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Travel stories: Mindanao, Philippines

South Cotabato, an exceptional destination: Mindanao, Philippines

By Ronald de Jong

The Land of Kota Batu, a land never conquered by foreign intruders and long time defended by Moro warriors to protect their ancestral land and religion. A land with unbelievably beautiful terrain which lies serenely between majestic mountains in the South of Mindanao, Philippines. The name means stone fort and is taken from the Malay words Kota Batu or the Maguindanao phrase Kuta Wato Nowadays better known as Cotabato. The province of Cotabato was once the largest in Mindanao. North and South Cotabato later became separate provinces. South Cotabato is one of the most blessed and accessible areas in Mindanao, a province with an interesting blend of culture, history and tradition. It has hidden treasures, warm and friendly people, scenic places, amazing and enchanting natural and man made attractions. In this land of flowers and fruits fields are planted with groves of rambutan, durian, tropical blooms and exotic orchids. Its tropical forests are among the most species-rich ecosystems on earth. These forests have supplied the indigenous communities with a treasure trove, including lumber, food, drinks, spices and medicine. The landscape of the province is greatly varied with fertile plains and rice fields, rich in minerals, timber and farmland, its tropical climate and geographical character provide shelter for fauna and flora that are as diverse as its people.

The tribal people of South Cotabato have escaped modernizing influences and still live as their ancestors have lived for centuries. Through the years these regional tribes developed a culture founded in the local traditions and in harmony with the nature around them. They managed to resist centuries of colonization and have retained their own way of life.

In South Cotabato six major tribes still make a colourful contribution to the island. They are the Kalagan, Ubo, Manobo, B'laan, Maguindanao Muslims and the T'boli tribe.

Despite the differences in culture and religion there has always been a similarity among the people of Cotabato. A like-minded sense that melts together the indigenous, the Islamic and the Christian traditions into one single Southern Philippine culture. A diverse but common cultural spirit that is alive and strong with a character that is in harmony with nature.

South Cotabato's multi-religious and multi-racial culture brings festivals that are a reminder of a vibrant past. The fiestas are steeped in traditions, passions and traits. the rich cultural heritage of the province is expressed in vivid costumes and exotic street dances. Annual fiestas are celebrated for different reasons but all are a feast with a profusion of colours and pageantry. Fiestas are celebrated throughout the year and play an important part in the Cotabato culture, it is the tie that binds the communities from this region together and a testament from a sophisticated culture that has little equal in other parts of the Philippines.

The land of Kota Batu, where once the fierce Moro warriors crossed their swords with their adversaries has become a progressive community dealing with modern problems.

The stone fort is not there anymore, it is replaced with modern concrete structures and the sound of karaoke has taken over the drums of war. But there are still many areas hidden in the beautiful landscape that kept their original beauty and rural charm, with many friendly Ethnic minorities upholding traditional values and local customs.

Still and ever present is the magnificent view of Mt. Matutum, a steep, non active, volcano that is located north of the town of General Santos. It's irregular and characteristic shape is formed by volcanic uplift during previous periods of activity. Mt. Matutum has a well-preserved 320-m-wide crater at the volcano's summit, it's last eruption was recorded in 1911. At a 2,286 meters rising high above sea level, Mt. Matutum is undoubtedly the provinces most imposing land mark that dominates the entire landscape from General Santos to Koronadal City. The name Matutum is derived from the Blaa'n term “Amyak Maleh”, that means Climb and Plant. The forested slopes of this majestic mountain are covered with huge ferns, trees and plants that abundantly grow in the wild and are host to diverse animal and plant species, including the national bird, the Philippine Eagle. One of the tallest, rarest, largest and most powerful birds in the world. There are many creeks with free, cool and clear flowing water coming from the hillsides. Mt. Matutum is eyed as one of the greenest outdoor destinations in South Cotabato, this place is a perfect hub for promoting ecotourism in a big way. The slopes and steps of Mt. Matutum will lure the imagination of many visitors.

This mountain is nominated as a new UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mt. Matutum's forest is being protected and managed by the Blaa'n, an indigenous group that inhabits the southern part of South Cotabato. The prominent Mt. Matutum is one of the favorite climbing destinations in the area and is considered as an outstanding challenge to mountaineers and nature lovers. Climbers are requested to plant a seedling on the mountain, a great initiative in making a positive contribution to the preservation of the local ecosystem. The hillside of Mt. Matutum is a stunning place where nature is abundant and unrestrained, a place where one feels a humble respect for nature and the environment. The top of the volcano is offering a magnificent panoramic view of Polomolok, Koronadal City and General Santos City.

