Philippines // Mindanao //

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.