The province of Basilan in Southern Philippines doesn’t have to pay for a pricey advertising campaign just to let the whole world that it exists. Its frequent troubles have been featured especially by both local international media outfits, many times more than the rest of the Philippines combined. This free publicity, albeit an unpleasant one, is one big reason why it may never end up in most Filipinos’ travel bucket lists.
Despite Basilan’s notorious reputation, I was honestly surprised to find out that it is, for the lack of a better description, actually a safe place. When my friend and I reached the port of Isabela City last year, we just walked without armed escorts, towards the provincial capitol to meet the local tourism officer. We were admittedly, more curious than afraid during that time.
On N. Balderosa St, the main street leading to the provincial capitol, are thriving business establishments such as hardware supply stores, money remittance stalls, beauty parlor shops and the like. At the center is the Santa Isabel Cathedral and the Rizal Plaza. Right across the provincial capitol is a Jollibee store which is said to be their 500th branch in the Philippines. You would know you are near Isabela City since the store signage, which seems to be the tallest structure in the city, is visible from afar.
I noticed that the residents just went about their usual routines that morning. If not for a banner denouncing an all-out of war, there is little reminder of the conflict that people outside Basilan have been worried about. This is then an image of Basilan that I never knew, in contrast to the violence and lawlessness that are often associated with this land.
But I imagine that it is not easy to grow up in this place. Yet the Basileños – Yakans, Tausugs and Zamboangeños alike, have all learned to peacefully coexist through the years, amidst the realities of poverty, terrorism and government neglect. They have suffered major setbacks every now and then, but their resilience and their common hopes have allowed them to rebuild and to move forward every time.
How to attain a sustainable peace and development in this part of the Philippines has eluded many generations already. It is a complex question that does not have straightforward answers. But what is encouraging to note is that some of their local businessmen and community leaders have engaged in creative means in achieving that very same end. I learned that they have maintained the Basilan Wikipedia page to provide others a more balanced history and perspective of their province. It also enumerates some of Basilan’s hidden gems – the white beaches of Malamawi island and many more.
I believe that every Filipino, and not just the Muslims and Christians in Basilan, can also contribute to the picture. We could probably start by challenging our own biases and prejudices. Not everyone in Basilan is wanted by the law and not every square inch of this province is at war. The few hours that I spent in Basilan have allowed me to realize just that, and in the process corrected myths and imaginary barriers I have about the place.
How to get there
Isabela City, Basilan province’s capital is approximately 31 kms away from Zamboanga City. It can be reached in an hour on a fast craft. There are also ferries that would take 45 minutes longer but provide wonderful open air views of the Basilan Strait.
The threat from extremist militants is real everywhere in the Philippines. My friend and I did not just go to Isabela City on a whim. It was a combination of sheer guts and informed judgment. For your other queries, you may reach the Provincial Tourism Officer through this number: +63 62 2003417.