All of this creates one of the most amazing natural experiences that people can enjoy.

A visit to Mt. Matutum is not complete if you do not visit Trappistine Monastery of Landan and the Pineapllefields in Polomolok. This place is home to two monasteries. One of them is a Trappistine's monastery located at the foot of Mt. Matutum, in Landan. Towering on top of a hill this Trappistine Monastery of Our Lady of Matutum, it offers an amazing view of Mt. Matutum, after which the monastery was named. It is a place of worship and mediation that breaths an atmosphere of silence, far away from the noise and distractions of daily life. This isolated place is an expression of pure faith and peace, it is the first of its kind in the Philippines. The red roofed monastery stands majestically in the landscape and has an impressive architecture. The simple, but beautiful and intimate chapel of the monastery is a centre of devotion and prayer. The Cistercian Order was first established in the year 1098 in France and during the centuries spread all over the world, including Asia. The Cistercian nuns are more popularly named as Trappistines, their daily work consists of praying in perpetual silence, living a life of Solitude and Prayer. These nuns support themselves by selling religious items, cookies and postcards to their visitors. Visiting the Trappistine Monastery is a truly impressive and moving experience, once inside you will encounter a feeling of homecoming, no matter your religion or background. This monastery is visited by many pilgrims and benefactors coming from every corner of the earth. A perfect place for people seeking tranquillity, reflection and spiritual refreshment.

Under the shadows of Mt. Matutum, in Polomok lies the world's biggest integrated pineapple plantation, owned and operated by Dole Philippines. Polomolok is also dubbed as “Pineapple country”, it's vast and fertile fields are an awesome scenery that is waiting to be discovered.

These lush and green-coloured pineapple fields are stretched across the interior landscape of the region as far as the eye can see. The gorgeous fields have a fresh, tropical smell of ripe pineapples and kalachuchi flowers, it gives a breathtaking view that is a constant reminder of the beauty of the region. The delicious pineapples from Polomolok have a unique sweet and tangy taste, they are consumed locally as fresh fruit and used to produce juice and slices for exports. The pineapple has become a symbol of welcome and hospitality all around the world and is known as one of the most versatile food. A visit to Polomolok is even more rewarding if you take home some freshly harvested “Queen of Fruits”. Mt. Matutum, a volcano that nourished the soil of the province, giving food and life to the people of South Cotabato, is truly a gift of Mother Nature.

Another miraculous gift are the ricefields of Allah Valley and Koronadal Vally, i will always come back to these wonders of nature when traveling through South Cotabato. Rice is the basic food for many countries. more than 80 percent of the world's population depends on rice, not only for their income but also as daily food.The Island of Mindanao is often named the food basket of the Southern Philippines, The rich and fertile lands of Allah Valley in the province of South Cotabato are an agricultural Eden. Ricefields or paddy fields are a common sight in this Province. Here time is measured by the growth of the rice fields. Each planting of the rice field marks the start of a new season. The rice plant takes about four months to mature. When the rice turns golden yellow and the stems are straw coloured it is ready to be harvested. The paddies are drained and the fields are allowed to dry. Harvesting means cutting the plants, moving the crop to another location, threshing and cleaning.

In the Philippines rice is served at every meal, putting rice on the table is just as important to Filipinos as it is for Europeans and Americans to have bread on their dish. However, before the rice will reach your plate, hard and back breaking work has to be done in the ricefields. Work done by strong men and women, up to their knees in water, using their bare hands, simple tools and water buffaloes to prepare the paddies, to plow and to till soil until ready to plant the young rice plants. Most rice farmers in South Cotabato own at least one Carabao which is one of their most treasured possessions. The carabao is a multitask animal, almost maintenance free and environment friendly. These water buffaloes are normally used to plow rice fields, as well as pull wagons or sleds. The sight of a plodding carabao, hauling rice from the fields is a daily sight in many Mindanao village. After the harvest is collected, the ricepaddies are taken over by native ducks, known as Itik. These ducks are usually taken to the field in the morning to pick the left over grains and taken home in the afternoon. The Itik is also known for the balut, a half-hatched egg that is a speciality in the Philippines. Balut is an fertilised egg with a developed embryo of 17 to 19 days, which is boiled and eaten. By selling the eggs the Itik tenders will earn an extra Peso.

Mindanao is filled with rice fields, but in South Cotabato these lowland ricepaddies expresses the harmony between nature and mankind. All ricefields are pieces of breathtaking and impressive natural sceneries, waiting to be discovered.

The tranquility and charm of the ricefields of Allah Valley, Koronadal Valley and the breathtaking view of Mt. Matutum will make South Cotabato an exceptional destination to visit.

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