One of the most memorable trips I took this year was to Tawi-Tawi. This island province located in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is the southernmost province of the Philippines. Often misunderstood by the outside world and the rest of the Philippines, Tawi-Tawi is not your typical tourist destination. The concerns about the peace and order situation in the surrounding areas have kept the place relatively off the tourist radar. I know only a handful of travelers who have ventured to this part of the country for a vacation. That’s probably the main reason why I wanted to go there in the first place. Thanks to a trip to Zamboanga City earlier this year, I got to tick Tawi-Tawi off my bucket list.
WHERE EXACTLY IS TAWI-TAWI?
Tawi-Tawi lies at the southwestern tip of the country in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). It shares sea borders with the Malaysian State of Sabah and the Indonesian East Kalimantan province. To the northeast lies the province of Sulu and to the west is Sabah in Malaysia.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Flights link Manila to Bongao via Zamboanga City on either Air Philippines or Cebu Pacific. Planes land in the Sanga-Sanga airport. From there, you can take a tricycle to Bongao, the capital. Ships also ply the Zamboanga-Bongao route three times a week. A fast craft links the Philippines and Malaysia from Bongao to Semporna once a week.
If you’re just exploring around Bongao town, the tricycle is the easiest mode of transport. You can hire one for a half-day city tour and to take you to the nearby beaches and to the jump off point for Bud Bongao. The habal-habal or motorbike is a popular mode of transport among locals as well. While there are no commercialized motorcycle rentals in Bongao, you can ask around regarding borrowing one from locals or hiring someone to drive you around for a fee.
You will need to charter a boat (which can be a bit expensive) if you want to go island-hopping around Tawi-Tawi. You can also travel via the small boats and sailing vessels used by locals. This may take longer since boats often have fixed (ex. daily) schedules.
WHERE TO GO / WHAT TO DO IN TAWI-TAWI:
1. Bongao Peak
Bud Bongao or Bongao Peak is the province’s major landmark. Locals hike up this mountain cliff to ask for blessings for good health, to pray in the Muslim shrines along the way, or as a form of thanksgiving. You can take a half-day trip up to Bongao Peak. Hiking up will take 1-2 hrs depending on your pace. The hike takes a bit of effort, but the view from the top is worth it.
2. Sheik Makhdum Mosque in Simunul Island
The Sheik Makhdum Mosque is recognized as the first mosque built in the Philippines. It’s considered a National Cultural Treasure and has been declared a National Historical Landmark.
This mosque on Simunul Island honors the memory of the man credited with bringing Islam to the Philippines, the Arab missionary Karimul Makhdum. The original mosque is believed to have been built in 1380 and to have lasted for 500 years. The existing structure is built around four wooden pillars of the original structure.
Sangay Siapo Island with clear water where you can enjoy swimming and day trip picnics. The beach’s shoreline is lined with white sand, lots of tiny pebbles, corals and starfish. There’s also a picturesque wooden pier on one side of the island.
The place used to have a resort, but the main structure has been abandoned. There are a few caretakers and families living on the small island, but visitors need to bring their own food and snacks if they plan to picnic here. Bring your own gear to try snorkeling at the coral reefs near here.
5. Badjao Village
Dried pandan leaves are cut into tiny strips and dyed before they are handwoven to produce vibrantly colored traditional woven banigs or mats. The weaving technique known as tepo is ordinarily used as sleeping mats or as an area rug during prayers. They mats can also be framed and used as decorations. If you’re lucky, you might catch women in the process of weaving in the Badjao Village. They sell mats for an additional source of income. Mats are also sold in souvenir shops around town.
6. Old Chinese Pier
The Old Chinese Pier in the downtown area in Bongao is a bustling port where you can find a variety of passenger and cargo vessels docked – from rickety old boats to brightly painted ones, tiny fishing boats to modern ferries and fast crafts. Fringed by houses on stilts, market stalls, stores and small eateries at the seaside level in the downtown area, this is the center of commerce in the province. This is the major gateway to the other islands in Tawi-Tawi as well as those going to Zamboanga or Malaysia.
7. Tawi-Tawi Provincial Capitol
From the town proper, you can already see the lovely golden-domed building with gold minarets perched on a hill. The Provincial Capitol of Tawi-Tawi offers a scenic view overlooking the Sulu sea and the rest of Bongao including nearby islands. The capitol actually looks like a mosque.
8. Mangrove Forests
Mangrove forests line many of Tawi-Tawi’s islands and islets, including a 2.0 hectare large Mangrove Rehabilitation Project in Brgy. Pahut, Bongao. These mangroves provide nurseries and habitats for fish, crustaceans and other marine creatures.
9. Bolobok Cave & Beach
The Bolobok Cave in Barangay Lakit-Lakit, Bongao is said to be one of the oldest existing caves in the country, dating back to about 800 AD. The cave is located in Barangay Lakit-Lakit, Bongao. A short hike down a footpath from the cave will bring you to a small pebble beach area.
