THE recent maiden Philippine Airlines flights to Tawi-Tawi from Cotabato City paved the way for myself to explore the country’s southernmost province once again. I remember when I first went here, I met a slew of curious queries about safety when traveling to Tawi-Tawi. As we all remember, this province once hogged the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Most visitors are perplexed by the Tawi-Tawi province. When people hear about it, they experience a tug of war of perception. On the other end, are yesteryear’s reports of brazen kidnappings and insurgency battles with terror groups. On one hand, there’s the rich cultural and natural wonders that are made more appealing by the generally friendly nature of the locals.
Fortunately, in the last couple of decades, it saw the region flourishing in peaceful times and the former perception of Tawi-Tawi as a hotspot of insurgency is now far on its rear-view mirror. Traveling to Tawi-Tawi today, is no different than journeying to other places in the country.
A taste of local cuisine
For five days I get to explore the province once again that includes sampling local cuisines heavily influenced by the gastronomic culture of neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia.
Tasty grubs like the Murtabak, a pancake pan-fried bread stuffed with fillings, and other Mindanaoan specialty like Satti, which is made of chicken or beef skewers swimming on a plate of sweet and spicy red sauce served with sticky rice balls, and a slew of Tawi-Tawi breakfast delights; Wadjit, Tsikalang, Apam, Putri Mandi, Pangi-pangi, Palikambing, Junay and more, satisfied our cravings in between exploring several places.
But, of course, the one thing I was looking forward to, was returning to Panampangan.
Second time’s a charm in Panampangan Island
Panampangan Island is believed to have the longest sandbar in the Philippines. The sandbar which extend to its neighboring islet, Basibuli is said to measure roughly three kilometers during low tide.
Its end-to-end tip is separated by more than a thousand steps. I must have accumulated a few hundred, which was sufficient for me to thoroughly engross myself in the fascinating natural surroundings we were in that day. Nothing prevented me from listening to the waves’ humming as I felt the hot sand of Panampangan Island beneath my bare feet, shining sun or not.
The island has almost no permanent structure other than a few small cottage sheds and a long wooden jetty while the rest of the island is populated by coconut trees and random shrubs. Rows of Badjao stilt houses erected on the shallow part of the Celebes Sea can be seen half a kilometer away. As I walked towards where the sandbar’s edge disappears into the deep, I crossed path with one of the Badjaos. He nodded to me while speaking something in Tausug. I can only return his smile.
Sacred and historical sites in Tawi-Tawi
We also took the opportunity of visiting the other historical and sacred sites in Tawi-Tawi. One of these is the Sheik Karim al Makhdum Mosque. This mosque, located on the island of Simunul, is the Philippines’ oldest mosque. It was named after its builder, Arab merchant and Islamic preacher Sheik Makhdum Karim, who came here in the 1380s. Even though the mosque has been rebuilt several times, four of its original wooden pillars are still preserved inside.
Next is Tawi-Tawi’s sacred mountain of Bud Bongao. Standing only 1,100 feet above sea level, it holds greater significance in the province’s history, culture, and religion. Some even believe that one of the first followers of Karim ul-Makhdum, the Arab preacher who introduced Islam to the country more than 600 years ago, was buried here.
Bud Bongao is still revered by the locals today. It’s also a 250-hectare biodiversity area protected by both the Bongao local government and the hundreds of playful long-tailed macaques who hang out along the trail to the top.
For a taste of the hustle and bristle of local scene, there’s the Old Chinese Port where a colorful row of wooden ships, immediately caught my attention. Hundreds of years ago, it was the main trading port for Arab, Malay, and Chinese merchants. Today, it remains a major fishing and trading port, as well as an important seaport for the many islands of Tawi-Tawi, and in some cases, a gateway to Malaysia and Indonesia.
We also witnessed a trading system that I thought has long since gone extinct—barter trade. In the Municipality of Panglima Sugala, a town known as Tawi-Tawi’s “food basket”, there exist a market place where traders from the islands would exchange fresh seafood catch with agricultural products harvested by traders from the mainland—all without the need to pay in local currency.
Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines’ southernmost province, remains a mystery to most visitors, despite its colorful culture and fascinating history. It would be a shame to overlook it in favor of other destinations.
Visitors to this province will be rewarded with a memorable experience thanks to its diversity and colorful culture that has been preserved for hundreds of years. Previously overlooked and incorrectly associated with security concerns, Tawi-Tawi is quickly becoming a favorite option for travelers looking for a place brimming with cultural wonders and unforgettable sights.
Image credits: Marky Ramone Go