Sulu is a province in the southernmost part of the Philippines. Lying between Basilan and Tawi-Tawi, it is encircled by the Sulu Sea on the West, Celebes Sea on the East and Mindanao Sea on the North. The province is composed of approximately 400 islands and islets with 157 named island municipalities. It is politically subdivided into two congressional districts. Sulu has a long history of discord and volatile security issues.
According to historical archives, a nobleman from Malacca (now Malaysia) named Sharif Muhammad Kabungsuwan brought Islam to the province and established the Sultanate of Sulu.
The Spanish colonizers came in the early 16th century bringing with them Christianity and subsequent history of plunder and exploitation. The Muslim people have resisted the Spanish colonization and the pillage of their land. Innumerable clashes and revolts were staged against the conquistadores who drove most of the natives farther to the hinterlands. To date, the “Moros”, as they were called by the foreign aggressors, stand proud as the people who were not conquered by Spain.
Jolo is the capital town being the biggest island with the largest population and the center of commerce. The islands have varied terrains which serve different purposes. Jolo is a volcanic island with high and mountainous geography. Sulu has an overall area of no less than 160,000 hectares that is home to over 800,000 people of mixed ethnicity.
There are no significant rivers and waterways in the province of Sulu. Small rivers traversing the land provide irrigation to the valleys planted with rice, corn, coconut and fruit-bearing trees. Some islands boasts of pristine white sandy beaches and challenging dive spots.
Sulu is out of the typhoon path and has a distinct climate type. Rain is evenly distributed throughout the year and humidity is mostly moist and warm. The coldest month is February while its warmest is around May to August. The best time to visit the islands is during the dry months of January to April.
People and Culture
About 97% of the total population in Sulu is Muslim, the rest are Roman Catholics and other denominations. The majority of the Islam-believers are of the Tausug tribe, the river-dwelling people. Among the Muslim tribes, the Tausugs are considered the friendliest. They are widely known to be hospitable and family-oriented; they make loyal friends.
The Muslims are a proud people. It is best to keep them as friends than enemies. Their culture is one of patriarchal domination and hostilities are more often than not caused by wounded pride and territorial disputes. Long-running clan feuds are settled among themselves through the mediation of the clan elders.
Sulu people are deeply religious and most of their festivals are religious in nature such as the “Hariraya Puasa” or “Eid ul-Fitr”, marking the end of Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month and the “Amon Jaded” or the Muslim New Year. Colorful and magnificently staged presentations depicting the proud culture of the different Indigenous People are held in the streets of Jolo.
How to Get There and Getting Around
Sulu is reached via Jolo, its capital town, from Zamboanga City taking the Sea Air flight or the ferry that leaves Zamboanga Port every night. From the airport, visitors are escorted to their hotels or destinations by the military or the police. It is not safe to go around any places in Sulu without a military escort or a local interpreter. It is best to inform the authorities of your itinerary and take their advice on how to go around the place; they know their province better than you do.
Where to Stay
The safest place to stay in Sulu is in Jolo, at the Peacekeeper’s Inn located inside the police camp; its walled compound offers a relatively safe accommodation. Never venture outside your hotel alone without the guards knowing. It is better to be safe than sorry.
What to Eat
If you are visiting the islands, fresh seafood is a staple. Try the “kinilaw”, a dish of fish, shrimp or octopus eaten raw with vinegar and spices. Muslim foods are generally spicy and hot but delectable. A taste of “Pyesak” and “Pastir”, local dishes of meat and spices is enough to make your tongue wag, literally.
What to Do
Exploring Sulu is not for the faint-hearted. Adventure and excitement are the elements that make the trip to Sulu memorable and fun. There are many scenic attractions to fill your cravings for outdoor adventure. For starters, a quick trip to the following sites is recommended:
- Provincial Capitol located in downtown Jolo, a must-visit place not only for its impressive architecture but to pay courtesy call to the Governor, if he is around
- Quezon Beach in Patikul, about 12 kilometers from Jolo; a wide stretch of fine white sandy beach that is almost untouched by modernization
- National Museum where historical archives are kept
- Heart-shape Si-it Lake in Panamao
- Bud Tumatangis, the highest peak in Jolo where mountaineers are always challenged
- Island-hopping to the smaller islands and discover its unexplored beauty
The media painted a sordid picture of the province as the kidnapping capital of the Philippines and the gateway of illegal drugs from the neighboring Asian countries. Understanding Sulu and its people takes more than just reading travel advisories and listening to hearsay about this restive place. Plan carefully and use common sense but be sure to take the trip to Sulu and be enlightened.