In the southernmost part of the Philippines, the province of Tawi-Tawi can be found. Contrary to what many Filipinos view of the province, Tawi-Tawi is an unbelievably peaceful and beautiful place. This may not be your typical travel destination due to its past reputation and safety issues but with this travel guide, we will unmask Tawi-Tawi’s potentials for tourism locally and internationally!
Get to Know Tawi-Tawi
Tawi-Tawi is an island province in the Philippines situated in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). It was formerly under the jurisdiction of Sulu province until 1973 when it was separated and recognized as a new province. It covers vast sea areas from Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi to Turtle Islands of Sulu Sea which is just a 20-kilometer away from Sabah, Malaysia. The province extends as far as Sitangkai and Sibutu in Celebes Sea, the closest places in our neighboring country of Malaysia.
Check out our video showcasing the beauty of Tawi-Tawi!
Getting Around Tawi-Tawi
Basically, the most convenient way to explore Bongao town and its nearby tourist attractions is by tricycle. You can hire one for a half-day or whole day city tour. Another mode of transportation is by habal-habal or motorcycle. You can rent one from a local or hire someone to drive you around for a fee. If you have a tour provider, they will prepare everything for you. Since Bud Bongao, Boloboc Cave and Rock Boloboc Formations are the farthest among all the tourist spots, it is best to experience riding a habal-habal and enjoy the fresh air and scenic roads along the way.
Things to Do in Tawi-Tawi
Tawi-Tawi is a promising tourist destination and home of peaceful-loving people. Explore and experience the culturally diverse beautiful places of Tawi-Tawi from its province capital, Bongao to the islands down south!
You can do Do-It-Yourself (DIY) the city tour by renting a motorbike/habal-habal or have it organized by a local tour provider.
Trek Bud Bongao, the Highest Peak of Tawi-Tawi
They said you haven’t visited Tawi-Tawi if you don’t trek its highest peak, Bud Bongao. Standing at a height of 314masl, Bud Bongao or Mount Bongao (Bud in Tausug word means mountain) is a sacred mountain for the people of Tawi-Tawi. A known place for them to meditate, offer prayers and ask blessings to Allah. At present, Bud Bongao is a favorite place to gather and enjoy the sceneries, have a picnic, watch the sunrise/sunset and have yourself pictured on the iconic peak. Bud Bongao is an hour trek on average but still determined at an individual’s pace. It is open from 6 AM to 4:30 PM.
Start your trek as early as 6 AM to watch the sunrise along the trail.
Monkeys are commonly found during the trek. You can feed them if you have bananas with you. Along the trail, you’ll notice the signs attached the trees, worthy of your time to read and reflect.
Wander around Boloboc Cave and Boloboc Rock Formation
Boloboc Cave is surprisingly beautiful and distinctive. This is not your usual spelunking wherein you need to explore the interiors of the cave and get to see the stalagmites and stalactites. A few meters away from the road, walk down and get yourself dazzled by the huge opening of Boloboc Cave revealing the magnificent view of the sea. This is a good place for photography and swimming. It is located in Barangay Lakit-Lakit, Bongao.
The Boloboc Rock Formation is a few minutes’ walk away from the cave. The natural karst rock formation is its main attraction located on the edge where one can do cliff diving. Note that the waves could be strong at times, assess the condition of the sea before making such activity.
Visit Badjao Village
Badjaos and Tausugs are dwelling in this area although at different locations in Tawi-Tawi you can find them living in stilt houses. Badjao village is the quickest access to witness how our Badjao brothers live. The main source of their income is through fishing but weaving or making of handmade traditional colored “banigs” or mats is another worthy addition to their livelihood.
Making of banig is painstaking and time-consuming. There are readily available finished products for sale with prices ranging from Php300-500. If you want a personalized banig to put your name with 10 letters at max, it will take at least 2 days for them to complete. You can find these banigs or mats in souvenir shops around town, but it is best to buy directly to them. It is also cheaper in Badjao village than those in souvenir shops.
Badjao people are usually friendly so greet them and throw a smile when you meet them.
Go Around the Old Chinese Pier
The old Chinese Pier is a busyport area where all kinds of passenger boats, cargo vessels and fishing boats from a small one to huge ferries and fast crafts are stationed. This is the center of trade of the province where you can find stores/stalls, eateries and primary gateway of sea travels going to and out of Tawi-Tawi.
Visit Provincial Capitol
Tawi-Tawi’s Provincial Capitol is located on a hill where you can already see when in the town proper. Its white and gold color combination is noticeable even from afar. The signature look of the capitol is its round towers or minarets comparable to that of their mosques. Like Bud Bongao, the capitol has a scenic overlooking view of the Sulu Sea and nearby islands.
