BUD BONGAO: THE HOLY MOUNTAIN OF TAWI-TAWI
Gruff and grizzled, the guardian fixes me with a steely gaze,
his eyes the colour of flame. It’s as if he is gauging my character and
the purity of my purpose. Baring his yellow teeth, he holds out an
upturned palm, barring me 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 scampers off hooting into the
forest. Relieved, we trek on. Bud Bongao’s guardians have allowed us passage.
Cloaking its secrets in verdure and mist, Bud Bongao is
Tawi-Tawi’s most famous mountain, rearing steeply 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.
long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis) blocks author’s path midway up
Bud Bongao. The macaques are revered as the mountain's guardians.
Photo: Gregg Yan, WWF
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
“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 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
Tawi-Tawi Project Manager Dr. Filemon Romero. Once managed by WWF and
the Philippines government, the mountain is now being looked after by
the local government of Tawi-Tawi in a move towards local, decentralized
biodiversity management that’s seen as a potential template for other
Following the spine of Bud Bongao, we pass an enormous Molave
tree said to be the largest of its kind in the country.
break free of the forest’s dappled gloom to reach the sunbathed summit.
Savouring a few breaths, plus the glittering 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. Ribbons of cloud float lazily overhead.
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.
weeds out the unworthy, ensuring that pilgrims work hard to turn wishes
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.”