Tawi-Tawi – Exploring the wonders of undiscovered Mindanao
When my interest in traveling to Mindanao grew, the first province that got into my mind was Tawi-Tawi. Many of my friends, family, and officemates asked me the same question, “Why, Tawi-Tawi? It is not a safe place.” As the adventurer in me persisted, all I have to do is go and experience the place.
I proved them all wrong.
Tawi-Tawi: What you need to know
Scattered around the Sulu Sea, Tawi-Tawi’s 307 islands are filled with different, and sometimes, unexpected tourist spots that is ready to surprise everyone who will visit. As it is not that visited by tourists, I now then had the interest of exploring some of the popular tourist spots in this island province.
One hour by air from Zamboanga City, Tawi-Tawi never failed to surprise me the moment I touched down at Sanga Sanga airport. It was a humbling and, honestly, a heart-pounding experience because it is my first time visiting Mindanao alone.
The island province is paradise. Though small in terms of geography, it boasts a lot of sights waiting to be discovered. As it is really far from any part of mainland Philippines, the adventure in Tawi-Tawi is different and I am lucky enough to experience it first hand.
Here are some of the sought after (and not-so-usual tourist spots in Tawi-Tawi):
Considered to be the southernmost airport in the Philippines, Sanga-Sanga airport is one of the main (and the easiest) gateways to the province. With two airlines servicing the strip, there are daily flights to and from the province. Check out for the latest flight schedules here and here.
Boloboc (Balobok) Cave
Located in Barangay Lakit-Lakit, Boloboc (Rock Shelter) Cave is one of the oldest existing caves in the Philippines – going back as early as 800 AD. Though the site has been developed, it has also become a preservation and conservation area. A view deck was constructed for guests to see the excavation site as ease. The cave is actually part of larger system extending up to Barangay Nangulan.
In this cave, people also discovered several priceless artifacts (i.e. flake tools, shards, bone tools, and even animal remains) which are believed to be 5000-8000 years old. The site also plays an important role as it tells a story of movement of people in prehistoric timesfrom Southwest Pacific to the Pacific. If you plan to go to Boloboc, plan your visit ahead and contact Ms. Salvacion Pescadera (Provincial Tourism Officer) at +63 910 671 6367 or Ms. Sirikit Arip at +63 919 432 5553 because there are no public vehicles going to the cave.
The province’s capital and center of trade and commerce, Bongao is the probably the busiest place in Tawi-Tawi. With narrow roads and shops and stores that are near each other, Bongao bustles everyday with local produce and some products from Malaysia.
DJ Snack Haus (Awwal Street)
One of the more popular local restaurants in Awwal Street, DJ Snack Haus is the one closest to my heart. When I looked at their menu, what tickled my curiosity was their pastil – Mindanao’s version of empanada stuffed with bihon. Common to the region, pastil is one not to be missed when visiting DJ Snack Haus. They also serve the sweetest halo-halo in town.
Old Chinese Pier (Radjiki Boulevard)
Not that this pier is a prime tourist spot in Bongao, but this place is of significance because it is where products to and from Zamboanga, other parts of Mindanao, and Malaysia come and go. From old-fashioned boats to new modern ones, this pier is also the gateway to the islands of Sibutu, Sitangkai (a.k.a. ‘Venice of the South’), and Semporna Port in Sabah, Malaysia. Surrounded by house on stilts and small stores and eateries, this is the center of Tawi-Tawi’s trade and commerce. Trips in this pier vary and you should ask every boat where it would go. If you are planning to visit Sibutu and Sitangkai, ask your guide beforehand for the schedule.
Mardo’s Restaurant’s Knickerbocker
One of the must-try foods in Tawi-Tawi (and in Mindanao in particular) is the knickerbocker. It is likened to that of the famous Filipino dessert Halo-Halo, only that its ingredients are a medley of fruits, bathed in sweetened milk and shaved ice. For me, it is a lighter version of the Halo-Halo and a healthier version because of pure fruits.
I know a mall is not a major tourist attraction in any town, but Midway Mall is an attraction on its own because it is the first and, so far, the biggest shopping mall in downtown Bongao. It is where you would find good finds and other products from nearby Malaysia.
Little do people know, the famous Badjao Village of Tawi-Tawi is also a tourist drawer because the houses are built atop a river and each house is connected via a vast and complex network of wooden bridges. This is also where the movie “Thy Womb” of Filipino actress Nora Aunor and Brillante Mendoza was shot. This village also shows the characteristic of the Badjaos that they are water dwellers, thus, earning the monicker “Sea Gypsies.”
