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After being stranded for several days in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi due to unfavorable sea conditions with the balangay boats; the weather finally improved and allowed us to sail to the island of Simunul.
Simunul is a 4th class municipality of Tawi-Tawi. Situated at some 1,000 kilometers south of Manila, it is home to a predominantly Muslim population belonging to the Sama tribe. The first Muslims in the Philippines are said to have arrived in Simunul and introduced Islam to the country 629 years ago.
The first mosque in the Philippines was built in 1380 by an Arab trader Makhdum Karim. It is now known as the Sheik Karimal Makdum Mosque. The original four wood columns of the mosque still stand inside and are repainted every year. Sheik Makdum’s tomb is located beside the mosque.
The principal livelihood of the people apart from fishing is “agar-agar” or seaweed farming.
Island of Sibutu
Located 41 kilometers southwest of Tawi-Tawi, Sibutu is also home to the Sama people; skilled seafarers and boat builders of pre-colonial time.
With strong ties to the sea, most inhabitants live near the shores in concrete houses that have backyards made of stilts that extent out to the sea. Fishing and seaweed farming remain the primary source of income while boat building skills are employ by a select few.
One sad note on the island is the practice of dynamite fishing as evidenced by the damage corals beneath the waters. Clearly education on sustainable fishing methods is needed in order not only to preserve the community’s way of life but the fragile marine ecosystem as well.
Venice of the Philippines
Sitangkai is the southernmost municipality of the Philippines. With a distance of 1,100 kilometers from Manila, it is the last main island of the country (the southernmost island is Siluag near the southern tip of Sibutu). Geographically nearer to North Borneo, majority of the island’s basic needs are Malaysian in origin.
Called as the “Venice of the Philippines,” houses are connected by stilt footbridges and boats as the primary mode of transportation; the people lead an idyllic life with fishing and dried marine products as sources of livelihood.
With an average elevation of 1 meter above sea level, getting to the “water world” of Sitangkai is an adventure in itself. Upon docking in the main seaport, one has to take a ‘temper,’ long flat-bottom boat suitable for shallow water, into Sitangkai. The 30 minute ride cut across extremely shallow sand bars that you often have to get out of the boat and assist in pushing. During low tide, people actually walk in getting to their destinations.
Simunul, Sibutu and Sitangkai are relatively peaceful islands in the south. They can be reached from Bongao, Tawi-Tawi as daily trips (weather permitting) depart from the “Chinese Pier.” They also have great potentials for tourism development as part of the country’s historical and cultural interests.