Exotic Tawi-Tawi demystified

Two weeks ago, I was at last able to fulfill a long-time dream: to travel to the southernmost point of the archipelago, the province of Tawi-Tawi. Ever since the start of the Mindanao Bloggers Community, I’ve been grabbing every opportunity to see as much of Mindanao as possible, so that I could share with the world the beauty of the Philippine South.

Sadly, except for a few people, the first thing out of the lips of friends and relatives who found out about my trip to Tawi-Tawi was “Is it safe there?”

I’m no expert in national defense situations, but as a private citizen I can positively say it’s safe in Tawi-Tawi. As safe as any city or town could be, I would imagine. The moment I arrived at the airport, I could see how relaxed people were. There were military personnel outside, but then I realized it was because a ranking officer had arrived on the same plane. And during my entire stay, I didn’t sense anything untoward or unusual. All I could feel the whole time was a sense of newness, but at the same time a feeling of familiarity — I was still in the Philippines after all.

Not counting my visits to Kuala Lumpur, Tawi-Tawi was the second place I’ve been to that has a largely Muslim population (the first was Basilan). That’s what my friends and family were referring to when they cautiously asked about the safety condition in the deep south. The perception that Muslim areas in the Philippines are dangerous still prevails, even among Mindanaoans. Allow me, then, to show you what I experienced in Tawi-Tawi (or at least the parts of it that I was able to see).

Day 1

I arrived on Friday, 5 August 2011, at 8:00am from Zamboanga City via Airphil Express flight no. 2P 243. (The airline pioneered this route and now flies between Asia’s Latin City and Bongao, the municipal capital of Tawi-Tawi, four times a week.) I was already scheduled to be in Zamboanga for a speaking engagement, so I took the opportunity to visit the country’s southernmost province from there.

On the plane before touchdown, the alluring coastlines and sparkling sapphire and emerald waters were a sight to behold! The province is made up of 107 islands and islets, including the fabled Turtle Islands. I couldn’t wait to get underwater!

The people at Sanga-Sanga Airport behaved as any group of people would in any airport (although this one is small and looks more like a warehouse from the outside). There were expectant relatives and well-wishers outside and the whole setting had a business-as-usual atmosphere. I was met by my host’s driver, who then brought me to the Beachside Inn where I would stay for the next 3 days. It was about a fifteen-minute drive on cemented roads from the airport to the inn. (Most roads on Bongao and Sanga-Sanga Islands are cemented.)

The Beachside Inn is untrue to its name only because the expansive beach is actually in front of the property. It’s in a sprawling compound, with about 22 or so rooms after the owners finish constructing the new wing. They have meetings facilities and a kitchen that can whip up a mean escabeche and tinola.

The rooms, while really basic, are air-conditioned and also outfitted with electric fans for when they’re using the generator (which is super silent). Scheduled power outages are common; on the flip side, Bongao’s water is good and reliable.

When I was there, the tail-end of a storm was threatening to ruin my stay, but from the inn it was awesome to watch the waves slam into the breakwaters and spray foam into the air. I was witnessing the rage of the Celebes Sea — a far cry from even the worst weather in the Davao Gulf.

My main objective in Tawi-Tawi was to go scuba diving, so the looming bad weather was very worrisome for me. I didn’t want to have come all the way here and not be able to dive…

Long before the trip, I had myself introduced via email to Engr. Rosendo Reyes of the Tawi-Tawi Divers Club, thanks to my instructor at the Carabao Dive Center, John Neri. When I finally met Engr. Reyes and two other club members (dive master Ramon Tañgon and Mr. Lando Lim, who owns Beachside Inn), I was instantly put to ease because the first thing Ramon asked me was to see my c-card. That showed their professionalism and concern for my safety as a diver. Still, it didn’t assuage my growing fears of not being able to dive due to the inclement weather.

In the afternoon, Ramon brought me to town on his motorbike. The main mode of personal transport there is the motorcycle, and tricycles are the best way to get around if you don’t have one. Although, Japanese- and Korean-brand sedans and SUVs are also present.

Too bad I wasn’t able to take a photo, but there’s a good-sized Catholic Church (complete with belfry) sitting right across the street from a mosque. I don’t know how reliable this figure is, that Christians comprise 30% of the total population of Bongao. Judging by what I’ve seen, it could be quite accurate. What I found interesting, though, is that Christians in Tawi-Tawi observe some Muslim traditions, like touching one’s chest after a handshake. Also, they speak the Tausug dialect, even among themselves.

Near the mosque and church is a relatively new mini-mall called Midway Plaza. It’s about one-fourth the size of Gaisano South in Davao, but it’s pretty self-sufficient: it has a grocery, a pharmacy, appliance store, clothing shops, a computer sales outlet.

Other things I spotted around town: internet cafés; schools (the Notre Dame of Bongao is in this area, while the other notable tertiary school, Mindanao State University at Bongao, is on Sanga-Sanga Island); banks (I can only remember seeing Metrobank, but I’m sure there are others); dress shops; repair shops. Except maybe for the calls to Islamic prayer that can be heard early in the morning, at noon and just after sunset, Bongao felt like any other town to me.

At around 4:30pm, we went to the public market to buy fish and have it cooked at the inn. It was astounding the innumerable varieties of fish and other seafood that were being traded at the mercado! I found it really difficult choosing which fish to have for dinner that day, but I settled for a rabbitfish (a.k.a. danggit).

Locals don’t usually buy fish on a per-kilo basis — each fish or squid or what-have-you is sold at a certain price, depending on the vendor. Of course, haggling is expected. (Due to the increased entry of buyers from Zamboanga, however, more and more Tawi-Tawi traders have already started selling their goods by weight.)

