The Holy Mountain of Tawi-Tawi

Bud Bongao is Tawi-Tawi’s most famous mountain, an important pilgrimage site for both Christians and Muslims. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

Gruff and grizzled, the guardian stared with steely orbs the colour of flame—gauging our character and purity. Baring his yellow teeth, he holds out an upturned palm, barring us from going further. “We should give offerings,” cautions a sweating Munir Hamsaji, one of my climbing teammates. Having climbed this mountain many times before, Munir cautiously unties a knotted plastic bag, takes a crusty piece of bread and tosses it to the waiting warden. Delighted, the long-tailed macaque snatches the treat and hoots off into the forest. Relieved, we trek on. Bud Bongao’s guardians have allowed us passage.


Cloaking its secrets with verdure and mist, Bud Bongao is Tawi-Tawi’s most famous mountain, sprouting 340 meters above the sea. It’s a revered pilgrimage site for both Christians and Muslims, who come in droves to brave slippery rocks and the snarl of undergrowth to visit one of three carefully-tended Tampat or shrines.

Over 630 years ago, Arab merchant Karim ul-Makhdum landed in the Philippines to spread Islam, establishing the country’s first mosque—Sheik Karimal Makdum Masjid—in Simunul, a small island off the coast of Tawi-Tawi. Legend has it that one of his original followers—a preacher—was buried atop Bud Bongao.

The mountain is a 250-hectare treasure trove of biodiversity and one of the last remaining moist forests in the Sulu archipelago.

Today the mountain is a 250-hectare treasure trove of biodiversity and one of the last remaining moist forests in the Sulu archipelago. It is also the first site in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to be administered completely by the local government.

“Bud Bongao is an icon of terrestrial biodiversity conservation and eco-tourism in Tawi-Tawi because of the wealth of its wildlife and its unique cultural importance, ” says former Mindanao State University Chancellor Dr. Filemon Romero.

In a well-attended ceremony held last month, officials from and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) turned over the management of Bud Bongao and adjacent Bud Kabugan to the local government of Tawi-Tawi, led by Bongao Mayor Jasper Que, Governor Nurbert Sahali and Congresswoman Ruby Sahali.

Officials from the DENR, led by Bongao Mayor Jasper Que, Governor Nurbert Sahali, Congresswoman Ruby Sahali, WWF-Philippines Vice-president for Conservation Programmes Joel Palma, Tawi-Tawi Project Manager Dr. Filemon Romero and DENR Protected Areas Specialist Ariel Erasga, formally turn over the management of Bud Bongao to the local government of Tawi-Tawi. Bud Bongao and adjacent Bud Kabugan are the first biodiversity bastions of the ARMM to be fully-administered by the local government. In Tausug, ‘Bud’ means ‘peak’. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

“It’s one of the model sites under the New Conservation Areas in the Philippines Project or NEWCAPP, which protects 12 key biodiversity areas across the nation,” says DENR Protected Areas Specialist Ariel Erasga. “We wish to highlight novel ways of protecting biodiversity hubs—particularly if their management plans were developed by communities, indigenous groups and local government units.”

NEWCAPP aims to expand and strengthen the terrestrial protected area (PA) system of the Philippines by developing new PA models and building capacities for effective management. The expanded PA system will have comprehensive ecological coverage plus strong links to both local communities and indigenous lands through the development and integration of new conservation zones.

Now it seems, all the people of Tawi-Tawi shall become guardians of Bud Bongao. “All that we see and experience now, we hope to preserve for the future,” said Tawi-Tawi Governor Nurbert Sahali at the turnover.


Following the spine of Bud Bongao, we pass an enormous Molave tree said to be the largest of its kind in the country. We finally break free of the forest’s dappled gloom to reach the sunbathed summit. Savouring a few breaths, plus the breath-taking view of the Celebes Sea, I look south—squinting at the faint outline of Malaysian Borneo. Around us, branches are adorned with knotted strips of plastic, cloth and foil—prayers for safe passage. Overhead float lazy ribbons of cloud.

Plastic, foil and cloth strips adorn branches and tree trunks. Each strip represents a pilgrim’s wish. Bud Bongao is said to heal wounds as well as hearts. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

I take a moment to pray to God—by whatever name pilgrims call him. Descending, we encounter a group of Muslim pilgrims, decked out in bright regalia, the women wholly covered in long gowns and hijab scarves. I wonder how they can stand the heat—bearing umbrellas and basketfuls of food to boot. We stop and talk with an Imam, a religious leader.

“The preacher wished to be buried atop the highest point in Bongao so his followers can prove their sincerity,” explains Ishmael Uto. “This weeds out the unworthy, ensuring that pilgrims work hard to turn wishes into reality.”

My sole wish is for the mountain’s guardians—humans, spirits and monkeys alike—to continue protecting one of the last bastions of terrestrial biodiversity in Sulu.

Parting ways as pilgrims to the same God, I turn to the venerable Imam and say, “Salaam alaiukum.” He smiles and shakes my hand warmly. “And peace be with you, brother.”


Offerings of bread and bananas are used to appease the guardians of Bud Bongao. (Photo by Gregg Yan)

TAWI-TAWI—A land of infinity, tranquillity and occasional hostility—but never devoid of beauty, Tawi-Tawi is often tainted—perhaps unfairly—by its proximity to the battle-ridden island provinces of Basilan and Sulu, which since the 1970s have kept the military busy. Tawi-Tawi is an exquisite assortment of 307 emerald islands bursting from the iridescence of the Celebes Sea. It is home to 370,000 people from the Tausug, Sama and Badjao tribes. Its capital is Bongao, a second-class municipality of 80,000 people and a melting pot for culture and religion. Bongao is a lively town of roaring tricycles, strong spices, cold drinks and warm smiles. There are lots of goats in Bongao. They’re so used to traffic, they just sleep right in the middle of the road.


Much closer to Malaysia than Manila, Tawi-Tawi is a tad more complicated to reach than other Philippine islands. Your first leg would be to fly from Manila to Zamboanga (about PHP3000 or USD70), spend the night wining and dining in Zamboanga, then take the early morning flight to Bongao, capital of Tawi-Tawi (about PHP1500 or USD35). Popular cribs include Beachside Inn, Rachel’s Place, Hotel Juana, Porch Bay and Becky’s Pension Home. Nightly rates average PHP1500 or USD35.

Once you get settled in, simply hire a tricycle (about PHP90 or USD2 per head) to bring you to the base of Bud Bongao (all tricycle drivers know where it is) and start your trek. Remember to pack about a liter of cold water and some snacks - plus bananas or bread to offer the Holy Mountain’s resident guardians! The trek up takes no more than 90 minutes, while the slog down takes perhaps an hour. Tricycles should be available at the base to take you to your next destination.

You might want to take a dip in the cool waters of Sanga-Sanga reef afterwards - the perfect end to a sweaty day of trekking. As with most mountains, the best time to start your trek would be from 0600H onwards.

Gregg Yan

Gregg Yan

Gregg Yan serves as the Communications and Media Manager for WWF-Philippines. He has written hundreds of stories on the environment, ranging from renewable energy shifts to satellite tagging for whale sharks. His goal is to convince people that sustainable living offers excellent economic and holistic returns. For more information, add him up on Facebook.