Wednesday, March 7, 2018


By Roger Pe
Business Mirror
March 8, 2018

I have never been afraid of southwestern Philippines, much more the Sulu group of islands. I don’t even believe the bad images people keep painting about them. To me, these stories are like ancient tales retold and rewoven by people who have not even been there, not seen the real picture, and heard only from third party sources. They have failed miserably to update their old knowledge and continue to nurture them in the cobwebs of their biased minds.

Last year, around one million people visited Tawi-Tawi and some people still keep asking if it is safe. Well, listen to travelers who recently visited it. Value the experiences of those who have actually been there.

I am annoyed by the tone of journals written by serial rumormongers about Tawi-Tawi, the harbingers of false news, which portray the islands as lair of bandits and its people as pirates. They scare the hell out of innocent travelers based on information that is unreliable, or they may have been there years ago and situations have changed.

The night I was thinking whether to accept an invitation to go to Tawi-Tawi reminded me of my first trip to New York in the late 90s. My advertising agency friends had bled my ears to ‘deaf’ stage by giving me unsolicited advice on how not get mugged in Manhattan (by not staring at people eyeball-to-eyeball in the subway,walk alone in Central Park, and so on and so forth).

To make the story short, all of them turned out not to be true, as with other pieces of advice I got before I went to Berlin, Paris, Madrid and Barcelona in the succeeding years.
I have always been adventurous. I stretch my boundaries at some point. I guess my being an adman made me that way – that the only way to find the truth is be actually in the marketplace to be able to write truthfully.

I am referring to misconceptions about Sulu islands, the hotspot much maligned by bad press. I am not saying that my truth is higher than some people’s views. Am just saying that we can interpret information differently by seeing the positive in people and situations, even if others may have a different outlook in life.

Anyway, I accepted the invitation even if we were only four(two travel bloggers, a cameraman and myself). We were usually about seven to ten, but I presumed the others had backed out or chose not to go. Well, the lesser, the better (and quieter), I thought.

I know what’s probably on their minds. But I would tell them right now that Tawi-Tawi is the safest province within the Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi archipelago. Pirates do not exist there because there is a naval base stationed in Panglima Sugala. The Philippine Coast Guard regularly patrols its shores, too.

The almost two-hour late afternoon flight to Zamboanga (where we would spend the night) was surprisingly smooth as silk, to use an airline tagline.After a quick check-in at Garden Orchid Hotel, we were brought to Alavar Restaurant for the obligatory “Curacha” dinner.

The chi-chi members of Davao media were already comfortably seated when we got there. Their bandwidth frequency ran high they dominated the dining chitchat airwaves. As in most media fam tours I’ve been to, no one introduced them to us, and us, to them, so we ended up gingerly, cautiously guessing who they were.

We were then told that our wake-up call would be at5 am, which meant we should sleep early and all powerbank batteries must be fully charged to the last bar. Like all my first nights in a new place, I would not be able to sleep, and much to my abomination, I had asthma, aggravated by a room reeking with chest-piercing scent of cigarette smoke.

I woke up at 3am, ready for our much-awaited Tawi-Tawi flight. While counting sheep, I had mentally reviewed Sulu’s geography, which islets and island provinces we will be flying over. The thrill of hovering above them gave me goosebumps. I also loved the fact that we will be within striking distance to Borneo (Sabah) when we get to Sitangkai and Sibutu, islands that have always mystified me.

It was drizzling when we arrived in Zamboanga airport. I was expecting some turbulence across the Sulu Seas when the plane took off but that did not happen. The only thing that disturbed me was when we were already descending to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi’s capital town. As we were approaching Sanga-Sanga airport, the plane abruptly maneuvered up and the pilot announced: “We apologize for the inconvenience but we will attempt to land for the second time because of poor visibility.”Another fifteen minutes of circling the island, we were able to land.
Hello, Tawi-Tawi

My Facebook friend, American documentary and travel photographer Jacob Maentz, in his jaw-dropping creative website, describes the Sulu Sea as “one of the most beautiful seascapes on earth.”  I echo his sentiment.

Despite its reputation, the entire strings of islands look like an untouched tropical paradise with a huge tourism potential. From the air, every single islet is ringed with white sand, what a sight to behold.

As soon as we had set foot in Tawi-Tawi, I had thought that I would be seeing a different country. No, it was just like another Philippine town, except for beautiful mosques, Islamic influences on house structures and the sound of ‘kulintang’ instruments gently thumping our ears with a warm welcome.

From the airport, we rolled through Bongao’s cemented roads and passed through a historicboulevard named Ridjiki (meaning “blessing”). I would later learn that it is a famous landmark facing the big expanse of Sulu and Celebes seas.

We saw children jumping and swimming into its turquoise blue waters. We saw young men and women chatting on the sea wall. Had we came late in the afternoon on that day, we would have seen a gloriously spectacular sunset.

The seaport has served the local populace for hundreds of years, a docking place for motored ferry boats from the municipalities of Sitangkai, Sibutu, Simunul, Sapa-Sapa, Tandubas, Languyan, South Ubian, Mapun, Turtle island and the rest of other far flung islands.
Philippines’ oldest mosque

As we went past Ridjiki, a black mountain standing in solitude beckoned on the horizon. It was a mini version of Australia’s Uluru Ayers Rock towering 342 meters above sea level amidst the flat island of Bongao, but more on that later.

