Standing majestic and proud, Bud Bongao or simply Bud (Bongao Peak), is the major landmark that greets visitors to the island province of Tawi-Tawi, the southernmost province of the country, located in the Autonomous Region on Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
This mountain cliff is considered sacred by locals, who believe that it has a power to heal people of sickness and cleanse them of their sins. Many locals hike up to ask for blessings for good health, to pray in the Muslim shrines along the way, or as a form of thanksgiving.
According to locals, you “haven’t been to Tawi-Tawi” unless you’ve hiked up Bongao Peak. The hike is easy enough to do in just half a day and the jump-off point is accessible, about 15-minutes drive from the town proper, so there’s no excuse not to hike up the peak if you’re already there. Here are a few tips I can share based on my trip earlier this year.
1) Hike up in the morning
Locals head up to Bud Bongao any time of the day, but we were told that the best time to head up is the morning. For those not used to nature hikes, it can get pretty hot during the climb and the weather will be somewhat cooler if you start early, at around 7 or 8 in the morning. If you’re in a group, this will ensure that everyone has time to catch up.
An average person can climb the peak in about 40 minutes to an hour. By the time you get up to the summit at mid-morning, the view of Sanga-Sanga airport and surrounding area from the summit will be perfect for photography. After spending an hour or so at the summit, you can start heading back down and be back in Bongao town proper by noon before the sun gets too scorching hot. Locals say that the summit is also very lovely during the sunset, but it could get pretty dark heading back down through the trails to the foot of the mountain.
2) Bring bananas
Before our hike, our local guide stopped by a small sari-sari store to buy a bunch of bananas for us to pay tribute to the inhabitants and “guardians” of the mountain – lots of monkeys.
It’s a good thing we did. During our climb up, lots of long-tailed macaques screeched as we passed by, holding out their hands to reach out for the bananas we had brought up. They nimbly grabbed the fruit tossed up into the trees by one of my companions, and then proceeded to ignored us, choosing to direct their attention to their breakfast.
The monkeys are apparently used to getting bananas from tourists and some of them are quite bold in approaching visitors. Local guides suggest that you don’t touch any of the monkeys to avoid any accidents.
If you don’t encounter any monkeys, then the bananas will be a great snack and energy booster to for the group to help you during your hike up.
Aside from monkeys, you can also spot other wild creatures like snakes. I don’t suggest you feed them any bananas though.
3) Share the trail
From afar, the sheer height of the mountain, which dominates the landscape of Bongao, seems daunting. But apparently, anyone can scale the peak through the forested mountain trail, in roughly an hour’s time, depending on your fitness level.
During the hike, I encountered several locals climbing up, including a mother with a young infant, a father carrying a toddler around his back, a group of children, and an elderly man with a cane, all hiking up.
Though most of the trail is a dirt trail, ridden with rocks and roots, some parts actually have steep cemented stairs, making it a bit easier to climb. Share the trail by moving to one side of the path to accommodate those going down and faster hikers so that you don’t hold everyone up.
4) Dress properly
It’s best not to bring a heavy bag or unnecessary items so that you don’t impair your ability to climb. I’d suggest you just bring a camera, a couple of bottles of drinking water and light snacks like biscuits or sandwiches.
The trails can get a bit slippery in some areas, so footwear with a good grip (not slippers) is a must. Wear light clothes like cargo shorts or cutoffs and bring a hat to shield yourself from the heat.
Tawi-Tawi is predominantly Muslim, so dress modestly. There are several Muslim shrines where locals stop to pray and pay their respects along the trail, and if you wish to do so, bring a scarf with you and remove your footwear before entering.
5) Leave nothing but footprints
On the way up to the summit, I noticed that many trees were adorned with pieces of colorful plastic tied in knots, which according to our guide represented wishes and prayers left by locals.
The view from the top is simply breathtaking. On clear, sunny days, the outline of Sabah, Malaysia can be seen from the summit. Other islands of Tawi-Tawi including Simunul, Sibutu, Sitangkai, and smaller ones are also visible. Standing on the peak just looking at the magnificent view was just an awesome experience and I couldn’t help but feel proud for ticking Tawi-Tawi off my bucket list.
While my experience climbing up Bongao Peak was generally pleasant, I couldn’t help but be saddened by the trash that littered most of the trails heading up the sacred mountain. Candy wrappers, empty water bottles and other trash were just scattered along with the leaves and tree roots. Though I spotted several signs from environmental groups “to take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints,” the trash was a sad reminder or the bad side of tourism. Hopefully in the future, both locals and visitors do their part in keeping the hiking trails clean.
NOTE: This article was published in Zest Inflight Magazine, June 2013 issue.