Hundreds of years ago, Filipino ancestors, part seafarers, traders and warriors, controlled much of the Sulu archipelago -- from coastal areas of Zamboanga in the North, to Palawan in the West and North Borneo in the South. Controlled by the Sultan of Sulu, these warriors aboard wooden balangays, would often raid settlements and ships for slaves. Magellan’s chronicler reported that these majestic boats which had over 100 rowers, strike awe and fear into the hearts of their enemies.
Today, replicas of the balangay set sail again in "Voyage of the Balangay", not to raid and plunder, but to promote unity and understanding through historically shared maritime bonds in Southeast Asia. Three balangays (Diwata ng Lahi, Masawa hong Butuan, and Sama Tawi-Tawi) and their brave crew trace the migration paths of their ancient Filipino ancestors.
This chronicles the last leg of their Philippine voyage -- setting off at Zamboanga and spending 15 days visiting the islands of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
Text and photos by Fung Yu
This leg of "Voyage of the Balangay" starts at Paseo del Mar, Zamboanga City.
From turquoise seas in Basilan coast to fearful 6-foot waves in Tawi-Tawi, life at sea is a constant uncertainty.
On the 250 nautical mile voyage, the ships were frequently battered by bad weather and rough seas. Crew members often had to seek shelter in unfamiliar coves.
The boats took shelter at the port of Languyan while waiting for calmer seas.
Masawa hong Butuan sails smoothly near the municipality of Languyan, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines.
The sea voyage brought the crew to some interesting and unexplored locations in southern Mindanao -- the pink sand beaches of Santa Cruz islands, the tomb of Raja Baginda, the first Muslim ruler of Sulu, and the 350m Bongao Peak in Tawi-Tawi, among others.
Arrivals in the port of Bongao, capital of Tawi-Tawi.
Life aboard the balangays exists between such extremes -- relaxing at sea to hectic repair works while at port.
The crew of the balangays include the first Philippine Mount Everest Team, representatives from the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard, plus volunteers from the province of Butuan, where the ancient balangays were first unearthed and carbon-dated to 320AD.
These modern “raiders of the sea,” brave local and international waters as they sail to China -- taking the sea routes of Borneo, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.
They hope to reach China by mid-October to participate in the Shanghai World Expo.
The balangays are usually stocked with fresh water and food supplies at every port. The water tanks act as ballasts to stabilise the boat.
With limited space and no power onboard, food is bought fresh in the ports and consumed within a day.
The port of Simunul, where Islam was first introduced in the Philippines 629 years ago.
The seaside community now lives on seaweed farming.
Entering the Sibutu channel, one of the southernmost islands in the Philippines.
Locals from Sibutu island, home of Sama Tawi-Tawi boat builders, await the team's arrival.
The crew were met by a welcome delegation made up of the townsfolk and the local government officials of Sibutu.
The crew pushes the boat towards Sitangkai, a low-lying island in one of the southernmost provinces of the country.
Sitangkai may well be a rustic Venice of the tropics, reminding a traveller of its canals and bridgeways.
The "Voyage of the Balangay" symbolises the close cultural ties that existed between the Philippines and countries in Southeast Asia during pre-colonial times.
It is a voyage of history and the human spirit which can only be possible through unity, camaraderie and teamwork.
For more photos, go to Virtual Journals.
For more information, visit Voyage of the Balangay.