Travel Guide: Tawi-Tawi

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.


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.


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.

tawi-tawi tricycles in downtown bongao

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.


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.

3. Sangay Siapo Island

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.


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.


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.

Room rates:

  • 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


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.


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.


  • 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.

40 thoughts on “Travel Guide: Tawi-Tawi

  1. Pingback: Travel Guide: Tawi-Tawi | Travel Up | Philippin...

  2. Hi! It would have been nice if you were able to visit the PASIGAN (not Pasiagan) islands since those two sister island offer the best beaches in Tawitawi. Though it might be hard to get there if you are not acquainted with the natives. 🙂

  3. thank you for your travel guide tips… planning to go to tawi-tawi this april 2014. your post is very educational. (y) (y)

  4. Hi! You may contact me at 63927659788 so that I may refer you to my relatives in case you plan to visit Tawitawi.
    Also, I would be in Tawitawi from March 30- April 9.

    Itinerary for my travel would be: Bud Bongao, Bud Toa, Boheh Maheya, the tropical rainforests of Mainland Tawitawi, the tombs of some of the great datus and sultans of Sulu (when Tawitawi was still part of Sulu), Billangan (?) beach/island, Pasigan Island, Badjao village, (and hopefully: Sheikh Makhdum tomb), island hopping around the mainland.

    And! get a taste of the delicious honey from their tropical rainforest. 😀

    • zayzam sadly your contact number is incomplete, we are scheduled to travel tawi tawi by next year. we are a group 10. we are planning to visit sibutu, simunul, panampangan island and saluag.

      thank you!

  5. Hi, thanks for giving us an insightful review of tawi tawi. It is also the place I wanted to see and have been wondering about for a long time. Anyway, do you have any suggestions on when is the best time to visit.

  6. Hai, im Hafiz from Malaysia. Can you tell me how to go bangao poblacation, Tawi-Tawi From Malaysia airport???? From Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Manila, Philippines,, and then?? Can you help me how to go there??
    I really wanna go there to see my best friend, i miss her so much,,

    • Hi Hafiz! From Kuala Lumpur

      (via plane)
      1. Kuala Lumpur-Manila
      2. Manila-Zamboanga
      3. Zamboanga-Tawitawi
      1. Kuala Lumpur-Kota Kinabalu
      2. Kota Kinabalu-Sandakan (land transfer/plane)
      3. Sandakan-Tawitawi (via fastcraft boat/ship or lansa(wooden boats)

    • Assalamualaikum. Kamu boleh chat saya di FB kalau nak melancong ke Tawi-Tawi. Soal keselamatan di Tawi-Tawi tak lah seperti yang diwar-warkan di media, Tawi-Tawi memang amat selamat untuk dilawati dan banyak tempat menarik yang anda harus jejaki. Saya dah lama di Tawi-Tawi.

      • From KL airport. Take a flight to Manila. Then from Manila, book a flight going to Zamboanga, and another flight from Zamboanga to Tawitawi. You’ll be in Bongao by then. You may also opt to travel to Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia from KL. There is a ferry plying to Bongao from Sandakan.

    • Hi Hiyas. If ever I go back, it would be to visit Sitangkai, but as of now, I don’t have any plans of going back there as I have some other trips lined up. Enjoy your trip in August 🙂

    • Hi Jing. Bongao is where the airport in Tawi-Tawi is located. You have to fly there via Zamboanga City. Year round fare to Tawi-Tawi from Zamboanga is about 1k+ and the promo fare is less than P500. Check out Cebu Pacific’s site because the fares are different depending on your travel dates.

  7. Hi Kara of Travel Up, pls info to me the ferry/ship schedule (days+times) from (1) Sandakan to Bongao (Tawi tawi) to Sandakan or (2) Semporna to Bongao to Semporna. I want to visiting the Shrine of Sy Karimul Makhdum in Simunul island. Thanks and mau God bless you ! Please reply.

  8. Pingback: Travel Guides n Deals » HOW TO GET TO TAWI TAWI

  9. salam : duwa … i have a plan to visit the beautiful view of bongao tawi tawi 2015.
    how i can come my first time . i have relative there. according to my mother. when she is alive . and im still small before. now i want to visit. I heard to my mother all her families are in bongao
    how i can come? pls. respond. thanks for kindness and ALLAH BLESSED U.

  10. thanks , miss kara …sory another question.If im in airport to whom i will contact.
    because i dont know where are the place of my relatives. can u please help me?

    • Hello Alia. I suggest you try to get in touch with your relatives there before visiting. Isn’t there someone else who you can ask about how to get in touch with them? Maybe you can find them on Facebook. I’m sorry I can’t really help you, but I’m not from or based in Tawi-Tawi. I just visited the place 2 years ago and wrote about the tourist attractions there.

  11. Hello, Kara! Elicec again. 🙂 I’ve been planning to visit this place but I have no idea how safe it is and what to do in this place. Thank you again for sharing! 🙂

    I’ll start planning this trip so I can go there this year. Would you know the best time to visit the place? How many days do i need to spend around? Thanks in advance. 🙂

    • Hi Elicec. According to Zayzam, a local who left a comment previously, the best time to visit is from April-October (except during Ramadan). I usually budget P1,000 a day for trips, but you’ll need to spend more if you have to charter a boat. If you’re just planning to stay in the mainland, 2 days is enough (the highlight is hiking up Bongao Peak & Sandbar Lepa resort). If you’re going to venture to other islands like Sitangkai, it could be longer because of the boat schedules.

  12. im a solo travler, what are ur suggestions as far as safety is concerned can i go a DIY or look for a sponsor or someone to escort me

    • Hi. I would recommended that you travel with companions here, especially if you’re going to be riding a boat so you can split costs. It would help if you know a local, but if not, try and ask for assistance at the tourism office when you get there.

  13. Pingback: Food Trip: Tawi-Tawi | Travel Up

  14. Hello, Kara! I visited Tawi-tawi last week. I went to Panampangan island with the people from tourism (Ate Sidang and friends) and other locals. It’s a 2-hour travel from Bonggao and the rent of the boat is sooo expensive. But it’s worth the heat and the price.. 🙂

    We planned of going to Panglima Sugala on the third day, pero hindi natuloy since the jeepney we will be using is not available daw. I just stayed in the hotel (Sandbar) and rested kasi ansakit ng mga binti ko.. 🙂

    The locals are very kind. Ms. Salve, the head of the tourism invited me and the other female tourist, in their house after our tour around the town.

    Just like you, i plan to go back to visit Sitangkai.

    Thank you again! 🙂

    • Hi Elicec, lucky that you were able to go to Panampangan. A friend who went there said the beach was one of the most beautiful he’s seen. Ms. Salve also invited us to her house when we visited. 🙂 Glad that you found this blogpost useful!

    • Hello! May I know Ms. Salve’s number? I plan to visit alone on August. 🙂
      This blog post is far the most helpful I’v read! Thank you for sharing!:)

  15. Pingback: Gear Review: Lakhambini Shoes | Travel Up

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *