Exploring SULU: The Pearl of BARMM

SULU.
SOME THINGS ARE ONLY MEANT FOR THE BRAVE-HEARTED. There are many kinds of travelers and yet, they all like to do the same thing: explore places and experience what these places can offer. But I believe there’s also a small group of travelers that’s far different from the rest, and these are the risk-takers. I guess we’re all risk-takers in our own ways. But we got to admit there are those who are willing to take the extra mile and be in places that are said to be quite risky or even dangerous. One of these places is Sulu. Even though I believe not everywhere in Sulu is dangerous, this Mindanao province is still plagued being associated with that word. It should be noted that even though a few of its places may actually be, this shouldn’t represent the whole. I, along with my friends, took the road less traveled and headed here in Sulu.

One of the most untouched island provinces in the Philippines is none other than Sulu. This isn’t a wonder, though, as few places in the province are bugged with hostility among rebel groups. Nevertheless, one or two places should not define a province. There’s more to Sulu than what is being tagged on it in the news.

This blog post will discuss our whole day of adventure in Sulu. It is A MUST that you contact their tourism office before going here. While it is relatively safe to go to Jolo, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

THINGS TO REMEMBER BEFORE GOING TO SULU:

  1. Contact their tourism office. I can’t emphasize this enough so I’d say it over and over again. You’d have to tell them what you plan to do in Sulu and they would not only help you work your way there, they would help you with your whole stay as well. They will help you arrange your itinerary, may it be just a tour around the municipality of Jolo or island-hopping around the nearby islands.
  2. Maintain contact with your guide. We constantly contacted our guide before going to Sulu even though we haven’t personally met him yet. He told us to wait for him inside the ferry before heading out.
  3. While the ferry has already docked, we stayed for a while until he was able to fetch us inside the ferry. He accompanied us all throughout our stay in the island until we were safely back in the ferry going back to Zamboanga City.
  4. While it is feasible that you go travel here solo, it would be a lot better if you would travel with a buddy or a group. Not only will you be decreasing your expenses significantly, you’d also be sharing an experience you might consider a great one.
  5. Abide by their rules. If your guide tells you that you aren’t allowed to go to a certain place or do something you aren’t supposed to, then don’t.
  6. Follow their dress code. While not technically prohibited, it’s best you avoid wearing short and skimpy clothes while you are here as respect to the people of the community. Our guide even told us to refrain from wearing sando or shorts when touring around the town of Jolo. By doing this, you’d not only respect their unwritten rule about wearing appropriate clothes, you’d also refrain from attracting unnecessary attention.
THE ISLAND PROVINCE OF SULU in the morning.
THE ISLAND PROVINCE OF SULU in the morning.

WHERE IS SULU?

Sulu is one of the five provinces that comprise the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which replaced the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), in the southern part of the Philippines.

BARMM courtesy of Wikipedia
The Map of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) courtesy of Wikipedia

Sulu is the third largest province of BARMM, and its people constitutes one-fifth of the only Muslim-majority region of the country. It is part of the Sulu Archipelago, and it has four island groups: Jolo, Pangutaran, Tongkil-Banguingui and Siasi-Tapul. We were only able to explore a part of the Jolo group of islands, but it was enough to convince us that Sulu is such a mesmerizing place!

HOW TO GO TO SULU?

If you’re an ordinary passenger/ traveler, there is only one way to travel to Sulu. It is by riding the overnight ferry in the port of Zamboanga City. It is said that there was another way to go here before, and that was by riding the Weesam fast craft. However, it is no longer operational.

THE PORT
THE PORT. This is where ships and ferries load and unload passengers and properties to and from Jolo.

WHAT TO EXPLORE

There are two ways of exploring Sulu. The easier and cheaper way is by doing a “town tour” of Jolo by riding the tricycle from one tourist destination to another around the provincial capital. The other way is by renting a boat so you can visit a few islands near Jolo like Lahat-Lahat Island. If time permits, you can do both ways just like what we did!

