Conflict may have shrouded the province of Sulu in a cloud of mystery, but pristine beaches, awe-inspiring wildlife, and a rich culture await those brave enough to explore its islands
Rest and relaxation…at a risk
A fisherman told me to snorkel past the village jetty to admire an extensive growth of coral that he said looked like “big plates.” But the table coral was more impressive than described, descending towards the drop-off like the undersea counterpart of Balinese rice terraces.
As I made my way across the vibrant reef, schools of purple-eyed cardinalfish peered from their underwater patios, while countless blue-green chromis zigzagged through their refuge of labyrinthine tree-like coral. Occasionally, a shy Moorish idol or a yellow butterflyfish would grace the remarkable scenery with striped elegance, before ducking behind a bulbous head of coral.
The buzzing sound of a passing jungkung (a wooden hulled boat) prompted me to surface. I removed my mask and snorkel and treaded in the calm, turquoise water. A white sand beach lay before me, with rows of coconut trees interrupted only by a single seemingly abandoned hut on stilts.
I had the impression that this beach wouldn’t be out of place in Palawan or Bohol, until I noticed a man in military fatigues, armed with an M-16, watching over me from the hut’s doorway. A small pale yellow mosque beneath the coconuts called out afternoon prayers. This was definitely not another tropical holiday in the Philippines.
I was in Sulu—the archipelagic province that stretches halfway between Mindanao and Borneo. To ensure my safety, four Marine escorts had to accompany me during my visit to the Hadji Panglima Tahil islands, a municipality that is a 20-minute boat ride away from the provincial capital of Jolo.
Unfortunately, centuries of socio-political violence (and in more recent decades, armed conflict and kidnappings) have scarred this paradise. The very few tourists who do make it here must take extra precautions when exploring the islands. My security detail to Hadji Panglima Tahil (relatively the most peaceful among the 19 municipalities) wasn’t as large as the one that toured us around Maimbung, a southern town formerly occupied by Abu Sayyaf bandits. Fourteen Marines escorted us aboard a 25-foot speedboat around Maimbung Bay.
Yet it was here that we first recognized the natural wealth of Sulu.
The Bualu Bat Sanctuary was an impressive refuge for large flying foxes, one of the largest bat species, with wingspans that can reach more than four feet! We also visited the virgin white-sand island of Teomabal and the governor’s private resort, built on stilts over the coral-fringed sandbars of the Takut Islets. The scene was so relaxing that one could be tempted to sit down and do nothing for hours.
But the islands of Hadji Panglima Tahil offered more—the atoll-like islands are ringed with beaches and covered with saltwater marshes and lagoons in the middle. The villagers build their homes on stilts at the edge of the islands over tidal flats and sandbanks, while rickety footbridges link the communities together.
Most notably, the stilted walkway connecting Sitio Likud to the town center of Bangas on Marungas Island is a whopping 800 meters long—that’s more than twice the length of what is dubbed “the longest wooden footbridge in the country” in Surigao del Norte.
A rich heritage
The natural bounty of Sulu is undeniable, but what truly sets these islands apart is its Malay-Islamic heritage and culture. “The history of Sulu is very rich,” says provincial tourism officer Jainab Abdulmajid, adding that its narratives are full of the struggles involved in trying to preserve its traditions and protect its territory. “The Tausugs (the dominant Moro ethnic group of the islands) are proud that our land was never conquered by any colonizers.”
You can start your immersion in Sulu’s unique heritage and culture at a branch of the National Museum in Patikul. It provides an ideal overview of the history and culture of Sulu. Of particular interest were royal clothes, weaponry, and musical instruments (such as the agong and kulintang) of the brave Tausug; a wooden lepa (the traditional houseboat of the seafaring Samal-Badjao); and ceramic artifacts unearthed across the province, reminders of the flourishing trade between the Sulu archipelago and China that began in the 13th century.
