Excel V. Dyquiangco
Photos by: Excel V. Dyquiangco
So little has really been said about Tawi-Tawi. In the news and on television, it has always been portrayed as a region of violence; a backdoor for terrorists and a gateway for people wanting to escape the country. But in reality, Tawi-Tawi has proven to be just as mystic—if not, as magical—as other places in the Philippines.
I had no qualms in traveling to Tawi-Tawi’s capital city of Bongao to cover its homegrown festival, the Kamahardikaan Festival. I packed my bags excitedly for that one-week trip, left for Zamboanga, and had to wait for a couple of hours at the airport on our way to Tawi-Tawi. It seemed that the 20-seater chartered plane that was supposed to carry us couldn’t do so anymore—all because of excess baggage from a couple of passengers. It was a bummer actually since I was looking forward for that plane ride which would only take an hour and cost Php5,000 (±US$100) per person. So without a choice, we resorted to other means of transportation.
The pier was actually teeming with locals either hurrying to get home or just wanting to visit Tawi-Tawi. Some participants of the festival (I soon learned later) had motorcycles at their tow as they grudgingly had them placed at the ship’s compartments. When finally we boarded the only ship that would take us to Tawi-Tawi with our entire luggage and some food, I felt uncomfortable because of the overwhelming crowd! The space was a little bit cramped too with so many beds stacked up. Not much legroom. And then even a more painstaking detail that almost shocked me: a whole eighteen hours at sea. I just endured the long ride by talking with some of the passengers and staring out into the deep vast seas, trying to get a glimpse of some dolphins. I learned a lot from them and this began my work as I started interviewing some passengers about the festival.
After what seemed like an endless stretch of water, we finally reached the fabled land. The first sight that greeted me was the Badjao village out in the port where children as young as ten suddenly climbed aboard the ship. One of them helped carry our luggage and we gave him a customary tip. The Badjao is an indigenous tribe that is often referred to as ‘sea gypsies’ by the Westerners. They are a nomadic tribe that are known to live off the harvests from the sea, build their make-shift houses on the sea, and some are even known to die there.
At long last, I reached a destination I could only dream of. Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi is nothing what I had imagined it to be. I was expecting it to have that lush and green environment where the air is breezy and the atmosphere fresh. Instead, there were cars and buildings everywhere with throngs of people scattered about. I felt like I never even left Metro Manila.
But then again, I was ready to explore the island!
Trekking and island hopping
First thing I did when I got off the ship was to have my picture taken beside a sign that says “Bongao, Tawi-Tawi”. After a few minutes of waiting for someone to pick us up, we hopped from one hotel to another, looking for a place to stay but all were fully booked because of the festival.
Good thing we were invited to stay at the governor’s house. It was a two-storey mansion that stands out in an open field, surrounded by acres of land. The structure is supported by an impressive Greek-style pillars and a wide and spacious patio for receiving guests. The palatial home was filled with gold or bronze ornaments of different kinds, furniture with gold trimmings. Just within the halls of the place, and somewhat hidden, is a majestic mosque for prayer.
Even more astounding, beyond the governor’s home, is a view of the country’s southernmost mountain, Bud (Mount) Bongao I would have wanted to climb to the top but we were just pressed for time and our itinerary was tight. It is advised that before you begin to trek, you have to arm yourself with two things: a “salawal” or a cloth that you can wrap around your neck as a sign of respect for the culture; and a bunch of bananas in case those meddling monkeys come your way. Yes, and there are hordes! Don’t be scared though when you suddenly begin to hear the sound of thunder—those monkeys sense guests and all they want is a piece of your fruit. But that’s not all there is to them. Soon after, they would become more aggressive and then, haggle for your attention.
So as you hike your way up the trail, you will see a tomb at the top which is believed to belong to a Muslim saint and in some talks, the body of Anjaotals, part of the ancient Muslim royal family. The tomb is also believed to have healing powers. Ten minutes away is a view deck where you can see the islands of Sanga-Sanga, Sibutun, and Simunul and in some clear days, you can even see the outline of neighboring country Malaysia.
When you finally reach the top, the smell of rangutay trees invigorates your senses. This trunk of this kind of tree is very important in the imperial courts of China, Persia and Japan because it is believed to have a medicinal value.
