Travel Guide to Tawi-Tawi: Home of Peace-Loving People

Stilt community in Tawi-Tawi
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I visited the province of Tawi-Tawi as part of our ZamBaSulTa trip. Prior to this, I didn’t really know what to expect. All I know is that it’s “far flung”. That saying, my experience here was wonderful!

It was beyond what I hoped for, and in writing this guide, I hope I can share the beauty of Tawi-Tawi with you.

Here’s our experience in a gist. The locals in Tawi-Tawi are kind, warm and friendly. Our host Ate Sidang and her family made sure that we enjoyed our time here. For 2 days, we were stuffed with grilled fish, crabs in turmeric or curry sauce, calamares, black soup with beef, vegetables and more. During the tours, Kuya Lads and their son Reech also accompanied us and showed us interesting spots in Bongao (i.e., the bodega where locals dump the fresh catch of the day).

The towns are peaceful and laid-back, with mesmerizing shores and fun activities such as trekking to Mount Bongao (or Bud Bongao).

It is safe for travel, whether you’re traveling solo or in a group. In fact, several of my friends simply walk in here, as opposed to other places (particularly in Sulu) wherein you have to contact the local tourism office as preparation for your visit.

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

It goes without saying that the 2 days we spent here were not enough!

Stilt community in Tawi-Tawi

Without further ado, here’s a travel guide to Tawi-Tawi including a sample 3 days itinerary.

How to get here

Via air

There is no direct flight from Manila to Tawi-Tawi. As such, you will need to take a local flight from Zamboanga City to Sanga-Sanga Airport in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. This is the gateway to this province.

Cebu Pacific and PAL (starting December 2019) flies daily from Zamboanga City to Sanga-Sanga Airport. Travel time is 45 minutes.

Via sea

You may also take a ferry from Zamboanga City to Bongao via Aleson Shipping Line. Travel time is 18 hours. Fare is P950 per person.

Here is the schedule:

  • Zamboanga to Bongao: M-W-F
  • Bongao to Zamboanga: T-TH

It leaves at either port at 6PM and arrives at its destination at 12 noon the next day.

How to get around

From the airport, there are tricycles you can charter to your accommodation and other parts of Bongao as well.

Things to do in Tawi-Tawi

Bongao town tour

A town tour can take 2-3 hours, depending on where you want to go. Here are the places you can visit:

  • Baloboc Rock Shelter. This served as a shelter for early inhabitants of Tawi-Tawi a thousand years ago. Here you can see the iconic arc formation beside a small beach cove. You may also explore the nearby cave with interesting stalactites. A short walk from the Baloboc Rock Shelter is a view point.
  • Capitol. The Capitol of Tawi-Tawi. It’s best to visit this at night, when the building lights are on.
  • Municipal Hall. Here you can see the municipal hall and the Bongao signage. There’s also a souvenir shop across.
  • Public market. Shop for fresh ingredients especially seafood. There are also food stalls where you can buy grilled fish and native delicacies. A small alleyway called the barter sells products imported from Malaysia.
  • Old Chinese Pier. This is a busy port used by cargo vessels and passenger boats going to and fro other islands in the province, as well as the neighboring province of Zamboanga and across Malaysia. Previously, it was also used by Malays and Arabs to trade goods with the locals.
  • Badjao Village. A community of the Badjao (or Sama-Badjau). Here you can see traditional mat weaving using dyed pandan leaves. You can also buy the mats (or banig) for use at home.
  • Bud Bongao. Bud Bongao is sacred mountain with a view deck which offers a great view of the sea and the town of Bongao. Trekking to the summit takes 45 minutes or more.
Baloboc cave and rock formation
Arc in Baloboc Rock Shelter.
Sunset at Bud Bongao in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
Enjoying the sunset view at Bud Bongao.

Charter a tricycle for P1000 a day (good up to 4 people) to explore the town.

Island hopping tour

There are a few islands you can visit from Bongao. For a day, you can visit:

  • Panampangan Island. This is considered the longest sand bar in the Philippines
  • Simunul Island. The birthplace of Islam
  • Sangay Siapo Island. A small island great for swimming.
Panampangan Island in Tawi-Tawi
Panampangan Island – featuring the longest sandbar in the country.
Sandbar in Panampangan Island
Sandbar in Panampangan Island.
Sangay Siapo Island in Tawi-Tawi
Night swimming at Sangay Siapo Island. (Photo by Froilan Pernis)

Boat rental for island hopping costs P9000-12,000 a day (good up to 10 people).

Read about our island hopping tour in Tawi-Tawi.

Visit to Sitangkai

From Bongao, you can take a 4-hour ferry to visit Sitangkai. Sitangkai is a community built over the water, so the major type of transportation is via boats.

