At the southern-most tip of the Philippines, bordered by the Sulu Sea and the nearby Malaysian state of Sabah, lies the province of Tawi-Tawi. This group of islands is rich in every aspect but it is rarely in any local or foreign traveler’s itinerary.
There is a great stigma against the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) region, where Tawi-Tawi is located, in the Philippines. Parts of ARMM have been rebel strongholds in the past decades. This part of our land has suffered from armed conflicts between the government and rebels for the longest time.
This, plus the occasional news of foreigners being kidnapped makes the entire region unattractive to traveling.
The Tawi-Tawi I saw
In June 2015, I went to Tawi-Tawi to conduct a workshop on social media and civic engagement. Around 1,500 Tawi-Tawi youth attended. They talked about the problems they face in the province and the solutions they want to pursue.
Even my friends, when I told them that I’m going to Tawi-Tawi, were worried about my safety. Journalists, after all, were “the favorite targets.” But I’ve always wanted to go to different parts of Mindanao so I wasn’t afraid.
The Tawi-Tawi I saw was far from the conflict-stricken land most Filipinos think of it of. The Tawi-Tawi-Tawi I saw was an environmental and cultural paradise. As my friend, Lt Col Stephen Cabanlet of the Philippine Marines described it, the Rivendell of the South.
In my conversations with local officials and activists, I found out that the local government has been trying to boost tourism in the province. My experience in Tawi-Tawi pushes me to support this initiative since I myself want to go back to this province.
Here are 5 reasons to visit Tawi-Tawi.
1) Untouched natural wonders
Aside from the workshop, I also went around the islands to do stories about Tawi-Tawi and enjoy some of its tourist sites.
Everything, from the mountains to the beaches, were stunning! The sea was clear and the islands were breathtaking.
Tawi-Tawi has rich fauna and flora, mostly endemic to the islands. Mt Bongao, a holy mountain for Badjaos that looks like pride rock from Lion King, is home to many species of birds and other wildlife. This is why many birdwatchers visit Tawi-Tawi.
There are also many diving spots in the province. Expect to see a lot of sea turtles or pawikans, as some of Tawi-Tawi’s islands are their breeding grounds.
After doing some interviews on our second day, we stopped by one of the islands for lunch and a short swim. It felt surreal to be swimming in Tawi-Tawi, especially given all the “negative things” I was told about it growing up. You can while away in an island alone too, if you’re travelling there. Just ask the tourism council for your options.
The beauty of Tawi-Tawi’s natural wonders, in my opinion, is in the same level as that of Palawan – without the long lines of tourists. So go there while it’s still undiscovered!
2) Charming local traditions
Tawi-Tawi is home to different tribes and indigenous people whose traditions go back to hundreds of years before the Philippines’ colonization.
The biggest of the tribes is the Samah who populate most of the towns in the province. During our trip, we were shown some of their traditional dances that I’ve never seen presented elsewhere. One of the dances we saw is called “pag-alay” (offering) and it is distinguished by small intricate hand gestures to the sound of ethnic music. It is very conservative yet exuberant, especially because of the beautiful ornaments and costumes.
The Badjaos, on the other hand, are the sea gypsies known for living their entire lives at sea. Their main livelihood is fishing and they also grow lobsters and crabs. In the islands we visited, the Badjao communities live on stilt houses in the shorelines. This is because the local government encourages them to live in land, since it’s much safer.
The old traditions of the communities I visited lives on. I was particularly amazed by seeing the mat weavers in the island of Buan and learning about their craft. It actually takes an entire month to to weave an entire banig (mat)!
Being closer to the equator, Tawi-Tawi is naturally hot and humid. Not surprisingly, the locals have their own sunblock and it’s made out of powdered grains and guava juice. I found it very cooling and refreshing when I tried it.
3) Everyone is friendly!
Well, it’s a natural Filipino trait to always smile and be friendly to visitors but the people in Tawi-Tawi go beyond this. Every community we visited served us food and the people were very eager to tell us their stories.
I was also overwhelmed by the warm welcome we received from the youth of Tawi-Tawi. They were very eager and very brave to voice out their concerns! (READ: A letter to the youth of Tawi-Tawi)
The imams were very happy to tour us inside the mosques in the province. They are very proud of their heritage and their way of life.
When most Filipinos think of Tawi-Tawi inhabitants, they think of war-freak people who are up to no good. The people I met in Tawi-Tawi are far from that. They are a peace-loving, amicable people who – with every visitor – are trying to change the negative stigma about them.
I made a couple of good friends and acquaintances in Tawi-Tawi and I’m sure you’ll make some too when you visit!
4) Well-preserved Muslim heritage
I’ve always been fond of religious sites and the stories they tell about places and people. Whenever I travel, I put temples, churches, and mosques on top of my itinerary.
After my trip to Brunei in April this year, I became more appreciative of Islamic heritages. So my trip to Tawi-Tawi, considered as the cradle of Islam in the Philippines, was very timely.
It was in 1380 that Sheik Al Makhdoum, an Arab missionary, founded the very first mosque in the Philippines in the island of Simunul in Tawi-Tawi. This is when the spread of Islam in the Philippines started. The sad part is that many Filipinos, even Muslims, don’t know this.
The original Sheik Makhdoum mosque was made of wood so it naturally didn’t survive. But some of the parts of the original mosque can still be seen in the concrete mosque that stands now. You can also pay tribute to the Arab missionary whose remains lie a couple of meters away from the mosque.
In the town of Panglima Sugala stands the Grand Mosque of the province, erected by the former governor as an iconic symbol of Islam in Tawi-Tawi. The mosque is small compared to the mosques of Brunei but the interior is quite beautiful. One of the imams in this mosque told me tourists frequently visit this spot and that they are very well treated by the locals.
But the Islamic heritage of Tawi-Tawi is not just found in its beautiful mosques. It is seen in the simple and peaceful way of life that the people have, one that I was blessed to have witnessed. You don’t really need to be a Muslim or religious to appreciate history and heritage, right?
5) Seafood heaven!
Did I mention that Tawi-Tawi is a seafood heaven?
During my 3 full days in the province, I was served with more seafood than I consumed last year! The fishes were yummy and the crabs and lobsters were beyond words.
It is in Tawi-Tawi that I actually learned how to crack crabs myself. It is also here where I first got to try sea mantis, which tastes like a shrimp made love to a crab.
Adding to the rich marine life is the locals’ method of cooking, making the seafood dishes truly a must-try. You need not go to the islands to taste fresh seafood. Any restaurant in the province actually serve fresh catches of Tawi-Tawi’s underwater wonders.
Go to Tawi-Tawi then leave
There are a hundred more reasons to visit Tawi-Tawi and I leave it up to you to find out. Going to Tawi-Tawi will not only widen your perspective about Mindanao but will also help boost local tourism.
Based on my interviews with the tourism council, they really want to promote Tawi-Tawi as a tourist spot. But they want their program to be sustainable. They don’t want the province’s beaches to be like party island like Boracay – because it might disrupt the conservative way of life in the province.
Another important reason is because the Samah and Badjao tribes are very sensitive when it comes to strangers. Yes, they would welcome you to their homes when you visit but once outsiders start living in their areas, they’d leave. As the congresswoman of the province said, “We don’t want to lose the essence of Tawi-Tawi.”
So, go to Tawi-Tawi, enjoy the province’s treasures then leave. And, of course, share the word about this beautiful paradise found at the Philippines’ southern most tip!
P.S. Of course, safety is still the number one consideration people have before visiting Tawi-Tawi. In my next article, I’ll give safety tips when going to the province. Stay tuned!