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Bongao, Tawi-Tawi




Traveling to Tawi-Tawi had been sent to the back burner for years due to news about kidnappings and unrest on that part of the Philippine Archipelago. But this plan resurrected when a friend registered for the 2nd Bongao Ultramarathon. I asked the help of a friend to book my accommodation as I had absolutely no idea of what kind of accommodation they had "out there". :)

The plan was simple:

1. fly to Bongao and go around town to see what's what;
2. support my friend's run;
3. climb Bud Bongao and feed the monkeys; and
4. step on the country's longest sandbar

:) check,check, check and check!!!


My friends and I flew in from Zamboanga to Bongao's Sanga-Sanga airport on the early Cebu Pacific flight to be met by a colorful group of traditional dancers. We arrived in time for the opening of the Tourist Assistance Office located right outside the airport. The mayor himself was there and an Imam offered prayers before the ribbon cutting. What a nice way to start our Bongao Adventure. After a little bit of taking pictures and talking with our guide from Layag Tawi-Tawi Tour Services, we proceeded to our hotel, Rachel's Place Hotel & Restaurant, located right in the center of town.

We were kept busy trying to cram as much experience as we can during our short stay in Bongao. Having engaged the services of Layag Tours made our trip easy to manage and made the most of time we had available to us. I would suggest that if you only have limited time, to do the same thing as we did. Wadz Ali, our guide from Layag Tours was a fount of information and since he was a local, we had an easy time traversing the otherwise thorny landscape that was the community of the Bajau.

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We left our hotel a quarter before 6:00 a.m. to climb Bud Bongao, Tawi-Tawi's prayer mountain and considered to be a must climb for all locals. It has a well-established path up and the 3,000+++ steps are a mix of concrete and stone. The vegetation is lush and at some points the trees form a canopy above the hikers' heads. We bought bananas from the public market the day before so we can have something for the monkeys.

It is said that you are not a true local if you haven't been to the peak of Bud Bongao. It is a tradition for residents to take the new addition to their families up to the peak of Bud Bongao. A lot of locals climb the Bud early in the morning to pray in the shrines located at the peak. They usually bring packed lunch and stay to relax among the trees and on the Rest Area overlooking Bongao town and the waters surrounding the island.

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We had a grand time going around town and taking photographs of places that piqued our interest. Panampangan (purported to the the longest sandbar in the Philippines) was a revelation. I only wished we could have stayed longer to explore. Sadly there is no overnight accommodation available on the island.


At the end of the 2 nights and three days Bongao Trip I accomplished everything I set out to do and learned a lot about Bongao and its people!!! I only wish I could spend more time there. I know that I barely scraped the surface of what Tawi-Tawi has to offer visitors. But this means that I have to make another plan to visit it again. :)



There are no direct flights to Bongao from Manila right now. So from Manila you'll have take a plane to Zamboanga City then take another flight to Bongao. Upon arrival at the Bongao Airport, you can take a tricycle to the town center. Some hotels have airport service but you'll have to pay extra.

On Bongao, I found that riding a tricycle is good enough to get around the town. But if you plan to visit some more interesting places you can either rent a car or jeepney to take you around. Renting a vehicle there is kinda pricey due to the cost of fuel.



Was the trip worth the effort? YES!!!
Would I do it again? YES!!!
Would I recommend it to friends? YES!!!

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Posted by neena329_cab 01:08 Archived in Philippines Tagged food hiking beach sand holiday bar tour climbing fruits traveling roadtrip tribal bongao tawi-tawi Comments (0)

Kalinga 2


Sunrise over Padjao Rice Terraces

Sunrise over Padjao Rice Terraces

Awichon on "fire" aka Sunrise surprise!

Awichon on "fire" aka Sunrise surprise!

After I wrote about my Kalinga travel experience here, I got a lot of questions about how long my trip was and how much it cost me. So I decided to do another blog to give some details as to the itinerary, cost and other information about this solo travel. I hope this will help you plan your own trip.


My pet

My pet

8:00 PM depart Manila for Tabuk

7:00 AM Arrive Tabuk
Breakfast while waiting for jeepney/bus
8:00 AM Ride a jeep/bus for Tinglayan
12:00 NN Arrival in Bugnay
Ride a habal-habal for Turning Point
Meet your guide, Register and pay the fees
Trek up to Buscalan
1230 PM Arrival in Buscalan, find homestay
1:30 PM Free time, tattoo session, buy tokens from local artisans
6:00 PM Dinner

5:30AM see sunrise in Padjao Rice Terraces
6:30 AM Breakfast
7:00 AM Trek back to Turning Point
Ride a habal-habal back to Bugnay
8:30AM Catch a jeep/bus for Tabuk