Lahat-Lahat Island

LAHAT-LAHAT ISLAND
LAHAT-LAHAT ISLAND is such a beautiful island that you would want to visit in the province of Sulu! Just look at its white sand beach and serene, clear waters!

I was awed when I saw this island in Sulu! It made me say that Sulu is also a paradise in terms of white beach islands! There was no one in Lahat-Lahat Island when we went there so we had it all to ourselves!

OH SUCH BEAUTY
OH SUCH AZURE COLORS! I instantly fell in love with Lahat-lahat Island because of its alluring colors!

It felt pretty amazing being in the beach, gazing at its alluring blue waters, walking along its white sand shore and just absorbing inward the serenity the scenery was exuding.

WHO SAYS YOU CAN’T NETFLIX AND CHILL BY THE BEACH? We were exploring the island when we saw this TV on its shore. Dismissing the question on how it ended up there, I just saw a chance on what to do with it. Imagine having this TV on a far away island with no electricity, no potable water supply, no food, and most importantly, no inhabitants, what would you do? I thought it would be fun to take a photograph with it along the island’s tremendously white beach and alluringly azure waters!
THE WATERBENDER.
THE WATER BENDER. Just kidding! Haha. The waters of Sulu may just be one of most blindingly blue I’ve ever seen!
BEAUTY IN SOLACE.
BEAUTY IN SOLITUDE. Amidst the beauty of this island, it has this air of solitude because it is seldom visited by travelers.

It’s just sad that the owners of the island were said to sell its white sand to construction. I mean, why? For all its beauty and glory, I wouldn’t want this island to perish after some time, you know.

CABUCAN ISLANDS

These beautiful group of islands are just near Lahat-Lahat Island. We were not able to go here, but we were able to capture it by drone.

CABUCAN ISLANDS. These islets are part of Cabucan Islands, which are just near Lahat-Lahat Island.

Bangas Island in Hadji Panglima Tahil

HOME OF THE BADJAOS.
HOME OF THE BADJAOS. Here’s the part of Bangil Island where our Badjao brothers live.

This island opened my eyes to the kinds of activities Bajaus and other people in Sulu make for a living. After unloading off the boat in their port, we saw children in uniform walking along the road. It was already lunchtime so I was assuming school’s over.

ADORABLE.
ADORABLE. Here are two adorable children as they are passing through the road. They’re about to go home from school.
KIDS.
KIDS. Here are some kids that we saw while playing in a vacant structure in Bangas Island.
SCHOOL TIME.
SCHOOL TIME. Of course, school’s not yet over… for the big guys and girls. Here’s a portion of the school in Bangas Island.

We headed to a mini store where we bought snacks called pastil and pan-pan (If you have read my Tawi-Tawi blog posts, you’re probably already aware of these snacks).

PASTIL and pan-pan.
PASTIL and pan-pan. Here are some of the street food that we bought in Bangil Island.

Afterwards, we continued walking towards the Bajau community. You’d know you’re already there when you already see a wooden bridge.

DRIED FISH.
DRIED FISH. It’s likely that you’d see a portion of the wooden bridge with fishes being dried just like this.

While walking along their wooden bridge, we saw people farming seaweeds! It was my first time to witness such an activity, and the seaweed farmer who was there was kind enough to answer a few questions I had asked him.

SEAWEED FARMING.
SEAWEED FARMING. A local seaweed farmer is seen busy with his work in the community.

We then headed to the security office where soldiers assigned in the island were staying. They made it clear to us that communication between them and the local guides is important so they can give feedback if it’s safe to go to a particular place in the surrounding areas.

TWO KIDS FISHING.
TWO KIDS FISHING. Here are two kids trying their luck to get fish along the shallow waters of Bangas Island.

Finally, we visited the go-to resort in Sulu nowadays, the Rahmat Dive Resort. As it is said to only open during the weekend, we had the place all to ourselves. Not that we were able to do the activities the resort can offer like zip-lining and diving, but we were able to appreciate why people from Jolo and other areas of Sulu go here to spend their leisure time.

