Tawi-Tawi: Heavenly Hinterlands

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So, Tawi-Tawi happened.

It was not really my most unnerving feat to date, as I’ve been to Basilan not just once, but twice. You see, Basilan is dubbed as one of the most dangerous provinces of the Philippines, along with Sulu. The province of Tawi-Tawi bookends the southernmost chain of the Sulu archipelago, earning an uncalled-for stigma of compromised peace and order situation that its neighbors are infamous for.

I must admit that, though I have come to know mainstream media as a device that oftentimes tends to distort and exaggerate, I have passed judgement on my trip to the endmost part of the Philippines. A flashback of grisly news recurred, those that told of abduction, torture and beheading.

What gives? I took the trip anyway. Though I have proven myself wrong to some extent (more on this later), I could say that the sojourn was so worth it.

There are no direct trips from Manila to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi’s capital, so a meticulous itinerary is required if you plan to visit the place. First, you will need to fly to Zamboanga City from Manila. A turboprop plane can then be boarded from Zamboanga City to Bongao.

Bongao, particularly the Old Chinese Pier area, is a very interesting place. It invokes the hustle and bustle of Manila’s busiest emporia, only with a distinct “Moro feel” to it– makeshift stalls sell satti (miniature chicken and beef skewers) instead of the usual isaw back home, and kahawans, local coffee shops abound every street corner, serving an array of halal snacks paired with a steaming cup of kahawa sug, brewed coffee Tausug-style. How I wish I took photos of its beautiful chaos, but I was too wary to draw attention to myself by whipping out a camera and trigger-happily clicking away with it…

One important lesson I learned when traveling to unfamiliar territory is to always keep a low profile, making sure to blend in seamlessly with the locals. Before the trip, I research about, among others, how people would dress and what their customs and traditions are, just to make sure that I won’t be crossing any cultural boundaries. I also try to learn a few phrases from the local vernacular, as it could be very handy when transacting in the market, using the local transportation, and in the most mundane situations like asking for the time and directions.

A trip to Tawi-Tawi isn’t complete without visiting at least one of its pristine beaches. The province is a constellation of virgin islands, so it is nearly impossible to not find your own quiet beach hideaway. Despite the steep price, we rented out a speedboat to take us to Panampangan Island, a crescent-shaped island in the municipality of Sapa-Sapa.

The island’s sandbar is probably the longest I’ve seen in my entire traveling life. We weren’t able to swim in the beach though, as it was dotted with gazillions of sea urchins, waiting for unsuspecting victims to tread on their vicious spines. Yikes.

However, we were able to swim and enjoy the waters at Rosemin Island, a defunct island resort owned by none other than the ARMM governor.

Aside from the beaches, a hike to the summit of Bud Bongao is also a must-do. A family of long-tailed macaque will greet you along the trail, so be sure to bring treats for them like, duh, a few hands of bananas. And please, don’t hurt the monkeys! They could seem aggressive at times, but they’re quite a harmless lot. They are venerated by the locals and are believed to be the incarnated spirits of their ancestors. Legend has it that long ago, a pair of white monkeys used to roam the forests of the sacred mountain. They are said to be the spirits of the departed great imams who were buried in the summit. These mystical monkeys sport a set of golden teeth, and their smiles bring good luck to whoever sees them.

Upon reaching one of its peaks, the weary hiker is then rewarded with spectacular, unobstructed views of the whole town (Bongao is not a city, at least not yet) and the shimmering blue waters of the Sulu and Celebes Seas.

As a bonus, our group was lucky to have been invited to a cultural show. We were given a chance to watch a traditional Tausug/Sama-Bajaw dance called pangalay, a series of graceful dances performed firstly as a group, then as a pair, then a solo act, then a group on top of big earthen jars, and lastly on a bamboo pole.

Tawi-Tawi is no doubt an awesome place blessed with immaculate island beaches, spectacular sceneries and a colorful tapestry of cultural heritage– but it’s definitely not for everybody, especially the faint of heart.

A member of the marine corps told us that while we were on the tour to Panampangan Island, the authorities uncovered an insurgent group’s plot to kidnap tourists in the area, resulting in a grim encounter.

Oh, what fun.

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