Published: February 26th 2010February 10th 2010
Sibutu is a municipality in the province of Tawi-Tawi, Philippines. It is the southernmost municipality of the Philippines. It lies about 14 kilometers east of the coast of Sabah, Malaysia.
To get to Sibutu one must have to start from Bongao so from Simunul I took a boat back. the boat arrived around 9am, my chaperone Alemar started asking around which boat is headed to Sibutu, he hops on the boats and ask for the captain or one of the crew for information. Finally we found our boat and we were told 11am it departs so we have time to walk around, we bought bottled water and had an early lunch at this Malaysian restaurant. we headed back to the big boat around 10:30am, it has 2 levels, we decided to go up the 2nd deck where you can sit and sprawl on the floor, I lied down and fell asleep quickly, did not get much sleep last night in Simunul, those damn roosters! When I woke up more people had arrived, it is now 11:30am and we are still there, I am running low on patience, it's bad enough it takes a long time to travel from island to
island, when you have to wait for the boat to go, that really drive me nuts. 12:30pm i heard the engine roar, finally we are off!Women and their babies are on each side of the boat with their"duyan", small hammocks for the babies to sleep in, while the women care for the babies, the men are playing cards outside.
Slept through most of the trip, the water is calm we arrived in 2 1/2 hours only, the island of Sibutu is long,and Sibutu proper is on the other side tucked in the middle, there are 3 boats that leave from Bongao everyday(for Sipangkot, Tando Banak, and Sibutu Proper) again make sure you are on the right boat, in our case we need to be at Tando Banak. arriving at the pier i need to pee badly so i hid behind some house near the pier, as i go I smelled something fishy it was these drying octopus on the side of the house, I took photos. We planned on going the to Municipal office to report our presence in the island as per Provincial Tourism instructions, I was given a name to look for by Ben one of the
tourism staff in Bongao. I asked this chubby guy sat next to his motorbike if he knows how we get to the Municipal office, he asked who i am and why i need to go there for, he said the place might be close cause the officials there are lazy! So then i asked him if he knows Almonjin Joe or "toto" his nickname, he nodded and said it was him!
He is one of the staff of the Tourism office in Bongao, Ben promised me to contact him to notify him we are coming but he must have forgotten to do that. Toto called his boss Salvi and he agreed to take us in to his house. We first stopped at his family sari sari store where i met his friendly wife, I noticed a few graves near the square, old moslem graves, i inspected it and he gave me a brief history of the area. He claimed the "real" tomb of the Islam founder in the Philippines is here in this island, remains to be seen. His house is within the compounds of the High school playground. We saw young kids practicing for their Junior-Senior prom on
Valentine's day, girls wearing scarves to cover their head, majority of the people here are muslims. Toto's house is big! Goods thing i chose to stay here than at the Air Force barracks, oh let me backtrack on that to give you an idea how I ended up at the air force base.
Toto from the pier took me to the barracks of the Philippine Air Force to report to them of my presence in the island an SOP per Tourism office. Actually any armed forces whoever is present in the island, a tourist need to report to so they know your where abouts, be it the military, navy or even the police squad. Tawi Tawi is located below the hot spots of Abu Sayyaf activities in the south of the Philippines, it is generally peaceful here and rarely have an incident but to safeguard tourists and assure their security you need an escort! for me it's the air forces guys. I met the head of the barracks, very nice guy, he and his other officers chatted with me for awhile, he explained why they need to look after me etc..this area is rarely volatile but from what i
gathered, the danger may lie from pirates, as they are so close to Borneo, lots of illegal activities happen here, in the island of Sibutu I will be fine but their worry is when i cross into Sitangkai where I will be in open water anything can happen, if i have an armed escorts i should be safe, though having security men with me on the trip does not bode well for me, i have no choice.
He asked for an ID from me and all I have was my US passport, now the secret is out I am a PhilAm dude, I was trying to keep a low profile introducing myself as coming from Manila now the cover is blown, he ordered one of his men to photocopy my passport then he pages through it meticulously before handing it back over. I felt now they realized I am American they will double the security but not the case. He told me a couple of air force dudes will be my escort, to accompany me while in the island, they will meet up with us tomorrow at Toto's place before we head out sightseeing. he actually offered if i
want to stay in the barracks I can do so, I politely declined but after seeing their recreation area, with billiards and ping pong tables, I had a second thought, and plus I could have lots of drinking buddies here as Toto does not drink much, but nah, Toto is a cool guy so i came back with him.
Toto's wife cooked dinner, it was delicious fish of all sorts, power here is from 6pm til midnight so I was able to charge my camera battery. We slept up the 2nd floor they have a veranda where you can look outside to see the stars and in front of you is the High school grounds. It rained heavily that night maybe 3 times. The rain stopped around 7am as we get ready to head out, Toto rented a jeep for us and i negotiated the price 1,000 pesos for the day rent. We headed out to the Air force base to pick up our security but we were told they had already left for Tando Banak, one of our destinations, hmm I thought they will keep an eye on me like a eagle why did they go ahead? Toto
pier, drying octopus
explains they will be undercover, dressed in civilian clothing and just observing us from afar, like secret agents!
