Everyone was silent as our speedboat sliced through the calm waters of Celebes Sea. Under the brilliance of a full sun and unmindful of the burnt sense of my skin, I savored the eerie stillness cruising over a body of water once known as the most dangerous backwater in the world.
As the intertwining tales of volatility and journey to modern-day tranquility of the seas of Sulu and Celebes are told, a previously overlooked island takes center stage: Panampangan Island
The waters approaching Panampangan Island — what used to be a violent playground of pirate ships committing sea robbery and, during the worst of times, the sailing route of Abu Sayyaf militants preying on civilians to kidnap — is now a picture of unruffled peace.
Here’s where the story (never) ends
As the intertwining tales of volatility and journey to modern-day tranquility of the seas of Sulu and Celebes are told, a previously overlooked island takes center stage: Panampangan Island.
Panampangan Island is believed to have the longest sandbar in the Philippines. According to environment and mapping advocate Ervin Malicdem, “During low tide, the sandbar extends far out to about three kilometers to its neighboring islet, Basibuli, also in the same reef.”
More than a thousand steps separate its end-to-end tip. I must have tallied a couple of hundreds, enough to fully absorb myself to the fascinating nature that surrounded us that day. Glistening sun or not, nothing stopped me from listening to the whistling of the waves, as I felt the scorching sand granules below my bare feet.
Other than the mostly coconut trees and random shrubs, the island is almost devoid of permanent structure. Half a kilometer away, rows of stilt houses of the Badjaos erected on the shallow part of the Celebes Sea can be seen.
As I walked towards where the edge of the sandbar disappears into the deep, I encountered one of the residents. He gave me a nod while speaking something in Tausug. I could only smile at him in return.
For a few hours, we had a wonderful downtime just lounging around the island. A soothing dip into the water and a feast concluded our Panampangan trip.
I would have preferred to stay longer but those few hours were enough to give me reason to debunk the myth of traveling to this part of the Philippines as a death wish.
On my one last walk, I set down my camera and took a self-portrait — of me jumping for joy against the fantastic background of Panampangan Island.
Enigma no more
The province of Tawi-Tawi remains an enigma for most travelers. Whenever people hear about this place, some heed past reports of brazen kidnappings and insurgency battles with terror groups. On the other hand, some hail the cultural and nature wonders made more appealing by the generally friendly nature of the locals.
If one would dwell only on media reports, it would be easy to brand this province as a high security risk. Actual travel to the province and experiencing the real situation, however, stirs a totally different insight.
Look no further than Brillante Mendoza’s film Thy Womb, or read some of the travel narratives written by many Filipino travel bloggers who have explored this province. By learning more about the human and cultural elements of the province, it becomes easy to erase the preconceived notion that Tawi-Tawi is a war-torn place.
For now, tourists are encouraged to register at the Tawi-tawi’s Provincial Tourism Office in order to be guided properly upon arriving at the island. For travelers coming from Zamboanga City, iTravel Tourist Lane can help you arrange your trip.