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Passage to the South: Zamboanga, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi

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Author's Note: This article uses virtual reality technology to provide an immersive experience. Click the images to view the 360-degree VRs. Adobe Flash 10 or higher is required. Average VR size is 1.8Mb each.

"Pink sand beaches you say?"

Indeed! Welcome to the Sta. Cruz Islands off the coast of Zamboanga City. These 2 pink sand islands, a rarity in the Philippines, are located about 30 minutes away via pump boats. The pinkness is the result of white sands mixed with the powder remains of red corals that are abundant in the area.

The bigger of the two, Greater Sta. Cruz Island, is usually where the tourists go. Generally private depending on the season, the beach is ideal for swimming with its gently sloping terrain and crystal clear waters. There are no developments in the island, so be sure to bring food and water for the duration of your trip. Public restrooms are available, as well as cooking and washing areas. Behind the beach lies a thick mangrove forest and on the eastern side lies hidden, a graveyard dedicated to the Sama people (boat builders and seafarers).

The Little Sta. Cruz Island houses a light tower being tended by a fishing family and is usually off-limits to tourists. It also has an extensive mangrove area and a site for migratory birds.

Being one of the important trading ports before and after the coming of the Spaniards, galleons and ships laden with precious cargoes like spices, silk, chinas and the likes, sailed from Zamboanga towards mainland Asia and Europe. It is said that after a storm, one can still find pieces of porcelain tossed up from the sea-bottom scattered along the beach; remains that dated back to the once glorious days of the galleon trade.

Before visiting the islands, you need to register with the local tourism office located near the Paseo de Mar seaside strip. The tourism office will then assign a tourist police to accompany you; this is of course to ensure your security and well being.

Another attraction of Zamboanga City is Fort Pilar. Built under the directive of Gov. Gen Juan Antonio dela Torre Bustamante in 1718 primary for coastal defense and as a staging area, it is presently converted into a museum that showcases Zamboanga's rich cultural history.

As night falls, Paseo de Mar, that stretch of seaside boulevard, is transformed from a quite park into a bustling hang-out complete with lights, music, food, and yes, beers.

A visit to Zamboanga won't be complete without savoring the sweetness of lanzones, mangosteen, and the equally smelly but tasty durians.

The Island of Sulu

Mentioned Sulu or its capital of Jolo to anyone and the thoughts that came immediately are the Muslim rebels and the terrorists group Abu Sayyaf, the "war" in Mindanao, the kidnappings, the bombings, and the suppose rich deposits of oil and gas.

But beneath the negative perception of the island, its history was one as colorful as the vinta sails that ply the Sulu Sea.

The advent of Islam around 1138 saw the exodus of Arabs, Persians, and other Muslims into Mindanao; it paved the way for the arrival of religious missionaries, traders, scholars and travelers to Sulu. In 1380, Karim-ul-Mahkdum, an Arab religious missionary and learned judge, reinforced the Islamic foundation of Rajah Baguinda's polity (1390-1460) and that of the Sultanate of Sayid Abubakar, princely scholar from Arabia who married Paramisuli, the daughter of Rajah Baguinda. Sayid Abubakar eventually inherited the rule of Rajah Baguinda, established the Sultanate and became the first Sultan of Sulu. To consolidate his rule, Sayid Abubakar united the local political units under the umbrella of the Sultanate. He brought Sulu, Zamboanga Peninsula, Palawan and Basilan under its aegis. Later in 1704, Sabah was added to the constellation as a quid pro quo for the Sultan's help in quelling the Brunei civil war which had been raging for decades.

As early as the 16th Century, expeditions against the sultanate were launched by Spain in order to control the lucrative trade routes as well as to curb slave raiding. From then on, there were all in all 16 military campaigns against Jolo, five resulting in occupation and all except the last were short-lived. For more than three centuries, the Spaniards had held Jolo for a short period of three decades due to the resolve of the Joloanos that resisted Spanish intrusions.

Today, the island of Sulu is still embroiled in a fog of war between government forces and the rebel faction. The once mighty sultanate has been slowly eroded by the dynamics of geopolitics and economic interests. Progress has been slow, development come in tickles. It is one of the few places that peace and order are achieved under the barrel of a gun.

Emerald Islands of Tawi-Tawi

Tawi-Tawi is the southernmost province of the Philippines. Comprising of 107 islands and islets, it included the islands of Simunul, Sibutu, Sitangkai, Mapun, and the fabled Turtle Islands near the borders of Sandakan in North Borneo. Tawi-Tawi is home to the Sama, Badjao, Tausog and other close cultural groups. Majority of the islands are covered in thick vegetations, these lush green foliage gave the islands its emerald meaning.

Tawi-Tawi was previously part of the province of Sulu. On September 11, 1973, under Presidential Decree No. 302, the new province of Tawi-Tawi was officially created, with Bongao as its capital.

The name of Tawi-Tawi is a projection of the Malay word "jaui" meaning "far." Prehistoric travelers from the Asian mainland would repeat the word as "jaui-jaui" to mean "far away" because of the distance of the islands from the continent of Asia. The word "Tawi-Tawi" was picked up to later become the official name of the province.

Compare to Jolo, Bongao is relatively peaceful and secure. There is commerce in the capital, familiar banks have their presence, telecommunication facilities are stable, education is more widespread, there's the newly constructed airport runway in Sanga-Sanga, and people are generally in a happier disposition.

Towering at about 370m above sea level, Bud Bongao or Bongao Peak as it is popularly called, is the tallest and easily recognizable point in Tawi-Tawi. It takes about an hour's trek to the summit and back. Apart from the spectacular view of Bongao and the nearby coast from above, halfway along the path you'll get to interact with monkeys! These primates would swing from branches and wires and expect to be given bananas by the trekkers. You can either hand it or throw it for the monkeys to catch. Old saying goes that for your wish to come true, you will need to whisper it into a plastic bag and tie it among the branches near the peak. A trip to Tawi-Tawi is not complete without conquering Bongao Peak.

The islands of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi are often referred to as the country's "backdoor" and connotes a lot of negativity. My sincere belief is, with sustainable effort in tourism development, modern agriculture, better education, and enhanced peace and order; we can make these provinces as the Philippines' "frontdoor" and partake the benefits for economic growth as well as understanding and tolerance between cultures and religions.

All VRs taken from July 30 to August 11, 2010 as part of the Balangay Voyage's last Philippine leg journey. Reference source: www.wikipedia.org. The author can be reached at: fung@firefly.ph

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This page contains a single entry by Fung Yu published on September 12, 2010 12:28 PM.

Balangays: Raiders of the Sulu Sea was the previous entry in this blog.

Aboard the Galleon Andalucia is the next entry in this blog.

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