After dinner on my first day, Ramon and I had a few beers. I’m happy to report that Bongao Town has SanMig Light (usually ₱30/bottle). Red Horse and Pale Pilsen are available almost anywhere, too.
After the nightcap, I went out to the seawall to try and talk the sea into letting me dive the following day. The waves were angry and sporadically splashed salt water onto the road, but did not touch me where I stood. Silently, I implored the raging sea to calm down so I could descend to her depths. When I turned around to head back to my room, a spray of sea foam stroked my cheek.
I woke up early on Saturday to find the waves even angrier. Then dark clouds rolled in and within minutes sheets of rain dashed all hopes of seeing Tawi-Tawi underwater.
But I was in Tawi-Tawi, and I consoled myself with that achievement.
After a light breakfast, I tried connecting to the Internet via my SmartBro dongle, which had given me quite a good 3G signal the previous day. No luck this time — probably due to the heavy rain. The locals say, though, that they get good Internet connectivity in town. (Smart Communications is the better mobile network out here.)
When the rain let up around noon, I hired a tricycle to take me around. I needed to buy a jacket because I didn’t think of bringing one (I was going to the beach after all). Then I gorged myself on local sweets (again) at the market, but this time along the old pier. After walking around a bit and chatting with some friendly marketplace hawkers, my driver-cum-guide gave me a joy ride across town.
We went up a hill where I thought stood a majestic mosque. Turns out it was Tawi-Tawi’s provincial capitol. The proud structure overlooks the governor’s mansion and new housing developments on Bongao Island.
Upon returning home, I met up with Ramon again and we had a grand time swapping diving stories. He has much more, of course, and I was growing more and more eager to experience those Tawi-Tawi dive sites he was so colorfully describing.
He told me about Sitangkai Island, which is dubbed the Venice of the Philippines, and how he never tires of diving that site. He and Engr. Reyes have seen great pelagics there, and sharks, and huge schools of different types of fish. Sitangkai is the outermost island of Tawi-Tawi and is a stone’s throw away from Malaysian Borneo. The thing is, if you do go to that remote island, you’d have to plan for an overnight, because the ferry does only one roundtrip a day.
Saturday breezed damply by and then it was nighttime again. I was going to fly out on Monday morning, so any chance of diving had altogether evaporated for me.
Sunday, 6:00am. The sky was clear, with only wispy clouds, and the waves were tranquil! Knowing how strict Ramon was about scuba rules, I didn’t think they’d let me dive anymore, because my flight was going to be less than 24 hours hence.
At around 7, Engr. Reyes and his family picked me up from Beachside Inn and told me to bring my diving gear. My host informed me that we wouldn’t go deep and stay less than an hour underwater. I was ecstatic!!
But first, we were to climb Bongao Peak. I was about to protest, but I suddenly recalled a local myth about the mountain. Some of the inn’s staff who kept me company the previous night had told me about paying one’s respects atop Bud Bongao. They said that, before doing anything adventurous in Tawi-Tawi, one has to climb the province’s highest peak first. (I don’t know how high it is, but it took us a little over an hour to climb it. Maybe 1,500 feet or so?)
Bud Bongao is famous for its resident monkeys. At about the halfway point, these furry troops start to emerge out of the trees and demand a pass-through fee of bananas.
Near the top, there are two Muslim tombs that are regarded as shrines. You can enter one of them and pay your respects. It is said that people who enter the shrine can ask for forgiveness for all transgressions.
Since it was raining the previous day, the way up was muddy and slippery. The last leg of the ascent had cemented steps all the way near the top, but that didn’t make the climb any easier.
But the view from the summit — it will take your breath away and at the same time fill your lungs with joyous fresh air!
My host was telling me that, on really clear days, you’d be able to see Borneo to the south. Sitangkai Island was thinly visible then, but a few errant clouds were hovering over the horizon.
I almost forgot all about scuba diving up there… but then the scintillating blue waters beckoned.
It took me half the climb time to go descend Bud Bongao, I was just too excited to finally be able to dive Bongao! When the whole party was at sea level, we proceeded to Engr. Reyes’ beach resort, called Mountain View, to prepare for the dive. My host’s nephews were in town from London, Manila and Zamboanga, and they were also planning on doing intro dives.
The waters of Bongao did not disappoint. After two days of pining for the sea, I was finally rewarded with my first dive! And then another one. Read about my scuba adventure in Bongao here.
I can’t wait to go back to Tawi-Tawi! Three days there certainly weren’t enough. The next time I’m back, I’ll be sure to visit Sitangkai, the turtle sanctuary, the dive site off Sanga-Sanga Island, the Napoleon Wrasse nursery, and so many more…
I’d like to thank my host and dive master, Engr. Rosendo Reyes and Ramon Tañgon, Mr. Lando Lim of Beachside Inn, and Airphil Express for having made my first trip to Tawi-Tawi a memorable and exhilarating adventure!
Magsukul & As-Salaamu `Alaykum!