I have so many beautiful stories to tell you about my recent trip to the southernmost province of the Philippines, the enthralling island province of Tawi-Tawi. Stories that are often unnoticed and neglected because most of the times what we hear are stories of conflict, disorder and adversities fed to us by what we hear, read and see on the news. And because of that, the real picture that reflects about Tawi-Tawi, its natural beauty, culture and people, is sadly ignored.
So today, along with those thousands of people who were once lured to come to Tawi-Tawi, I will share my exciting stories about my wonderful experience romancing the pristine and natural magnificence of this province I consider as “the southernmost jewel of the country”.
From the charming islands and islets dotting the seas of the Province to the breathtaking peak of the Province’s tallest mountain, from the flavorful traditional cuisines to the colorful lively music and dances of the tribe, from the busy piers of Bongao to the bustling barter trade of Panglima Sugala, from the stilt houses of Badjao to the peace loving town of Simunul – amazing things that are truly and uniquely Tawi-Tawi’s.
For many, when they hear about Tawi-Tawi, what come instantly to their minds are those negative impressions they hear about the Province. Some still fear. While others are wondering what’s in this Island province that some are lured to visit. The fact is there are people who despite the negative things they hear about these group of islands, they still find their way to face their fears, travel for miles and discover the many wonderful things about this southernmost jewel of the country. They are the brave, the adventurous, and the thrill seekers – people who love to explore the unexplored, to tell stories about places and people that are often neglected, people who love off-the-beaten-path journey.
So those who are brave, adventurous and thrill-seekers, they are the luckiest for they are favored to see and experience a different kind of destination where nature and culture are both at their best – the best of Tawi-Tawi.
Having said that, I considered myself as among the luckiest as I got the rare opportunity to experience the simple yet commendable lives of its people, savored the mouthwatering flavors of their tribe that reflect the richness of their culture, marveled at the many pristine natural wonders that have stuck in my head even until now.
I’ve gone to some of the beautiful islands in the Philipines. I must say each possesses a distinct characteristic that makes it unique from other islands. And Tawi-Tawi’s are among the best example of those that are most pristine and beyond beautiful.
Like a precious treasure, Tawi-Tawi is a bedazzling gem that when carefully polished, it will shine and even outshines other gems we have in the archipelago. Composed of 11 municipalities, Tawi-Tawi offers a variety of destinations that a traveler would certainly love to explore – they got caves which is said to be rock shelters in ancient times, mountain peaks that offer commanding view of Tawi-Tawi’s landscape and seascape, rich history and culture to learn from, delectable indigenous food that is served until now, hundreds of island and islets to visit and enjoy, and many many more.
Of the 11 towns of the province, I made to visit the four. These four towns teem with different attractions that best describe the sights, the vibe and the feel of Tawi-Tawi. I must say that even with these four towns alone, one’s visit to Tawi-Tawi is assured of much delight.
Bongao is the capital town of Tawi-Tawi. It also serves as the gateway to the Province. This town is a little charmer. The most imposing landmark one can find in this busy town is the Bud Bongao. About 340-meter above sea level, it is the highest peak in the entire Province. Bud Bongao is believed to be a sacred mountain possessing special healing powers. In fact, locals including other residents from other towns would come to Bongao, hike up to the top of the mountain and pray. They considered it as pilgrimage site.
The majestic peak of the Bud Bongao offers the breathtaking view of the Bongao town. It also offers the commanding view of the vast blue seas of Celebes as well as the beautiful islands and islets dotting the seascape. They say you’ve never been to Bongao if you have not trekked this iconic mountain. Bud in Sama means Mountain.
Bongao being the capital town is the trade center of the Tawi-Tawi. It is also the busiest town among other municipalities. One of the most interesting trading sites in the town is the old Chinese Pier where seafood, dried fish and even agricultural produce are sold at very low prices. History has it that the Chinese Pier is the same spot where early trading with the Chinese merchants and locals took place hundred years ago.
