Into the Sulu Archipelago

Traveling in a region dismissed by many as too risky for foreigners to explore, I was lucky enough to witness some of the unique customs and ways of life belonging to the Sama-Bajau and Tausug people, from traditional dance, to mat weaving and shipbuilding.

One week prior to my departure for the island province of Tawi-Tawi I received an email from the U.S. Embassy in Manila: “We strongly advise that U.S. citizens should continue to defer non-essential travel to the Sulu Archipelago, due to the high threat of kidnapping of international travellers and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism.”
This region of the Philippines never gets good press and even among local Filipinos has a very negative reputation.
If you mention you are going to Mindanao many will look at you with genuine concern. Mention Sulu, and most won’t even comprehend it, as if the place doesn’t really exist. Yet, for the longest time, I have wanted to visit this region of the country.
I did have some legitimate concerns, especially as a foreigner.
A few weeks before our trip, a finance officer from a mining company had been kidnapped in the capital of Bongao. However, I knew that our group was experienced and that we would have personal armed escorts during our stay in Tawi-Tawi. In most cases, careful preparation and respecting important protocols can usually prevent any kind of negative outcome.
I was determined to approach this expedition with an open mind, and to capture and share as many positive stories of Tawi-Tawi as I could.
Jacob Maentz
Tawi-Tawi is the southernmost province of the Philippines, with roughly 300 surrounding beautiful islands. Its name is a projection of the Malay word jauh meaning “far.”
Precolonial travellers from the Asian mainland would repeat the word as jaui-jaui to mean “far away” because of the distance to the islands. The term tawi-tawi was a later variation of this, which eventually became the official name of the province.
Although I was only able to visit a few of these islands, from what I saw, the region is an almost untouched paradise. There is certainly huge potential for tourism, but given the dangers and difficulties of travel, I think it is likely to be many years before significant development.
And this was certainly a different type of trip for me from my usual, low-profile, figure-it-out-as-I-go approach.
I was travelling with the talented team from Extra Mile Productions, and together with our security personal and local contacts, we were quite a large group.

One of the armed escorts who travelled with us during our stay.

Aside from exploring the exceptional natural beauty of the region, it was the people of Tawi-Tawi I was most interested in learning more about.
The Tausug and Sama-Bajau are the two dominant ethnolinguistic groups of the region and have coexisted with each other throughout history.
The Tausug originally had a large independent state known as the Sulu Sultanate, including parts of Palawan, Malaysia and Indonesia. When the first Muslim missionary arrived in Sulu in 1380, the Tausug adopted Islam, and today the majority of Tawi-Tawi’s population is Muslim.

Women during Friday prayer at a mosque in Bongao, the capitol of Tawi-Tawi.

The Sama-Bajau are also originally from Sulu and live their lives oriented around the ocean. Sama-Bajau is really a collective term, used to describe several closely related indigenous peoples who consider themselves a single distinct ethnic group in Tawi-Tawi. Historically, the term “Sama” was used to describe the more land-oriented groups, while “Bajau” was used to describe the more sea-oriented, boat-dwelling, nomadic groups.

Bongao, capital of the province of Tawi-Tawi.

Today, most of the Bajau have long abandoned or been forced to abandon boat living, and now build piling houses in the coastal shallows.
Early on, we stumbled upon a small Sama-Bajau community not so far out from the center of Bongao, the captial of Tawi-Tawi. There was a lot of activity happening and people were beginning to setup a stage area in the center of the community. We found out that they were preparing for a wedding that would take place there later in the evening. A Bajau wedding! Something that I had always hoped to witness. I asked if the bride and groom were around, and sure enough they were close by. The bride was young, perhaps not even fifteen, and looked very innocent. I was captivated by the beautiful henna tattoos on her hands.
We talked for a while about the meaning of her tattoos and about her wedding later that evening. I learned that it is customary for the Sama-Bajau to marry off young women when they come of age. After a while her husband-to-be also came out and they both agreed that I could take their photos. It was a lovely, spontaneous interaction. Although we were not able to make it back for their wedding later that evening, I was very happy to hear later that everything had gone well for the young couple.

A Sama-Bajau bride on her wedding day. A bride’s hands are decorated with henna to signify her new marital bond with her husband.

Tawi-Tawi is the largest seaweed producing province in the Philippines, and around 80 percent of locals earn their living from seaweed farming. In just about every coastal town we visited, there was seaweed either being dried in the sun or harvested nearby in the shallow water. Much of the seaweed is exported, and sold to extract its carrageenan, a gelling and stabilizing substance used widely in dairy and meat products.

Sama-Bajau man checking on his cultivated seaweed.

The seedlings are tied to monofilament lines that float roughly one meter below the surface, with varieties ranging in colour from brown to green.
The importance of seaweed in this region is seen during Tawi-Tawi’s annual festival, called Agal-Agal, or the seaweed festival. This event celebrates seaweed, alongside the history and culture of Tawi-Tawi’s people.

Couple sorting through their harvest, preparing it to be sold.