We were now heading to Simunul, an island town where we would see the country’s oldest mosque. Our very enthusiastic tour guide, Tony Said, brought us to a seaport where we would take our speedboat. Before boarding, he obliged to take my photo infront of a famous structure in Bongao, the White Mosque located in Barangay Tubig Tanah. Sitting quietlyon a manicured carpet of grass, it gleams against a backdrop of coconut trees adjacent to the house of Tawi-Tawi’s provincial governor.

It was a quick ride to Simunul. The island has an attention-getting port entrance because of a big replica of a Koran on top of its archway. Crystal-clear blue waters, clean streets, symmetrical houses on stilts, the entire island was picture-perfect.
We walked around the island and we saw Sheik Karim al Makdum Mosque, the oldest mosque in the country. Declared a national cultural treasure, it was visited by the late President Ferdinand Marcos in 1965.

The newly renovated mosque still stands on its original site that was built in 1380. Inside, the four original giant pillars (made from Philippine Iron tree, “Ipil”) are encased in gilded iron railings.

We then moved to Poblacion Tampakan where we saw a monster of a crocodile measuring nineteen feet long and four feet wide on its tummy. Caught by Barangay Sukabulan fishermen, the beast has become an unusual attraction in Simunul.

Philippines’ longest sandbar

It was now time to visit the longest sandbar in the Philippines, Panampangan, a spectacular work of nature that measures three-kilometers from end-to-end forming the shape of a crescent moon. The island is not an ordinary sandbar. It is gifted with soft, silky, powdery white sand that could be ranked as one of the best in the world.
As our speedboat cranked up the heat for us to get there early, we saw amazing local color sights along the way. Picture these:

Bintang Boats: Our tour guide said, “They come and go, and they are culturally Malay but have assimilated with the Badjao culture and daily life.”

Inter-island Ferry Boats: Loaded with passengers with army soldiers. Each time they went past us, they reminded me what our Zamboanga tour guide Errold Bayona said – “When you meet them along the way, raise your hand and wave back.”

Muslim Wedding Boat: You know they are rushing to an island nearby for a wedding ceremony because of one thing –you see a “Malong” (traditional Muslim tube skirt) flying in the wind, like a flag planted near the boat’s prow.

Flocks Of Wild Sea Gulls: They number by the hundreds and they routinely swoop down the water surface to catch flying fishes. Their choreographed movements will make you utter: “What a wonderful world we live in.”


More birds appeared on the horizon. The way they moved were enough to tell us that we are much welcome. Too bad, my smartphone couldn’t capture them on extreme close-ups.As I was positioning to get another shot, our boatman told me: “It happens only in an undisturbed place like this.”

To my consolation, I was able to take a video of the breathtaking sandbar. The hardly visited island is now getting visitors and more are trickling in. Wrong perceptions have unfairly hounded many stunningly beautiful places in Tawi-Tawi for decades, but the truth is, it is safe and heavily guarded by Philippine Navy, Marines and five Badjao families, which live in the island.

Sacred mountain, Bud Bongao

You can call this mountain a masterpiece of nature. Bud (meaning “mountain”) has vertical limestone rocks and verdant moist forest. The mountain has six limestone pillars that form six of its peaks. They have viewing decks named afterBongao, Pajar, Sibutu (the summit), Simunul, Tambisan and Tinondakan.

We climbed a 3,608-step cobblestone trail and reached the highest view deck on Tambisan Peak in less than hour. The magnificent view at the top unraveled the coast of Sabah accentuated by a solitary eagle soaring above the deep blue sea. The summit gave us an almost 360-degree view of the Celebes Sea.

Before ascending, we were told not to bring plastic bottles, but we could bring Bananas to feed schools of Macaques (monkeys) that populate the entire mountain. Barely a quarter of the total height, two of our companions faded into oblivion and went back to the foot of the mountain.
Halfway through, I wanted to stop and just sit on one of the rest huts. My inner self said, “No” even if my chest was tightening and knees were wobbling. My shirt was now all wet as I was sweating profusely. “No turning back now,” I said, in an effort to establish a personal record – book my first real mountain climb.

Along the way, we would occasionally meet a family with a young boy or girl in tow. It was explained to us that it's a Bongao tradition, a sign of respect to bring young ones to a royal Muslim burial site above the mountain. It is also a practice to request for the sick to get cured. A hike is also a sign of penitence,the mountain being a holy ground for Muslims.

By this time, the forest monkeys have started to come down. I immediately saw one throwing his full body weight to branches of trees. Some would walk along the trail and glide through railings. I was able to capture one on video but as I got closer, he began to open his mouth wide open revealing his sharp fangs. Fearing he would jump at me and I would be off-balanced and, horrors, fall off the cliff, I backed off.

Our tireless guide Tony told us there is an Imam (Muslim priest) on the site and one can leave a donation and he will pray for you. Mountain trekkers can also make a wish by hurling pebbles towards the ravine. They say that if the pebbles hit the rock, their wishes would come true.