RAHMAT DIVE RESORT
RAHMAT DIVE RESORT. This resort is huge! We’re about to go to its beach area when I took this photo. Do you see the wires on the upper right corner? It’s the zip line this resort can offer as one of their activities!
THE BEACH SIDE OF BANGAS ISLAND.
THE BEACH SIDE OF BANGAS ISLAND. Just look at the creamy sands of the beach and you’d be tempted to stay here for a while. Our tour guide said this place is full during weekends by people from Jolo!
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RAHMAT COTTAGES. Here are some of the cottages where families and friends visiting the resort can stay.

Masjid Tulay

MASJID TULAY
MASJID TULAY. Established in 1884, the original structure of the mosque was reported to be destroyed in the year 1974.

Said to be the most beautiful mosque in Sulu, Tulay Mosque is also the oldest and the largest mosque in the whole province. Located within the heart of Jolo, its beauty is apparent even from afar. That early morning when we were heading to Jolo via ferry, it’s one of the most recognizable structures even before reaching the shores of Sulu.

MASJID TULAY STANDS OUT
MASJID TULAY STANDS OUT. Tulay Mosque is so huge it is easily seen even before we reached the shore of Sulu.
MASJID TULAY AT SUNSET.
MASJID TULAY AT SUNSET. Here’s how Tulay Mosque looks like from one side during sunset time. The busy street surrounding it is full of people walking, riding habal-habal or tricycle or passing through to go to a nearby park.

Mount Carmel Cathedral

MT. CARMEL CATHEDRAL
MT. CARMEL CATHEDRAL. Here’s the front view of the beautiful lone cathedral in the whole province of Sulu. A mass is currently being held during the time we were able to visit. Mind that there are soldiers guarding this side of the church (they’re inside the gate).

This is the one and only Catholic Church in the entire province of Sulu. And this shouldn’t come in as a shock as the province is known as a place for Muslim people. When I asked our guide regarding the religions in Sulu, he said that probably about 99% of the people there are Muslims. (I have researched about this and the statistics actually show it’s 97%. Our guide came close.) The rest would be Catholics and other Christian denominations.

We visited this church while we were inside and I was elated when I saw it in the inside because it was actually beautiful! There was a mass being held, but because we were pressed for time, I just kneeled and prayed for a while.

BEAUTIFUL AND SACRED.
BEAUTIFUL AND SACRED. This is a place of worship, a place of sacredness, a place worthy of respect. Despite our differences in religion, we must learn how to respect each other’s beliefs.

As you can see in the picture, the church is barricaded. In fact, it’s also guarded by soldiers from the sides. When asked why, our guide said that the church receives constant bomb threats! That’s probably insane, but it isn’t impossible, is it?

Sadly, a tragedy happened on the morning of January 27, 2019 as two bombs exploded in the church. Twenty people were killed and 102 were injured. The Philippine National Police (PNP) believes some members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) are behind the bombings. It is suspected that the bombing was triggered because of the newly created BARMM.

Sulu Provincial Capitol

Isn't she lovely?
ISN’T SHE LOVELY? This is the Sulu Provincial Capitol, which appears to be constructed to look similar to a mosque. A soldier who’s guarding the place is looking at me as I’m posing in front of the impressive structure.

One of the most beautiful capitols I have seen in the entire country, the Sulu Provincial Capitol bears a Moorish-inspired architecture. Its walls are painted white, with gold-colored domes at the top. It is where we got to meet the tourism officer my friend, Brye, contacted before heading to the province.

INSIDE THE PROVINCIAL CAPITOL
INSIDE THE PROVINCIAL CAPITOL. Here I am together with my friends, Brye (IG: @bryehero) and Billy; our tour guide, Kuya Sim; Maám Merwa Sakirani of tourism and one of her staff.
NEWLY RENOVATED
NEWLY RENOVATED. By the looks of it, the provincial capitol of Sulu was newly renovated. Its beautiful designs can be seen on walls, just like these stained glass windows upon the stairs.

