its original site that was built in 1380. Inside, the four original giant pillars (made from Philippine Iron tree, ipil) are encased in gilded iron railings.

We then moved to Poblacion Tampakan where we saw a monster of a crocodile measuring nineteen feet long and four feet wide on its tummy. Caught by Barangay Sukabulan fishermen, the beast has become an unusual attraction in Simunul.

Longest sandbar

IT was now time to visit the longest sandbar in the Philippines: Panampangan, a spectacular work of nature that measures three kilometers from end-to-end forming the shape of a crescent moon.

The extraordinary sandbar is gifted with soft, silky, powdery white sand that could be ranked as one of the best in the world.

Along the way are sea vehicles called Bintang boats.

“They come and go,” our tour guide said. “They are culturally Malay but have assimilated with the Badjao culture and daily life.”

There were also inter-island Ferry boats that are loaded with passengers among who are men in military uniforms. Each time they went past us, they reminded me what our Zamboanga tour guide Errold Bayona said.

“When you meet them along the way, raise your hand and wave back,” Bayona had advised.

There was also a Muslim Wedding boat.

One would know they are rushing to an island nearby for a wedding ceremony because of one thing: a malong (traditional Muslim tube skirt) flying in the wind, like a flag planted near the boat’s prow.

There were also flocks of wild sea gulls a number of which routinely swoop down the water surface to catch flying fishes.

More birds appeared on the horizon as our boat reached Panampangan.

The hardly visited island is now getting visitors and more are trickling in. Wrong perceptions have unfairly hounded many stunningly beautiful places in Tawi-Tawi for decades, but the truth is, it is safe and heavily guarded by Philippine Navy, Marines and five Badjao families that live in the island.

Highest view deck

ONE can call this mountain a masterpiece of nature.

Bud (meaning “mountain”) has vertical limestone rocks and verdant moist forest. The mountain has six limestone pillars that form six of its peaks. They have viewing decks named after Bongao, Pajar, Sibutu (the summit), Simunul, Tambisan and Tinondakan.

We climbed a 3,608-step cobblestone trail and reached the highest view deck on Tambisan Peak in less than hour. The magnificent view at the top unraveled the coast of Sabah accentuated by a solitary eagle soaring above the deep blue sea. The summit gave us an almost 360-degree view of the Celebes Sea.

Before ascending, we were told not to bring plastic bottles. But we could bring bananas to feed schools of Macaques (monkeys) that populate the entire mountain. Barely a quarter of the total height, two of our companions returned to the foot of the mountain.

Halfway through, I wanted to stop and just sit on one of the rest huts. My inner self said “No” even if my chest was tightening and knees were wobbling.

My shirt was now all wet as I was sweating profusely. “No turning back now,” I said, in an effort to establish a personal record: book my first real mountain climb.

Sacred mountain

ALONG the way, we would occasionally meet a family with a young boy or girl in tow.

It was explained to us that it’s a Bongao tradition, a sign of respect to bring young ones to a royal Muslim burial site above the mountain. It is also a practice to request for the sick to get cured. A hike is also a sign of penitence, the mountain being a holy ground for Muslims.

By this time, the forest monkeys have started to come down. I immediately saw one throwing his full body weight to branches of trees. Some would walk along the trail and glide through railings.

I was able to capture one on video but as I got closer, he began to open his mouth wide open revealing his sharp fangs. Fearing he would jump at me and I would be off-balanced and—horrors—fall off the cliff, I backed off.

Said, our tireless tour guide, told us there is an Imam (Muslim priest) on the site. One can leave a donation and the Imam will pray for you. Mountain trekkers can also make a wish by hurling pebbles towards the ravine. They say that if it hits the rock, his wish would come true.

As it was almost five in the afternoon, we readied ourselves to come down. The race was on, who will reach the foot of the mountain first? I did, though my knees were hurting badly and my leg calves ached like hell.

Bud Bongao trail

THE Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) spent P56 million in developing the Bud Bongao Trail.

The construction of an access road to Bongao Peak was the first eco-tourism park project developed by the regional government. It included construction of a tourist center where visitors can register and receive orientation before climbing. The fund also was used to build 750 steps made of concrete and railings for construction of resting sheds.

Bongao Peak is one of the 12 key biodiversity sites in the country protected under the “New Conservation Areas in the Philippines Project” of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Around 1,500 tourists visit the peak every week.