As it was almost five in the afternoon, we readied ourselves to come down. The race was on, who will reach the foot of the mountain first? I did, though my knees were hurting badly and my leg calves ached like hell. I was advised to cool down by walking around slowly and not just sit on a chair.

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) spent P56 million in developing Bud Bongao’s trail. The construction of an access road to Bongao Peak was the first eco-tourism park project developed by the regional government. It included construction of a tourist center where visitors can register and receive orientation before climbing, and concreting of about 750 steps and railings for construction of resting sheds.

Bongao Peak is one of the 12 key biodiversity sites in the country protected under the Department of Natural Resources’ New Conservation Areas in the Philippines Project.Around 1,500 tourists visit the peak every week. To increase visitor arrival in the town, Bongao Mayor Jimuel Que said the local government would help sustain and maintain Bud Bongao and will also conduct activities that will further promote tourism in the municipality. Que said, his governance would develop more community-based tourism that will also focus on local culture.

A feast of seafood

We barely had time to freshen up when we arrived at the house of Bongao mayor Jimuel Que for dinner. The boyish-looking Que gave us a sumptuous feast of the freshest seafood we’ve ever tasted - huge crabs, succulent white clamsoup, “Samaral”, broiled squid, and the winner of the night –Mantis Shrimp (“Alupihang Dagat”), winner, because it tasted so good like lobster and oozing with roe from end to end.

It was also a time to interview the mayor who gamely answered courteous and no-holds-barred questions. Que said he is hopeful about the positive buzz Tawi-Tawi is getting today. “We want to start slow, we don’t want to rush things. We want to fix peace and order in the community first,” he said.

Speaking of peace and order, Que said Bongao, is one of the most peaceful towns in Sulu archipelago. “We used to only have one battalion of soldiers, now we have three and the LGUs are cooperating. We want to maintain peace and order here. “Ayaw naming masira ‘yon” (we don’t want to ruin it),” he said.

ARMM Tourism Secretary Ayesha Dilangalen sees the big potential of Tawi-Tawi as a tourist destination. She mentioned that the establishment of tourism council and creation of association of hoteliers and restaurants in the province have helped boost tourism in Tawi-Tawi. Bongao alone has 300 hotel and pension house rooms for tourists. She is hoping that more hoteliers will invest in the province.

But in order for tourism to thrive, electricity, water and communication must flow unceasingly. Que laments that some of Bongao’s basic needs are not addressed. “Many of our islands don’t have rivers to supply the water needs of our people. Electrification is also a problem but he is thankful that the Regional Board of Investments of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (RBOI-ARMM) has approved an eight-megawatt capacity diesel power plant project in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi.

“For a region where residents miserably experience daily rotational brownouts due to power shortage, this is great news,” Que said. The whole of Sulu archipelago, including Tawi-Tawi, is the least penetrated market for power projects.

Que also reiterated that his mayorship would continue implementing an efficient waste disposable management in the town, make its seas and beaches trash-free and encourage people to be more environmentally conscious.

Tawi-Tawi Integrated Seaport and Economic Zone

Meanwhile DOT Secretary Wanda Teo, held an inter-agency dialogue on the Zamboanga-Sandakan Air connectivity and Tawi-Tawi Freeport and Ecozone Project in Zamboanga City on February 26, 2018.

As chairperson of Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area Tourism Cluster, Teo said, only Mindanao and Palawan are not connected by air and sea to the other three countries. She is optimistic that with the upcoming cruise tourism in Buliluyan, Bataraza, Palawan and Kudat, Malaysia, we can now be truly connected with the BIMP-EAGA, she said.

Teo also said that the Philippines would be aggressively promoting Mindanao through DOT’s “Go South Philippines” campaign. “We believe in the vast offerings of the island, including ARMM, specifically, Tawi-Tawi. With its beautiful beaches and its location as a natural gateway, there is vast potential for the island. Thus, the proposal to develop the Tawi-Tawi Integrated Seaport and Economic Zone (TISEZ) will prove to be a worthwhile,” she said.

DOT is tapping the younger generation of travelers to see the countryside with the campaign, zeroing in on the entire Mindanao island for the first quarter of 2018, beginning with Davao and to other Mindanao regions in the following months.

“Go South” will be our new message and tone for Mindanao,” Teo said. DOT is reviving this highly successful marketing campaign to give Mindanao a stronger and unified voice as a “single tourism destination”. Among its lofty objectives is to position Mindanao by spotlighting its world-renowned attractions, like the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Mount Hamiguitan, Mount Apo and Mount Kitanglad.

As part of our efforts to improve the tourism experience of our country’s Asean neighbors, Teo said, DOT has initiated Muslim Friendly Tourism to cater to specific needs of our brethren of the Islamic Faith.

Teo said there is much to see in Mindanao. “As we launch our “Go South” campaign, we will showcase the “Land of Promise” in a new light of fun, adventure and pleasant memories.” With the launch of these routes, we are taking the first step and we firmly believe that we, as a united front, will sustain what we have started,” she said.