Potentially one of the most beguiling areas of the Philippines, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is a patchwork of several predominantly Muslim provinces in the western part of the island. Created in 1989, the regional government (based in Cotabato), has the power to levy taxes and apply Shariah law to Muslims. Despite this autonomy, the region remains extremely poor and the epicentre for anti-government protest – Philippine Tourism authorities, most Filipinos (and the US, UK and Australian governments) usually advise foreigners to avoid the region.
The situation on the ground is less clear-cut. Actual incidents are rare, but those that do occur often end in tragedy. Kidnapping is still a lucrative business on the island of Basilan, the northernmost island in the Sulu chain, and if any unequivocal recommendation can be given it is that you shouldn’t go there.
It’s best to seek the advice of the local tourism office before visiting any of the following locations, and where possible, to arrange a local guide when travelling. Avoid travelling at night altogether.Read More
Marawi and Lake Lanao
Marawi and Lake Lanao
Nestled on the shores of Lake Lanao just 25km south of Iligan, MARAWI is the centre of the Islamic religion in the Philippines: 92 percent of the population is Muslim. During the Marcos years, the area around Marawi was where kidnappers were said to hide their victims, but these days the city is generally peaceful, with incidents related to the fight for Muslim autonomy exceedingly rare; visiting with a driver and a guide is still recommended, however (contact Iligan tourist office).
Marawi’s greatest natural attraction is placid Lake Lanao, which sits in a green bowl circled by distant mountains. It’s the second largest lake in the Philippines and easy to explore via a circumferential road; there are said to be some 350 mosques ringing the lake and it’s the best place to see striking torogans, the traditional wooden homes of Marawi’s upper class.
Marawi has no tourist office, but the staff at the Marawi Resort Hotel (t063/520-981; P500–999), on the Mindanao State University campus (which has the best views of the lake), have good local knowledge. It’s also the best place to stay in the area, a quiet establishment surrounded by greenery with a good choice of well-maintained rooms. Also on the campus is the Aga Kahn Museum, which has an interesting collection of Moro art from Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan. The palitan is a two-storey market in the heart of the city where you can find virtually any type of clothing, from jeans to traditional tribal garments, colourful raw cloth and batik products, gold jewellery, exquisite wooden chests and brassware, manufactured in the nearby barangay of Tugaya. The city’s annual festival is the Kalilang (April 10–15), which is dominated by Koran-reading competitions and traditional singing and dancing.
The Sulu archipelago
The Sulu archipelago
Despite boasting some of the most unspoiled beaches in Asia, the volcanic Sulu archipelago is undiscovered country in tourist terms, and even Filipino tourists rarely come here. Much of the island chain has a well-deserved reputation for lawlessness and violence, so you need to coordinate very carefully with the tourist office in Zamboanga before heading south. At the time of writing only Tawi-Tawi was considered safe to visit. The archipelago actually comprises around 870 islands off southwest Mindanao, covering an area of 2700 square kilometres from Basilan in the north to Borneo in the south, and is home to a surprisingly large population of around twelve million. Access is either by ferry from Zamboanga (to Jolo; 1 daily; 12hr) or on an Airphil Express flight from Zamboanga to Jolo (3 times weekly; 40min) and Tawi-Tawi (1 daily; 1hr).
At the southern end of the peninsula lies the island of Tawi-Tawi, whose busy little capital BONGAO is a commercial fishing centre. From Sanga-Sanga Airport just outside Bongao there are jeepneys into town for P10. There are several cheap hotels in Bongao, one of the better ones being the Beachside Inn (t068/268-1446; P500–999), on the outskirts near the beach, which has singles, doubles (with a/c and TV) and a decent restaurant.
Bongao Peak is a ten-minute walk inland from the town and a fairly easy climb. The peak holds mystical powers for the locals, and villagers take sick people to the top to offer prayers. Don’t forget to buy some bananas at the market to take on your hike up the mountain – macaques guard the trail and bananas are your currency with them. From the top, 300m above sea level, you can see all of Bongao and the surrounding islands. It’s also fun to poke around the market near the pier, known as the Chinese market, where you can buy herbs, baskets, traditional hats, prayer mats, scarves and batik clothes. Local delicacies on sale here include turtles’ eggs and tarrang bulan, pancakes sprinkled with peanuts.