SULU Province: Secured Wonder

SULU Province: Secured Wonder
By: Nickson Garcia

This is not a completely informative write up. This is a three (3) part story that highlighted my personal experience on our seven (7) day journey to the southern most part provinces in the Philippines – SULU, BASILAN and TAWI-TAWI.  An experience that changed how I think about these provinces, the people living in it and my life.

It  had almost six (6) months of preparations and flight bookings that led my friends (Ivan, Steve, York, Jon and Vincci) and I wandering in a place that most Filipino travelers would not dare to enter due to multiple reasons; Proximity, Lack of Tourism and Security. Amongst the three, Security is the main reason why these provinces were seldom visited by tourist/travelers. We arrived at Zamboanga International Airport early morning of 12 September 2018 aboard Cebu Pacific plane and immediately boarded a tricycle to transport us to Zamboanga port area. We had a short leeway upon our arrival at the airport because we needed to catch Weesam fastcraft going to Sulu province. From Zamboanga, it took us four (4) hours until we reached Jolo. The capital of the province of Sulu.

First thing that comes in my mind whenever I hear Sulu is the famous Eat Bulaga lyrics “mula Appari hanggang Jolo”, impliedly directing that Jolo is the southernmost part of the country. But as we grow our knowledge with Philippines geography – Jolo is not the southernmost island in the country and neither does Appari as the northernmost. We were greeted by the Sulu provincial tourism lead by its head, Jean Alfad and members Mhai Amintong and Cathreena Isbarani and met some “soloista”travelers, Chris and Radi separately. Afterwards, we check in at the safest hotel accommodation in the province, Sulu Peackeepers. 

Few minutes after we check-in, we head to our first tourism destination of the day – the municipality of Talipao. Our mode of transportation was provided for by the tourism office in a form of Tamaraw FX while at the same time, accompanied by a police mobile. On our way to our destination, we happened to pass by some commotion. A huge number of locale and vehicles were stopped as we continue our transport. We thought at first that they were giving us priority on the traffic but as soon as we bypassed everyone, we were informed that a soldier was just killed. I was speechless for a moment and it slowly sinked that I am indeed in a dangerous place. An hour of traveling, we reached our destination.

Talipao is also first class municipality in Sulu, the other being Jolo. Talipao gave us their warm welcome by giving us fruits such as lansones, durian and mangostene. While eating, a couple of native Tausug performed their traditional dance called “pangalay”. The dance is somehow similar to Thailand traditional dance showcasing “fingernails” dance movements. No wonder they were religiously being awarded the Seal of Good Local Governance because they do not only provide good impression with the constituents but also to their visitors.

Traditional "Pangalay" dance

To start our Talipao itinerary, we were accompanied by locale tourism officer, Win Sur. First was the Hja Sitti Raya Mosque. Built by former local mayor Sitti Raya Tulawei for the people of Talipao and is known to be one of the most beautiful mosque in the country. I have been to many countries and places predominantly occupied by Muslims religion but this is my first time to stepped foot inside such sacred place. Win Sur also showed us local government initiatives in building local structures such as gymnasium where special events were held. And as part of tourism initiatives, they have also placed “I LOVE TALIPAO” for locals and tourist visitors. After a few minutes of strolling around Talipao proper, we went straight to Mt. Bayug Eco Cultural park.

Hja Sitti Raya Mosque

The park serves as both the location of the wooden replica of the Sultanate of Sulu palace or the Astana Darul Jambangan and a military base. The replica showcased an outstanding view of Sulu’s nearby mountains. Imagine just sitting in its balcony enjoying a hot morning coffee and having a scene of canopied coconut trees and magnificent mountain slopes. The other side of Mt. Bayug serves as a military camp. We were introduced the the head of the camp and somehow had a glipse of their life inside.

Day 1 in Sulu may have been short but municipality of Talipao definitely showed us that their place is a must visit destination in Sulu. It was a slow and steady tour on our first day but the warm reception of Talipao made our quick trip worth remembering.

