I have often heard of stories about how beautiful the archipelagic province of Tawi-tawi is but to be honest I was a bit of a skeptic because most of when I got to hear are negative news of kidnappings and bandits. I was, however, willing to experience Tawi-tawi for myself together with some travel writers from Davao thanks to an invitation from the Department of Tourism’s Assistant Secretary Eden David and Department of Tourism ARMM Regional Secretary Ayesha Mangudadatu Dilangalen.
From Zamboanga City, we took a 50-minute Airbus ride on Cebu Pacific to the province’s capital Bongao. The sight of the many islands, atolls, sandbars, and coral reefs along the way heightened my sense of excitement as Tawi-tawi eventually came to view.
From the airport, we were met by Secretary Ayesha who facilitated our check in at Rachel’s Place, just a short drive from Bongao’s Sanga-sanga Arport. From the inn, we made our way to the docks where we got on a speedboat to explore the province’s many islands.
Oldest Mosque in the Philippines
From Bongao, our first stop was the island municipality of Simunul. Located at the southern part of the province, the island is the site of the first mosque in the Philippines. Established in 1380 by an Arabian missionary named Sheik Karimul Makdum, the mosque is an important pilgrimage site for muslims. Although the original structure of the mosque is gone, its four original pillars are still standing in the original site and are housed in a newly constructed mosque to protect the artefacts.
Right beside the mosque is the tomb of Sheik Karimul Makdum which is properly cared-for by the imam of the mosque. Locals believe that Sheik Makdum was a tall and brawny man because his tomb had bigger dimensions as compared to the tombs of the other missionaries who came with him to establish the mosque.
With over hundreds of islands, Tawi-tawi has hundreds of pristine white sand beaches. The longest and most popular to the locals is the beach on Panampangan Island. Spanning over three kilometres long, the sandy beach of Panampangan Island is the longest in the Philippines. I was simply amazed at how the sand stretches as far as the eye can see. Our guide, Tony Said, says that during low tide, the sand bar forms a land bridge connecting Panampangan to two smaller islands on its western side.
Walking along the beach of Panampangan, my mind is given visions of the Caribbean and the Maldives. Although Panampangan may be a bit remote, its beach can rival many of the best beaches in the world.
There is no actual overnight accommodation, there are gazebos constructed by the provincial government for guests to sit and eat in, while a nearby marine detachment ensures the safety of the area. There are also restrooms to ensure that the beach is clean.
Although the beaches and island of Tawi-tawi are sure to be a hit, the trek up Bud Bongao’s 342-meter summit (“bud” means mountain in the local language) is an exhilarating experience. A local pilgrimage site for Sinama and Tausug tribes, the hour-long hike gives visitors a taste of the Tawi-tawi’s tropical forest and its wildlife inhabitants, including a curious monkey troupe as well as eagles.
Dining in Tawi-tawi is basic with many good actually coming from Sabah since the Malaysian privince is closer to Tawi-tawi than it is to Zamboanga, but the seafood being served in Tawi-tawi is some of the best I have ever had.
At a dinner hosted by Bongao mayor Jimuel Shia Que, the menu included slipper lobster, blue crabs, grilled fish the size of dinner plates, and my favourite mantis shrimp which when bought in Manila would cost thousands of pesos a kilo.
A diamond in the rough
When I first saw that Cebu, Boracay and Palawan made it to the Conde Nast best islands of the world list, I could not be more proud having been to two of the three. But now that I have been to Tawi-tawi and its surrounding islands, I am looking forward to seeing some of the islands of this archipelagic Philippine province make it to the list in the future.
Yes, the facilities may still be a bit rough and the province still has a ways to go to accommodate more upscale travellers, but it has almost all the right ingredients to be a world-class island destination. With its colourful history, diverse cultural background, and spectacular beaches, Tawi-tawi is indeed a diamond in the rough waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by Filipinos and foreign visitors alike.