Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Exotic Beauty of Tawi-Tawi Islands

Tawi-Tawi is an island province of the Philippines, consisting of 107 islands and islets, located in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). It is the southernmost province of the country and has been traditionally referred to as Philippines’ back door sharing sea borders with the Malaysian State of Sabah and the Indonesian Kalimantan province. Tawi-Tawi is subdivided into 11 municipalities with the municipality of Bongao as the provincial capital.

The name Tawi-Tawi is believed to be derived from the Malay term jauh, which means far. Prehistoric travelers called the province as “Jauh-jauh” to denote a very far place because of its distance from mainland Asia. Tawi-Tawi was previously part of the province of Sulu but pursuant to Presidential Decree No. 32, the province was officially created, separate from Sulu on September 11, 1973.

Tawi-Tawi is the home of the Samals and Badjaos commonly known as “Sea Gypsies” among the Western people. They are part of the Sama ethnic group whose culture is closely linked to the sea. Samals build their houses on silts over shallow seas and their sustenance is largely associated with marine resources with cassava as the staple. The Badjaos, on the other hand, are born and live on their houseboats – the lepa. The lepa is one of the most beautiful of traditional boats, possessing an ancient type of boat architecture. Their population, however, is diminishing due to diseases and migration to other areas in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

The prevailing language in the province is the indigenous Bahasa Sama which is widely used in varied tones and accents. The Bajau-Sama language is also spoken, as well as English and Tagalog. Many locals and barter traders can speak Malay and Indonesian. Chavacano is also spoken by Christian and Muslim locals who maintain contacts and trade with mainland Zamboanga Peninsula and Basilan. 

Rich Malay influences as well as tribal arts and crafts are very much visible in the province. It is not uncommon to see folks dressed in colorful malongs and its women are adorned in beads and brass and gold trinkets. 

Tawi-Tawi, known as the “Seaweed Capital of the Philippines” is the major producer of agar (powdered seaweed extract) in the country. Agriculture and fishing are also the leading source of livelihood for the people of the province. Quite a number of the population also engaged in barter trade business. Copra is the top agricultural product of the province, followed by root crops, fruits and vegetables. 

Tawi-Tawi, called as the southernmost pearl of the Philippines, is fast becoming a tourist destination. Sure the security in the province is a major concern, but given enough support, it has huge tourism potential. Its beautiful and unspoiled beaches, virgin forest and friendly people are among its attraction. Tourists can experience various underwater activities like scuba diving, deep sea swimming and snorkeling at white sand beaches.

City/MunicipalityCity classArea
in km²
BongaoMunicipality365.952partly urban95,055259.75
LanguyanMunicipality581.201partly urban51,37788.40
Panglima Sugala (Balimbing)Municipality416.663partly urban50,504121.21
SitangkaiMunicipality792.001partly urban40,64151.31
SimunulMunicipality167.254partly urban38,239228.63
Sapa-sapaMunicipality235.613partly urban37,135157.61
SibutuMunicipality0.000partly urban35,3770.00
TandubasMunicipality552.052partly urban33,03759.84
South UbianMunicipality272.043partly urban32,986121.25
Mapun (Cagayan De Tawi-tawi)Municipality181.294partly urban29,801164.

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In Tawi-Tawi honoring its sea gypsies at the Agal-Agal Festival

A view of the Bongao mountain peak, seen from Sanga-Sanga bridge in the town of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi province. Photo by Joseph Agcaoili for

In Tawi-Tawi, residents of Bongao town celebrated the Agal-Agal Festival, one of the highlights of the Kamahardikaan Festival held yearly in September. The latter is a week-long celebration to commemorate the founding anniversary of the province of Tawi-Tawi, which is located in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Kamahardikaan, which literally means bestowing the highest degree of respect, honors the people of Tawi-Tawi whose ancestors were the Sama people or sea gypsies. Farming agar-agar, which means seaweed, is a main source of livelihood in the area besides fishing.