10. OTHER PLACES OF INTEREST:
If you have more time to spare, you can visit Panampangan Island, a fine white sand beach. You might also want to visit Sitangkai, the southernmost settlement in the Philippines that’s been made popular by Brilliante Mendoza’s 2012 Filipino drama Thy Womb. The settlement uses boats as primary transportation, although footbridges connect one house from another. I wasn’t able to go there myself, but this blogpost has some great photos. I heard that ferries for Sitangkai leave Bongao every Wednesday and Friday only. The trip takes 4 hours one way.
WHERE TO STAY IN TAWI-TAWI:
There are only a few inns and pension houses in Bongao. If you want a nice view of the beach, you can stay in the towns of Pasiagan or Sowang Kagang. If you want to be near town, you can stay in the downtown area.
Beachside Inn Hotel & Restaurant
During my visit, I stayed in Beachside Inn, a few minutes away by tricycle from the downtown area. The place has a nice view of the ocean, though the area right in front of the inn is not really ideal for swimming. All the rooms here come with toilet & bathroom, cable TV and are fully air-conditioned. The place also runs a pretty spacious restaurant that can accommodate big groups, which makes this a popular choice for business meetings and events. A new building with more rooms facing the sea was being constructed during my visit, so rates might have changed.
- Economy/Single – P750
- Standard/Double – P880
- Super Standard/Double – P980
- Deluxe/Matrimonial – P950
- Super Deluxe (Matrimonial & Single) P1200
Beachside Inn. Sowang Kagang, Bongao. Tel. No. 268-1446/1432. Mobile: 09204815447.
Sandbar Beach Lepa and Restaurant
Sandbar Beach Lepa and Restaurant is one of the newer establishments in Bongao. They just opened in January 2013 and have very nice looking villas and a great location near the beach. The resort and restaurant is located in a scenic part of Pasiagan where the mountain meets the sea. You can enjoy a good meal here and then go swimming right after. The main restaurant is designed after a lepa boat, the houseboats of the Badjao. A convention hall was being built there during the time of my visit. Villas here cost P1,000/night when I inquired.
Sandbar Lepa. Pasiagan, Bongao. . 0920-6109477, 09359790413. Facebook: Sandbar Lepa and Restaurant
Other places to stay:
- Juana Hotel & Restaurant, Downtown, Bongao
- Aaron’s Pension House, Downtown, Bongao
- Ibbo Beach Resort, Pasiagan, Bongao
- DanMar Resort, Pasiagan, Bongao
- Rachel’s Place, Lamion, Bongao
WHAT / WHERE TO EAT IN TAWI-TAWI:
Fresh seafood, humble Pinoy fare and Muslim delicacies can be found in carinderias (small eateries) and modest establishments in Bongao. Some must-tries include crabs, Tiyulah Itum (a beef stew with broth made from burnt coconut meat), Junay (rice steamed in coconut milk and toasted coconut), Baolu (a sweet mini-muffin made from flour, sugar and water). For more information, read my blogpost: Food:Trip Tawi-Tawi.
WHAT TO BUY:
The best souvenirs in Tawi-Tawi include handwoven mats woven by Sama and Badjao women; pearls and native delicacies and dried marine products.
You can buy typical souvenirs like t-shirts, bags, mugs, keychains and the like in the bazaars in the public market in the downtown area, Midway Plaza, and at Bongao Souvenirs, NDB Facultyville, Nalil Road, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. Mobile: 0921-4951835.
USEFUL INFO & TRIVIA:
- Tawi-Tawi is the ancestral home of the Sama, Jama Mapun and the Badjao. The biggest migrant groups are the Tausug and Cebuano. Aside from their native dialects, most Tawi-Tawians speak Filipino and English. Some, principally traders have a working knowledge of Malay and Indonesian.
- Tawi-Tawi is now a melting pot of different ethnic groups, including Chinese and Christian migrants.
- The year 1973 marked the severance of Tawi=Tawi from its mother province and its birth of a political entity.
- Tawi-Tawi has 11 municipalities and 203 barangays.
- Tawi-Tawi is the biggest producer of seaweeds in the Philippines. They celebrate the Agal-Agal Festival with parades, street dancing and floats decorated with seaweed costumes and decorations.
- Tawi-Tawi has 307 islands, islets, and reefs located in the south southwest of the Philippine archipelago. The waters that embrace these islands offer some of the most beautiful unexplored dive sites in the world.
- Though many regions in the Philippines are safe and peaceful, crimes can happen anywhere in the world. Monitor the security situation in the area closely, be vigilant and take the necessary precautions during your trip. I felt pretty safe during my trip there.
- Local tourism officials suggest that you hire a local guide or escort for island-hopping trips. Foreigners in particular are advised by locals not to walk around or explore on their own especially at night.
- Tawi-Tawi is predominantly a Muslim province, so dress modestly.
- Refrain from wearing skimpy clothing and swimwear during your beach trips. I suggest you wear a rashguard instead of bikinis or swimsuits when swimming.
- If you plan to visit any mosques, bring a scarf to cover your shoulders and wear something that covers below the knee (for women) as a sign of respect.
- Though WiFi isn’t widely available in most establishments, you can still connect to the internet via 3G to check e-mail and surf the net.