Sunday, February 9, 2014

Soothed by South Cotabato (Part 2)

If it is southern comfort I’m looking for, I’d readily set my eyes on South Cotabato. People who’ve been there are one in saying that it’s truly a place quite unlike any other. Nowhere else in Mindanao can you find a plethora of diversity that’s evident in many parts of the province. Many of its towns are interesting tourist destinations and two of them should be part of your must-see list: Surallah and Lake Sebu.

Surallah is a fast growing town you shouldn’t miss if you’re bound for South Cotabato. Those heading for Lake Sebu would surely be passing by the town found at the southern portion of Allah River, one of the tributaries of the Rio Grande de Mindanao a.k.a Mindanao River, the second largest river system in the Philippines. Given its location, I surmise the town’s name literally means “south of Allah River”.

There is in Surallah an interesting landmark that’s been featured in photos and blogs many times. The said structure, which was erected within the town’s rotunda, features Surallah's ethnic diversity, rich cultural heritage, and productivity. Renowned Davao artist Kublai Millan, who also did numerous sculptures in various provinces and cities in Davao Region and beyond, created the town’s pièce de résistance. 
Inaugurated about three years ago, the elaborate landmark features a towering, obelisk-like two-string lute that points upward into the sky. Known as hegalong among T’bolis, the indigenous Filipino wooden musical instrument stands prominently in the middle of the rotunda. Below it is a gazebo that’s shaped like the wide-rimmed gong called agong by Muslims and other Philippine indigenous groups.

At the mini-park near the municipal hall, the themes reflected by the structures at the rotunda are echoed by the array of sculptures I saw there. The minutes seemed to have frozen as I went around the works of art and struck several poses with them. To others, the times I’ve spent there may seem boring and uninteresting but for this wannabe culture vulture they’re bright and unparalleled!

Local and foreign tourists who go to South Cotabato usually head for Lake Sebu, probably the most frequented adventure hideaway in the province, mainly because of its amazing lakes and waterfalls, which I’ve visited on three separate occasions. Located at an altitude of about 300 meters (984 ft) above sea level, the upland town never fails to captivate me even if I’ve already seen it time and again.  

Heralded as the Summer Capital of Mindanao, Lake Sebu is the homeland of the T'boli, one of Philippines’ most interesting indigenous tribes noted for their colorful costumes. It’s also best known for being the breeding ground of tilapia, a freshwater fish that’s a sought-after delicacy in those parts. Name it and, chances are, the locals would cook up something delightful with the catch—stewed, grilled, fried, sautéed, baked, steamed!

Three lakes dot Lake Sebu’s rugged landscape: Lahit (the smallest), Seloton (the deepest) and Sebu (the largest), all of which I’ve seen on separate occasions. Very few places in the country have landscapes that are dotted with several lakes and Lake Sebu is one of them.  Interestingly, sebu is the T’boli word for "lake", thus, the upland town’s  name roughly translates to “lake-lake”. Can you beat that? LOL! 

Punta Isla Lake Resort

In the silence of the town’s three lakes, tourists can indulge themselves in emotional catharsis to the hilt. Those still bodies of water offer silence and serenity, especially at night when only the sounds of the wild can be heard. Visitors can commune with God and nature for as long as they want with hardly any interruption. Of the three, however, I find Lake Sebu as the most placid of them all.

Cruising over Lake Sebu is probably one of the most exhilarating journeys I’ve ever had. Lasting for nearly an hour, the spectacular joyride, which is being offered for free by some resorts dotting the lakeside, is a must-try for those who want to experience something soothing to the senses. (You may go over my post on the Lake Sebu cruise at  

Falls No. 1 (Hikong Alo)
Then there’s the popular Seven Falls of Lake Sebu. Found in the village of Seloton, these amazing wonders are considered the major tourist attractions not only of the town but also the entire province. The sheer beauty of the stunning series of cascades will surely take any first-time visitor’s breath away. That’s why the local government is going to great lengths to develop and promote them.  

Falls No. 2 (Hikong Bente)
Named "Hikong Alo" or “passage” in T’boli, the first among the seven cascades has a total drop of about 35 feet. Near Hikong Alo, adventure junkies will have the time of their lives “flying” over 700 feet up in the air by taking the “slides of death”—the 400 meter and 300 meter zipline rides, which treat thrill seekers to a journey above some of the waterfalls. Caveat: the breathtaking rides aren’t for the fainthearted!

Defying gravity, I’ve flown over those falls three times. Suspended in mid-air for several seconds, I felt at some point that I’ve died and gone to heaven!  Geez, they’re probably the ultimate cliffhangers! And I’m raring to have another one! For more about my first experience with the zipline rides in Lake Sebu, go over

Aerial shot of rainbow at Falls No. 2

Falls No. 3, 4 and 5
Incidentally, the other six falls are known as “Hikong Bente”, meaning “immeasurable” (No. 2),  which has a drop twice that of Falls No. 1; “Hikong B’lebed or “zigzag/coil” (No. 3); “Hikong Lowig or “booth” (No. 4); “Hikong Ukol”  or “wildflower” (No. 5); “Hikong  K’fo-I or “short” (No. 6); and “Hikong Tonok” or “soil” (No. 7). So far, only the first two are accessible as the others have treacherous trails. 

More than just a tourist destination, the province has endeared itself to me time and again. It has proven itself in many ways than one to be a hideaway where I can rejuvenate my body, a haven where I can my refresh my mind, a home where I can revitalize my spirit. I love South Cotabato so much; leaving it is always a sad affair. That’s why a revisit is always in the back of my mind.

Having said all that, I believe the province should make it into the bucket list of every adventure-loving traveler who’s yearning to soothe his or her soul, perhaps way up there than Singapore, Cambodia, Macau, Hong Kong or any other foreign land. South Cotabato is a cradle of serenity and sobriety, with interesting attractions we Mindanaoans are so proud of. Whew, whatta province! :D

 More pics: 

pic name pic name pic name
pic name pic name pic name
pic name pic name pic name

Monday, February 3, 2014

Soothed by South Cotabato (Part 1)

Soothing the soul becomes a force of habit to me whenever I feel the incubus of life dragging me down. I go about this ritual by going to a place where I can regain a part of me I’ve lost in the rat race. If the need for inner peace, renewal, and enlightenment is so intense, I often hit the road to search for uplifting experiences in a local soul-soothing destination in Mindanao—South Cotabato. 

Comely, countrified and cool than other parts of the country, South Cotabato is fast becoming a hideaway of choice among local and even foreign tourists. Sought by adventure junkies for its mist-covered mountains, magical waterfalls, mystical lakes and the most scenic and probably the deepest ziplines in Southeast Asia, the province has many attractions ideal for retreats, rejuvenations and reunions.

Hikong Alo a.k.a Falls No. 1
These past years, I’ve grown so fond of South Cotabato. If time permits me and my resources warrant it, I run away to this province in SOCCSKSARGEN. Whenever I’m there, I hardly miss home; it’s as if I never left home at all. Here’s a haven in the heart of the island where forests, fogs, fireflies and freezing nights conjure an ambience that restores tired bodies, refreshes troubled minds and revives sagging spirits.

Gaisano Grand in Koronadal
This I have to say: the province occupies a special place in my heart.  It was there where my mettle as a young researcher was put to test many years ago. Back then, what was then known as South Cotabato was composed of seventeen towns. It was also part of Southern Mindanao (Region XI), along with the three original Davao Provinces, Davao City, Surigao del Sur and General Santos City.

Surallah Rotunda
For about a week, my teammates and I went all over the place to conduct an inventory of medical equipment and paraphernalia which were donated to various barangay health stations all over the province. Part of a foreign-assisted project, the donations have helped improve the health care services of the recipient villages not only in South Cotabato but the rest of Southern Mindanao.

Lake Sebu
Hopping from one barangay to another, I had the time of life meandering from north to south—scouring remote villages, interviewing several respondents, eating in dingy eateries, sleeping in crowded hospitals, and many first-time experiences. In no small measure, the South Cotabato escapade helped me earn my spurs as a researcher and a field auditor.  If only for that, I feel beholden to the province.

If I’m not mistaken, South Cotabato then included the fast-rising city of General Santos (or GenSan) and the seven southern coastal towns—Alabel, Glan, Malapatan, Malungon, Maitum, Maasim and Kiamba—that now form part of present-day Sarangani, following its creation as a separate province in 1992. Today, GenSan has become one of the Philippines’ highly-urbanized cities.  

With the creation of Sarangani Province, South Cotabato now has ten towns—Banga, Polomolok, Lake Sebu, Norala, Surallah, Sto. Nino, T’boli, Tantangan, Tampakan and Tupi—and one component city, Koronadal, which is also the regional center of the SOCCSKSARGEN Region, the conglomeration of South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and the cities of Cotabato and General Santos.

Arguably, the most soul-soothing experiences I’ve ever had in South Cotabato in recent years were those countless times I spent frolicking in four exciting destinations in the province—Koronadal, Polomolok, Surallah and of course, Lake Sebu. The natural and man-made attractions found all over the place are veritable magnets for seekers of serenity like this inveterate gadabout. 

 Alunan Avenue in Koronadal City
Koronadal City, for instance, has several sights and sounds that would surely captivate even the most seasoned of travelers. Still known to most people by its old name,  Marbel, the city features an interesting fusion of urban chaos and country living. Traffic along the city rotunda (which locals refer to as “Round Ball”) has become chaotic since my last visit to the city. Oh, dear, the price of progress!

Strategically located in the heart of Central Mindanao, Koronadal City lies in the intersection of two major road networks: the Pan Philippine Highway Friendship Highway and the Koronadal-Banga-Isulan Road which connect the city to other major destinations in SOCCSKSARGEN Region and the rest of Mindanao. It serves as the crucial economic crossroad not only for the province but for the region as well.

Before the Christian migrants came, B’laan and Maguindanaoan tribes used to populate the area. What is now the city proper was once called Marbel, whose name was derived from the B’laan words, malb-el, meaning “muddy water”, perhaps in reference to what is now known as Marbel River. The B'laans also called the place Koronadal, from the words koron or kolon, meaning “cogon grass” and nadal or datal, referring to “plain”.

pic name pic name pic name
pic name pic name pic name
pic name pic name pic name
Hiligaynon, the language of the Ilonggos, is widely spoken in the city. But they also speak Cebuano and Tagalog. Years ago, I used to frequent Koronadal when it was still the capital town of the province, either to do some research work or assist in the conduct of workshops for local government units. Good thing, I understood Hiligaynon that’s why I didn’t have any difficulty interacting with the locals.

Revisited after quite some time, the city once known as a “plain of cogon” impressed me with its stunning metamorphosis. New hotels have risen, including FB Hotel and Convention Center and The Farm@Carpenter Hill. On a recent visit, I noticed a new shopping complex, Gaisano Grand Mall. The old KCC Mall, on the other hand, is undergoing a major face-lift, perhaps in a bid to keep up with the competition.  

It was also a delight to see a new City Hall rising prominently near the highway leading to the town center. The new building is a fitting testament to the rise of Koronadal up in the ladder of progress and good governance. I just wish that the provincial government would do something to upgrade the facilities of the South Cotabato Sports Complex, which used to be the venue of several national competitions in the past.  

Koronadal also prides itself with a new tourist attraction that would surely give swim fans and sun worshipers the thrill and fun they crave for especially now that summer is approaching—Paraiso Verde Resort and Water Park. The world-class resort, which made a big splash when it opened a few years ago, offers four major attractions: Moby Wave Pool, Adventura River Rapids, Freestyle Swim Pool, and Wiggles Kiddie Pool.

Some attractions inside Paraiso Verde

Paraiso Verde has open cabanas, airconditioned cabins, a food court, a 300 person-capacity pavilion, a café, a souvenir shop and a lush garden. But it’s the wave pool that really impressed me the most. At first, it looked like an ordinary pool with a gradual slope just like a beach, until the waves started coming. Geez, it’s one of the most exhilarating aqua adventure parks I’ve seen in those parts!

Mt. Matutum
Polomolok, on the other hand, captivated me the moment I first laid eyes on its awesome landscape many years ago while on my way to Koronadal from General Santos City. Incidentally, the bustling town got its name from the B’laan word, flomlok, meaning “hunting ground”. A long time ago, the area where the town center is located used to be known for the plethora of wildlife, hence, the name.   

While in town, visitors get to have a close look at South Cotabato’s most distinctive attraction: Mt. Matutum. Rising some 2,286 meters above sea level, the mountain is considered to be one of the twenty-plus active volcanoes in the country. Known to have last erupted in 1911, it has remained calm since then. Lying at its foot are some natural hot and cold springs where tourists can swim to their hearts’ content. 

DOLE Kalsangi in Polomolok
Mention Polomolok and, chances are, pineapples would come easily to anybody’s mind like I do. Home to DOLE Philippines, the world’s largest producer and marketer of fresh, canned pineapples and other fruits, the boom town is surrounded with gently rolling plantations spread all over 12,000 hectares of its fertile lands, making it one of South Cotabato’s important cash cows.

DOLE Plantation
Right smack in the middle of the vast DOLE plantation lies one of Polomolok’s best kept secrets—Kalsangi. 

While covering an event there for the first time years ago, my coworkers and I had a hard time locating it. Geez, it took us almost an hour just to find the estate which lay hidden in the vastness of the plantation! Fortunately, we got to Kalsangi before the impending rain could make matters worse.   

Generally off-limits to the public, Kalsangi isn’t shown on any tourist map so don’t bother looking for it. Reason: the exclusive village is home to the multinational firms’ ex-pats and top brass. To gain access to the estate, you have to pass through strict security checks. Good thing, I have friends who had some connections inside so we were able to make it there fuss-free on two occasions.

Entering Kalsangi for the first time, I felt like I was in some typical American village. Scattered all over the sprawling estate are log cabins reminiscent of those country houses I’ve seen in many Hollywood movies. Conifers of all shapes and sizes line up its streets, interspersed with huge trees and other wild flora. Kalsangi had me the moment I saw those tall Norfolk pine trees!

Wait, there’s more to the village than those pine trees; it also boasts of a sprawling nine-hole golf course, probably one of the country’s best greens. Roaming around the estate for the first time, I suddenly found myself transported to a sanctuary of serenity where peace reigns supreme. Who needs golf carts when it’s more soothing to the senses to take a leisurely hike amidst Kalsangi’s green fields? 

Golf aficionados can play all day in the golf course while treating themselves with the sight of majestic Mt. Matutum looming nearby. After a tourney, they can head for the clubhouse and savor those meals which are no less spectacular than Kalsangi itself. For more about my sojourn’s story, go over my post on Polomolok at

(to be continued)