Bongao | Tawi-Tawi’s Old World Charm
There are places that fill travel fancies of secluded white sand beaches or mountainscapes against bleeding sunsets. There are towns that bask on old-world charm thoughtless of urban sophistication. Then there is Bongao.
Bongao is the capital town of the island province of Tawi-Tawi. It used to be annexed to Sulu up until the late 70s. It’s the hub of economic, cultural, political & educational affairs of the province. Bongao is the gateway to the rest of the islands in south Sulu & Celebes seas.
It’s far but reachable. It’s misunderstood but very welcoming. To the uninitiated, Bongao is uncharted. But to those who have come, it is exotic, an antidote for all the shemozzles of more popular destinations in the Philippines.
Now, why Bongao?
Bongao is not an easy pick for a holiday travel because of its geographic isolation. Being on the tail end of the country, it is surely far off. Then there’s the never-ending issue of safety that throws out all of its beauty in obscurity.
Contrary to what most people know, this town is the safest in the southernmost archipelago. Unfortunately, they’re just stereotyped with lawlessness that is not of their doing. This, they’re fighting hard paradoxically with gentility & friendliness.
With about 72% of the population being Tausug, Islam is the predominant religion here. But as it is the growth capital of Tawi-Tawi, living with non-Muslims remains harmonious. They embrace modern cultures & surprisingly very gentle even to LGBTQs who are mostly migrant workers in hotels, beauty salons & restaurants.
Yes, there are resorts & hotels in Bongao too. Although not as chic as the ones in big cities, but nonetheless it provides basic comfort, WIFI included. There is one mini-mall & a few restaurants. It has a small airport that serves flights from Zamboanga. If you like it slow, sailing for 16 hours could also be exciting.
What adventures await you down south?
What it probably lacks in urban sophistication, they make up for it with pristine hideaways that aren’t tossed on social media all too often.
Sun-kissed white sand beaches are a common sight. In fact, their island is fringed with lots of it. Bongao is also the jump-off point to Panampangan Island, the longest sandbar in the Philippines & to Simunol, the site of the first mosque that dates back to 14th century.
If you like day hikes, Bud Bongao is a sure treat. At 1,030 meters above sea level, a panoramic view of where the sky, sea & land meet awaits those who persevere. The mountain is sacred & veiled by folklores. It is an important terrestrial biodiversity site because of its lush wildlife.
But did you know that this little town is also home to probably the oldest evidence of humankind in Southeast Asia? Bones, fossils & various ancient artifacts were unearthed in Bolobok Rock Shelter Cave carbon-dated to more than 8,000 years old.
Badjao culture once dominated Bongao up until Islam came in 1380. Today, many of this extremely nomadic community have settled “on land” by living on stilt houses. They still showcase their time-honored prowess in boat building as can be seen along the coast of Sanga-Sanga Chanel.
Be awed by the frenzy of wooden boats sailing in & out at the Chinese Pier. Get happily lost in the maze of dried fish, Malaysian goods, exotic seafood, local fried snacks & fruits. At sundown, head to Sanga-Sanga boulevard & wallow in the colors of twilight.
Bongao may be rustic but it is this kind of bucolic character that makes it alluring. It is a place so far away from it all but makes you feel home in the arms of its cheerful people. Visit it & experience what wonderful world it is too in Tawi-Tawi.
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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