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February 7th 2010
Published: February 18th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

Bud Bongao hikeBud Bongao hikeBud Bongao hike

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The name of Tawi-Tawi is a projection of the Malay word "jaui" meaning "far." Prehistoric travelers from the Asian mainland would repeat the word as "jaui-jaui" to mean "far away" because of the distance of the islands from the continent of Asia. The word "Tawi-Tawi" was picked up to later become the official name of the province.Tawi-Tawi lies at the southwestern tip of the country. Irregular in shape, with splashes of white sandy beaches and rock-bound coasts, the province has 107 islands and islets with a combined land area of 1197 kmĀ² (462 square miles).

Tawi-Tawi is an island province of the Philippines located in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The capital of Tawi-Tawi is Bongao. The province is the southernmost of the country sharing sea borders with the Malaysian State of Sabah and the Indonesian Kalimantan province. To the northeast lies the province of Sulu and to the west is Sabah in Malaysia. Tawi-Tawi also covers some islands in the Sulu Sea to the northwest, the Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi Island and the Turtle Islands, just 20 kilometers away from Sabah.

Tawi-Tawi is the southernmost province of the Philippines, bordering Sabah and East Malaysia. It is under

kids waiting for money to be tossed in the sea so they can retrieve it
the political jurisdiction of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

Three groups of islands make up the provincial territory: Cagayan de Sulu (Mapun) and Turtle Island Group (Manuk-Manukan); Sibutu Island Group; and the Tawi-Tawi Island Group. There are 10 main islands and more than 300 smaller islands and islets, some of which lie far offshore from the larger islands. Because of this, the province's municipal waters (up to 12.5km based on the ARMM Fisheries and Aquatic Code of 1999) are extensive, covering more than 11,000 sq kms.

At the Zamboanga port I was dropped off by the trike at the entrance and had to walk a good 10 minutes to get to the terminal, quite annoying in the afternoon heat, I have to pass this really stinky polluted stream where a walkbridge go across, nearly fainted as I tried to hold my breath. I paid the terminal tax tehn quickly found the ship i need to get on,Trisha Kerstin 2 bound for Bongao, Tawi Tawi. It's chaotic you have to enter through the vehicle entry point and needs to get past military security where you also show your ticket to be cancelled, then up to the 3rd level where my cabin is, I booked 1st class cabin with a/c no toilet. I went past the cheap accomodations beds literally spread out in the 2nd level, there is one inside a big room next to the cafeteria this must be 2nd class, like a dorm style set up but the whole world can see your business with see through galss as walls.

I found my cabin very small 4 beds and lots of small cochroaches!I am not bothered by them but if I were I would freak out, they seem to come out from everywhere. Vendors are selling water, snacks, even watches, they come even to the cabin side and they will open my door just to ask if I want to buy anything, no sense of privacy, I gave them a mean stare and they leave right away. The lock on the door does not work. I went out to catch some fresh air and asked if there is a viewing deck, the security guy says no, just look out the side of the boat, there's your view he told me! Better view on the 2nd level so I went down but you have to be
Bolobok cave Bolobok cave Bolobok cave

cave's outlet to sea
careful as people are carelessly spitting from the top level, throwing trash in the water, no wonder the port is littered with rubbish. one boy even pped from the 3rd level, people in the 2nd level have to get out of the way in order not to get sprayed on.

One dude approached me and asked me if I want to buy a watch, it's a friend's watch he claimed and its still brand new, I declined, they see i have no watch so they think I need one. 2 or 3 times there was an announcement telling all vendors to get off the boat as we are about to leave, in English, Tagalog and Chavacano. We left late even so, half hour late at 6:30pm.
I stayed looking out to sea and watched as Zamboanga disappear from sight, then i got hungry so I went to check what they have in the cafeteria, not much and a big sign says "we don't have hot water" bummer, so goes the cup a noodles I bought for dinner, I ate the snacks I bought and then called it a night, for some reason am very tired. I believ there is only one other guy in my room but we never spoke, he is always out, the sea was calm and I slept like a baby. I woke up at 6am to go to the loo then went back as I don't feel like having breakfast, later on I should have gone out to see Jolo go by and possibly spot some dolphins as well.

Around 9am I got up and ready for fresh air, the cabin has no windows and the a/c is just a blowhole with semi-cool not cold air coming out, stiffling really. I saw an island we are going past, lush and full of coconut trees, turns out this is Tawi Tawi island already, we went around and saw the Bud Bongao peak, its a pretty sight, as we approach the harbor I started seeing trash and the closer we get there trash all over the place sad sight for a beautiful island, In the boat itself 3 young men having a beer decided to toss the cans out to sea when the trash bin is just next to them, when will these people learn? Kids arriving in their boats persuading passengers to throw coins at them and they will dive for it when you throw it in the water, very good swimmers this boys, i took heaps of pictures. There are houses on stilts near the port too. When I get out of the boat I proceeded to the waiting area, it's now 10:30am half hour early, the people supposed to meet me is not there yet so i sat and read the LP book. Then an hour later Malou came up to me, she works for Aleson shipping line and part time tour guide, Salve my contact asked her to pick me up, we went to Rachel's hotel to check in, cheapest rooms are 800 pesos but they say they will give me a discount.

I am starving by now and so i invited Malou to have lunch with me, I had the crab omellete a specialty here apparently as they export crab, It's a bit bland really, then the waiter screwed up the order he came with 3 plates of fried chicken combo. I ain't paying for it so i asked him to take it back. Malou took one and took out the other. She is nice and very talkative giving me a run down about the town, what to see etc. Then Julie joined us he and Salve tried to organize things for me i felt bad as I don't have a cell phone and they have to communicate to each other about my plans etc.. Julie left us as he had other business to attend to then i took a shower, Ben came, he and Julie who came back later took me on a tour of the town.
Starting at the Bolobok caves, on the way we passed several villages and a quick pass through at the airport tarmac! They use also as a road when no flights are arriving or leaving. We got to the village of Lakit Lakit and we asked permission from the head, then we are off, the first cave was nice but a bit bland, apparently it seems to be dying , it's connected with the other netwrok of caves but they plugged one in for some reason and now it looks like dead to me but the rock formations are still impressive.

The caretaker of the area was there and he told us ther's a snake there! and we have to get back the same way, needless to say i freaked out. But we were fine. off to the 2nd cave above it is a house and they litter the side of the cave with rubbish and this one too is dying, too bad they all look cool, julie said way back then they are magnificent but the government seems to not care for them much, they have been left out of priorities, I am one of the lucky people to see them before they crumble to pieces. The 3rd one is supposed to be the best but we cant go through because the walkway made of wood planks are falling apart! it's shut now, there is a nice rock bridge thing and some caves insdie too but we can't go anymore! This is not a priority like I said so this attraction will be forgotten soon, what a pity!

Then from there we went along the coast to see some beach side towns we stopped at one beach next to the military outpost where I had a good view of the end side of Bud Bongao, Ben had a flat tire so we have to wait for him to have it fixed, then we proceeded to salve's residence where I finally met the kind Provincial Tourism head for Tawi Tawi, she is helping me organize my travels here and offering her staff at my disposal! They have taken care of me since I arrived, really nice!
We then went to the public market to have a look at the things they sell there, from copra, to charcoals, and fish and fruits, lively even in the eve.

Next morning Ben my guide from the tourism office came and we took a trike to the public market to buy water and bananas for the monkeys that live in the Bud Bongao, the 300 meter plus peak that dominates this island. WE took a trike to the starting point nears the coastline and we walked slowly, there is a naval station at the foot of the mountain, we followed the tracks up slowly, ben for some reason could not keep up with me but since the trail is easy I went ahead of him, it is so humid I am sweating profusely 10 minutes into the trek, we went past families trying to hike up the peak with young babies in tow, Ben explained it's a tradition as a sign of respect to bring the young ones to a royal Muslim burial site above or even the sick go up there to get cured , some people as a sign of penitence etc, this is holy ground for the Muslims, tainted a tad bit by the presence of a communications tower(Globe cell phone company) and naval station at the top. For me the hike wasn't so bad and like I said my guide is struggling he rests with the local families with kids, i kept on.

Arriving in the forest the monkeys started coming down and Ben started to hand out the bananas, some of them have babies with them so cute, they were not agressive probably they know there's plenty of food, almost everone come up here with treats, some with junk foods, not good. Trash sadly is everywhere, and plastic bags tied up to trees, these cannot be taken out as they are symbols of prayers and wishes from pilgrims, just like in Mongolia but they use cloth there not plastic! Each group of monkeys have their own territories they never go past their domain. I arrived first at the royal tomb place, as I rest and wait for Ben, naval guys came out from there station headed down to town, there is an Imam on site and you can leave a donation and make a request, a wish and the Imam will pray for you. Monkeys linger the tomb, there are several there, we had a good view of the airport below from the top and the coastline and nearby islands, Tango island, Simunul, Sibutu. We sat and had our bananas for snacks and enjoyed the view, went past the Globe tower and went back down slowly.

We hailed a trike to get to the port offices of different boat companies that goes to Sitangkai but since it was Sunday it is shut, we got schedule infos from the locals who linger there, then to the Chinese port for the schedules to Simunul, Sibutu just to have an idea as I plan out my moves for the next few days. Boats leave everyday for these places but only once coming back the next day so i have to overnight in these places. We looked for boats to hire to tour around the islands, we negotiated for half day 1,500 pesos, it's steep for me but is the only way to see the area. we had a quick lunch in the market then back to the hotel so I can get some money and back to the market where we met the boatman and off we go. 20 minutes of boat ride we arrived at our first destination, Tango island, people told me how nice this island is, underwhelming really, shores full of broken up corals, there is a house in the small island owned by the Governor of Tawi Tawi, a few minutes there we went on and cruised around the bay visiting a few villages within the Bongao township, we saw houses on stilts all over, next to mangroves, you can see trash where people live really sad sights, where it is shallow you see green algaes which i think is due to human wastes over the years of accumulation, and there is a certain smell to it too.