Abdullah Napii (right) and Linang Napii (left), a couple who sustains their family for thirty years by farming and harvesting seaweeds which they sell at the capital town of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi province. Photo by Joseph Agcaoili for

The eleven municipalities of Tawi-Tawi—namely, Bongao, Simunul, Sitangkai, Mapun, Turtle Island, Sibutu, South Ubian, Sapa-Sapa, Panglima Sugala, Tandubas. and Languyan—joined the Agar-Agar Festival by participating in a grand street parade highlighting their seaweed harvest, performing the pangalay dance, and showcasing Sama way of life.

A fluvial parade offered an impressive visual fiesta as brightly decorated boats featured performers in full costumes as they danced the pangalay or traditional fingernail dance.

A fluvial parade during the 42nd Kamahardikaan festival at the town of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi province. Photo by Joseph Agcaoili for
Today, the province is stepping up with ongoing infrastructure projects such as bridges and roads that would connect more towns for faster transportation of agricultural and marine products, and would facilitate easier access for basic government services.

The runway of Sanga-Sanga airport in Tawi-Tawi is currently being extended. Flights from Tawi-Tawi to Cebu and vice-versa are also being planned to boost economic activity. To fix its power supply problem, the government has plans to provide electricity to 100 percent of the entire province before the term of President Aquino ends next year.

Efforts in promoting the area as a peaceful and beautiful place for tourism are being made both by the national and local governments. The Agar-Agar Festival, for instance, has been attracting tourists in recent years.

Besides this grand celebration, travelers will also delight in Tawi-Tawi’s vibrant culture that is visible with Malay influences in its people’s garb, for instance, and its cuisine. The area has beautiful mosques—Sheikh Makdum Mosque being the oldest in the country and founded in 1380—and unspoiled white-sand beaches to explore.

Participants at the Agal-Agal Festival in town of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi province. Photo by Joseph Agcaoili for
A group of Badjao shows a banig which is a source of livelihood for families living in town of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi province. Photo by Joseph Agcaoili for

Participants at the Agal-Agal Festival in town of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi province. Photo by Joseph Agcaoili for

Participants at the Agal-Agal Festival in town of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi province. Photo by Joseph Agcaoili for

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Bud Bungao from afar

View from top of Bud Bungao

Sheik Makdum Mosque, Simunol island

Golden Masjid Panglima
White Mosque in Tubig Tanah
Sama Dilaut weavers and their banig.
Sitangkai  town in Tawi-Tawi
Sunrise in Sitangkai
Saluag island
Tawi-Tawi Breakfast delicacies
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View of Tawi-Tawi Islands from the sea

A couple of years ago I was sailing onboard a cargo vessel bound for Indonesia when I have seen for the first time the mystical beauty of Tawi-Tawi Islands, the main island, Bongao, and from far about 6 miles, I have a glimpse of the historical island of Simunol and on the right side the islands of Sibuto and Sitangkai .

From far, the main island of Tawi-Tawi is shrouded in mist.

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YouTube Videos of Tawi-Tawi 

Agal-Agal Festival in Tawi-Tawi Philippines

Changing the stigma against Tawi-Tawi

Its more fun in Tawi-Tawi

Watching Turtles in Tawi-Tawi 

Tawi-Tawi Pugad ng Kaunlaran

Konstrukyons ng mga bagong istraktura sa Tawi-Tawi

Tawi-Tawi AuthernticCultural Dances

Tawi-Tawi Island land of baleleng and beauty

"Thinking out loud" by Amira Medina Live at Tawi-Tawi

Naluppas Sadja - Rufaida

Thy Womb (Sinapupunan)

Bongao Island and Sibuto Island of Tawi-Tawi Province
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Related story :
Bongao Peak: A Conquer on the Beauty of Tawi-Tawi                                                 
Top Places To See When You Visit Tawi=Tawi
Tawi-Tawi Touristv Spots                                                                             
Travel Guide Tawi-Tawi                                                                          

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