When you hear about Tawi-Tawi, what goes through your mind? Fear? Apprehension? A voice inside your head saying, “There’s no way I’m going to that place.” That’s what we thought too — until we had a chance to visit the Philippines’ southernmost province.
With 11 municipalities under its jurisdiction, Tawi-Tawi was originally part of Sulu before it became a separate province in the 1970s. Its name was derived from the Sinama term jawi-jawi, a reference to the Malay word for the banyan tree which is said to be abundant in the island. Most of the locals in the province belong to the Sama indigenous group, with a dispersed population of Jama Mapun, Badjaos, and Tausugs. The native Sama language is the vernacular, with some variations in the islands. Badjao Sama is also being spoken. Agriculture, mainly fishing and sea grass farming are the main source of livelihood of the province.
Exploring the island would not be complete without conquering its sacred sites, peaks and islands, including the birthplace of Islam in the Philippines. This also explains why Islam is the predominant religion of locals. Touring the province is possible within the mainland and the islands. The mainland tour would cover most of the capital town, Bongao, and the adjacent municipalities. Tawi-Tawi’s island towns are easily accessible by commuter or private boats but could take long hours and even days of in open waters. It is also possible to reach Malaysian Borneo via Semporna in Sabah.
Despite its relative distance and isolation, not to mention the negative perceptions alluding to the peace and order, we actually felt safer there than in other places that we’ve been too. In fact, we have seen more suspicious locals and soldiers on foot patrol in Zamboanga City than in downtown Bongao that time [Note: Our trip to Zamboanga and Tawi-Tawi came just a few days after the Jakarta bomb attacks, so it was natural for the local government to be on high alert]. But as our guide has advised us, it is still best to take precaution and coordinate with authorities about any attempts to tour the province.
We arrived in Sanga-Sanga Airport on a fair day and was warmly received by the staff of the Provincial Tourism Office, which has an office smack at the airport. After a nice chat, we were fetched by our host, a doctor who happen to own a resort accommodation nearby. From there, our guide dropped by the resort as we made our way to our first stop for this quick Tawi-Tawi tour.
WHAT TO SEE/DO
Many travelers and even locals say that you haven’t been to Tawi-Tawi if haven’t conquered the most sacred mountain and the highest point in the province, Bud Bongao. This imposing mountain greets you once your plane approaches Bongao. As soon as we arrived on a clear Saturday morning, we proceeded directly to the jump-off of the revered mountain. It took as about three hours negotiating a mix of cemented and paved trails, with some steep approaches, but the trail is mostly covered. Along the way, we encountered a population of monkeys, which are obviously comfortable with human presence, their cue that food (bananas) is coming.
Close to the peak, we also passed by what we learned as the resting place of the some of the Muslim preachers, some even dating back to the time when Islam was first introduced to the islands. This makes Bud Bongao so sacred to many Muslim pilgrims who come to the mountain to pray and make wishes by tying strips of cloth and plastic on branches and trunks of trees.
As soon as we set sight on an observation tower (which is a military installation), we knew that we have finally reached the highest peak of the province. The grassy summit offers a picture perfect view of the vast, turquoise waters of Celebes Sea. On a clear day, the island of Borneo is visible from this vantage point and we could actually see the outline of the island farther south.
Bud Bongao also hides a secret. Unknown to many, this relatively small mountain is a treasure trove of endemic and endangered biodiversity. Besides its obvious residents, which we later learned as the endemic Philippine long-tailed macaque, there are more rare terrestrial flora and fauna that make the mountain as their home.
After some selfies and Instagram moments, we made our way down. It was way faster and easier to go down this time. We made it back to the resort a little past noon where we also had our late lunch and arranged with our guide for a quick Bongao town proper tour at 3 PM.
Our next stop was to roam around and experience Bongao. Our first destination was the traditional Badjao community. There we found ourselves in the company of playful children and curious elders as we approached this village made famous by director Brillante Mendoza in his award-winning 2012 film ‘Thy Womb’ starring Nora Aunor.
As we walked on wooden alleys and gazed upon the stilt houses in the Badjao village, we were led to a certain house, which we later learned was owned by a local woman leader and enterprising weaver. There, a group of mothers showed us their weaving prowess and were able to convince us to buy some souvenir items.
We then went straight to the government center, where their unique provincial capitol building is located. The Tawi Tawi Provincial Capitol is an imposing structure, resembling a mosque, is a symbol of faith of the province. Standing in front of the capitol provides a great view of the town proper and the bay.
Anticipating to catch the Tawi-Tawi sunset, we dropped by the local port known as the Chinese Pier to see for ourselves the different kinds of sea vessels and the nearby market for local food and goods. There are even some Malaysian products which you can buy here for affordable prices.
Going around town is relatively easy through tricycles or motorcycle. If you opt to check out the islands, you can coordinate with the tourism office for the boat rental. In our case, with the help of the Provincial Tourism Office, we availed of a local guide fee for day tour (hike up Bud Bongao – Php 500 & Bongao Town Tour – Php 300).
Given our limited time, we let go of our island hopping itinerary and reserved this for a longer stay next time, maybe about 5 days to see everything else Tawi Tawi has to offer.
Simunul Island. Just less than an hour from mainland Bongao is the island of Simunul. It is said that in 1380, Sheik Karimul Makhdum arrived here to spread Islam. This small islet would later become the Birthplace of the Islamic Faith in the Philippines, making it an important site for Muslims. It is here where the first mosque was built and nearby is believed to be the tomb of Sheik Makhdum.
Sitangkay Island. This island municipality is best known as the Venice of the South. It is also the largest producer of seaweeds in the province.
Saluag Island. The southernmost island of the Philippines.
There are currently no direct flights to Tawi-Tawi from Manila and vice versa, so one has to take the flight to Zamboanga City then take the daily flight to Bongao, the capital town.Cebu Pacific operates this route daily. Airfare – Manila-Zamboanga / Zamboanga-Tawi-Tawi (Sanga-Sanga Airport). There is a boat from Zamboanga City travelling for a longer travel to Tawi-Tawi.
Going Around. The most convenient mode to tour the province is by tricycle or motorcycle for the mainland tour and by local boats for island hopping.
WHERE TO STAY
Surprisingly, there are actually many choices of accommodations in Bongao town ranging from resort, inns and lodging houses. Some of the inns also offer meals. In our case, the Tourism office recommended the Almari Resort, better known locally as Dr. Ibbo’s Famous Beach. Rate is Php 1,000/night for 2pax . They also provide meals upon order. Contact Person is Dr. Ibbo, 0917 718 8095.
Contact Person: Ms Dang, Tawi-Tawi Provincial Tourism Office | 0935 938 4763