Mothers multi-tasking

Mothers multi-tasking

11:30 AM Get Off at Lubuagan Municipal hall
Quick stroll around Lubuagan to take photos of the old houses
Ride a habal-habal to Awichon
Check in @Awichon and talk with Mr. & Mrs. Saclag
Explore Awichon

5:30 a.m. Wake up to take photos of the surrounding of Awichon
8:00 a.m. Get into costume; have photos taken with Ma’am Rebecca
9:00 a.m. Travel back to Tabuk
Explore Tabuk
5:00 p.m. Get on the bus back to Manila (dinner on the way back)

This is just a sample itinerary. Since my trip to Kalinga I have time to rethink the itinerary I posted above. It would have been better to have done: Manila - Tabuk - Lubuagan (Awichon) - Tinglayan (Buscalan) - Bontoc - Baguio - Manila. The revised route will save you time because it will be straight route and no switch backs like my itinerary. Even more less time consuming in terms of travel time is for you to fly in from Manila to Tuguegarao, Cagayan (40minutes), then take a van to Tabuk (2 hrs) then Lubuagan (Awichon) - Tinglayan (Buscalan), back to Tabuk and on to Tuguegarao. The time posted in the sample itinerary above is very tentative. You have to make room for delays caused by vehicle breakdown, unscheduled rest stops, and road accidents.

Trail up to Awichon

Trail up to Awichon


Here is an itemized costing of my budget for this travel:
1. Bus fare from Victory Cubao -- (Manila- Tabuk- Manila) - P830/way
2. Trike fare from Victory Tabuk to bus station for Bontoc - P10/way
3. Bus fare Tabuk to Bugnay - P150/way
4. Habal-habal - Bugnay to Turning point - P150/pax
5. Guide fee (Buscalan) - P1,000/group of 5 -- this was the single biggest cost for me in this trip as I did not bother to look for anyone to split the cost with. If you want to save some money and you are alone you can try and get other solo travelers you meet on the bus to Tabuk or at Bugnay to split the cost of the guide with you.
6. Homestay (Buscalan) - P300/night
7. Environmental fee - P75/pax
8. Breakfast - P50/pax
9. Dinner - P200/pax
10. Picture with Whang-Od - P50
11. 1 liter bottled water - P50
12. Bus fare from Bugnay to Lubuagan Municipal Hall - P80/pax
13. Habal-habal to Awichon from Lubuagan Town - P300/way.
But by hindsight I should have paid more! I am such a skinflint!!! That is the difficulty when the other person not being upfront about the cost of his/her services!!!
14. Entrance to Awichon - P50/pax
15. Accomodation in Awichon - P500/pax
16. Van fare from Lubuagan to Tabuk - P80/pax
17. Tri-cut GLOBE SIM - P40

Note: This list does not include lunch since I brought bread, cheese, trail food and some bananas with me and somebody always seem to offer me a cup of hot brewed Kalinga coffee. That saved me some PPP . Having said that, I saw that lunch on the roadside carinderias (which seem to be the stop for PUBs) costs anywhere between P80/120.

On the trail back to Turning Point

On the trail back to Turning Point


Buscalan - Gaspar Laguinday CP No. 0999 180 5012 (Smart)
Kuya Gaspar is a guide and he owns a homestay which is located right on the Padjao Rice Terraces. You can watch sunrise while lying down on the 2nd storey balcony of the homestay or walk a few minutes to stand in the middle of the rice paddies.

Awichon - Rebecca Saclag CP No. 0948 540 9407 (Talk n Text) Smart

Dionica Alyssa Legasi Mercado 09052475300
Kalinga Provincial Tourism Officer

Jhonny Tiggangay 09152837885
Tinglayan Tourism Officer

It might make you antsy not to get instant response when you use those numbers I posted above. :) Please be patient as the signal for both Smart and Globe are chancy at best up in the mountains (read: Buscalan and Awichon). So if you are preparing for your trip, do give some block of time to the delay in communicating with the folks up in Kalinga.
:P If you cannot afford to be out of touch from your loved ones or work for a few hours/days, then you might have to rethink your Kalinga trip.

From experience, Kuya Gaspar's homestay is located right where one can get a signal from Globe but Smart signal is non-existent. In contrast, I was able to use both my Globe and Smart providers up in Awichon. Globe has stronger and more consistent signal though. Tabuk has good quality signals for both major service providers.

All in all, being off the grid for a few days is very liberating but it does limit your chances to brag about how great a time you are having up in the mountains! Hahahaha!

