I’ve always wanted to explore off-beat destinations in the Philippines and experience unique cultures. One of the places I’ve always wanted to visit is Tawi-Tawi, a small province located at the southernmost tip of the Philippines. It’s a place that’s not as frequently visited by tourists, and its remoteness and seeming otherness piqued my curiosity. 

Here are some of the insights I gained during my recent trip to the province of Tawi-Tawi.

Tawi-Tawi’s heritage

Tawi-Tawi is home to a diverse mix of ethnic groups, which include the Sama Dilaut, Tausug, and Badjao. There are also Bisaya, Tagalog, Ilongo, and Filipino Chinese on the islands. 

The province is predominantly Muslim, and Islamic beliefs and practices are deeply ingrained in the locals’ way of life. There are mosques in almost every barangay, even in police stations.

The Sulu archipelago, which Tawi-Tawi is a part of, maintained a certain degree of autonomy throughout the Spanish colonial period. Because of this, Tawi-Tawi has largely remained free from Western influence, allowing its traditional culture and customs to thrive.

When we visited Tawi-Tawi, it was the month of Ramadan, and so most restaurants were closed. Although some did open by sundown, most of them remained closed during the day – at least, for dine-in customers. 

Some of the must-try dishes in the province include the tiyula itum or black soup made from beef or goat meat, and pisong itum, or black rice cooked in coconut milk and sugar. 

One of the highlights of our trip was witnessing the food market come to life in the afternoon, just as the Muslim faithful’s fasting came to an end. It was a vibrant scene, with vendors selling a variety of snacks as folks gathered to break their fast.

Among the snacks I’ve sampled, my favorite was the tarambulan (“half moon”, according to our guide), which is a turnover pancake that’s also common in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (where it’s called terang bulan). The hawker prepared tarambulan with heaps of chocolate powder, which made it extra sweet. 

Exploring Tawi-Tawi’s must-see tourist spots

view of Bud Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
Bud Bongao, Tawi-Tawi

Our first day was spent exploring Bongao, the bustling capital of the province, and its nearby municipalities. One of the things I immediately noticed was how friendly and helpful the locals were. I even got to refill my water bottle for free from a water refilling station.

The following morning, we set out on a boat ride to visit Panampangan and Simunul Islands. 

Along the way, I spotted some Badjao communities about 30 minutes from the island. Their wooden houses on stilts were right in the middle of the sea, and I could see their shiny roofs glistening from where we were. 

The Badjao are known as “sea gypsies,” and they’ve been living on the waters of the Sulu Sea for centuries, relying on fishing and diving for their livelihoods. What an incredible way of life!

Badjao villages in the middle of the sea

We reached Panampangan Beach at around 10 AM. Its pristine white sand and deep blue waters were as mesmerizing as they say. We spent a few hours soaking up the sun, looking for sand dollar shells (which we didn’t take home, of course), and swimming in the shallow waters.  

Our next stop was Simunul Island, which is considered the birthplace of Islam in the Philippines. We visited the oldest mosque in the country: Sheikh Karimul Makhdum Mosque, which was built in 1380.

Welcome marker to Simunul, Tawi-Tawi
Welcome to Simunul
Sheikh Karimul Makhdum Mosque in Simunul, Tawi-Tawi
Sheikh Karimul Makhdum Mosque in Simunul, Tawi-Tawi

We were welcomed by two employees from the local tourism office who showed us around the mosque. They introduced us to a local who was gracious enough to answer all our questions about some Islamic practices.

Our third day in Tawi-Tawi was spent sightseeing. Our guide took us to Lakit-Lakit to see the Balobok Cave and a beautiful spot where locals go cliff diving. 

We then visited the Central Mosque, the beautiful Tawi-Tawi Provincial Capitol, the Old Chinese Pier, and the Tawi-Tawi campus of Mindanao State University (MSU).

Climbing Bud Bongao

On our final day, we resolved to climb Bud Bongao, a towering limestone mountain that offered stunning views of the town and the Celebes Sea. The climb usually takes around two to three hours, but we managed to do it in five. 😅 

As someone with the lung capacity of a goldfish, climbing the cobblestone steps up the mountain felt like a never-ending game of “stop and gasp for air”. I had to take frequent breaks – but just when I thought I could catch my breath, a pack of monkeys appeared, eyeing me as if I were a walking bunch of bananas. (I’m kidding, of course. Bud Bongao’s monkeys are friendly, but they do have a thing for bananas – or anything in plastic bags, really.)

What I observed when I climbed Bud Bongao was that it attracted climbers of all ages and fitness levels. It’s a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. We met tourists from Iloilo, an elderly man from a nearby fishing village, a small family from Zamboanga, and a group of laborers from out of town.

To the Sama Dilaut people, Bud Bongao is more than just a mountain. For generations, they have believed that the mountain has healing properties, and parents traditionally take their children up to the summit to pray for good health. 

On the way to the summit, we came across two tampat (“shrines”) sites where Islamic preachers, both followers of Sheikh Karimul Makhdum, were buried. Pilgrims often pay these sites a visit to pray and wish for good fortune.

One of the two tampats at Bud Bongao
One of the two tampats

We also passed by a spot where visitors could tie colored knots (baggut). The locals believe that making a wish when you climb this sacred mountain will make it come true. Every color represents a specific kind of wish, such as a wish for good health, peace, love, or success.

Visitors tie knots to make their wishes come true

As we reached the view deck, I was welcomed by a stunning panorama before me. The entire town of Bongao sprawled out before us, and in the background, a few islands on the sparkling blue sea. The view made the climb all worth it. 

Here you can see the airstrip at the Sanga-Sanga Airport
Overlooking the municipality of Bongao
View from the top of Bud Bongao

All in all, it was the perfect way to end our journey through this beautiful province.

Some personal notes

Needless to say, my trip to Tawi-Tawi was one for the books. It felt great to be able to visit Mindanao again. I hope to explore more of the region and learn more about its culture in the future. 🙂

(But while Tawi-Tawi is a beautiful province with much potential for tourism, there’s still room for improvement. I hope that in the future, the local government can take on a more collaborative approach to make its tourism industry more inclusive and sustainable. I hope that they could explore more ways to preserve the province’s natural resources and showcase its cultural heritage while also creating economic opportunities for their residents.)

A few tips and reminders

If you’re planning on visiting Tawi-Tawi, here are a few tips:

  • There are some budget hostels in Bongao, but I recommend staying at Almari Beach Resort. They serve good food, and the service is excellent.
Almari Beach Resort
  • Bring enough cash. There are a few ATMs on the island, but the queues are often long. I also did not see any establishments that accept GCash and other cashless payment options.
  • Female tourists are not expected to wear hijab or cover their hair. However, wearing short skirts or bikinis can make the locals uncomfortable, especially during Ramadan.
  • Bring a refillable water bottle! I felt guilty after using so many disposable water bottles.
  • If you’re going to take the boat, bring noise-canceling headphones. The motor of the boat can be really loud.
  • Try to visit Sitangkay Island on a weekend so you can see their floating market, where locals barter and sell goods.
  • There aren’t a lot of public restrooms, so make sure to plan your stops.
  • Wear reef-friendly sunblock!

If you have any questions, send me a message! If you’re planning a trip to Tawi-Tawi soon, I can recommend our friendly guide who made our travel a lot easier. Here are his details:

  • Brod Durogs (his name on Facebook)
  • Phone: 09269423385