Soon after arriving into Tawi-Tawi, I noticed that many of the women had applied burak, a natural sunblock, to their faces.
Hoping to photograph this custom, I was delighted to come across the spunky group of women in the photograph below. I spent a good hour with these women, laughing, interacting, and taking some portraits. Then they decided to show us the traditional process of making burak paste. A unique experience, an afternoon that I will certainly not forget.

Local Sama women applying burak.

Preparing burak requires a few different processes. One of the first steps is to manually pound rice and tumeric together into a paste. Turmeric’s high antioxidant content makes it beneficial for the skin and also adds protection from the sun. This mixture is then applied to the face as a wet paste, and dries to create a white or yellowish coating. Generally, within Sama-Bajau communities, it is only women who apply burak to their skin.
Something I do hope to explore more at some point is the natural environment of Tawi-Tawi. Because of our limited time we were not able to go diving or stop at any of the remote beaches or islands in the area.
However, just by visiting the markets and coastal communities it is clear that the ocean is in relatively good health compared to other regions of the country, which probably has a lot to do with the lesser pressure on the resources in this region. However, there are many known issues facing the marine environment here, such as dynamite fishing, coastal development, sedimentation, and coral bleaching.
Being positioned inside the Coral Triangle, Tawi-Tawi is very rich in natural resources and is one of the global centres of marine biodiversity.
There are over 1,800 species of fish, more than 400 species of algae, five species of sea turtles, 22 species of marine mammals and over 450 types of coral in the Sulu Sea, a global hotspot for marine biodiversity.

Seahorses drying in a Sama-Bajau village. These are harvested and sold as traditional medicine, often as an aphrodisiac.

The Sama-Bajau women often sell their family’s catch at a weekly market. Everything from shells, seaweed, fish, and urchins can be found here. The assortment of fresh seafood everyday, and the local delicacies offered to us every few hours, were enough to put a small bulge in anyone’s belly.

Local women at the weekly market.

Variety of seafood in the local market.

Four hours by speedboat brought us to the remote municipality of Tandubas.
We had come to visit the hometown of the most recognized master mat weaver among the Sama-Bajau people, Haja Amina Appi. Tawi-Tawi is well-known for its expert weaving, and many unique colourful mats with complex geometric patterns are hand-made.
Among the Sama-Bajau, mat weaving is a process exclusive to women, from harvesting the pandan leaves, to the execution of the design.
When I arrived, I met a lady weaving in her home and asked if I could photograph her. Weaving is a common craft shared by a number of different indigenous groups throughout the Philippines, and over time, I have come to appreciate this craft even more.

Traditional mat weaving from harvested pandan leaves.

Mat weaving is exclusive to women in the Sama-Bajau community.

Before leaving Tawi-Tawi we were all given a traditional mat as a token of our visit. It really is beautiful, and the vibrant colours and quality are exceptional.
Dating back to its precolonial inhabitants, shipbuilding in Sulu also has a rich history, with the Sama-Bajau celebrated as skilled craftsmen.
Driving from the airport into the center of Bongao, I had noticed some grand-looking ships being built. They immediately caught my interest, as I had never seen anything like this being built in the Philippines.
We returned the following day, and realised that everything was being handmade, with what looked like a great deal of hard manual labor. I chatted for a while with some of the men, and they told me that most of the workers here were Sama-Bajau from one particular community.

Shipbuilding in Sulu dates back to its precolonial inhabitants.

Unique to Tawi-Tawi, the craftsmanship of these vessels was remarkable, and I learned that the Sama-Bajau are known as exceptional shipbuilders, having spent centuries building and maintaining their own wooden boats.

A livelihood of some Sama in Tawi-Tawi is the construction of large wooden prahus ships. Prahus refers to a type of boat originating in Malaysia and Indonesia that may be sailed with either end at the front. Today, modern wooden prahus type ships are common throughout this region and are mostly used to transport cargo and passengers.

All of these wooden prahus ships — vessels that can be sailed with either end at the front — were custom ordered from Malaysia for carrying cargo or passengers, and would sell for anywhere between 15-20 million pesos. The men told us it takes roughly one year to build each ship, all by hand.
Though my visit to Tawi-Tawi was short, it was filled with lasting impressions, new friendships, and sparked even more curiosity to explore the stories of other places and people living in the Sulu archipelago.
Like most new places I visit, no matter the length of time, I always feel that I didn’t stay long enough, and have an overwhelming desire to get to know a place and its people really well.
I do hope this will be just the first of many trips to Tawi-Tawi and that I will be able to get to know this region of the country much better. There is still so much to learn.

A Pangalay dance inspired by the way Tawi-Tawian women traditionally carried water. It requires grace and flexibility in the elbows, shoulders and wrists. Pangalay is the traditional fingernail dance of the Tausug people of the Sulu Archipelago.

Meaning “temple of dance” in Sanskrit, the pangalay is a Tausug dance that predates both Islam and Christianity in the Philippines. The dancer casts their eyes down in a serious, mask-like expression, performing a choreography that features a sophisticated vocabulary of movement comparable to classical forms of dance. Cotabato City, 2018.



This story is part of the Katutubong Filipino Project, an initiative I founded along with my wife Nahoma, to bring about awareness of the Philippine archipelago’s indigenous peoples by visually documenting their slowly disappearing and changing cultural heritages.

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