Jolo Town Hall

JOLO TOWN HALL
JOLO TOWN HALL. This is the front side of Jolo’s town hall.

It was a good day to visit Sulu because it turned out that it was the mayor’s birthday! After island-hopping, we went here to join in the celebration! Many people, government workers or not, went here as well to celebrate with the mayor. While listening to people singing beautifully (one of which was one of our tour guides), we ate a lot of food that was offered!

MAYOR'S BIRTHDAY!
IT’S MAYOR’S BIRTHDAY! We were surprised that we would be able to join in on the celebration of Mayor Kerkhar Tan’s birthday when we were there in Sulu! That was October 4, which happened to be the mayor’s birthday! Wowowee, right?

Jolo’s Local Market

Don’t forget to buy fruits such as lanzones and durian in their local markets! They’re really very affordable!

FRUITS OF MINDANAO
FRUITS OF MINDANAO. When in Jolo, you gotta buy some of their newly harvested fruits! Imagine buying 5 kilos of lanzones for just P150, a bunch of durian for P100 and mangosteen for P70!

WHERE TO STAY

Sulu Peacekeepers Hotel

Our tour guides said that this is the only place where they recommend people to check in while visiting the province of Sulu. Located inside Camp Asturias, the hotel is not only pretty and neat, it is also affordable. A family room is P1,200.

WHO TO CONTACT

Kuya Sim (Sai Fud Din III) is our guide in Sulu. He accompanied us the entire time of our visit and made sure that we get to experience the province just like how we wanted to experience it. Aside from that, he’s a pretty good photographer so you can ask him for ideas and tips when wanting to take a picture in Sulu’s key places. Here is his contact number: 09958409428.

SATTI
SATTI. When in Sulu, you gotta try their satti, a breakfast meal consisting of small pieces of grilled beef with sliced rice cooked in coconut leaves submerged in sweet and sour sauce. YUMMY! It’s actually the best-tasting satti I’ve tried so far!

TRAVEL EXPENSES IN SULU FOR A DAY

Here are the key expenses that you should take note of when planning to visit Sulu. Be reminded that some expenses are divided into 3, because we are 3 in a group. The estimated total is good for one person for a group of 3.

KEY EXPENSES FEE NOTES
Ferry ticket from Zamboanga City to Jolo P550 (plus P15 for terminal fee) Make sure to make a reservation beforehand. Book early on even though the trip is at night.Travel time is about 7 to 8 hours.
Sulu Peacekeepers Hotel P1,200 (good for 3) The room that we had is good for a group of 4.
Boat for the two island destinations P2,500 (good for 3) The boat that we used is a long albeit small one, just good for a small number of people.
Guide fee P300 (per group) I highly recommend you to add more. More so, buy your tour guide snacks and food for lunch.
Tricycle fare P30* one way for a group of 3 (P50 when the destination is far) We rode the tricycle every single time we traveled around Jolo. The fee varies according to distance. For example, the tricycle fee from the port to our hotel is P30 while the fee from hotel to the capitol is P50. Considering every ride, we accumulated P300 for a whole day.
Food P300** This is an estimate for **each person. We ate quite a lot during our stay including breakfast, snacks and lunch. Included also here are the bunch of fruits (lanzones, durian, mangosteen) that we bought!
Ferry ticket from Jolo to Zamboanga City P550 (plus P15 for terminal fee) Secure your ticket ahead of time. Reserve.
TOTAL P2,699 This is a conservative estimate. I highly suggest that you bring more when you visit.

***

I hope I was able to encourage and inspire you to go to Sulu, which is a “blindingly blue-tiful” place to be in. Some areas in the province may be perceived to be not very safe, keep in mind that Jolo and some of its nearby places are safe. Just make sure you contact the tourism first before going here and they will guide you accordingly while exploring. Keep safe and enjoy, okay?

THE JEWEL OF BARMM
THE PEARL OF BARMM. The island province of Sulu is such a beautiful sight in the morning.

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