The following day, we were again met by Mhai and Cath (our tourism officers) for our island hopping. As a mountaineer turned water enthusiast, this is the day I have been waiting for. Looking at the google map, one may notice series of islet within the Sulu archipelago. As a person completing the 7,641 islands (formerly 7,107 islands) in the country, I was excited to stepped foot on these islands. (this is a joke! haha)

For our day 2, we concentrated more on the municipality of Panglima Tahil, Sulu. First on our itinerary is the Marungas island at Bangas Hji, Panglima Tahil, Sulu. A small island reachable within an hour and half boat ride from Jolo proper. The island is best known in the province as the most peaceful island in Sulu with zero crime rate. There is a trail that leads to the highest point of the island. Traversing to the other side can be done in two way: stairs or zipline. On the other side of the island is where the Rahmat Dive Resort is located. Activities such as kayaking, cliff jumping and paddle boarding is possible for a minimal fee. Explore further the side of the island to see series of Mangrove and locales collecting seaweeds for distribution.

Next up is the island of Lahat Lahat. No one lives on the island as it is probably known to be the resting place/grave for the Tausog tribe. The grave area can easily be determined by a white flag pitch in the sand. Follow the trail and it will lead you to series of Tausog graves. The graves are uniquely designed based on the tribe members personality and age. The beach shore in Lahat Lahat island was not properly maintained but the sand was white and soft. Maybe because no one was living in the island to help maintain its cleanliness. But touring the beach area can still be enjoyed thru swimming.

"Soloista" Chris

Last on our itinerary was the Bubuan island. Nipa houses were built in the island shore which was perfect for relaxation and beach appreciation. We had our late buffet lunch prepared by locales of the island. Served were delicious sea urchin rice, fried fish, crabs, seaweeds, lansones and some other locale delicacies. Since this was our last island destination for the day, we had a longer time to enjoy and relax on the place.

locales who prepared our food

"Soloista" Radi

Back to the main island, we had a locale delicacy called “Knicker Bucker”. Similary to halo halo but the ingredients were natural fruits and strawberry ice cream. They were sold for a limited time and for a good cause by the students of Jolo. Since Sulu province is near the country of Malaysia, the market offers locale products of Malaysia. We made use of that advantage and bought some chocolates imported from Malaysia on a reasonable price.

It was pleasing to experience the nearby islands of Sulu. Probably my most memorable island on Day 2 would be the Lahat Lahat in terms of its uniqueness being the “island of the dead Tausog”. As Day 2 ended, we were supposed to bid goodbye to the “soloistas” we met as they will be going back to Zamboanga but in a sudden turn of events, the coast guard prohibited the sea voyage back to Zamboanga thus, the “soloista”were stranded in Sulu and decided to join us for our day 3 tour.

(Left to Right) Chris, York, Nick, Jon, Ivan, Steve, Radi, Vincci and Jowana

The next day, we waited for our police convoy to travel to our next destination as it was a must. According to the tourism office, this is the first time they will be conducting a tour on this destination. For our 3rd day, we visited the municipality of Parang, Sulu. A little over an hour of travel from Jolo is the 2nd class municipality of Parang. We registered at Brgy. Poblacion and met other locale tourism officers to tour us around the municipality.

First up was the Mangroves tour at Subah, Kannaway. Mangroves are a group of trees and shrubs that lives in the coastal intertidal zone. Amongst its benefits are protection to storm and filters pollutions by trapping it. For the tour, we were standing in a “balsa” while being transported from a knee deep water around the mangrove area. What made the experience funny was the fact that the “balsa” was good for 20 people but only 10 people fit the “balsa”. So we were laughing and screaming that anytime the “balsa” may break.


Vincci being him

Parang, Sulu tourism officers

Next was the office of  Congressman  Jericho Jonas B. Nograles whose office treated us with tons of welcome fruits and their locally manufactured water named “MAPAGMAHAL”. Magpagmahal water was produced by the hospital of Parang Sulu as an answer to the limited clean drinking water resource in their municipality. Afterwards, we rode a small boat bound to a small islet called Musasali island where “Pearl Farm” is located.

The back are of "Pearl Farm"

Pearl Farm is a privately owned and the pearls they hatch were being exported for sale, shells were also used as decoration called “Tipay” and the remainder were added as ingredients to some locale foods. Although originally from the province of Palawan, they transferred to Sulu to produce more Oyster breeding area.  We had a privilege to see the actual working area but we were a day short to examine on how they were being made. The island has one on the best water and shoreline in Sulu and we were planning to spend the rest of our time there but the locale tourism said that there is more in Parang than just the Pearl Farm.