First stop is the Bullud beach, they also refer as the hidden beach. we have to go through a small dirt road into coconut forest and we ended up in this nice nook, it is low tide so walking along the beach is fun i found a few snails, and crabs a coral reef serves as a natural breakwater and you can see waves are big on that part. a few small fish were also seen. before we left Toto asked someone to fetch some coconut fruits for us, one dude climbed the tree as if nothing, really skilled at climbing trees, turns out to be Toto's cousin, everyone here is related somehow all over Tawi Tawi! then we drove out following a cemented road for a good 1/2 hour before arriving at the site of the Sheik Makhdum grave, the true grave says Toto, he claims the guy buried in Simunul is a disciple of the sheik, oh well it will be a never ending debate, I am just happy I saw them both. The very simple grave is within
this compound, a building that was not finished, I think they were trying to build a complex to house the grave but seems like funds ended and now it is left to rot, how unfortunate. The place is still nice though with some nice engraved designs on the walls.
we continued on to Tando Banak where they have some people making furnitures in front of the tall tower being built within the barangay, I think it's either the globe or smart phone tower. i got dizzy looking up and following the metal skeleton sway with the wind, and several people at the top not a hint of fear. Then we were welcomed to Toto's relative's house, a former barangay chairman, he also runs a mameng fish pen just a little bit out into the ocean next to the houses on stilts.
We walked out there and watched as they feed the hungry fish, this fish is very expensive when alive but dirt cheap when dead. Taiwanese ships come here quarterly to buy them fish, it was once endangered as I was told but now they were able to farm them so the numbers have increased. Near the fish pens
are manta rays drying out in the sun next to the drying seaweeds, agal agal they call it here, their main export. I interviewed some women making cuttings from the seaweed they harvested to propagate them, their work is tedious and never ending, i admire them, they are profesionals, teachers most of them and do this on the side, they said they were able to put their kids to school with the income from the seaweeds,impressive.
Toto then took me to the village of Tongehat where you can buy these colorful matts made of nipa palms, called "tepo", we rented a motorbike, the way there is quite scenic, houses on stilts, beautiful palm trees, cows wandering around the road, they roam freely,alongside the roads are drying seaweeds, more valuable when dry than fresh. We went inside the village on stilts asking around which house do we go to to see the tepos matts, we found it, they all laid out their designs, nice and colorful,took me awhile to decide which to buy, I bought a midsized matt for 400 pesos and the woman who made it was very grateful to me,now she can feed her family she told me.
Going back to tando Banak the tide is slowly coming back and the wind picked up, I can see big waves in the beach, we had a quick lunch at Toto's uncle. He lamented on how corrupt the officials in his town are, it was better when he was the chairman etc.etc. I just listened and nodded.Corruption is rampant in the Philippines, you see mayors and governors with their big houses, they have fisheries, some own islands, modern vehicles, if you stick with them you may get a few rewards. Anyways after lunch we headed to another beach called"Tahing beach", we stopped a couple times to give some people a ride, one is a whole family, Totoy the jeep driver told me this people have no vehicles and they walk from town to town so once in awhile the locals give them a free ride as they felt bad for them.
Arriving at Tahing beach, a motorbike went past us, Toto said to me those were our secret agents! i never saw them really nor had a chat and introduced, they kept a low profile. The waves are big but the beach is gorgeous, fine white sand but not
kids practicing for the prom night
much because the people are harvesting the fine sands to make cement, Toto lamenting on how eventually the beach will disappear, sad to say ther is also a lot of debris from the sea, weeds, grass also rubbish such a plastic and styrofoams, if only they clean a portion of the beach they can attract tourist to me here, still a long ways away, for now it remains wild and untamed. i was the only one who swam in the strong current, I made sure i was close to shore the whole time though. Then we headed to swimming hole called Kaban Kaban. Again a lot of rubbish around the area, really discouraging, I wish they clean it up before it disappears, the water is clear and cold, I hesitated to jump in thinking there might be something lurking there so Toto jumped in first then I followed, water is just right to refresh you, sometimes people go get drunk then come here and sober themselves up here. A huge water tank is being built above the Kaban Kaban next to the road, I hope this will not come to be a disaster, hopefully it does not dry out the
swimming hole, we will see..
Last place Toto took me to is the Talisay kaban kaban, another water hole but this one has sand in the middle, he hasn't been there in 5 years so he dropped me off at his friend's house while he took a dude to survey and try to find the place, when we went I saw a big hole in the forest with water,the middle of which is full of slime ,ill maintained , needs to be cleaned if they want tourism to thrive here, at least there is no rubbish just dead leaves and branches but lots of slime, i can imagine this will be great picnic area, nice trail around leading to here and also into the forest,just needs to be developed, water is deep in some areas, good for swimming, this is salty water, outlet is to the sea.
Last night in town, Toto's wife cooked up a storm, big crabs, so delicious! I was disappointed to find out I cannot afford to island hop to Sitangkai from here, to save money I need to go back to Bongao, I was quoted 2,500 pesos for a slow boat and fast
boat for 4,000 plus pesos, it's only an hour away from here, I decided to skip Sitangkai and move on. After breakfast we left for the pier where the boat departed about 9am arriving in Bongao 3 1/2 hours later. i said goodbye to Alemar my chaperone and I continued on to the hotel, i walked from the port as I have no loose coins, these guys don't change big money, such a pain. Exhausted I took a shower then had a massive lunch. One of the hotel staff called the SEAir office and was told the plane for Zamboanga for tomorrow is full, I got annoyed as I was just in the office half hour ago and the manager told me there is plenty of space and that he will save a seat for me, I told them they need to find a seat for me, I am not going to the airport as a chance passenger, I was promised one and i expect one. An hour later they called to tell me I have a seat for the flight tomorrow. I took a trike to pay the ticket, the freaking driver was lost he did not know where
the office is, we have to ask directions.
I met Ben one of the tourism staff tonight to say goodbye he stopped by the hotel, he is genuinely nice i hope to come back to Tawi Tawi in the near future.
Here's an excerpt from Jun Mercado's article on GMAnews TV bloggers network: I included it here to give people a brief history and knowledge of this beautiful and tranquil island so far south of the Philippines not a lot of people knew about it, thanks for Jun Mercado's article I was also enlightened and am glad I visited the isolated isle.
"In the archipelago of Tawi-Tawi, Sibutu Island stands for two things. First, it is the home of “ukkil” wood carvers and second, it is famous for boat making. “Ukkil” is an ancient wood art ala Pampanga- or Paete-style sans images. The more elaborate “ukkil” are seen in famous houses, mosques and burial grounds. The vine and flowery designs are believed to be as ancient as the Majapahit or the Sri Vijaya empires that connected the Southern Philippines culturally to its southern neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia, prior to the coming of Islam.
While the “ukkil” art is found nearly in all the islands, the “real macoy” are made in Sibutu, because the people there are reputed to be the “custodians” of this “sacred art”.
The other fame of the “islanders” is their expertise and mastery in boat-making. Big and small boats that navigate the Sulu Sea are “Made in Sibutu”. These boats are more popularly known as “kumpits”. Because of this technology, Sibutu has provided the peoples of Tawi-Tawi and Sulu the means to connect all the dots (islands and islets) in the Sulu Sea. They also build “modern” boats and speedboats that can compare with the very expensive fiber glass version. Sibutu has an advantage over the other islands because it grows all kinds of wood for all the timber needs of the province, from charcoal to light and hard timber for their boats and houses.
Sibutu maintains its mystique for the simple fact that the remains of Sheik Karim Makhdum, the Arab missionary who introduced Islam, lie in the island. His tomb, a national historical site, is located in Tandu Banak. To some historians, this tomb may sound confusing since the people of Simunul also claim that their
island is the locus not only of the first mosque built by the Sheik himself but also of his “real” tomb. The inhabitants point to the “miraculous” mound that has become a “tampat” - a sacred place. We shall veer away from the many competing claims. Suffice to say that all these burial grounds are considered “tampat”, including the one in Jolo.
The people in Simunul believe in the legend that Karim Makhdum was a giant who could traverse the Sulu Sea on foot as he moved from island to island. The coral reefs during low tide actually connect the islands. The other possible explanation is the fact that Karim and Makhdum are really NOT proper names but the plural for “holy” and “learned” men. Is this a case of several holy and learned men, instead of only one historical person, who were responsible for the Islamization of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi? The acceptance of this theory could help explain the several burial grounds. They are all tombs of Karim Makhdum!"
- if going to Sibutu contact Almonjil Joe or Toto his nickname(cell#09291706714) he does not charge a guide fee, but if you stay
with his family in their big house he asks 500 pesos per person/day, all meals included, very knowledgable guide
should you chose not to stay with him you can go straight to the Air Force base and you can stay in their barracks, their head 2nd Lt. Edmund Mantubang or first sergeant Jerry Erlano can sort you out, they may give you a guide as well aside from your escorts. Staying there might be free, I did not ask, but very likely cause it's government,if so try and make some small contribution if you are keen
-if you want to head to Sitangkai from here you need to hire a boat ranging in prices from 2,500 to 4,000 pesos RT
per Toto alternative is to start from Sitangkai then take the daily ferry to Tandu Uwak then hire a motorbike from there to take you to Sibutu proper
-good banig or tepo can be found at Tongehat, scenery is fantastic on the way there if anything
-Bongao to Sibutu proper leave everyday but from Sibutu proper to Bongao no Friday service
There are more photos below