Monday, January 7, 2008

48 hours in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi (Day 1)

My memories of my first visit in Bongao are vague. I remember waking up to the early dawn Muslim prayers from the numerous mosques around the nondescript inn where I spent the night over. That’s about it. Nada. This was in 1991 and memory can be exceedingly selective at times. I was on my way back from a two week research study in Sitangkai Island, and I was dying for the comfort of home. When I received an invite back to Bongao after more than 15 years, I immediately jumped on the opportunity.

getting there
Let me introduce Bongao first. It is the capital of the province of Tawi-Tawi which is the most south you can get in the Philippines. Any further down and you are in Sabah, Malaysia already. For most Filipinos, the southernmost city one has visited probably is Zamboanga. Well, Zamboanga is only the takeoff point for Bongao which is an hour away by plane (Seair) or about 26 hours by ferry via Jolo.

Bongao lies southwest of the main island of Tawi-Tawi. Today, I hear that there are about 3 reputable hostels in Bongao. I have tried Rachel’s Inn in 2005. This is where you would want to be if you need to be in the urban part of the town as it is only walking distance to market, the major schools, eateries and well, the internet café if you want to stay connected. An alternative I would suggest is the Beachside Inn where I stayed in 2006 as it faces the popular Simandagat beach.

Filipinos are basically afraid of going down to Muslim Mindanao. Zamboanga scares a lot of Filipinos which is a sad exaggerated reaction from the negative publicity the South is getting. I probably would skip hot spots like Basilan and Jolo but Tawi-Tawi is quite secure. There are always rumors of kidnapping for ransom in most places in the South and Tawi-Tawi has not been spared. If it makes you feel better, you can always visit the army detachment there and request for a military escort. Yes, this can be done.

Day 1
On your first day in Bongao, what better to orient yourself around than take a tour around town. I recommend hiring a tricycle for the day. I doubt if there are cars for hire there anyway.
artful trikes
Canon PowerShot S40, 0.003s, f/2.8, 7.1mm
Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines

the old Chinese pier
Start with the Chinese pier. Originally a floating market where goods are peddled on boats, this is the biggest market in Tawi-Tawi which now extends around the vicinity of the U-shaped bay. It owes its name to its pre-Hispanic pre-eminence as a commercial entrepot where the Chinese, Arabs and Filipinos converged and bartered goods. All that are available in Tawi-Tawi go through here so expect an assault of sight, sound, smell and taste.

Canon EOS 350D Digital, 0.033s, f/5.6, 55mm, ISO 100
the old Chinese pier, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines

the Bongao “Capitol”
Atop a hill overlooking the bay is the Bongao municipal hall. Having the tricycle climb the exceedingly steep winding road is a thrill by itself. White and stately, the provincial capitol is a popular destination for the unprecedented view of the poblacion (main town), the airport at Sanga-Sanga and the neighboring islands. Peculiarly, it has a large musholla or Muslim prayer room. It also boasts of white-washed Mughal-inspired minarets at the corners, which strongly remind you that the province after all is part of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.
phototip: Use a low angle to utilize the sky as a background.
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 0.001s, f/5.6, 37mm, ISO 400
at the Provincial Capitol of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines

the Muslim gravemarkers
Call me morbid but I egg you to visit any of the old Muslim cemetery in Bongao. Look for the old sunduk grave markers. Tawi-Tawi is a center of the indigenous carving art of ukkil wherein only chisels, hammers and other basic tools are used in executing ornate patterns on stone, coral or wood. Said to be used even before Islamic times and continued in practice even today, the grave markers indicate the sex of the deceased: flat floral scrolls or combs for women and knobbed pillars, often hexagonal, for men. Dating the coral grave markers in historical tombs is difficult unless dates are inscribed. While they have survived the ravages of time and weather, they have not been spared by man’s greed and enterprise. Some of the best examples of these works of art are now found only in archival photographs and museums.
Canon PowerShot S40, 0.025s, f/2.8, 7.1mm
a Muslim cemetery in Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi province, the Philippines

Tawi-Tawi, with its more than 100 islands, is inarguably a haven for seafood from fresh fish to prawns to crabs. There are no fancy restaurants so expect to dine in small eateries where food is simply grilled, steamed or fried. There is a sizeable Christian population in Bongao (40%?) but pork consumption is still discreetly done. However, the not-so-secret delicacy of Bongao is cured meat from wild boars which roam freely in the hinterlands. You have to order a day ahead though to partake of the gourmet tapas. Other treats I indulged in were the apam daub daya or apam (I miss this the most!), the miniature tambis or roseapple which I’ve never seen that small, the ukoy-ukoy or vegetable cakes. Ifever I get back to Bongao, I plan on trying the bianban or cassava cake wrapped in ornate coconut leaves, the panggi which is the basic ground cassava staple of the native Sama and Badjaos and any of the other delicacies displayed in the stores by the Chinese pier.