Western music with a flip: Guitar and native drum, "God must have been a cowboy"

Western music with a flip: Guitar and native drum, "God must have been a cowboy"

Posted by neena329_cab 15:27 Archived in Philippines Tagged food hiking travel native adventure roads accomodation music love budget transportation living dirt tattoo daily huts planning tribal wars solo treasures kalinga cordilleras whang-od Comments (0)




For this trip I had a list of things that I wanted to do:

1. Visit Whang-Od, the century old traditional Tattooist of Kalinga.
2. Visit Alonzo Saclag, Sr., the National Living Treasure of Kalinga.
3. Sleep in a traditional Kalinga house.
4. Sample Kalinga cooking.
5. Ride as many forms of transportation as i can (without breaking my back)

Just a couple of quotations on solo travel that I totally subscribe to:
"Travelling alone is the single best gift you can give yourself."
"You never really travel alone. The world is full of friends waiting to get to know you."

I have been asked by a lot of people if I get bored or lonely when I travel alone. I have been called courageous, weird, friendless, mad/crazy, especially travelling in some parts of the Philippines. Hahahaha! What I am is hopeful -- hopeful that people of good spirits will meet and help me; I am positive that there are more good people that we count on and that's been proven to me time and again! Never more so that during this trip to Kalinga. I believe that if you are basically a person with an open heart, the people you meet will respond in kind... Even animals!

Boredom is the least of my problems when I traveled around Kalinga. People are so friendly and welcoming that my lack of skill with the language was no barrier to forming interpersonal relationships. :) Hand-signs and mime sufficed to put across what I wanted to say and i did get what the other person was saying without a single word being said. It would have been better though if I learned a few words of Kalinga (e.g. hello, good morning, good evening, thank you, etc.)


With Whang-Od wearing the peace bracelet I gifted her

With Whang-Od wearing the peace bracelet I gifted her

I travelled a total of 15 hrs to get to Buscalan, the mountain community where Whang-Od lived. It is one of the five communities that the Butbut Tribe (her tribe) established in the mountains of Tinglayan. I left Manila on the evening of November 29 and got into Tabuk at around 7:30 in the morning. I took the bus to Bontoc which dropped me off at the little hamlet of Bugnay where my guide, Kuya Gaspar (also a Butbut) awaited me with his van.

We drove up to the Turning Point where I registered and paid the required Environmental and community fee. It was also in Turning Point where all vehicles are parked and left behind. From that point all will have to proceed on foot. So he took up my backpack and bag of supplies and proceeded to lead the hike up the mountains to the newer community of Buscalan. When he noticed that I kept slipping (the trail was muddy due to continuous rain) he borrowed the bolo of a chance met village man and fashioned a cane for me from out of the viney growth next to the trail. I had a hard time on the trail mainly because i was out of condition having been sedentary for the past couple of months.

It took us 30 minutes to hike up to Buscalan which was composed of about 150 households and countless free range native pigs! Kuya Gaspar took me to the homestay he owned which sat next to the Padjao Rice Terraces. His wife Josie served piping hot Kalinga coffee, a sweetish concoction which revived my flagging energy. As I sat on a bench outside the house, I can see the farmers working on the various strata of the rice terraces. Modern technology has come to the ancient paddies! The farmers use mechanical tillers to work their farms.

After I had my cup, Josie took me around the village where I saw the locals working on their native industries: blacksmithing (bolos, knives, etc.); making tokens such as necklaces, little basketry, and of course, tattooing (Whang-Od was not the only tattoist in Buscalan). We went down to the little hut where Whang-Od held her business. It was close to 5 p.m. and the temperature on that mountain village was starting to feel colder but people still flocked down to that little hut. The Tattoist was busy with her final client for the day and Whang-od was looking kinda weary, she paused several times to take a deep breath and then went on to tap a stick on another stick which holds the thorn of the Pomelo (aka Citrus maxima) which she uses instead of a steel needle. I found that batok is a painstaking task! Modern tattooing is less impressive to me now that I've watched Whang-Od tap that stick over and over for what seemed to me now an endless space of time. I waited for Whang-Od to finish with her client and sign the work with her three black circles. I saw her clutch her hand to her stomach as if to still the pain she felt... I don't know how long she was seated on the low chair tap tapping that little stick to satisfy the people who traveled from all over to be inked by this little old lady who was one of the last to carry her tradition in this modern times.

Josie approached Whang-Od to tell her that I wanted to give her something (a peace bracelet which I kept for 2 years in the hope of giving it to her in person) and to have a souvenir photo taken with her. She nodded and smiled at me. I sat down next to her and she held out her hand -- it was cold and frail-looking but the clasp was strong... I suddenly remembered that this woman was also a farmer! I put the bracelet on her wrist and we smiled at each other. I could hear some people in the background saying that they should have brought her something too. Well, the pictures you see doesn't really do her justice! She is more beautiful in person. The guy who seemed to be watching out for her took the photo you see on this blog and told Josie that photo-taking with Whang-od costs P50 which I should give directly to her. I handed over my P50 to the Tattooist and left the little hut as the people waiting with me crowded around the little lady. For more of her story: Whang-Od


