MIDSAYAP, North Cotabato (MindaNews/June 06) – With our travel fund expiring in a few days, choosing our destination after two years of the pandemic was not a difficult decision. From the beginning, with beaches as a priority and kids left at home, we always wanted to visit Tawi-tawi.

Despite how it was painted in the media or what was instilled in our minds about the risk of going to this part of the country, we booked and flew to the place which we later realized that it was truly a southernmost paradise in the Philippines.

Other than its location on the map, Tawi-tawi may never be one of the best choices due to its reputation for peace and order. But with our thirst to see and learn new things as part of our version of revenge tourism, our trip was truly for the books.

Colors of culture: Motorized Banca used as the main means of transporting people and goods from Bongao to the rest of the towns on the island. Photo by KARL BALLENTES

We have reached the southernmost province of the country. We visited the first mosque in the Philippines built 642 years ago in Simunul by Sheik Makhdum. Our feet walked and crossed the finest sand of the longest sandbar of the Panampangan and Basibuli islands. We came face to face with Papa Bulls, the largest crocodile in captivity, saw the tallest molave ​​tree in the Philippines and on top of Bud Bongao’s tallest mountain, considered sacred by locals, had a glimpse of Malaysia-Borneo from afar.

Really Tawi-tawi

Not caring about the burning sensation of the sun on our skin, the vast Celebes sea and the loud noise of the speedboat with islets around as if sprinkled in the vast blue ocean, the place we considered as the hotbed of terrorism, kidnapping and violence offered the exact opposite – an experience of truly haunting beauty and bounty.

It was a different world in the almost uninhabited islands of Panampangan and Sangay Siapu. Comparable to the turquoise waters of the Maldives, the beaches and islands of Tawi-tawi nestled in the waters of the Sulu and Celebes seas are a true paradise for beach lovers like us. Grilling fresh fish for lunch under the tall coconut trees as the winds blow, kissing our faces on the islands we almost owned that day, reminds us that the best feeling can happen in places where you wouldn’t have never imagined going.

Cottages built on the turquoise waters of the island of Sangay Siapu, nicknamed Madives de Tawi-tawi. Photo by KARL BALLENTES

With the intersecting culture of Samas and Malays, the sights and sounds of Tawi-tawi are full of heartwarming experiences for travelers like us. From the best Tausug specialties, the hottest and the best coffee served with the Dulang, tiyula itum the beef stew with burnt coconut sauce, beef kulma, and the best breakfast satti, Tawi-tawi is also a destination for the best gastronomic adventures. In addition, of course, the extremely affordable price of fish in the market sold by the pack (bugkos) or tapok and never by the kilo.

best part

Besides what filled our eyes and minds, there were the things that made our hearts fall in love with Tawi-tawi. The best thing about the islands are the loving, friendly and peaceful people we were lucky enough to meet. As we think of gunmen walking around and harassing communities, we saw sweet smiles, warm welcomes and heard great stories and aspirations from everyone we met.

Like many of us, Samas and Tausugs yearn for peace of mind and the simple life. With their deep connection to their culture and their lives anchored in the wealth of their natural resources, Tawi-tawi is a place of harmony and peaceful coexistence between people.

Climb the highest peak of Bud Dajo. Climb 1,800 steps for stunning views. Photo courtesy of KARL BALLENTES

There was never a time when I felt fear in Tawi-tawi. In fact, we felt we connected with people by the way they treated us. Jhoanna was cycling through the streets of Simunul even after dark. People greet us every time we talk to them and appreciate us visiting their home. Taking photos of their mosques, scenic views and with them was also fun and memorable.

Deeper Connections

As Tawi-tawi opens its doors with the promise of peace and development from the nascent government of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, the problem of access to these most remote islands in the Philippines will soon be a thing of the past. With more airlines and travel options connecting these travel destinations, the deepest challenge among us is the connection we make with our inner selves. And how we commune with the beautiful, timeless creations of God.

As we made this journey possible (leaving our children behind the longest in a while), we were reconnected as husband and wife. By investing in ourselves through travel, we also learned from the experiences of people we met like Wadz and Mobin and their friends.

PLEASURE UNDER THE SUN. The author and his wife Jhoanna go island hopping from Bongao to Panampangan via Sangay Siapu and Simunul islands on a speedboat, a must-do activity in Tawi-tawi Photo courtesy of KARL BALLENTES

Looking at the photos we took, about 2,400 of them, sharing the stories with our children inspired us to let them see for themselves what we saw. While people are separated by beliefs and distance, hearts can beat the same as human beings. And while there are people you just met, they forge deeper bonds and friendships wherever they are.

With this trip, I have already visited the southern island provinces of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Basilan in 2006 during the peace summit in the city of Lamitan, Jolo and Patikul in Sulu in 2017 during the leadership training of the AYLC (Ayala Young Leaders Congress) at Notre Dame of Jolo College and now here.

Babalik kami

Sunburns will heal, sore muscles will heal, but memories made in the longest stretch of white sand beaches, colorful explosions of culture, crystal clear waters and far wider horizons, island hopping another, will remain in our hearts.

With everything we’ve seen and experienced I thought maybe the silver lining of Tawi-tawi’s reputation and our preconception and prejudice is that it’s hidden from the world.

And the chance to see and live with its wonders is an experience deserved only by those with the enthusiasm to brave judgment, framing, notion – to see, feel and experience a paradise that will not only capture the eye but the heart and mind of any hungry traveler.

We drove nine hours from Midsayap to Zamboanga, then took a 45 minute flight to Sanga-Sanga airport in Bongao. Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines offer daily service from Zamboanga to Tawi-tawi. By June 9, Philippine Airlines will serve Cotabato City in Tawi-tawi twice a week on Thursdays and Mondays.

As for security, the fact that we came back unscathed speaks to its current security situation. But it is better to contact the local tourist office and arrange a trip with a local travel guide.

Life takes you in many beautiful detours. But Tawi-tawi is a destination you must choose to see for yourself, to solve the riddle and have an extraordinary experience.

Magsukul Tawi-tawi. See you soon!

(Karl Ballentes, 32, is currently the Municipal Social Welfare and Development Officer for the Municipality of Midsayap in North Cotabato)