The southernmost province of Tawi-Tawi personally poses one of the most compelling appeals. There is that inexplicable charm and mystique that moved me to put it in my travel bucket list.
About August last year, I confidently shared to some guests of my desire to explore Tawi-Tawi. They were completely caught by surprise. A Tawi-Tawi Tour could be seen as too good to be true. Being part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Tawi-Tawi may have been undeservingly associated with insurgents and secessionists.
In reality, it is far from it. That the several people groups who make up the province have been co-existing peacefully. That they welcome their guests with love and gladness.
Fast forward. Fifteen months later, I was inside an Airbus 320 en route to Sanga-Sanga Airport. Excitement welled up, overpowering apprehensions and myths.
The capital town of Bongao is surprisingly full of life. The people in the town are busy scurrying about. But beyond the town center, the pace becomes a little more relaxed and idyllic.
They say that a visit to Bongao is rather an incomplete experience without climbing Bud Bongao or Bongao Peak. An imposing figure at 315-meter high, this geographical feature easily defines Bongao‘s skyline. Locals traditionally would climb Bud Bongao either to bring their babies as a rite of passage or to seek healing for illnesses. At the summit, an overwhelming view of Sanga Sanga, Bongao town, and several outlying islands awaits. As a rule, visitors have to bring with them a bunch of bananas to feed the expectant monkeys along the trail.
Although my original plan included visits to Sitangkai and Sibutu, two municipalities close to Malaysia‘s Sabah and Indonesia‘s East Kalimantan, I had to skip it due to time limitations. Our group opted to visit to Simunul instead and saving the border towns for yet another trip.
To reach Simunul Island, one has to take a passenger boat at the old Chinese port to cross the vast Sulu Sea, which amazingly its water shallow and tranquil. That made our sea transfer smoother and quicker.
An hour away from Bongao, Simunul is the cradle of the Islamic faith in the Philippines. Sheik Makhmud, an Arab missionary, spread his religious belief when he landed along the shores of Tubig Indangan, an easterly village of Simunul. There in 1380 he built the first ever mosque. It is said the original structure of the Sheik Karimal Makdum Mosque lasted for about 500 years and four of the original pillars made of ipil ipil exist to this day and are well-maintained. The mosque has been declared as a national cultural treasure and national historical landmark.
Since the town has no basic tourist accommodations, a sheik and his family became our gracious and accommodating host. The family treated us to a sumptuous dinner!
The people, the experiences and the pleasant surprises we have had in that short trip made me to crave more of Tawi-Tawi. That incessant feeling drove me to schedule at least two more trips.
Note: This post first appeared at Choose Philippines in November 2011.