To increase visitor arrival in the town, Bongao Mayor Jimuel S. Que said the local government would help sustain and maintain Bud Bongao and will also conduct activities that will further promote tourism in the municipality.

Que said his governance would see further development of more community-based tourism that will also focus on local culture.

A feast of seafood

WE barely had time to freshen up when we arrived at the Que’s house for the dinner the mayor graciously hosted.

The boyish-looking Que gave us a sumptuous feast of the freshest seafood we’ve ever tasted—huge crabs, succulent white clam soup, “Samaral,” broiled squid and, the winner of the night, Mantis Shrimp (alupihang dagat). The latter won because it tasted so good like lobster and oozed with roe from end to end.

It was also a time to interview the mayor who gamely answered courteous and no-holds-barred questions. Que said he is hopeful about the positive buzz Tawi-Tawi is getting today.

“We want to start slow, we don’t want to rush things,” he added. “We want to fix peace and order in the community first.”

Speaking of peace and order, Que said Bongao is one of the most peaceful towns in Sulu.

“We used to only have one battalion of soldiers; now we have three. And the local government units [LGUs] are cooperating. We want to maintain peace and order here. “Ayaw naming masira ’yon [We don’t want to ruin it],” he said.

Big potential

ARMM Tourism Secretary Ayesha Dilangalen sees the big potential of Tawi-Tawi as a tourist destination.

Dilangalen said the establishment of a tourism council and the creation of an association of hoteliers and restaurants in the province have helped boost tourism in Tawi-Tawi.

Bongao alone has 300 hotel and pension house rooms for tourists. Still, Dilangalen is hoping that more hoteliers will invest in the province.

But in order for tourism to thrive, electricity, water and communication must flow unceasingly. Que laments that some of Bongao’s basic needs are not addressed.

“Many of our islands don’t have rivers to supply the water needs of our people,” he added. “Electrification is also a problem.”

Still, he is thankful the Regional Board of Investments of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (RBOI-ARMM) has approved an 8-megawatt capacity diesel power plant project in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi.

“For a region where residents miserably experience daily rotational brownouts due to power shortage, this is great news,” Que said. The whole of Sulu archipelago, including Tawi-Tawi, is the least penetrated market for power projects.

Que also reiterated his mayorship would continue implementing an efficient waste disposable management in the town, make its seas and beaches trash-free and encourage people to be more environmentally conscious.

Economic zone

TOURISM Secretary Wanda T. Teo shared her hopes for Tawi-Tawi during an interagency dialogue on the Zamboanga-Sandakan Air connectivity and Tawi-Tawi Freeport and Ecozone Project in Zamboanga City on February 26.

Teo spoke as chairman of the Tourism Cluster of the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area (Bimp-Eaga). She said only Mindanao and Palawan are not connected by air and sea to the other three countries. She is optimistic that with the upcoming cruise tourism in Buliluyan, Bataraza, Palawan and Kudat, Malaysia, “we can now be truly connected with the BIMP-Eaga.”

Teo also said the Philippines would be aggressively promoting Mindanao through the “Go South Philippines” campaign of the Department of Tourism (DOT).

“We believe in the vast offerings of the island, including ARMM, specifically, Tawi-Tawi. With its beautiful beaches and its location as a natural gateway, there is vast potential for the island,” she said. “Thus, the proposal to develop the Tawi-Tawi Integrated Seaport and Economic Zone will prove to be a worthwhile [contribution to tourism].”

Go South

Teo said the DOT is tapping the younger generation of travelers to see the countryside with the campaign, zeroing in on the entire Mindanao island for the first quarter of 2018, beginning with Davao and to other Mindanao regions in the following months.

“Go South” will be our new message and tone for Mindanao,” Teo said.

The DOT is reviving this highly successful marketing campaign to give Mindanao a stronger and unified voice as a “single tourism destination”. Among its lofty objectives is to position Mindanao by spotlighting its world-renowned attractions, like the Unesco World Heritage sites of Mount Hamiguitan, Mount Apo and Mount Kitanglad.

As part of our efforts to improve the tourism experience of our country’s Asean neighbors, Teo said the DOT has initiated “Muslim Friendly Tourism to cater to specific needs of our brethren of the Islamic faith.”

Teo added there is much to see in Mindanao.

“As we launch our “Go South” campaign, we will showcase the “Land of Promise” in a new light of fun, adventure and pleasant memories,” she said. “With the launch of these routes, we are taking the first step and we firmly believe that we, as a united front, will sustain what we have started.”


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