After that grueling hike, try to go upstream as well. Since Tawi-Tawi is just surrounded by waters, it is best to go island hopping where to get from one island to the next, you must hire a boat for Php300 (±US$6) for three hours, and fee varies depending on your destination and how many days will you be spending in that island. Highly recommended is a travel to Simunul Island, also called the “Cradle of Islam” because you get to experience not only nature and old Muslim architecture at its finest but you get to see the first mosque built by Sheik Karimul Makhdum. The island’s swaying palm trees and blue-colored waters is just more than picture perfect.
Food culture in Bongao
As soon as we had kept our bags in our room, I decided to head to town first before going to work. In retrospect, the place was busy—tricycles and motorcycles plying the highways, students and their parents hurrying about, vendors actively selling fish, barbeques and street food out in the main thoroughfares.
The Beachside Inn Hotel and Restaurant, located in Barangay Pasiagan, Bongao, is probably one of the more famous hotels to stay. Its expansive compound of 22 rooms or so (some air-conditioned) immediately gives a relaxing and a fresh breath of air. Cost is around Php700-1,000 (±US$14-20) a night.
Food around these parts is also very abundant. Almost all stalls sell fish, squid and octopus meat, but since I’m a meat lover, I tried ordering pork but to my chagrin, I was only greeted with a curt shake of the head. It slipped my mind that this was Muslim territory so pork products are a no-no. Nevertheless, the grilled bangus (milkfish) was just right for my taste, topped with rice. Cost was fair enough—around Php70 (±US$2) per meal. Local delicacies such as the tamparan or also known as the local hotcake but much bigger and served with grilled coconut meat; the pitis which looks like suman (sticky rice) but stuffed with coconut meat; and the pasong, a cone filled with sticky rice cakes are pretty much aplenty. All are priced between Php20-30 (less than ±US$1). One of the more common fruits which I had the privilege to taste for the first time was the mangosteen, sweet and a little bit sour but a refreshing delight from all the seafood we had to take in. One interesting foodie trivia is that a staple in the governor’s house is pancit canton (stir-fried noodles), a replacement for rice. Interestingly, they have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The seaweed capital
After touring around, I went straight to work. One of the highlights of the Kamahardikaan Festival is the Agal-Agal Festival which means “Seaweed Festival”. Not only does this event showcase the best of what seaweeds has to offers in terms of food, costumes and culture but also promotes Tawi-Tawi as the Philippines Seaweeds capital and carrageenan (caravan of seaweeds) capital of the world and to develop the province as premier haven in commerce and tourism for economic uplift of the Tawi-Tawian.
Only nine of the eleven municipalities of Tawi-Tawi participated in the parade; the two a little bit late for the competition. The floats in the parade showcased decorations and ornaments made out of seaweeds. There were a lot of other fun-filled activities such as the street dancing parade, the motocross racing, and the fluvial parade.
The one-week event was just highly exhausting but exhilarating nonetheless. On my last day of stay here, we also dropped by the provincial capitol, located at the foot of Bud Bongao. Its exterior boasts of a Muslim architecture similar to that of a mosque with its dome facing the whole of Bongao. And the interior of the capitol is wide and spacious with the different offices of the local government located here. As a souvenir, we also bought a banig, a handwoven mat from the screwpine palm leaves, which cost Php500 (±US$10).
Truly, this experience was worth our stay. Bongao, Tawi-Tawi has truly evolved from being just a remote province out in the open sea to being a land of dreams and a safe haven for those seeking rest and relaxation.
At a glance
TRIVIA: According to the legend, the ancestors of the Badjao from Tawi-Tawi and Sibutu used to live at houseboats in Johore. One day, there was a strong wind that prompted the leader to stick a pole on the sea floor with his boat attached to it. In fear, the other villagers tied their boats to their leader. It turned out that the pole got stuck on the nose of a giant stingray and not the ocean floor. The stingray dragged all the boats far away and into the Sulu archipelago.
The Beachside Inn Hotel and Restaurant
Sowangkagang, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
(068) 268-1446, (068) 268-1435
Hotel Juana Grill and Sandbar Restaurant
Datu Halum St., Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
Rachel’s Place Hotel and Restaurant
Distance – Approximately kilometers from Manila
Travel time – Travel time
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