Bud Bongao
Go physical and climb the Bongao Peak, a place sacred to the Muslims. It is Tawi-Tawi’s unmistakeable landmark visible from afar and is kind of reminiscent of the flat-topped Table Mountain of Capetown which I climbed in 2001. Bongao Peak is about 422 meters above sea level and is a relatively easy 2-hour climb were it not for the muddy trail. At the summit are two Muslim graves popular among the locals which unfortunately we only came to know after we got down. Talk about being close yet so far.

Bongao Peak is also a sanctuary of long-tailed macaques. Which brings me to a story.
Canon Canon EOS 350D Digital, 0.125s, f/22, 18mm, ISO 100
Bud Bongao or the Bongao Peak, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines

In 2006, my girlfriend (now wife) and I climbed the peak and midway, we were accosted by a gang of monkeys. The trail was narrow and there was no way to pass through them. As appeasement, I opened my messenger bag to get some bananas. I moved slowly and deliberately. I was careful not show off that I brought a bundle as I wanted to leave some bananas for the other monkeys along the way. All of a sudden, the biggest monkey, probably the alpha male, jumped on me and latched on the bag. With the entire weight of the bag and the monkey bearing down on on my shoulder, I could only freeze. The monkey could not zip open my bag to steal the entire bagful of bananas. While it was not willing to loosen its steely grip, I too was not about to give up my bag either as it contained my telephoto lens, tripod and some other accessories. The standoff seemed like eternity. Finally I mustered the courage to zip open the bag and promptly, the monkey grabbed the entire stash of bananas and scampered away. Sweating profusely and trembling from the adrenalin rush, we didn’t know what to do. We were alone. The monkeys may have left us but we were sure that there would be more monkeys along the way. Between going back or proceeding without any more banana “gifts”, we decided to continue. Maybe the next batch of monkeys were already tame or were forewarned that we were “generous”, the rest of monkeys we met were no longer aggressive. They did hover and trail us eerily from a distance as if we were pied pipers but they allowed us in. Even the descent was without any drama so it was strange how monkeys can become confrontational then become docile the next.

travel tip: If you would climb Bongao peak, do not forget the bananas!
Canon EOS 350D, 0.013s, f/4.5, 75mm, ISO 800
a long-tail macaque guarding the Bongao Peak, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines

seaside dining
Just at the foot of Bongao Peaks are at least two beach resorts that offer local foodfare. I remember that the beach was already facing west so I took the opportunity to shoot some sunset photos. The colors of the setting sun, the shape-shifting forms of the clouds and the images of fishermen rushing home are always rewarding.
Canon EOS 350D Digital, 0.002s, f/5.6, 300mm, ISO 100, +1/3EV
Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines

Next: Day 2

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Ivy said...

hi! im very interested to visit tawi-tawi but having second thoughts because of the issue of security. but thanks to your post, i now know that its really possible to visit the place as ordinary tourist. now my question is, do you have contacts in the area who can help tour the place like a travel agency or sort? or you just go on your own like a DIY travel. thanks for any info you might share. :)

Farl said...


Unfortunately, I don't have contacts based there. The three times I was there were either with a friend who was familiar with the place or upon an invitation of conference organizers. The best bet would be to contact hotels and ask if they can help organize tours. Or just go there and then visit their tourism office in the Bongao town center. People there are quite helpful.


gideon said...

very nice photos! bongao is truly a memorable places, special mention to the monkeys!

Farl said...

gideon- thanks! I have to say the monkey experience is one that I can never forget.

Anonymous said...

bongao is a beautiful place ever...
for me it is the most peaceful muslim area...
so nothing to worry for ur safety...

Andrew Fu said...

Its always been the best!!! The three years of staying in manila - always excites visiting my hometown - the place where i grew up. Of course Zamboanga City too - where I spent my college days in Western Mindanao State university and my moms hometown, Here I come. Now its my 3rd vacation leave and the first time after 8 years to spend holidays with my family in bongao tawi tawi - for those out there who is interested to explore the beauty of Tawi Tawi I myself can be your tour guide - if not I can refer a friend to accompany you not just the places mentioned but more and could be one of your memorable tour ever...