Sitangkai in Tawi-Tawi
(Photo by Jan Darren Guiwan of Kapampangan Traveller)

There are limited schedule for ferries plying Bongao-Sitangkai route. Fare is P560 per person, one way.

  • Bongao to Sitangkai: Monday-Wednesday-Friday 10:00AM-11:00AM
  • Sitangkai to Bongao: (same days) 9:00PM-1:00AM, depending on cargo loading

Visit to Saluag Island, Sibutu

Sibutu is home to the best lantsa (boat) makers in the country. This municipality is composed of Sibutu Island and other four uninhabited islands, one of which is Saluag Island (also called Sikulan Island) —  the southernmost island in the Philippines. If you’re one to keep a bucket list, this is one place you shouldn’t miss as well.

In Saluag Island, you can find lighthouses, white-sand beaches and a lagoon called kaban-kabal which the locals believe to have healing properties.

To get here, ride a ferry from the Old Chinese Pier to Sibutu (daily schedule except Friday, at 11AM) or hire a private boat.

For other activities, read our guide on Best Things To Do in Tawi-Tawi.

Where to stay

We stayed in the house of Ate Sidang. She does not ask for any rate, so we just gave her the industry standard (as of our visit, P400 per person per night).

Group shot at Ate Sidang's house
Group photo with Ate Sidang and Kuya Lads.
Seafood meal at Ate Sidang's house
Some of our food at Ate Sidang’s house.

Here are other places you can stay at in Bongao. Rate for a standard room (good for 2 people) starts at P700-1000.

  • Beachside Inn Hotel and Restaurant. Rate starts at P750 for a single fan room. Contact: 09204815447 / (68)268-1446 / (68)268-1435
  • Almari Beach Resort. Contact at 09177188095 or Facebook.
  • Sandbar Beach Lepa and Restaurant. Contact at 09455869283 or Facebook.
  • Danmar Resort. Contact at (68)268-1550
  • Rachel’s Place.

There are several other inns and beach resorts you can stay at in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. Contact the local tourism office for additional info.

Special events in Tawi-Tawi

Here are some special events and festivals celebrated in Tawi-Tawi.

  • Agal-Agal Festival. Agal-agal is the local term for seaweed. The Agal-Agal Festival is a tribute to the value of seaweed in the province. The highlight of this festival is the street parade. It is held every September.
  • Lepa Festival. Lepa means houseboat, the traditional home of Sama de Laut (or Sama-Badjau/Badjao) before settling into stilt communities. As such, the festival pays homage to this lifestyle of the Badjao. The highlight is a floating parade of boats. It is celebrated as part of Kamahardikaan (the founding anniversary of Tawi-Tawi) every September.
Agal-Agal Festival in Tawi-Tawi
(Photo by Jan Darren Guiwan of Kapampangan Traveller)

3 Days itinerary in Tawi-Tawi

The ideal stay is 3 days especially if you plan on visiting Sitangkai as well. Here’s a sample 3 day itinerary you can follow:

Day 1:
7:30 AM Arrival in Tawi-Tawi
8AM Early check-in at accommodation in Bongao
10AM – 2 or 3PM Ferry from Bongao to Sitangkai
3PM – 9PM Tour around Sitangkai
9PM – 4 or 5AM Ferry from Sitangkai to Bongao

Day 2:
7 – 10AM Land tour in Bongao
12PM Lunch
3 – 6PM Trek at Bud Bungao for sunset viewing

Day 3:
Island hopping
– Panampangan Island
– Simunol Island
– Sangay Siapo Island

Day 4:
Check out of accommodation
Early flight back to Zamboanga City

Budget and expenses

Here are the tour rates in Tawi-Tawi (updated as of November 2019):

  • Land tour via tricycle: P1000 (good up to 4 people)
  • Island hopping: P9000 – 12000 (good up to 10 people)

If you’re in a group, you may also charter a private boat to Sitangkai and other islands (Panampangan Island, Simunul Island, Sangay Siapo Island) for about P28,000 good up to 30 people (or 15 people with luggage).

Due to the expensive rate for island hopping, it’s best to go here in a group. You may also ask the tourism office or your contact person in island hopping if there are other joiners who can share costs with you. If you’re traveling solo, you may also consider getting a packaged tour instead.

For a 2-day stay (land tour + island hopping tour) for a group of 5 people, a safe budget would be P3500-4000 per person.

Things to know before you go

Stilt houses in Tawi-Tawi

  • It’s advised to dress conservatively. Regular shorts is okay, but nothing too skimpy.
  • It’s best to coordinate with the tourism office for your visit. They can help you with the tours and accommodation.

Contacts

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

 

Has this travel guide to Tawi-Tawi been helpful to you? If you have more information to add, let us know in the comments below!

 

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