Basilan is a big and beautiful island in the southern region of Mindanao, easily accessible via ferry from Zamboanga. It has pristine beaches, majestic waterfalls, incredible lakes and fantastic indigenous culture, all supported by very proactive and dynamic local governments. Unfortunately, for the past few decades it has suffered terribly from association with the Abu Sayyaf Group, the most feared terrorist group in the country.
ASG’s founding members come from Basilan, and its hideouts and lairs are in remote areas of the island, too. There have been numerous heinous massacres in this island, with the most recent last August 2017 where ASG went on a rampage at Tubigan Village in Maluso. This happened when the military units stationed in the area had an operation further away. Somehow the ASG knew that the military won’t be there. According to locals, this was a case of clan war or what is locally known as “rido”.
However, take note that these were isolated events and not at all commonplace.
I had the wonderful opportunity to explore a bit of Basilan for five days last August 2017, during Martial Law when just about any place I went to was teeming with military detachments and headquarters. I assure you that going around in the main cities and populated areas is quite safe.
As a tourist in Basilan, the important thing to do is to go to the tourism office first and inform them of your planned itinerary. They will advise you about the places you can only visit with a military or police escort, and those you can visit on your own.
Is it Safe to stay in the hotels in Basilan?
Yes, I had experience staying at the hotels in Lamitan City and Isabela City and they were quite safe. You don’t have to worry about terrorists suddenly attacking the city in the middle of the night!
I stayed at Sophia Hotel in Isabela City; at the heart of the city center close to the restaurants, police stations, and eateries. I even stayed at a resort quite far from the main city, around 20 minute ride by tricycle. Although I did worry that ASG might attack the resort in the middle of the night, the owners living there and the caretaker assured me that there are police detachments nearby.
In Maluso, I also stayed at a homestay right across the police station. Yes, I went backpacking and traveling around in Maluso even though there was just a massacre there the previous month. I had a big entourage and always traveled with escorts! All thanks to the concerned efforts of their tourism officer of Maluso, Basilan: Rhendi Francisco, this is his number: 0915 298 3263
Do I have to pay the military and police escorts provided for me?
Not at all, as this is part of their job. But of course if you are so inclined, you are very much welcome to give them a small amount as a way of thanking them. In my case I fed all my escorts well. It did cost a lot for me, but this could be avoided by talking about it candidly with your designated tour guide. They will do everything they can to make the trip cost-effective for you.
Here is a photo of myself with my tour guides and coast guards while doing island-hopping in Lampinigan Island.
What Should I do if I Want to Visit Basilan on my own?
Yes, by all means, do so!
From the port of Isabela City in Basilan, it is a short tricycle ride away to the municipal grounds (where the tourism office is). From there, talk to the tour guides and discuss with them your itinerary. Here is the number of Michelle, my very kind and accommodating guide and local tourism staff in Isabela City, Basilan : 0905 479 2819
If you reach Basilan beyond business hours (8-5am), all you have to do is stay at one of the hotels and inns at the main cities. Lamitan City and Isabela City have hotels close to the police stations.
The main hotel in Lamitan is operated by the local government. I had no problem walking around at night; in fact the people there are exceptionally warm and friendly! I rode tricycles on my own from my resort to the village to the city. Here is the number of Ms. Cora, a staff of the local tourism office in Lamitan City: 09175577874
If you have an image of Basilan or Isabela and Lamitan City as teeming with terrorists, with evil and malevolent people at every corner, you are absolutely wrong. In fact, the opposite is true. Yet, the ASG really do live and operate here, in the hidden corners and remote areas. All you have to do is identify these remote and isolated areas and avoid them completely. And always, always listen to what the locals say.
Otherwise, the rest of Basilan is safe and enjoyable!
To quote Yara Musa, a first year Legal Management student at the Ateneo de Zamboanga University and a resident of Basilan, in her article published at Rappler last 2015, “What we need is not harsh unnecessary comments when you hear the word Basilan. Like us, we need you to see its beauty even at its worst. Go beyond the negative perceptions Basilan has been coated with and search for something more. Listen to our untold stories and the concerns we have been trying to voice out.
Most beautiful stories are untold and hidden behind awful scenes. These are the same stories we need to tell because they show us a world we have yet to see.”