Tawi-Tawi: Journey to the Philippines’ westernmost frontier

BONGAO, Philippines – Never mind being stuck in an island where electricity and mobile phone network coverage is bleak. In Tawi-Tawi, disconnection from the normal routine is the only path to savour this place endowed with horizons of untouched white shores.

It’s the Philippines’ westernmost frontier and locals can spot first-timers in a breeze: visitors’ faces light up as they gaze at the beaches and the majestic Bongao peak, a sloping stretch of elevated land patched with trees that makes the provincial capital stand out from its two hundred other islands. In early mornings, low clouds cover the hill’s crest that resemble a flower horn cichlid’s forehead, best seen at the Sandbar resort, where facing against the Bongao peak is another breath-taking view of the white sand beach.

Literary named for its geographical isolation from any other places in the country, Tawi-Tawi comes from the Malay word “jauh” which means far. But its moniker no longer holds true today. Travelling to Bongao from Zamboanga City is now a 50-minute journey by air – although many of the locals opt to travel by boat that reaches the Chinese port overnight. Traders bring with them Malaysian noodles, canned goods, cereals and coffee from Zamboanga.

But perhaps its geographic isolation (cartographies ten years ago don’t have a detailed map of Tawi-Tawi) is what makes it exotic and deeply inviting among tourists aside from the ambition to have a picture taken with the sandbar in Panampangan at the background.

There aren’t too many tourists here, Salvacion Pescadera, the province’s tourism head, told us. “People fear Tawi-Tawi because it’s part of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.”

What negative notion, I asked. Every people we meet at the market and villages joyfully respond to the Islamic “as-salamu alaykum” greeting. The warm friendly reception is even felt more in mosques where devoutly religious Muslims, such as those at the Sheik Makhdum Mosque, spend most of their time reading the Quran. Islam was said to have first reached here in 1380, manifested by the mosque named after Sheik Karimul Makhdum that humbly stands before Bajau homes perched on stilts.

“Tourism officers in the province work hard to correct the negative notion,” she said.

Hard work must have been reaping rewards for the province. If there aren’t many tourists flocking Tawi-Tawi, then the fully booked Cebu Pacific I rode one Monday morning, which landed Sanga-Sanga airport, could have just been a dream.

Fresh catch at Bongao's wet market
Fresh catch at Bongao’s wet market

And the sight of exotic fresh catch displayed at the Bongao market was equally dream-like. It is amazing to witness how vendors and customers trade without those weighing scales which most people worry it’s helping sellers rip off buyers. Here, Lapu-Lapu is sold for P200 per dozen, Yellow Fin Tuna for P50 per five pieces and Sting Ray for P100 per piece.

Of course, only fools would look forward to seeing concrete jungles in Tawi-Tawi. This isn’t a place to search for man-made structures – except for the sacred Mosques that are marvellous to look at while the Islamic call to prayer fills the air. There are no malls but there are groceries and small trading centres downtown. But majority of the province’s trade happen at the port area where one could find food stalls, pawnshops and currency exchange stalls at every part of the streets.

It’s proximity to Sabah, the Malaysian Borneo, has influenced Tawi-Tawi’s culture. Here, you would find Bahasa Malaysia to be a useful language as many of its people speak it aside from the widely spoken Tausug and Sama.

Tourism in Tawi-Tawi is on its infancy stage, Salvacion tells us, as promoting this group of more than 200 islands to Filipino and foreign tourists are coupled with a laboured explanation that it is, indeed, safe to be here. But this place could be the Philippines’ next top tourist destination when it reaches at the ripe stage. Anyone going here will cherish being the tranquillity of the province, a gift to this place barely reached by many. The absence of urbanity is offset by the warmth of its people, eager to listen to tales of the tourists of how they have fell in love with their hometown at first sight.

For now, this westernmost Philippine frontier shall wait patiently for its influx of tourists whose ambition would be to tick an item off their bucket list.

(Published in M Magazine’s Dec. 2012 issue)


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