But before that, in the 12th century, Muslim traders and Arabian and Persian missionaries arrived in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago through Sumatra, Indonesia. In 1380, Arab missionary Karim ul-Mahkdum reinforced the practice of Islam among the first Muslim settlers in Sulu, establishing the foundation for the political rule of his successor, Rajah Baguinda from 1390 to 1460. One may visit his final resting place under a tall balete at the Rajah Baguinda Shrine at Camp Bud Datu in Indanan.
Later, Sayyid Abu Bakr Abirin, an Arab explorer and religious scholar from Johor in present-day Malaysia, married Baguinda’s daughter and settled in Sulu, establishing himself as the first ruler of the Sultanate of Sulu, which reigned through a succession of descendants until 1915.
The Islamic faith influenced the arts and culture of the islands. The best examples of Islamic architecture are the gold-domed Sulu Provincial Capitol in Patikul, and Masjid Tulay, the largest mosque in the province, which lords over the town of Jolo with its four towering minarets.
As fierce warriors and pirates, the Tausug people were renowned for their weaponry. Swordsmiths in Jolo still continue the labor-intensive forging of traditional weapons like the kali and the leaf-shaped barong. During their brief occupations, Spanish and American fortifications had to be built in the capital against sword-wielding Tausug warriors who fiercely defended their independence.
Today, the urbanization of the capital has swallowed up the remnants of colonial occupation like watchtowers, lighthouses, and brick wall ruins.
Keeping it alive
On the other hand, pre-Islamic traditions such as pangalay dances and pis handloom weaving of the Tausug continue to be practiced. At Notre Dame of Jolo College, one can arrange for cultural performances by the Ingat Kapandayan dance troupe.
During our visit, the group performed four variations of the pangalay, a traditional celebratory Tausug dance characterized by elaborate body postures and graceful arm movements, accentuated by metal fingernails or janggay worn by the dancers. Rooted in the Buddhist concept of biddadari or celestial angels, the origins of this exotic dance predate the arrival of Islam.
The college is also a great place to shop for native handicrafts such as handbags, wallets, and decor made with pis siyabit, a traditional hand-woven cloth with colorful geometric designs customarily worn as headgear by men. Pis textiles are woven at home in remote villages outside Jolo, like the floating village at Maimbung town center, where we were able to see up close how the festive fabric is meticulously woven using native handlooms. Fortunately, the tradition of pis weaving is carried on by younger generations.
By far my favorite part of the trip was admiring majestic panoramic sunrises! There’s a magical quality to how the day breaks in Sulu. In the town of Talipao, I spent three nights at a magnificent wooden life-sized replica of the Astana Darul Jambangan—the centerpiece atop the Mt. Bayug Eco-Cultural Park—waking up each morning to spectacular sunrises breaking across the landscape. The morning mist unravels across an endless canopy of coconut groves and rainforest punctuated by the volcanic peaks of Jolo Island, the sunlight permeating in shifting tints of rose and honey like a watercolor painting come alive.
Besides battling lawlessness, I realized the critical role the military plays in engendering a climate of peace and prosperity. The reconstruction of the sultanate’s royal residence from 1876 to 1932, which took nine months last year, was the brainchild of Lt. Col. Romulo Quemado II (former commanding officer of Marine Battalion Landing Team 2), who has been lauded for his peace support initiatives.
“The Astana Project is part of the Marines’ effort to promote eco-cultural tourism in the province,” he explains, “Internally, it serves as a tangible symbol of how the Armed Forces of the Philippines appreciate the rich but forgotten history of the Sultanate of the Sulu.” By reviving customs and practices that reflect the local heritage, Lt. Col. Quemado hopes to leave behind “the legacy of fomenting genuine relations between cultures as the ultimate ingredient to sustainable peace in Mindanao.”
From its underwater marvels and lush volcanic peaks to its royal heritage and exotic artistry, Sulu should be an overwhelming source of pride not only for its inhabitants but also for all Filipinos. As an eco-cultural treasure waiting to be unraveled when peace and order finally prevails, these southern isles are perhaps the country’s most fiercely guarded secret.