Tawi-Tawi Travel Guide: DIY Guide, How to get there, Where to Stay, Things to do and More
Often overlooked because of its location in the southernmost part of the Philippines, Tawi-Tawi has also been unreasoningly linked with security concerns in the past that gave travelers pause when planning a visit to this place. In reality, though, Tawi-Tawi tells a different story of a province boasting several off-the-beaten-path destinations teeming with majestic sights, colorful culture, and traditions that has been beautifully preserved for hundreds of years.
Quickly becoming a favorite among the more adventurous travelers seeking ethnic wonders and remarkable marvels to explore, Tawi-Tawi’s diverse attraction is enough to convince one to set aside all misplaced preconceived notions of this place and embrace discovering its factual character. Here is a useful travel guide that you can bookmark for future use for those willing to get to know the real Tawi-Tawi.
Going to Tawi-Tawi
Tawi-Tawi is closer to Sabah, Malaysia, than mainland Mindanao. Going to the province used to be difficult. Since the construction of new infrastructures such as an airport and seaports and a rebranding that promoted tourism in the province, going to Tawi-Tawi has become a lot easier in the last several years. Here are some ways of going to Tawi-Tawi from major hubs in Manila and Zamboanga City.
Sanga-Sanga Airport in Bongao operates daily Cebu Pacific flights from Zamboanga City. Other than chartered flights, this is the only commercial air choice going to Tawi-Tawi. Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific also connect travelers from Manila to Zamboanga City, while AirAsia started flying to Zamboanga City from Clark and Cebu on March 28, 2020.
Sea travel is the main mode of passage going to Tawi-Tawi. Aleson Shipping cruises the waters of the Sulu Sea to connect passengers from Zamboanga City to Bongao every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Ship voyage usually takes 15 to 18 hours. 2GO Travel also has ferry routes going to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi from Cebu, and Manila. Another ferry from Semporna in Malaysia goes to Bongao once a week.
Best Time to Go
Tawi-Tawi’s best thing is that it is safely shielded from the “typhoon belt” of the Philippines, making it an ideal destination to visit the whole year without worrying about extreme weather conditions. Rain showers occur occasionally and only for a short burst of time. To make sure, always check weather forecasts before setting out on a sea journey to the different islands in the province.
Another thing to remember are the cultural festivals held every September in different towns in Tawi-Tawi. These are the Kamahardikaan Sin, which celebrates the province’s founding anniversary—and the Agal-Agal Festival, a jovial revelry celebrating the way of life of the local Sama people. Both festivals are celebrated on the same week every September.
Agal-Agal Festival | September
This festival features a colorful street parade and dancing competitions participated by contingents from various towns. The main choreography centers on the depiction of the way of life of the Sama people. Spellbinding dance routines re-enact the traditional courtships, harvesting seaweeds (agal-agal), and mystic rituals. Every year, the festival is held in a different town in Tawi-Tawi.
Getting Around Tawi-Tawi
Getting around Bongao, Tawi-Tawi is convenient thanks to it being a small island surrounded by well-paved roads. Jeepneys, motor taxis (habal-habal), and tricycles are the main transport methods on the island. There are also private vans offered by tour companies. For inter-island connectivity, public ferries are available at the island’s main port.
Jeepneys can be seen departing Bongao Public Market several times a day to shuttle passengers to the other towns in Bongao.
“Habal-habal” (motor taxis) and Tricycles are the mainland transportation in Bongao and in the other islands in Tawi-Tawi. If you are exploring a town in Tawi-Tawi, the best way is to ride a tricycle to easily cross narrow streets. For hassle-free commuting, try renting one for a day-tour so the tricycle driver can take you to all the tourist spots in the town.
Fare tips: Remember to politely negotiate with your driver but refrain from haggling too much to the point that you may short-change them.
While motor taxis and tricycles are the main mode of transit on Tawi-Tawi islands, sea travel is another main transportation of going from one island to another. Public ferry boats are available from Bongao going to Sitangkai, Simunul, Liyaburan, Sibutu, Sipangkot, and Languyan. Renting a private boat is also available, especially if you will visit the sandbar of Panampangan Island.
What to See and Do in Tawi-Tawi
An hour away from Bongao by a fast boat or add one more for a regular-speed boat, Panampangan is easily one of the most spectacular islands in the Philippines. The island is said to have the longest sandbar in the Philippines. According to mapping advocate Ervin Malicdem “during low tide, the sandbar extends far out to about three kilometers to its neighboring islet, Basibuli; also, in the same reef.”
Devoid of man-made structures except for a few small huts, the island is covered in lush greens composed of towering coconut trees and random plants. The rest of the island is stretched by a scenic snaking sandbar framed by the crystal-clear waters of Celebes Sea. A day trip here will surely gift you with a memorable beach bumming experience.
Travel tip: Boats going to Panampangan Island from Bongao can be rented for 8,000 – 9,000 pesos for the whole day of the tour. The boat can conveniently charter to 12-15 people.
Bud Bongao Peak
Considered a sacred mountain, Bud Bongao may only tower 1,100 feet, but it holds a taller meaning to the province’s local history, culture, and religion. The mountain is also the burial place of one of Karim ul-Makhdum’s — the Arab preacher who first brought Islam to the country more than 600 years ago — followers.
Today, Bud Bongao remains much revered by the locals. It’s also a biodiversity hotspot spreading 250 hectares and is protected by both the local government of Bongao and the hundreds of playful long-tailed macaques that can be seen along the trail.
Old Chinese Port
Other than the hurried seaside activities, one’s attention can also be arrested by the colorful row of lantsa—motorized wooden boats—docked at the old Chinese Port in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. This used to be the center of trade among Arab, Malays, and Chinese merchants hundreds of years ago. Today, it serves as a primary fishing port and an important sea hub to the other island towns of Tawi-Tawi and, as some would say, even to Indonesia and Malaysia.
Sheik Karim al Makdum Mosque
Found on the island of Simunul, this mosque is believed to be the oldest in the Philippines. It was built in 1380 and named after its builder, Arab trader, and Islamic preacher Sheik Makdum Karim. Although the mosque has been reconstructed several times, four original wooden pillars can still be seen inside.
The graveyard located at the back of the mosque is believed to be where Sheik Makdum Karim’s remains were buried.
Bajau Village in Bongao
Get to know more about the simple daily lives of the Sama Dilaut people residing in stilt houses that stand near the wooden footbridge leading to the sea. This community in the municipality of Bongao provides visitors a fascinating glimpse into the Bajaus culture (Badjao).
Apart from learning about their oceanic style of living, one will also be amazed by their craftsmanship in weaving, particularly the various colorful banig (hand-woven mat) that many make every day.
Sama Dilaut and Tausug Stilt Houses in Sitangkai
Another similar enthralling community scene can also be seen on the island of Sitangkai, where most Tausug and Sama Dilaut people prefer living in stilt houses perched on the sea than to settle on dry land. These stilt houses surround the island’s turquoise waters and dot through the inner canals leading to several of the island’s municipalities.
Sitangkai is also known as Tawi-Tawi’s seaweed capital.
Tawi-Tawi Provincial Capitol
Constructed atop a hill, the Provincial Capitol of Tawi-Tawi features a mosque dome that perfectly complements its appealing Islamic architecture design. A morning jog here will reward you not only a windy spot to catch your breath but also a sweeping view of Bongao town below.
Balobok Rock Shelter
This interesting archaeological site is located inside Bolobok Cave. Earlier excavations in the cave have turned up numerous ancient artifacts like flake tools, polished stones, human bones, and even animal remains that are believed to date back as far as 8,800 years ago.
Tawi-Tawi Diving Spots
Also, an underrated diving destination because of its remote location, the waters off Tawi-Tawi dots with an abundance of diving spots. As part of the so-called Coral Triangle, more than 600 species of corals and 2,000 species of fish can be seen underwater around Tawi-Tawi.
Visit the other lesser-known islands.
Other than Panampangan Island, Simunul, and Sitangkai, there are other noteworthy islands such as Papahag, Bilatan, and Laa scattered around the immense Sulu Sea surrounding Tawi-Tawi. You can explore these islands for a whole day.
Where to Stay in Tawi-Tawi
Rachel’s Place Hotel and Restaurant
The most popular accommodation in Bongao because it is commonly frequented by both backpackers and business travelers, Rachel’s Place is strategically located near the center of Bongao. It features a spacious garden where guests can hang out or work using the hotel’s Wi-Fi and several air-conditioned rooms good for 2-4 people. The hotel also has a dining area and a multi-purpose hall.
Address: Ilmon Street Lamion, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
Hotel Juana Grill and Sandbar Restaurant
Situated near the center of the bustling part of Bongao, where much of sea trading activities happen, this hotel is ideal for travelers looking for a no-frills but affordable place to crash for the night.
Address: Datu Halum St., Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
Beachside Inn Hotel and Restaurant
Said to be the first hotel to operate in Bongao, this beachfront hotel is a favorite among the locals to recommend guests from other parts of the Philippines. Beachside Inn’s alfresco dining area is also one of the best places to eat in Tawi-Tawi.
Address: Sowangkagang, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
Sandbar Lepa Beach Hotel and Restaurant
This newly-built hotel in Bongao, Sandbar Lepa Beach Hotel, features minimalistic rooms with twin beds, an air-conditioner, cable TV, and a conference hall.
Address: Pasiagan, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
Almari Beach Resort
This quiet escape nestled along a quaint shoreline was also where the music video of a Christian Bautista song about Tawi-Tawi was shot. A row of a dozen rooms sits in front of a scenic view of the sea.
Address: Pahut, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
What to Eat in Tawi-Tawi
Tawi-Tawi’s culinary scene is heavily influenced by its bountiful seafood industry and a combination of Moro and Malaysian cuisine and the native dishes from other Filipino ethnic groups in Mindanao Tausug, Maranao, Jama Mapun, Banguingui, and more. The satisfying product is a rich blend of delicious flavors that will make your journey to Tawi-Tawi produce an extraordinary gastronomical adventure.
Tiyula Itum (braised beef in charred coconut meat)
A popular Tausug dish often served in Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, and Zamboanga, Tiyula Itum is distinctly characterized by a black sauce caused by burnt coconut meat. This produces a unique taste to the tender braised beef. Other ingredients of this dish include ginger, turmeric, lengkuas, onion, and garlic. Tiyula Itum is also called “Food for the Royalty” because it is commonly served during weddings and other special events like the Hari Raya festivities.
A slightly derived version of the Tiyula Itum also applies the cooking method of burning coconut meat to produce a thick black sauce, this dish’s main star is the chicken. Cooked alongside the chicken are other ingredients like chili, turmeric, lemongrass, onions, garlic, and coconut milk.
This mouth-watering dish composed of shellfish meat is prepared by stirring it fried with seasonings of golden coconut meat, lemongrass, and onions.
Pickled Agal-Agal (Seaweed)
Because seaweed is the main produce of Tawi-Tawi, locals have formulated an appetizing seaweed-based salad. They call it the Pickled Agal-agal, made with thin slices of green mangoes, olive oil, lemon juice, and brown sugar.
Chicken and Beef Satti
Satti is another local favorite in Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, and the Zamboanga Peninsula. It is a grilled beef or chicken served in sticks and paired with sticky rice and a thick sauce. The yellow-colored sauce is made with turmeric, pepper, garlic, and curry ingredients, combining to create a savory taste.
Pastil appears like a slighter version of the empanada, but once you take a bite, you’ll discover that inside its fillings are rice noodles (pancit bihon) that taste better when paired with spicy vinegar.
Tawi-Tawi is one of the few places in Mindanao where you can taste some Malaysian cuisine. Several side-street eateries serve an array of favorite dishes from our Southeast Asian neighbor. These include Nasih Goreng, Pataya Ayam Daging, Mee Goreng, Nasih Goreng, Mee Bandung, Mee Hailam, etc.
Travel tip: eating pork is strictly prohibited in the province of Tawi-Tawi by Islamic dietary laws
Where to Eat in Tawi-Tawi
Situated in the downtown market area, this modest eatery serves various local cuisine that includes tiyulah itum, agal-agal salad, grilled fish, and kinilaw.
Address: Downtown, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
Sandbar Beach Lepa and Restaurant
The in-house restaurant of Sandbar Beach Lepa Resort serves mouth-watering Mindanaoan cuisine that also includes several local favorites. Their huge servings are perfect for a group of family or friends.
Address: Pasiagan, Bongao
Ibbo Beach Resort
If you’re craving fresh seafood, then you should dine at Ibbo Beach Resort’s restaurant, where they serve a bevy of the freshest seafood catch of the day.
Address: Pasiagan, Bongao
Besides having the most popular accommodation in Tawi-Tawi, Rachel’s Place’s in-house restaurant is also known for its good food, fraps, brewed coffee, and silog-types all-day breakfast.
Address: Lamion, Bongao
King of Chicken
Like its name suggests, this is the place to order rich-tasting chicken-based dishes, including the local favorites: chicken sati, Chicken Piyanggang, and the Tiyula Itum.
Address: Downtown area, Bongao
Considered by locals as Tawi-Tawi’s version of Starbucks but so much better, Sameera is a laid-back coffee place near the town, where you can order brewed coffee as you sit and quietly observe the daily way of living of people around you.
AMZ Snack House and Juana Hotel & Restaurant are also located in the downtown area of Tawi-Tawi.
Practical Information and Tips
Although Tawi-Tawi is now considered generally safe, it is still highly recommended to register first at the tourism office before proceeding with Tawi-Tawi’s island-hopping exploration. After registering, the tourism officers led a short briefing about the guidelines and other helpful tips in traveling around Tawi-Tawi.
Despite its proximity to Malaysia, the main currency used here is still the Philippine Peso. Philippine National Bank (PNB), Metrobank, and Allied Banking Corporation as an ATM machine located in the downtown area of Bongao. There are no ATM machines in the other islands of Tawi-Tawi. Currently, there are very few establishments that accept credit or debit cards, so it is still a wise idea to bring enough cash during the duration of your stay in Tawi-Tawi.
The “Tausug” is the main language in Tawi-Tawi, while many also speak the local “Sama” language, especially on Sitangkai. Still, you will never get lost in translation in Tawi-Tawi as almost all residents also know how to speak Chavacano, Cebuano, Tagalog, Yakan, and English. Quite a few locals can also speak Malay.
99% of Tawi-Tawi’s population, approximately 390,735, belongs to the Islam religion while the rest, 0.7%, are Christians.
Tawi-Tawi Sample Itinerary:
To help you plan your trip, here is a sample 3-day itinerary in Tawi-Tawi.
Day 1: Arrival in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi
- 07:00 am – Arrival at the hotel
- 07:30 am – Check-in and breakfast
- 09:00 am – 5:00 pm – Start Bongao Tour: Old Chinese Port, Provincial Capitol, Market, Bajau Village, and afternoon hike to Bud Bongao
- 06:00 pm – Return to hotel to freshen up
- 07:00 pm – Dinner, socials, and lights out.
Day 2: Island hopping
- 07:00 am – Wake-up call and breakfast
- 08:30 am – Depart for Panampangan Island
- 10:30 am – Arrival at Panampangan Island
- 11:00 am – 2:00 pm: Lunch, swim, and snorkeling at Panampangan Island
- 2:00 pm – 6:00 pm: Continue island hopping tour to Simunul Island to visit Sheik Karim al Makdum Mosque and Sitangkai island to visit the Sama Dilaut village Tausug Stilt houses.
- 7:00 pm: Back to Bongao
Day 3: Shopping and Departure
Start Planning your Tawi-Tawi Trip!
Be sure to bookmark this Tawi-Tawi travel guide to help you plan your trip accordingly.