Sibutu town proper
Literally the farthest south of the Philippine archipelago, Sibutu is almost as close – or as far – to Sabah as it is to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi’s capital, when you look at its northern tip on the map. In fact, the then-mayor at the time of my visit would regularly go to Malaysia, which is less than an hour by jet ski.
As the country’s southernmost municipality, it is not exactly easy to get to. Two flights (first to Zamboanga City, then to Bongao in Tawi-Tawi), a tricycle to a pier where boats’ trips and schedules are not at all advertised and can even change, and a three-hour or more lancha (a ship made of wood) took me and my travel companion then to Sibutu, but not without difficulty. We asked around at the Chinese Pier well in advance and on the day before our departure to check the schedules, only to find out on the morning of our trip that the lancha to Sibutu town proper had left much earlier, and the next trip would leave two days after. Thankfully, there was another lancha that noon for Sibutu, but the locals know the trip as Tandu Banak, not Sibutu, as it docks at Tandu Banak port at the south of Sibutu – hence, the confusion. By happy coincidence, Tandu Banak was actually closer to the place where we would be staying.
Approaching Tandu Banak port, Sibutu
For a municipality that is remote and whose name is likely unheard of by many, Sibutu has a population of over 28,000 as of the latest census, and land covering 109 square kilometers. Here, Christians are the minority and live in peace with their Muslim brothers and sisters.
But for a remote area, Sibutu is surprisingly connected – and is arguably the connector – to Tawi-Tawi’s other islands, as Sibutu is known in the province as the land of boat builders. It is highly likely that the lancha I rode to Sibutu was also built there.
Unfinished and finished boats occasionally punctuate Sibutu’s coast.
The Sama Sibutu’s skills with wood for boat building also extend to woodcarving and crafting, especially in carving okir, angular and flowing designs usually found in Maranao and Muslim art and architecture. We were not able to see a woodcarver at work during our short visit, though.
As the lancha my travel companion and I rode approached the island, we watched thick palm trees, white sand, and wooden stilt houses come into view. We waited for at least an hour for the tide to rise before the lancha was able to dock at Tandu Banak port. While waiting, I watched locals in tiririts (small boats with motors) and paddle boats sail around the shore.
While waiting for the tide to rise so we could dock, we saw locals paddling around the island.
A friendly passenger and the town’s administrator walked us to the then-mayor’s house (one of his sons succeeded him in this year’s elections) and there, his staff Kuya Ttong and Kuya Hussein, and his son, Hadji Nonong, welcomed us and fed us a simple yet delicious seafood dinner, and later, Sibutu’s sweet buko pie. There are no inns, pension houses, or accommodations in Sibutu, so the Tawi-Tawi Tourism Office had advised us to stay at the mayor’s house.
Our first meal at Sibutu
Sibutu’s buko pie (coconut pie) has a sweet coconut center and a crust that is soft like bread.
The island had a deep, encompassing silence at night and in the morning, a silence that invites you to dive in and surround yourself with. At dawn, we walked near the port to catch the sunrise, possibly one of the most tranquil sunrises in an inhabited town in the Philippines.
A tranquil sunrise at the country’s southernmost municipality
We saw locals paddling boats heaping with their seaweed harvest, and Kuya Nonong also showed us fish ponds, as aside from seaweed farming, mariculture is one of Sibutu’s livelihoods.
A seaweed farmer with his harvest
These mameng in fish ponds fetch for a hefty price when exported
Even as the island fully woke up, the distinct quiet remains, with no shouts or disruptive noises. Occasionally, there was only the rumble of motorbikes. The silence may also be due to the absence of electricity during the day, as electricity only runs 5 pm to 12 midnight in Sibutu, though some houses like the then-mayor’s have solar panels.
Tandu Banak at late morning
A cow sleeps in content amid the quiet.
After another seafood breakfast, Kuya Ttong and Kuya Hussein drove us around the island, taking us to one of the island’s bigger mosques (more known as masjids among Muslims, their places of worship), and also to the believed burial ground of Sheik Karim al Makhdum (also spelled Makdum), the missionary who first brought Islam to the Philippines. (In my visit to Simunul, though, the birthplace of Islam in the Philippines, locals there also showed me the burial ground of this missionary, so there is no consensus where the actual burial ground is).
Tandu Banak mosque
These arched structures were built to honor Sheik Karim al Makhdum, the missionary who first brought Islam to the Philippines, and believed to be buried here.
As we rode along the narrow roads from the south to the north of the island, I noted the abundant coconut palm trees almost hiding the beach on the right and the thick shrubs and trees on the left. The island appears to have a rich forest. Kuya Ttong said that occasionally they spot wild boars there.
I lost track of the number of times we stopped on different beaches to walk and dip our toes. On either side, the shore seems to stretch on forever. It understandably looks that way as the eastern side of Sibutu spans almost 40 kilometers, much of it white sand. The sand was grainy but just perfect for barefoot walking. We were the only people that day in all the beaches we went to.
Look to the left and the beach seems to stretch to infinity…
…and to the right, too.
Sibutu’s beaches are grainy but soft enough for bare feet.
No child swinging here during our visit
In between our beach trips we stopped at a deep swimming hole locally known as Kaban-Kaban. The dark pool is beautifully but eerily quiet, and Kuya Ttong mentioned that the place is believed to be enchanted. Locals here usually take a dip to cool their bodies during summer.
Kaban-Kaban is a deep, mysterious swimming hole.
Its beautiful waters are dark and deep.
Finally, we reached Sibutu town proper, where lanchas from Bongao also dock. We watched men fishing, snorkeling, paddling boats, or simply waiting and staring out into the sea.
A quiet moment at Sibutu port
Children looking down curiously at a man snorkeling in the waters
Sibutu’s municipal hall has a simple architecture but is built on wide green grass where goats roam. Other buildings like the police office are also built in this wide expanse.
Sibutu’s municipal hall
That noon, we drove back to Tandu Banak to have lunch and to walk around a little, noting the Malaysian products in sari-sari stores, before heading farther south to Tandu Owak, where we would ride a tiririt to Saluag, the southernmost island of the Philippines, still part of Sibutu (details on a future blog post).
Products from Malaysia like Maggi Kari are widely available in Sibutu’s sari-sari stores.
Tandu Owak’s stilt houses
While Sibutu has no jaw-dropping, picturesque sites unlike in the country’s popular tourism spots, it has a stark and raw beauty in its quiet white beaches, thick forests, green landscapes, and simply designed houses, buildings and mosques. It has people living peacefully and working faithfully off the island’s bounty. And there is a peace and quiet that falls on and envelops the entire island, a peace that easily draws visitors like me in.
And with Sama Sibutus’ life close to both the Philippines and Malaysia – sometimes, it feels even much closer to the latter – it is Manila and Luzon’s world and politics that now seem remote and otherworldly.
How to get there: Take a flight to Zamboanga City, then a flight to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. (Alternatively, you can also take a boat to Bongao from Zamboanga City.) From Bongao airport, take a tricycle to the Chinese Pier (around 30 minutes or more). From Chinese Pier, take a lancha to Sibutu (3 hours or more trip). Trips to Sibutu town proper and Tandu Banak are usually Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning. Ask the locals in the pier ahead of time (we asked the Philippine Marines stationed there). Since there are no daily trips, you will have to stay overnight at Sibutu when you get there. Coordinate with the Tawi-Tawi Tourism Office before going. Current tourism officer is Salvacion Pescadera (+63910-6716367).