A few minute drive from the office of Congressman Nograles was a beach considered by Parang as their pride beach, the Lakit Tumangas beach. As soon as we arrived in the area, all I can say was “Paradise Untold”. Easily one of the best beach I have been in the country and automatically in my top ten of "must be beaches". The white and soft sand, clear and clean blue water, perfectly planted coconut trees and its peacefulness all in one place. No wonder many of the police and locales who were with us said that they spend their spare time here appreciating and relaxing. What makes this beach even more interesting is its location being along the national highway of Parang, yet they still maintain its purity. The stranded “soloistas”were even glad that they were stranded and spent another day in Sulu to experience Parang.


besties Steve and Jon

After lunch, we went to a military camp to request additional assistance. We were brief on our next itinerary which was a previously occupied area and community of former rebels of the country. Yes, part of our itinerary was an interaction with former rebels and it was nerve racking! We were assisted by two big military truck and tons of military personnel. I personally chose to ride in one of the truck and mingle with the military personnel. They were really anxious on what we are doing in Sulu and what we do in Manila. I even felt uncomfortable answering their questions for it might lead to something not good.

We arrived at Barangay Guimba Lagasan, Parang Sulu and met with local communities and witnessed the crafting of “Pis Siyabit”or the traditional Tausug head wear. The price ranges from PhP500.00 to PhP5,000.00 pesos depending on its length and design. Just imagine how much it cost if it will be sold outside their community. It was authentic that you can embrace their Tausug culture just by seeing how it was done. The crafting difficulty and the materials used for making it commensurates that the items should really be sold in that price range.

While heading aboard the military truck to our next destination, I was asked again by one of the military personnel on our “mission” at Sulu. I just answered that we were here to travel and for leisure. He again questioned, why Sulu? A questioned that also made me realized why...but simply answered, “for experience”. We finally reached our last destination (according to the military personnel, although I remembered we were still going to Patikul Sulu). Mt. Tukay is a mountain in the province of Sulu is known to be a former territory occupied by rebels and this is where we met and interact with them. During our interaction, one of the surrendies named Darwin answered “Kaya ako sumuko dahil ayokong matulad sa akin ang mga anak ko. Wala na kasing patutunguhan ang laban na toh”. Darwin and other surrendies were just few of our Muslim Filipinos who where enlightened that war is not going anywhere else and the only left to do is to unite. Speaking of war, we did not proceed anymore to the municipality of Patikul because there was an encounter with alleged rebels. As the sun readies to set, it was also a signal for us to descent the mountain of Mt. Tukay and eventually bid goodbye to the province of Sulu to catch the overnight trip back to Zamboanga.

"Mr. Untold" Nick at SULU Provincial Capitol

Sulu province has so much more to offer to tourist but nevertheless, due to security, this opportunity does not transcends to the number of people visiting the province. Good thing, more and more visitors were being curious on how its like being physically in the place. Blogs and vlogs were very helpful in providing prospective tourists on what to expect at the province. 

In my opinion, Sulu province provides a unique tourism experience because of the existence of security personnel in every destination we went. For me, their existence made our trip more secured despite knowing that danger might happen anytime. The feeling of it being "untold" also contributed to the experience. Who would have thought that somewhere in the province was a beach that may be considered as one of the best Philippine beaches. And finally, the people who were with us the whole time. The tourism officers of Sulu province really made an effort to showcase how beautiful their province  was and that it should not be disregard in the tourism map of the country. Every place we have been through, we were properly guided, accommodated and lectured. They properly prepared everything they have to offer to us just to give the most exciting and memorable experience in their province. Therefore, I would not recommend a Do-It-Yourself itinerary. Coordination with the provincial tourism is strongly advised simply because of the accessibility of one tourism place to another.

So if you were going to ask me if it is safe for everyone? My answer is YES! Regardless of age, gender and nationality. But to say, 100% YES! is a different thing. I think everyone would agree that Sulu province has still a lot to work on but not in terms of tourism, but in terms of it being security.  

On the next article, we visited a province considered by many as the "most" dangerous province in the country - BASILAN!

Photo credits to:

1. Nickson Garcia
2. Chris
3. York Advento

Next article:
Basilan Province: Dangerously Beautiful

Tawi Tawi Province: Your Home Away From Home

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