Explore around Bongao Town
You can ride a habal-habal or hop in their colored tricycle to explore Bongao, the capital of the province. The town is lively, populated and interestingly distinctive. This is the only place we’ve seen such numbers of tricycles in one place at the same time. Since this is the main source of transportation, it won’t be a surprise but still, the numbers are fascinating! The locals are the friendliest, I remember smiling randomly at people and never gets down, they literally smiled back!
You can walk and explore the town, eat local food, buy souvenirs and just enjoy your time wandering around this Bongao town. One word I get used frequently is “Magsukul” which means thank you. Whenever you bought or asked for something and get answered, say the magic word “magsukul” and you’ll be surprised how much it impacts them.
Wear Traditional Muslim Attire in Simunul Island
Simunul Island is one of the three islands part of the island hopping where you can find the first mosque in the Philippines named Sheik Makhdum Mosque. It is considered a National Treasure and has been declared a National Historic Landmark of the country.
One of the things we’re excited to experience in Tawi-Tawi is to wear a traditional Muslim clothing and here in Simunul Island, we got to finally tick it off the list. Wearing the traditional Muslim attire, you’ll be guided by a local and tour around the mosque. A few things that we learned during this visit are men and women are not allowed to go to the mosque together, you need to step your right foot first when entering and left foot when leaving.
Explore Panampangan Island with its Longest Sandbar in the Philippines
We’ve been looking forward to seeing Panampangan Island when we learned that the longest sandbar in the country can be found here. Visiting Panampangan will take more than an hour from Bongao by riding a motorized banca. Be ready for one extremely thrilling ride as the boat will brave the waters of Sulu Sea. The ride can always be rough especially in the afternoon so make sure to wear your life vest although the pilot and bangkeros are well experienced on this. Wear protective clothes, use malong to cover your body and apply sunscreens. The motorize banca is usually an open boat without any canopy, so expect to get yourself exposed in the sun.
Panampangan Island is raw and unspoiled beauty. It has a long stretch of white sand and clear turquoise blue water perfect for snorkeling and swimming. Take your time and enjoy this one piece of paradise!
Marvel Around Sangay Siapo Island
Sangay Siapo is a small island with equally beautiful water and white sand. In just under 10 minutes, you’ll get to see the whole island. The shoreline is lined with white sand, corals, and pebbles with palm trees that goes perfectly in place.
There was an abandoned resort on the island and only a few caretakers are living in this place. You can bring your food if you want to spend some time here. The caretaker may ask for a donation, don’t hesitate to give at no fixed amount.
What to Eat in Tawi-Tawi
Given the fact that Tawi-Tawi is surrounded by waters, expect the overflowing seafoods on your table. Some of the tasty food to try is “Tiyulah Itum”, a chicken or beef stew with papaya and local ingredients. It is like “tinola” in Manila. They also have adobo-style squid (cooked in vinegar and soy sauce) and a variety of local fish cooked as grilled, fried and stewed.
Where to Stay in Tawi-Tawi
Hotels, inns and resorts are mostly located in Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi province. We got our room from the tour provider which is near the airport and the accommodation sits beside the shore, so you don’t need to go far to get the sea view. You may contact Shiela Tiannok – Garces at 0945-6589811 and 0997-7054285.
Other accommodation in Bongao:
- Beachside Inn Hotel and Restaurant
- Rachel’s Place
- Sandbar Lepa and Restaurant
- Almari Beach Resort
- Juana Hotel and Restaurant
- Ibbo Beach Resort
Things to Consider
- Boat rental for island hopping going to Panampangan Island, Sangay Siapo Island and Simunul Island can be pricey. Best to join other travelers to share the expenses. The price may range from Php6,000-12,000.
- Payments are done in cash, make sure to bring enough cash with you.
- Network signal is available
- Plan your itinerary ahead of time. Reach out to the tourism office or local tour provider before your planned visit.
- Visit Tawi-Tawi during summer to get the best weather possible. We went in February 2020 and the weather is sunny most of the time.
- Respect the locals and their cultures.
- Avoid wearing revealing dresses. Tawi-Tawi is a Muslim province, as a sign of respect, wear proper attire when going to the beaches and public places.
- Buy local products and souvenirs.
- Do not litter. Bring your trash with you or put it in proper trash bins.
- Protect your gadgets, bring waterproof bags, apply sunscreens, sunglasses, etc.
How to Get to Tawi-Tawi
Zamboanga City to Tawi-Tawi
Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines fly directly from Zamboanga City to Sangay-Sangay Airport in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. Check the flight and schedules thru their websites.
From Bongao to Zamboanga, Alesson Shipping Lines has ferry schedules on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Travel time is around 16 hours on average. There is also a fast craft that links the Philippines and Malaysia from Bongao to Semporna, Malaysia (schedule is once a week).