Anyone who journeys into the southernmost tip of the Philippines must not miss the historic island of Simunol, the birthplace of Islam in the country.
Simunol is a tiny island off the capital, Bongao in Tawi-Tawi. Peaceful Muslims who are blessed by the sea’s bounty for its sustenance inhabit it. This community is proud of their heritage being the site of the first mosque in the Philippines constructed 629 years ago.
This is the reason for my journey.
Daybreak in Bongao’s wharf is unimaginably busy. It was like being in an old world with so many traders, brokers & laborers talking & moving all at the same time. Negotiating for a special boat trip was double the fun where my bargaining skill was really put to a hard test. After confusing translations & funny paralinguistic signals, we were settled with P2,000. Crossing the unknown, silent & vast Sulu Sea on a tiny motorized boat was one of the most daring challenges I’ve ever accepted. But contrary to my imaginations of one-eyed pirates & sharks, I had the best moments of solitude as we smoothly sailed by a rosary of white sand islets.
Upon approaching Simunol, we could hear the high-pitched Arabic chant from a nearby mosque. It was an inexplicable feeling marveling at the minaret painted on the blue sky. In 1380, an Arab missionary named Sheik Makhdum erected this mosque, which started the propagation of Islam in the Philippines. After weathering the changes of climate & time & the long history of aggressions, what are now left from the original structure are the 4 solid Ipil posts. These posts each masterfully carved with Okir by Sama artisans have stood for the past 629 years. At the back of the mosque lies the well-kept tomb of Sheik Makhdum & the old belfry. What made this trip most memorable was this rare chance of the high priest himself graciously walking me through the long history of Islam as they lived through the present time. It was so moving to hear his wisdom on religiosity & widening our perspectives of the world, deepening our understanding of Islam & its people.
The west was already starting to harbor light when we reached Bongao. It was a great moment of fulfillment. I braved the unknown sea with my heart-stopping crew, a 16-year old unlicensed captain & his 2 dutiful assistants ages 10 & 12! I got first hand exhibition of the Samas’ seafaring skills honed by their lifelong affair with the sea as their universe. I embraced the delicate feelings & history of Islam & its forerunners in the Philippines. I have traveled to an old world yet so ready to embrace the new without forgetting its past.
Getting there can only be done by boat from Bongao Wharf in Tawi-Tawi.
It is best to hire the entire boat to yourself. Prices range from P2,000-P3,000.
There is no hotel in Simunol. It is only good for a daytrip. So, sail early.
Betwixt and between the arthritic 40 and a horrendous body mass index of positive 30, escapism and yummyeology are my real-life double post-graduate degrees conferred with the highest honors.
I lived nearly half of my life in fancy suitcases, jetsetting between reality and fantasy... read more