Ramon also introduced me to local delicacies, which were in abundance then, thanks to the observance of Ramadhan. During this holy month of fasting, Muslims break their daily fasting with sweets and sticky-rice treats after sunset. There’s the tamparan, or the local hot cake but much bigger, served with sweetened grilled coconut meat. I also liked the pitis (looks like suman, filled with sweet toasted coconut meat) and the pasong (a cone of delicately flavored sticky-rice cake).

Back at the inn, we had the rabbitfish (about 1.5 kilos) stuffed with onion, tomatoes, garlic and other spices, and grilled in a banana leaf. I believe this preparation is called pinaputok in Tagalog. It was heavenly! (And so did the other meals prepared for me at the inn.)

Beachside Inn Hotel & Restaurant is in Barangay Pasiagan, Bongao Municipality. Tel. +63(68)268-1446. Room rates: ₱700~1,000 per night.

To contact the Tawi-Tawi Divers Club, get in touch with Ramon Tañgon via his mobile phone: +63(918)699-2822.

Next up: Day 2 & 3 in Tawi-Tawi...

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17 Responses to “Exotic Tawi-Tawi demystified”

  1. MindanaoBob says:

    Hi Blogie – On that tamparan, isn’t there something very similar to that, but made with ground peanuts? I remember eating that when I was in Tawi Tawi, and I thought it was the tamparan when I saw your picture.

    • Blogie says:

      Hi Bob. I don’t recall anything similar to tamparan that has ground peanuts. There was just so much to see and taste!!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Can you post the contact info of Tawi-Tawi divers club?

  3. Earl says:

    I am going to Tawi Tawi in the first week in December 2011 for two days and nights. Is that enough time or should I stay longer? I am looking to rent a boat and go Island hopping to the near outer Islands, do some swimming and snorkling, no diving.

    Please advise, this place seems very interesting to me.

    …EARL

    • Blogie says:

      Hello Earl, thanks for reading my blog!

      For me, two days isn’t gonna be enough. I stayed there for 3 days and I found it too short…

      You can rent a small boat to take you around Bongao for P1,500. The locals tell me that, if you go to the other islands, you’ll just have to pay for the extra fuel. (Haggling is a matter of course over there.) I suggest you go to Sitangkai Island and plan to stay overnight.

      Have fun!!

  4. Ernie Rojo says:

    Hi Blogie,

    Thanks for the wonderful blog about your Tawi-Tawi visit. This place is definitely on my must-visit list.

    Cheers,

    Ernie

  5. cba says:

    sir, thank you for this article. i’m planning to be bongao to dive, hopefully soon…

  6. Jason says:

    Hi,

    Saw your blog when looking for information on the area, which is hard to come by in guidebooks. I’m aware that this part of the Sulu Island group is decently safe, compared to the 2 main islands between here and Zamboanga. (Jolo, Basilan) Since you were there fairly recently, it gives me more confidence in possibly visiting myself, via Air Phil Express from Zam. City.

    As for the haggling, well, I’ll leave my wife to deal with that, who’s also from Mindanao but the other end, Surigao del Sur province near Bislig City.

    I noticed that you used Arabic on the 2nd page of your blog at the end, does anyone speak that or just the normal Phils. languages for the area? I have some knowledge of the language…

    When does the ferry leave for Sitangkai from Bongao and vice versa? Just curious on that… so I know whether my schedule would allow taking the ferry or needing to hire a boat.

    Since I’m not planning on going until December, I’ll wait for your reply here and ask more questions as they come to me. Thanks for sharing your pics and experiences!

    • Blogie says:

      Hi Jason.

      Yes, Tawi-Tawi seems to be a fairly safe place to visit — it’s just that, like the rest of Mindanao, it’s been misunderstood all these years. Thanks to how national media treat matters Mindanao, most people from outside the area think that the deep south is a dangerous place…

      Arabic? I don’t think the residents of Tawi-Tawi commonly use Arabic, but I suppose everyday expressions such as “Assalaam Alaykum” are in currency.

      I’m sorry, but I have no idea as to the ferry schedule between Bongao and Sitangkai. When I was there, you see, the regular trips were canceled due to the inclement weather. But yes, hiring a boat is very much possible. From what I’ve gathered, boats go for P1,500 for a day if you plan on going around Bongao Island. If you go to the other islands, the boat operator, I’m told, will just ask for extra for fuel.

      Have fun in Tawi-Tawi! I hope you’ll share your experiences there here after your visit. :)

  7. wenroel says:

    hi sir, were going to tawi tawi with my frens..were not divers but your blogs helps a lot for us mountineers.experinece ko na mag dive but d ako nagkaroon ng license for diving..yun nga lang we dont have contacts on the said place..beachside inn is our target hub for staying..this dec 28-30 will be on that place..bka may ma suggest kang contact dun sir,plan namin mag sitangkai and simunul den bud bongao..thanx again..more power..

    weng

  8. I envy you man, you have the luxury to travel, as a family man, Im budgeting most of my time with my family. Maybe when my daughter is in her right age to travel maybe me and my family can visit the place.

    I always tell myself to first explore Philippines before vacationing outside. Taga pinas nga ako pero kunti palang na tourist spots sa Philippines na puntahan ko heheheh.

    Nice post. God Bless.

  9. Andy says:

    hi! I am going to tawi tawi on november, i am going to stay there just an overnight since my itinerary only includes zamboanga. just a side trip if we call it.

    anyway, would you know what would be the best thing to do for that one day?

    Thanks,
    andy

    • Blogie says:

      Hi Andy. If you’re staying just one day, I suggest you climb Bud Bongao if the weather’s clear. Then hire a tricycle for a tour of the island — the capitol building, public market by the sea, the beaches. :)

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