One of their livelihood as well is weaving. The locals weave dried pandan leaves with a technique locally known as tepo with different colors creating interesting banig patterns. These banigs are usually used as sleeping mats and rug during prayers. Lucky enough, I witnessed an old woman weaving during her pastime (but unfortunately haven’t taken a photo of her as I was really amazed). Their products are also sold in souvenir shops around town. When I visited the village, I bought one, framed it, and displayed it in our house.
Revered by Christians and Muslims alike, Bud Bongao (Mount Bongao) is the highest peak in the province. Standing 314 meters (1030 feet), the Bud is one of the more popular tourist spots in Tawi-Tawi and is considered sacred. To reach the summit, it only takes around an hour or so to see a panoramic view of the province.
On a clear day, too, you can view the islands of Sitangkai and Sibutu from the West. One of the highlights of the trek to its peak is the presence of wild monkeys around, that’s why it is advisable that you bring bananas with you, also showing respect to the creatures living in the mountain. Don’t worry, they don’t bite. There are also three Tampats (Shrines) at the peak where pilgrims offer their prayers – a site you will see before heading to the summit’s viewdeck.
Tawi-Tawi Provincial Capitol
This one-of-a-kind capitol resembles that of a grand mosque (as Islam is the predominant Religion in the province) and is colored white and gold. The provincial capitol also sits on top of a hill and you can see a view of downtown Bongao, the Sulu Sea and the nearby islands on a clear day. This building has become a tourist spot on its own.
Considered to be the longest sandbar in the Philippines, Panampangan Island is synonymous to paradise. Stretching as long as 3 kilometers during low tide, going to Panampangan can only be accessible by boat (costs around PhP 2500 – 3000 (depends)) in a 1:30-2-hour trip. The jump-off point would be at Barangay Batu-Batu in Panglima Sugala which is 30 minutes away from Bongao. To date, the island now has available picnic huts but do not forget to bring water as there is no adequate clean water source in the area. The island is guarded by a Marine detachment and around 4-5 Badjao families live there, too.
Sheik Makhdum Mosque (Barangay Tubig-Indangan)
When visiting the island, Sheik Mahkdum’s tomb can also be seen just right beside the mosque. From the port, you can hire a habal-habal to your host’s house or you can walk your way and you will see the mosque’s facade right when you enter Barangay Tubig-Indangan.
Believed to be the birthplace of the Islamic faith in the Philippines, Sheik Makhdum’s Mosque’s four original pillars still stand today, surrounded by the renovated, more modern worship area. The site was established in the late 14th century and celebrates more than 600 years of the influence in the Philippines. It is considered a National Cultural Treasure and has been declared a National Historical Landmark.
Also known as the “Venice of the South,” Sitangkai is the southernmost settlement in the Philippines. It is also referred to as the Seaweed Capital of the Philippines. The common sight in this area are the houses that are built on stilts, connected by catwalks similar to the Badjao Village in Bongao. As you reach Sitangkai, a main canal will welcome you instead of roads. Boats are the only means of transportation here and catwalks connect one house from another. Its famed floating market is also a sight to see!
Turista Boy Tip: Don’t forget to coordinate with the local police for escorts when traveling to far islands. Although it is very peaceful in Tawi-Tawi, having a police escort is very much recommended. You can coordinate it with the Provincial Tourism Office in Tawi-Tawi.
Where to stay in Tawi-Tawi
Tourism is not really the major industry in Tawi-Tawi. Expect that these accommodations are only simple and quaint as not many tourists visit the province. so I have only summarized the most popular accommodation options according to your needs.
Sandbar Lepa and Restaurant
Personally, I think this the most high-end accommodation in Tawi-Tawi. Each room is air-conditioned, has a strong WiFi reception, twin beds, and a personal water dispenser. It also has a huge function hall that can accommodate up to 100 people.
|Address||Pasiagan, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi|
|Budget||As low as P1,000 per night for a villa room|
|Contact Numbers||+63 920 610 9477 / +63 935 979 0413 / +63 917 724 3214|
Almari Beach Resort
Also known as Dr. Ibbo’s Resort, this accommodation in Sanga Sanga is popularly known as it has a generous view of the sunset by the shore. The property has a wide garden and offers 10 spacious rooms for tourists and visitors.
|Address||Pahut, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi|
|Contact Numbers||+63 926 783 7000 / +63 926 427 9843 / +63 68 268 1014|
Beachside Inn, Hotel and Restaurant
As the locals would say it, Beachside Inn is said to be the first hotel in Bongao. Their open-air restaurant is one of the hotel’s highlights as it offers local food and the restaurant is also used for various functions.