With Mr. Alonzo Saclag Sr. and his wife Rebecca

With Mr. Alonzo Saclag Sr. and his wife Rebecca

I travelled down to Labuagan Town after spending the night in Buscalan and taking photos of the sunrise over Padjao Terraces. Jordan Alisto who works for the Office of the Mayor of Lubuagan took me via motorbike up the mountain to Awichon, the cultural eco-village built by Mr. Alonzo Saclag, Sr. He used the money the government gifted him with after he was declared a National Living Treasure in 2000 to start the work in the 50 hectare property he had up in the mountains outside Lubuagan town. I was welcomed by Mrs. Rebecca Saclag and given an octagonal hut to spend the night in (Target #3 - check!!!)

Mr. Saclag seeks to promote Kalinga culture and arts through his work. He is sad that the kalinga is misunderstood by the outsiders. He said that it is wrong to think that Kalinga are given reputation for being unthinkingly violent. He did say that as recent as two months ago there is a declared tribal war started by a boundary dispute. Despite deep personal tragedy, he is very active in seeking to have the Kalinga traditions taught in schools so that the younger generations of Kalinga will not forget this important part of their history. Awichon Eco-village is a great venue to learn about Kalinga history, music and dances. When I was there, I saw a group of men from Abra who played basketball against a team from Pasil (another Kalinga town) practicing the gangsa as Mr. Saclag looked on. They also practiced playing the traditional leather covered drum and other instruments with the help of Mr. Saclag's son Reggie who helps his Dad manage Awichon.

What did I learn about the Kalinga after talking with Mr. Saclag and his family up in Awichon? I learned about Emilio Aguinaldo's time in Kalinga and that there is a lack of information about this time in Philippine History in the books used in schools. I learned about the the peace-pact, the budong, the Kalinga way of declaring tribal war, the differences between a clan war and a tribal war, the different dances of Kalinga -- from war to courtship. And from Mrs. Rebecca I learned about dressing as a Kalinga lady and that they are called the peacocks of the North. Mr. Saclag feels an urgency about the fulfillment of his life-long dream and wonders if he will have enough time to complete it. He wants to have Kalinga's oral history, music and dances recorded for posterity. He has a lot of plans to help promote Kalinga culture and arts to a wider audience so as to dispel the misinformation still being floated about Kalinga people. He wishes that the government will extend support (both financial and manpower) in making this dream a reality. In spite of this he is hesitant to seek the help of politicians as it might mean that he will have to compromise his stand and his freedom as an artist and teacher...
So right now it is painfully slow process for him and his family... I hope that he can make his dream a reality.

What struck me most about the info shared by Mr. Saclag was the fact that contrary to what some of us believe, the Kalinga do not just go warring in a flip of a switch! First, there is a meeting between peace pact holders to see if the issue causing friction can be resolved within the confines of the peace pact and the budong. If not, then there will be a formal declaration and the two parties will then return to their respective tribes to inform them about the failure of settlement and the beginning of the tribal war.

According to Mr. Saclag, there are three rules that they follow:
1. Do not burn houses.
2. Do not destroy the farmlands.
3. Do not kill the innocents (including madmen).
He explained the reasoning behind each rule and it made sense -- as much as such a war can make sense.

I would have loved to have stayed longer in my little hut in Awichon but my time was up and I had to go back to Manila. I do plan to go back there and stay longer so I can just relax and walk around the grounds and maybe take up their invitation to plant more trees to add to the ones that are already thriving there -- Kalinga oranges, lychees, coffee, abaca, mountain tea, and jugway.


Kalinga oranges

Kalinga oranges

Aside from the Kalinga oranges and the local coffee which I absolutely adore, the local cuisine is not much to write about. It is bland and unexciting. Awichon sells locally made chili condiment which helps pep up the otherwise uninspired food.

What might cause problems when commuting in Kalinga is the fact that public transportation has a rather limited schedule. Jeeps and buses usually only runs in the morning. So one must always take that into consideration when making one's itinerary.

According to my guide, Kuya Gaspar, the best time to travel around Kalinga is between April and May when the weather is fine and the rice paddies are at its best! I will surely try to go there during summer but i think that despite the wet weather, the cold nights, this time is just perfect for me! I loved my time up there and will look back to this solo trip with a great smile on my face. I have finally fulfilled a promise to myself about meeting Whang-Od while she can still look at me and know how much I admire her and I made new friends and learned new things about this amazing corner of the world which Mrs. Rebecca says puts them so much closer to God.

For sample costing and additional information regarding this trip, please do read: Kalinga 2

Posted by neena329_cab 20:57 Archived in Philippines Tagged food native love living tattoo huts tribal wars treasures kalinga cordilleras whang-od Comments (0)

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