Island hopping in Tawi-Tawi: Exploring the country’s longest sandbar

Sandbar in Panampangan Island
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One of the things I was looking forward to my visit in Tawi-Tawi is setting foot in Panampangan Island, which features the longest sandbar in the Philippines. My backpacker friends who’d already been here tell me it’s one of the highlights of their trip.

Here’s our island hopping tour in Tawi-Tawi. I also included a guide below, so it’s easy for you to experience this for yourself.

Our island hopping experience

Tawi-Tawi boasts over a hundred islands. Some are home to local communities, while some are untouched islands with white-sand beaches.

During our 1-day island hopping tour, we got to visit 3 islands near the town of Bongao. These are Panampangan Island, Simunul Island and Sangay Siapo Island.

Our tour landed on a Saturday, which was lucky for us since we had the chance to drop by the barter at Panglima Sugala in the morning before island hopping. Visiting the barter is one of my favorite experiences in Tawi-Tawi (and it’s something that’s easier to understand once you have experienced it for yourself). We witnessed the locals sellling various seafoods, fruits and vegetables thru traditional exchange of goods or cash.

Also Read: Best things to do in Tawi-Tawi

We spent a good 45 minutes here just exploring every space. We also bought fresh fish, uni (seafood meat) and vegetables to add to our lunch for later.

Island hopping in Tawi-Tawi
Off to island-hopping. (Photo by Ja Mere)

From there, we proceeded to our first destination: Panampangan Island.

Panampangan Island

Panampangan Island features a white-sand shore, with coconuts and other trees. There are limited cottages in the island where you take a break from the shade of the sun.

Kat during island hopping in Tawi-Tawi
Approaching the island.
Panampangan Island in Tawi-Tawi
Panampangan Island.
Cottages in Panampangan Island
Cottages.

Most importantly, Panampangan Island boasts the longest sandbar in the Philippines at 4 kilometers in length. The sandbar is visible during low tide.

Sandbar in Panampangan Island
Sandbar.
Sandbar in Panampangan Island
A local collecting shells in the sand.
Stilt house in Panampangan Island
A stilt house.

We arrived in mid-morning and set our things down under a tree. While our guides prepared our lunch, me and Ate Sidang’s son Reech explored the length of the island. We passed by the cottages and the colorful Panampangan Island signage and around to a grove of mangrove trees. It was really hot that day that I was sweltering under my dri-fit shirt. (Normally, I wear bikinis but I was advised by friends to wear something more conservative in Tawi-Tawi.)

It’s interesting to me that the sand in Panampangan Island is thriving with sea shells that you can pick up and eat. We saw a local collecting shells, and Reech would also occasionally pick one up to show me.

Shells in Panampangan Island
Reech showing me a shell with fresh seafood you can eat.

Kat in Panampangan Island

I actually wanted to walk the length of the island, but believe me, it’s tiring to do so under the sun! We went back to our base and enjoyed our packed lunch and fresh grilled fish, with fresh coconuts thereafter. Interestingly, Reech told us that his grandfather helped plant some of the coconut trees in the island previously.

I wanted to swim, but it was already low tide so we went ahead to our next destination.

Simunul Island

Simunul Island is known as a the birthplace of Islam. In contrast to the first island we visited, this is a residential island with several stilt houses near the small port.

Simunul Island in Tawi-Tawi
Arc in Simunul Island.

The island’s attraction is the Sheik Karimal Makdum Mosque. It is the oldest mosque in the Philippines. This mosque was built by Sheik Makhdum Karim in 1380, in his quest to spread Islam in the archipelago. Today, the mosque is considered a National Historical Landmark and is still in use by local Muslims in the area.

From the port, we walked shortly to reach the mosque. We gathered in the reception area, where the caretaker asked us to wear traditional clothes and asked us to leave our slippers before setting foot inside the mosque. There we appreciated the solemnity of the building and took photos. Outside, we also saw the tomb of the sheik.

Sheik Karimol Makhdum Mosque in Simunul Island
Sheik Karimol Makhdum Mosque.
Group shot in Simunul Island's mosque
(Photo by Ja Mere)

Apart from the mosque, there are also natural pools in Simunul Island where you can swim. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the island, since we wasted a good hour in the barter that morning. It was already sunset during our visit so we went back to our boat to visit Sangay Siapo Island next.

Sangay Siapo Island

Sangay Siapo Island is one of the best places for swimming in Tawi-Tawi. It’s a small island with white sand and pebbles. Here the water is so clear and refreshing. Usually, island hoppers visit here just in time for the sunset.

It was already dark when we got to Sangay Siapo Island. At first I was disappointed that we didn’t see its glory in daylight, but soon after the caretakers started a bonfire in the island and we all decided to take a little night swim. It was really fun. We talked about the things we did for the day and finally got the chance to cool ourselves after hours of boat ride.

Sangay Siapo Island in Tawi-Tawi
Sangay Siapo Island at night.
Night swimming in Sangay Siapo Island
Night swimming in Sangay Siapo Island. (Photo by Froilan Pernis)

Our island hopping experience in Tawi-Tawi is one of the most fulfilling days of our ZamBaSulTa trip.

Guide to Island Hopping in Tawi-Tawi

Rate

As of November 2019, rate for island hopping is P9000-12000 good for 10 people.

Gasoline is expensive in this province, and boats for island hopping usually require 3 engines for speed, which explains the high markup.

If you’re a solo traveler, ask your chosen contact person if there are other tourists on your visit day to share costs with. Alternatively, you may also opt for a packaged tour instead which already includes accommodation, meals and tours in Tawi-Tawi.

Contacts

For island hopping tours, you may get in touch with Tawi Tawi Tourism Office. They can help secure a boat for you or suggest tour operators who can take you.

  • Tawi-Tawi tourism office: (Provincial Tourism Officer: Mobin N. Gampal) 09271840851

As for us, we contacted Ate Sidang who has a homestay in Tawi-Tawi. She is the one who arranged the island hopping tour for us. We availed of the island hopping tour for P9000, which includes a simple lunch of rice and noodles.

  • Ate Sidang (homestay and tours): 09063283378

If you’re going to contact Ate Sidang, let her know you got the number from this blog (Katherine, Tara Lets Anywhere).

Things to know before you go

  • It’s best to dress conservatively.
  • Bring your own packed lunch and water. Alternatively, you may also buy fresh ingredients in the market (or barter in Panglima Sugala, as we did) and prepare/cook them in Panampangan Island.
  • Don’t forget to bring sunblock as well! Ask if your boat has a tarp cover, otherwise you may need to bring a malong for cover as well.
  • To maximize your time, start your island hopping tour at about 7AM. You will get back in Bongao town proper at 7-8PM.

Don’t forget to read our Travel Guide to Tawi-Tawi as well!

 

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