After about couple hours crusing including past a US Aid project, a hatchery in Lato- Lato we arrived to the port and we got off, the port is bustling with newly arrived boats from different islands, there is an Intramural spotrs competition in a weeks time and these kids come now here to get ready and prepare, some coming from as far as islands minutes away from Malaysia, namely the Turtle Islands, Sibutu, Sitangkai, there is a lively atmosphere about, I found guyabano in the market so I bought one for later. We took a trike and went to the coastline near the Beach side Inn hotel to have a few drinks of San Mig to cool off from the searing heat, couple hours later the sun is setting so we went for a walk, Ben took me to this mosque on the end of this peninsula and got some good fotos, he used to work in this hotel near there so we were able to get in and walk around the compound. We asked for a possibility of hiring a fast boat, sample prices: to Simunul is 5,000 pesos and Sitangkai and Sibutu day trip 20,000 pesos, so I decided to use the commute boats to save money. Ben took me back to the hotel and I get ready for my next few days trip.


-There used to be a way to get to Sabah in Malaysia from Bongao, a fast boat from WEESAM company but stopped operating because the boat broke down, as of yet service has not been resumed

-It is best to coordinate your trip with the Provincial tourism office, Salvacion Pescadera is the chief(cell phone#0910 9716367) to better facilitate ease in travelling to the islands of Tawi Tawi, they can offer you valuable advise on island hopping and what options you have, either go by public transport or hiring private boats, depending on how much time you have

-Bongao is easy, you can climb Bud Bongao on your own, just take a trike to the starting point which the trike drivers know
or take a guide from tourism office, usually it's Ben ( cell #09075932907) he charges 700 pesos for the hike

-you can also hire tourism staff to go around the island, the caves of Bolobok are deteriorating in my opinion is not worth a visit, but the ride to there is scenic if anything, they charge a fee for the trip or you can do it yourself, just hire a motorbike with driver, ask from hotels, there are several beaches to chill as well but are fairly ordinary and pebbly.

-the port is chaotic, Chinese pier is where most boats around Tawi Tawi islands go from,ask locals, fruit vendors and porters are the most helpful

The only way to get to Malaysia legally is to backtrack to Zamboanga and fly from there!

Places to visit in Tawi Tawi outside of Bongao:

-Simunul, to see the mosque built by the Sheikh Makhdum and his supposed grave alongside it, also pretty villages and some nice beaches

-Sibutu, friendly people, nice wild beaches with very fine white sands, picturesque Tausug and Badjao villages on stilts,a swimming hole called Kaban Kaban, and another site supposedly the "true" grave of Sheikh Makhdum

-Sitangkai, Venice of the Philippines, Tausug villages on stilts, apparently cool place to see if you have time, sadly I have to skip as I ran out of patience looking and waiting for boats to go from Bongao, so close to Sibutu but no public boat transport between the islands, you need to hire your own boat(I got quoted 2,500 pesos RT from Sibutu for slow boat and 4,000 pesos for speed boat) and you

kids diving for coins at the harbor
need Air force escort from Sibutu, don't ask me why it's the SOP here

FYI: boat schedules for Sitangkai from Bongao😞source is some guy from the pier)

Sunday: Magnolia Grandiflora leaves at 12 noonish

Wednesday: Pacific Evergreen leaves between 10-12noon

Thursday: Magnolia Fragrance leaves around 10am

Friday: Emilia Evergreen leaves before noon

(all boats go back and leave for Bongao from Sitangkai the same day around 10 pm, arriving early morning, trip time is 4-5 hours, this are just guides, double check schedule at the pier(though i can't find a posted sched anywhere!) or from Tourism office to be sure as they change without notice)

-Sapa-Sapa( take a boat to the Barangay Banaran about 2 1/2 hours) offshore near Banaran is apparently a fantastic huge sand bar called Pampang beach, locals told me it's really cool, sadly I did not see it

-Tabawan Island, about 6 to 7 hours away from Bongao apparently the friendliest people in Tawi Tawi

-Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi or Mapun(new name), better accessed from Zamboanga city

-Turtle Island(Taganak), so close to sabah already, apparently you can see nesting turtles here

Additional photos below
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octopus anyone?


18th February 2010

nice blog and photos. I travelled the Philippines for six months and Tawi-Tawi was somewhere I always wanted to go but didn't manage to.
18th February 2010

Hi i have never been to Tawi-Tawi..Just saw your pictures and read your experience..I m too excited to go to these places specially Tawi-Twai..Thanx for providing so much information!!!!!!!!!!!!
30th January 2011

I will be visiting Tawi Tawi by the first week of Feb. I read a lot of articles about this southernmost province and yours was the best. Thanks for the nice pictures and very informative articles. I almost see my self in the my dream island!

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