Bongao Photo: Jay A.

Bongao

Stepping into the town of Bongao in the southernmost province of the Philippines is like stepping into a myriad of sights, sounds, and scents. Everywhere you look, there is what seems like an explosion of colors reflecting the vibrant lives of the locals.

As the capital of Tawi-Tawi, Bongao is the most densely populated area in the province and is composed of three islands, Bangao Island, Sanga-Sanga Island, and Pababag Island. In the heart of the poblacion (town) in Bangao Island, you can find vendors earning a living along the streets, selling goods such as fruits of all colors, shapes, and sizes as rainbow-colored motorcycles and tricycles, the main mode of transportation in the town, zoom past.

Try the many different local delicacies being sold on open tables, such as the murtabak, a stuffed pan-fried cake, or the Tiyula Itum, the Tausug equivalent of the more common nilagang baka (beef stew).

The multitude of colors reaches the Chinese Pier, which was once the town’s proverbial entrance for trading, popularly referred to as the “southern backdoor” of the Philippines. Here you can find boats docked at the shore and merchants selling their goods, including both fresh and dried fish.

If you prefer a more peaceful trip, go for a trek up Bud Bongao, the highest peak in the province and an important religious site for the locals. The silence and isolation of Bud Bongao provides the perfect atmosphere for prayer and meditation. You can still find the colors of Bongao up in the mountain as strips of plastic, cellophane, cloth and other materials are customarily tied to the trees in the belief that it guarantees safe passage and the fulfillment of your wishes. If you can, bring a banana or two because monkeys are a common companion as you make that trek.

Bongao is also a favorite spot for divers looking for undisturbed, flourishing marine life. To make your diving experience more convenient, don’t forget to contact the Tawi-Tawi Divers Club to help organize your trip. The town is home to many diving spots including Sanga-Sanga Reef (it’s a restricted area so you must get permission first!), Suwangkagang Wall (famous for its corals), and Kubbung Dive Site. Try the Pahut Dive Site to check out a World War II fighter plane wreck resting 60 feet beneath the water’s surface.

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