BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi - It was way back in the 80’s when I heard about the place, how beautiful it is and why I must visit it. Consistently, this was what my aunt kept telling me whenever we meet. Bongao was home to her as it was one of her longest assignments while connected with Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

She described Bongao vividly— its pristine shorelines of countless beaches, the crystal blue waters and how warm the people were. The far-off Southern island of Tawi-Tawi painted a paradise in my mind, perhaps I will make it there someday, I thought.

And I did. It took 30 years before I set foot on Tawi-Tawi soil, thanks to the invitation of the Department of Tourism-ARMM. It was a 24-hour visit. Short, too short perhaps, but the hosts took us to the spots on top of the must-visit attractions, one of which is the Panampangan Island.

Panampangan Island must be one of Tawi-Tawi’s crown jewels. I have heard how beautiful the island is from friends who have visited the island. Finally, it was my turn to visit.

After the quick plane ride from Zamboanga and dropping off our bags at the hotel, we were brought to a private jetty and hopped on the speedboat to the island. After a quick stopover at Simunul, the site of the first Mosque built in the country, the Sheik Karimal Makdum Mosque, we headed off to our destination.

Panampangan Island, part of the Sapa-Sapa municipality of Tawi-Tawi, lies within the Basibuli Shoal in the Celebes Sea. It takes about 30 minutes to an hour to reach, depending on which kind of sea vessel you take—the speedboat or the pump boat.

Aside from its white sand beach and clear blue waters, why is this Sulu Archipelago-island special? Panampangan’s bragging right is its crescent-shaped sandbar. Extending to 3,128 meters, it is the longest in the country (Let me add: +/- a couple of feet depending on the tide. Apparently, someone holds the “rights” to the island’s exact size. Why he believes so, logic escapes me).

Huts and grilling areas have been built to accommodate guests for a picnic at the beach, and the presence of the Marines posted in the island will appease your anxiety on safety issues.

On a bigger picture, Tawi-Tawi is a safe place to visit with the increased military presence across the province. Safe it may be, the Provincial Tourism Office and Department of Tourism-ARMM advice all the visitors to coordinate their visit and tour activities with them.

Having seen the island, lied down on its fine white sand and swam on the warm, blue waters, I would call Panampangan Island idyllic. How I wish I can spend a couple of nights in the place.

Perhaps what makes the island more alluring is its “elusiveness”. It’s not easy to reach Panampangan Island—it’s a bit distant, ergo travel time and transportation cost is a major consideration. But once you’ve set foot on the island, you'd say, it’s all worth it. I should know. I waited for more than 30 years for this beach visit to happen.

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