Tawi-Tawi is where the seed of Islam was planted. It was in the island town of Simunul where Islam was first introduced in 1380. It was an Arab missionary named Sheik Karimul Makhdum who brought Islam to the island and was widely embraced by the people and was spread to the other parts of the country.
Following the introduction of Islam to Simunul was also the establishment of the first mosque in the country. As years passed by, the mosque has gone several renovations but the four wooden columns of the original structure are left standing on the same spot, well-preserved inside the Mosque.
Today, the mosque is recognized as a National Historical Landmark. Every 7th of November, locals and other Muslims in the country would come to this part of Tawi-Tawi to commemorate the anniversary of its establishment. This year marks the 636th year of its establishment. The mosque is named after Sheik Karimul Makhdum and is called Masjid Makhdum.
Panglima Sugala used to be the capital town of Tawi-Tawi long before it was changed to Bongao. It is endowed with wide and fertile agricultural land making it as the province’s food basket. Such paved the way for the town’s traditional way of barter system called Pagtabuh-tabuh where agricultural products are offered in exchange for marine products or seafood, and vice versa.
This bustling trade is popular not only in the town of Panglima Sugala but even in the other towns of Tawi-Tawi. Every Saturday, farmers and fisher folks would converge in the Batu-Batu’s public market for Pagtabuh-tabuh. Even merchants from nearby towns of Bongao and Sapa-Sapa would come to buy the local’s product sold at very low prices.
Local delicacies are also available at some sari-sari stores in Batu-Batu Market. If you’re lucky, you’ll find some stores selling bawlo, junay, putli mandih and other traditional delicacies of the Tawi-Tawi.
Beautiful islands and gorgeous islets abound in the waters of Sapa-Sapa. Most of these islands remain untouched, some are even uninhabited. Sea beds of the shallow waters are pure white sand. When hit by the sunlight, the waters turn blue to green. At one glance, it looks like a large magnificent swimming pool. Cruising onward, groups of islets that seem to sprout from the seas are sights to behold. If only I had the luxury of time, I would hop from one islet to the other just to relish these southern jewels of the country. The most famous island in entire town is the Panampangan Island. It is a small island surrounded entirely by fine white sands. Adjacent to the Island is a white sand bar. During low tide, this sand bar serves as a way to access the gorgeous islets nearby.
Adding to the gorgeousness of these islands are the stilts houses of the Badjao that have stood still and sturdy against the tides of Tawi-Tawi crystal clear waters. Since time immemorial, the seas of Tawi-Tawi have been the Badjao’s sacred home providing them everything they need. I wish one day, in one of my visits to Tawi-Tawi, I will have the chance to live in one of these stilt houses even for one day. I think it is beautiful.
There are other countless amazing destinations to discover in Tawi-Tawi. Sadly I only had a very little time. Three days are not enough to explore more of what this gorgeous group of island has to offer. Wandering around seeing these unblemished splendors is something that my heart rejoices even to this time of writing. In fact, I will run out of words to describe the things that I saw and experienced the whole time that I was here. I even told myself how lucky I am to be given this great opportunity to be in this place seeing and doing all these things that truly speak the beauty and culture of Tawi-Tawi. I wish everyone has the opportunity to see and experience Tawi-Tawi the way I do.
My heartfelt gratitude to the awesome people who made my trip to Tawi-Tawi very remarkable. Shouting out my thousand thanks to Secretary Ayesha Mangudadatu Dilangalen of Department of Tourism – ARMM for this invitation to experience the vibe and life of Tawi-Tawi. Same goes to her awesome DOT-ARMM team who works hard to promote ARMM as an amazing destination to explore. Also, to other Regional Secretaries of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao I met during this trip, thank you so much. You are all #ARMMazing.
MAGSUKOL to the Provincial Government of Tawi-Tawi headed by Governor Rashidin Matba. Thank you for sharing to us your precious time and for letting us see and appreciate the beauty of Tawi-Tawi. Thank you for your warmth and hospitality. May your tribe increase.
TAWI-TAWI is truly a jewel of the south waiting to be discovered. Magsukol TAWI-TAWI!!!