|Address||Sowangkagang, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi|
|Budget||As low as P700 per night for a double-bed room|
|Contact Numbers||+63 68 268 1446 / +63 268 1435 / +63 920 481 5447|
Hotel Juana Grill and Restaurant
Located in Bongao’s Town Center, Hotel Juana is the place where you get to see the town’s hustle-and-bustle.
|Address||Datu Halum Street, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi|
|Budget||P1,350 for a double-bed room|
|Contact Numbers||+63 915 404 4478 / +63 68 268 1018|
Rachel’s Place Hotel and Restaurant
Just a walk away from Bongao’s Central Business District, Rachel’s Place is a large compound with a spacious garden, multipurpose function hall, and a dining area.
|Address||Ilmon Street, Lamion, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi|
|Budget||As low as P700 – 950 per room|
|Contact Number||+63 68 268 1248|
Other Accommodation Options in Tawi-Tawi
Arron’s Pension House
Ridjiki Boulevard Extension, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
+63 68 268 1601 / +63 936 437 7915 +63 939 923 7246
Danmar Beach Resort
Silisad, Pasiagan, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
+63 68 268 1248
Ridjiki Boulevard, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
+63 68 268 1467
*Prices and contact numbers can change without prior notice. If there are some changes, you can contact me here so we can dish things up!*
Sample Itinerary and Expenses
|0635 – 0800 H||Zamboanga City – Bongao (Sanga-Sanga) Airport, Tawi-Tawi||Via Cebu Pacific / Philippine Airlines|
|0800 – 0830 H||Sanga-Sanga Airport – Accommodation (via tricycle) / Optional: Bolobok Cave Tour||Fare: P 20-50 (depending on distance) / Accommodation: P 700-1500 per night (depends)|
|0830 – 1000 H||Breakfast – DJ Snack Haus||Budget: P 100-250|
|1000 – 1030 H||Walking Tour (Old Chinese Pier and Radjiki Boulevard)|
|1030 – 1200 H||Downtown Bongao Tour (Midway Mall, Badjao Village, Tawi-Tawi Provincial Capitol)||Budget: P 100-200|
|1200 – 1330 H||Lunch – Mardo’s Restaurant (Knickerbocker)||Budget: P 90-200|
|1330 – 1500 H||Bongao – Simunul Island||Fare: P 100-150 (boat)|
|1500 – 1600 H||Day Tour (Sheik Makhdum Mosque and Tomb)|
|Spend the night at a local’s house in Simunul|
|0730 – 0900 H||Breakfast – local house / eatery|
|0900 – 1030 H||Simunul Island – Bongao||Fare: P 100-150 (boat)|
|1030 – 1200 H||Bongao Walking Tour||Budget: depends|
|1200 – 1500 H||Trek to Bud Bongao||Don’t forget to bring bananas for the monkeys!|
|Optional: Trip to Panampangan Island|
|Spend the night at a local’s house or Hotel in Bongao|
|0800 – 1200 H||Bongao – Sibutu Island||Fare: P 200-250 (boat)|
|1200 – 1230 H||Sibutu Island to Saluag Island (southernmost point in the Philippines)||Fare: P 100 (habal-habal to Tandu-Owak) / Boat fares depend upon haggling|
|1500 – 1530 H||Saluag Island to Sibutu Island|
|Spend the night at a local’s house in Sibutu|
|0800 – 0900 H||Breakfast – local house / eatery|
|0900 – 1000 H||Sibutu Island – Sitangkai Island||Fare: P 150-200 (boat)|
|1000 – 1500 H||Sitangkai Town Proper Tour / Lunch – local’s house or eatery / Optional: Omapuy Island Tour||Budget: P 200-300|
|Spend the night at a local’s house in Sibutu|
|0800 – 0900 H||Sitangkai Island – Sibutu Island||Fare: P 150-200 (boat)|
|0900 – 1300 H||Sibutu Island – Bongao||Fare: P 100-150 (boat)|
|1400 – 1530 H||Bongao (Sanga-Sanga) – Zamboanga City||Via Cebu Pacific / Philippine Airlines|
*Fares and schedules may change without prior notice. Times are in approximations so better to allot time allowances for your trip schedules. If there are any changes, you can e-mail me here! To get in touch with Ma’am Nursida Jaluddin – my guide during my trip to Tawi-Tawi, you can also send me an e-mail so I can give you her contact details.*
We’re born to travel!