Contrary to what many people believe, Tawi-Tawi is an incredibly peaceful island. This southernmost province in Mindanao is situated near Moro conflict areas, but the island itself could not be any more different. In fact, it is said that the peace-loving people can be found in Tawi-Tawi. This isn’t a popular tourist destination for two main reasons: It’s so far-off the grid, and the stigma towards safety still lingers in the air. However, the island is one of the most culturally rich provinces in the country.
Traveling to Tawi-Tawi takes some effort. You can reach the island by first heading to Zamboanga, then make your way to Bongao from there.
Bongao is the capital of Tawi-Tawi. It’s a busy area lined with stalls of produce, amidst trucks and tricycles squeezing their way through the narrow streets. Here you can find Tawi-Tawi’s finest ingredients and delicacies. One of the most essential ingredients in their cuisine is the blackened coconut. This is used in dishes like tiyula itum and chicken piyanggang.
They have countless varieties of seafood, some you might not have even heard of. The market is wiped out by lunchtime, so head there early to get your share.
Make your way southeast and you’ll end up in Simunul, the birthplace of Islam in the Philippines. You can also find the very first mosque in the country. The people here have cultivated a very close relationship to the sea— from their shelter, to their food, to their livelihood. I actually witnessed the fisherfolks catch a huge fish that weighed around 50 kilos. It took them 2 days to catch, and takes pure skill to do so.
What to eat
Tawi-Tawi boasts having the best seafood around. Their dishes are influenced by Malaysian cuisine, considering they are closer together in terms of geography. Here are a few of the dishes I’ve tried while I was on the island:
Chicken piyanggang is a type of curry. Its black color comes from the blackened coconut.
Kahanga is a type of shellfish that is abundant on the island. This dish is seasoned with turmeric, lemongrass, and browned coconut.
Tawi-Tawi is one of the biggest exporters of seaweed, particularly agar-agar. This salad is made with olive oil, brown sugar, lemon juice, and green mangoes. Simple and refreshing.
Mantis Shrimp, Kilawin, Mi Goreng
Here’s a plate with some of Tawi-Tawi’s food staples: Kilawin, mi goreng, and mantis shrimp.
Diving in Tawi-Tawi
When you visit Tawi-Tawi, don’t miss the opportunity to see its marine life up close. Beneath the turquoise waters lies an ecosystem so vibrant and diverse. The island is positioned inside the Coral Triangle, which makes it an excellent spot to go diving. The Coral Triangle (which covers the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Timor Leste) is populated by more than 2000 species of fish, and around 600 species of corals.
So should you travel to Tawi-Tawi? I don’t see any reason not to. Tawi-Tawi is one of the more unassuming travel destinations out there, but the adventure is no less rewarding. Come for the seafood, the crystal clear waters, and the people.
Here is a glimpse of Tawi-Tawi in 2 parts: