T’boli Town | A Homestay Experience and Cultural Immersion with the T’boli

Friday, October 04, 2019

Nestled in the lush mountains of South Cotabato is T’boli Town, a 1st class municipality named after the indigenous people themselves, the T’boli. Most T’boli people live around Lake Sebu, though there are other T’boli communities in other municipalities of South Cotabato as well. The T’boli predate the Spanish colonial time, and their way of life continued on long after the Spanish rule ended in 1898. They distinguish themselves from other tribes in Mindanao by their traditional clothing, unique weaving practice using T’nalak (a scared cloth woven from abacá fibers), complicated bead works, and beautiful brass ornaments.
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T’boli Town as a Sustainable Tourism Destination
After our brief cultural immersion with the Blaan Tribe at the Blaan Wellness and Tribal Village in Polomolok, our group travelled to T’boli Town. The town was the second community nominated as a Sustainable Tourism Destination during the Sustainable Community-Based Tourism Recognition (SCBTR) by the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB), the marketing arm of the Department of Tourism (DoT). Together with the TPB people, sustainable tourism assessors and the Becoming Filipino team, we set out to T’boli Town to get to know the people and learn about their culture. 
A festive welcome by the T'boli Tribe at Lemsnolon Cultural Village in T’boli, South Cotabato
Homestay Experience at Lemsnolon Cultural Village
It was already dark when we arrived in the municipality of Lemsnolon, where we stayed on our first night in South Cotabato. The Lemsnolon Cultural Village offers a Homestay Program in a traditional T'boli long-house (Gono Bong), and an opportunity to interact with the T’boli.
T'boli women performing with their very own musical instruments like Hegalong (2-string guitar), Tnonggong (drum), Agung (musical gong), and Kulintang (row of small, horizontally laid gongs) 
We were welcomed by the friendly T’boli people with a traditional T’boli dance and music. We were then treated with a sumptuous dinner prepared by T’boli women which include roasted native chicken, a T’boli version of Tinola (native chicken cooked with lemongrass and chilli leaves inside a bamboo), steamed rice wrapped in a leaf, and seasonal fruits. We had a lovely conversation with the T’boli women, especially about their colorful traditional clothing and accessories. We loved it so much that all of us in the group bought earrings, bracelet and long-sleeved blouse with bead works as souvenirs. 

T'boli with their coloful traditional clothing and musical instruments
Unfortunately, our call time the next day was at 4 AM , so we all retreated into our cozy bed inside a colourful Klabu to finish the evening’s festivities. Klabu is a tent-like canopy adorned with ornamental needle works and tassels, which originated from the Maranao of Lanao. According to Rodel Hilado, aka Margaux, the T'boli Municipal Tourism Officer, the klabu is a good indicator of the T’boli family wealth and stature. Sleeping inside it made me feel like a true T’boli princess. 
Curled up like a baby in my cosy bed at the homestay of Lemsnolon Cultural Village
The Long Way to Sitio Kule, the jump-off point to Lake Holon and Mt. Parker (aka Mt. Melibingoy)
Travelling by 4x4 pick-up truck from our homestay in the Lemsnolon Cultural Village to Sitio Kule was a real assault on the senses. Sitio Kule, a remote T’boli municipality, is the jump-off point to Lake Holon and Mt. Parker (aka Mt. Melibingoy). It’s mountain trail, called Kule Trail, offers the best view of Lake Holon and considered one of the easiest trail to Mt. Parker. 
We did not look haggard and stressed in this photo at the back of our 4x4 pick-up truck lol!
Life in Sitio Kule is different in so many ways and getting there is an adventure like no other – a 1-hour 4x4 journey may end up taking 2-3 hours usually due to unforgiving road, but you will never be bored. Trust me. If you’re planning to get there by driving a motorcycle on your own or hiring a habal-habal, be prepared. The ride starts with a paved highway then later to rocky and muddy roads. Even when we’re on a 4x4 pick-up truck, we felt how the road seemed to get worse as we drove further in to Sitio Kule. If you don’t have company who is familiar with the terrain, don’t dare to drive on your own. Habal-habal is your best bet.

Learning About T’boli Culture Through Food
If there’s one thing that seems to unify different cultures, it’s the tradition of gathering together to share a meal. A seemingly simple lunch in Sitio Kule turned out to be more than just sampling the local cuisine; it was a tactile experience that gave me a feel and taste for T’boli’s culture. Since the T’boli live in the mountains, they are closely tied to nature, which give them food and shelter. Their essential staple foods include corn, banana, gabi (taro), sweet potatoes and cassava. During festivals and other special occasions, they serve specially-prepared traditional food to their families and guests. Here are some of the delicious food we had during the Sustainable Community-Based Tourism Recognition (SCBTR). I get hungry just by looking at it!

"A seemingly simple lunch in Sitio Kule turned out to be more than just sampling the local cuisine; it was a tactile experience that gave me a feel and taste for T’boli’s culture." 

a feast with the T'boli
steamed talong (egg plant) with tomatoes and bagoong (fermented fish sauce)
Lumpiang Shanghai with Calamansi
Gabi-flavored Puto with cheese
Alimango or mud crabswith vegetables
Grilled Chicken
T'boli women playing their own musical instruments
This elderly T'boli woman knows how to play instruments very well!
Tourists in Sitio Kule can borrow traditional T'boli clothing for some photo op
Overall Experience
Two of the most significant tourism trends right now are the demand of tourists seeking Authentic Indigenous and Community-based Cultural Experiences and Sustainable Tourism. These are exactly what travellers will find in T’boli Town. My experience with the T’boli was exceptional. I will not forget the authentic local culture, the decadent food, and the friendly T’boli people of South Cotabato. SOCCSKSARGEN (SOX) was a place I heard so much about, finally traveling here confirms this as one of the most culturally vibrant regions in all of the Philippines. It’s definitely a place I hope to venture back to soon!
'nose bleeding' with Kulas of Becoming Filipino lol!
I am always the first person to recommend traveling DIY-style in the Philippines but in South Cotabato, it is generally wiser to be part of an organized tour, purely due to the remoteness of various areas and the need to have local expertise when planning your trip.

Useful Info
SOX Tourism
Facebook Page: @visitsox
Website: https://sox.explora.ph/

Thank you so much Philippines’ Tourism Promotions Board! I am forever grateful for this experience.

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