The tide is low, and a handful of Tausug villagers, who live in stilt houses near the shore, paddles into the shallows in their small hand-carved boats to collect seaweedsfromthe filaments mounted on wooden poles. The silence is broken only by the occasional squawks of the Egrets and the swish of the farmers in the placid waters of Celebes Sea. Beaming from ear to ear, Joyce claps her hands in excitement. “Everyone warned me about this place. I never imagined I’d be here,” she says. Had we flinched upon hearing about the recent bomb explosions, kidnappings and beheadings in the infamous provinces in Mindanao, we wouldn’t have seen Omapuy Island, which for us is one of the country’s most beautiful islands. The island, whose wide swathes of powdery white sand glow from afar, is tucked away in Tawi-Tawi, the southernmost province in the country.
Tawi-Tawi shares sea borders with the island of Borneo to the west. It is a peaceful home to several indigenous tribes: the Sama, who comprise a large percentage of the population; the Tausug, a Moro-ethnic group who are dominant politically and economically; the Badjao, the seafaring gypsies; and the Jama Mapun, a group largely found in the isolated Cagayan Mapun and Turtle Island Group.
An ARMM territory, Tawi-Tawi looks nothing like an island of dread. With bright-eyed enthusiasm, Ate Nursida Jaluddin, a tourism staff at the Sanga-Sanga Airport in Bongao, makes last-minute tour arrangements for us after our original guide bailed out without notice. After a hefty breakfast of satti (grilled chicken and rice drenched in spicy curry sauce), junai (steamed rice mixed with burnt coconut grates and paired with hard-boiled egg) and tiyula–itum (beef stew that is also blackened with burnt coconut grates), we board a lantsa (a large wooden boat) at the bustling Chinese Pier. The pungent smell of marang, durian and dried fish wafts in the air. The lantsa is brimming not just with passengers but also with huge boxes of goods that can be bought only in Bongao, the province’s economic capital. A four-hour boat ride takes us to the humble town of Sibutu, the jump-off point to the remote islands in our itinerary.
At The Southern Tip
“Surreal!” We unanimously agree about the feeling of reaching Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the Philippines, just 40 kilometers away from the Malaysian state of Sabah. Its gorgeous transparent waters reveal hectares of luxuriant sea grass and corals. “On a clear day, the mountains of Sabah can be seen from this island,” says Alnour, our guide, as our boat crawls over the coralline reef. Here, the Tausug and the Sama Dilaut, who share the bounties of the sea for livelihood, live peacefully in a small settlement along the white beach. On a typical day, one would find women and children on the shore, sorting out their seaweed harvests before hanging them on wooden poles to dry.
Venice Of The South
Not far from Saluag Island is the municipality of Sitangkai, a lively settlement that stands not on land but on reef. Approaching Sitangkai is like entering a different world. It has a one-kilometer marine causeway that is fringed with stores that sell dry wares, fresh produce and even bizarre merchandise like dried stingrays and puffer fish, which according to a vendor is actually safe to eat. Here, footbridges connect one house to another and pump boats are the only mode of transportation. Traffic usually happens in the morning, when people from nearby islands come to purchase supplies. Many peddlers would crowd the 20-feet wide waterway to sell directly from their boats.
Besides the unusual trade and commerce, seaweed farming is also another source of livelihood in the island. In fact, Sitangkai is the largest producer of seaweeds in the country.
Setting foot in Simunul Island is another surreal experience. “We are standing exactly on the birthplace of Islam in the Philippines,” says our guide. We are speechless with excitement. In 1380 AD, an Arab missionary and trader from Mecca named Sheikh Karim Ul-Makhdum arrived in Simunul Island to preach Islam to our tree-worshiping ancestors, long before the Spaniards came. Today, a mosque named after him stands in Brgy. Tubig -Indangan as an important landmark where the first Islamic temple in the archipelago was built. Inside it are four intricately designed Ipil-wood pillars, which are said to be from the original 14th century mosque.
While many believe that the sheik’s remains are interred just within the mosque’s premises, others assert that his real grave is the one enshrined in Barangay Tandubanak in Sibutu. The latter is considered a national heritage site. Both graveyards are revered pilgrimage sites of Filipino Muslims.
“Say a prayer when you reach the summit, then promise to come back if your wish comes true,” says Lance, our guide to Bud Bongao, the highest peak in Tawi-Tawi. We are unsure if he is serious, until we meet families who hike up just to pray and meditate. Soaring 340 meters above the sea, Bud Bongao (“bud” is Tausug for mountain) dominates Tawi-Tawi’s landscape and is easily recognized from afar due to its distinct U-shape. The trail is clear, and lofty Molave, Kalantas and Lumbang trees cover our heads from the harsh daylight as we climb. Sweat-drenched, we walk in silence as we near the tampat (shrine) just below the peak, where pilgrims whisper their prayers. We see three holy shrines not far from each other, and according to our guide, one of Sheikh Makhdum’s original followers was buried in the vicinity. Upon reaching the summit, the vast greenery below and the calm glistening waters of the Celebes Sea render us breathless and oblivious of the scorching high-noon sun. Besides being a pilgrimage site, Bud Bongao is also a treasure trove of biodiversity. It is home to the Pugad Lawin, the Orange Albatross, monitor lizards, the Short-nosed Fruit Bats and the Philippine Monkeys/ long-tailed macaques, which we have to please with bread offerings halfway through our descent.
1.) Cebu Pacific has flights from Zamboanga City to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi.
2.) To go to OMAPUY and SALUAG ISLANDS, go to the Chinese Pier in Bongao as early as 10 a.m. and ride a lantsa bound for SIBUTU (3 hours, Php 200), the jump-off point to these 2 islands. There’s only one boat to Sibutu daily. Make sure to coordinate with the tourism office beforehand for the accommodation and island hopping. There are no hotels in Sibutu and rates of the accommodation depend on the owner of the house you’ll spend the night in. Boats for island hopping also depend on the owners. We spent around Php 5,000 for the land and sea transportation to Omapuy, Saluag and Sitangkai.
3.) If you want to go to SIMUNUL, the jump-off point is Bongao. Just go directly to the Tourism Office at the airport to inquire for boats. You may also want to check out Panampangan Island, which many travelers have been raving about. A speedboat to both Simunul and Panampangan can be as expensive as Php 8,000 so bring your adventurous friends to save on expenses. Bawal ang pabebe sa Tawi-Tawi! haha J
4.) To go to BUD BONGAO, coordinate also with the Tourism Office at the airport for accredited tour guides.
Who to Call:
1.) Salve Pescadera of the Tawi-Tawi Tourism Office- 09051547865/09106716367
2.) Nursida Jaluddin of the Tourism Office at the airport- 09206140860