Lamitan in Basilan is a trove of natural and cultural treasures. The city has dramatic waterfalls, white-sand beaches, and thick forests of rubber and coconut trees. It is famous for its craft or artisanal products from furniture to metalworks, pots to weaves.
Three main ethnic groups—the Yakan, Tausug, and the Chavacano—call it home.
The Yakan are considered to be among the finest weavers in the Southern Philippines. Their fabrics are known for being colorful, dense, and tightly-woven, products of a vast repertoire of visual motifs and weaving techniques.
Weaver and purveyor of culture
The epitome of the Yakan’s giftedness in weaving is their pride, the late Ambalang Ausalin, a virtuoso whose skill in the craft is held in the highest esteem even beyond Basilan.
Apuh Ambalang, as she is called in her community, was recognized by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCAA) as a National Living Treasure in 2016, an honor in the same league as the National Artist Award.
Also called the Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan, the award is bestowed on the finest traditional artists whose distinctive skills have reached a high level of technical and artistic excellence.
More than their accomplishments in their craft, these artists must also have passed on their skills to the present generation of their community with the same degree of technical and artistic competence.
Apuh Ambalang was born to a family of weavers in the quiet town of Parangbasak, Lamitan. Their clan is known throughout the province for their skill and artistry.
Speaking through an interpreter, the 78-year-old a’a pandey megtetennun or master weaver recounts that she started weaving at the tender age of 10 under the tutelage of her mother. Considered the best weaver of her time, she instilled in the young Ambalang’s mind the renown of their family in weaving.
As a novice, Apuh Ambalang practiced using banana and coconut leaves as she could not afford to waste precious raw materials while still learning. Quality cotton has always been in short supply in the area.
It was two years into her mother’s instruction when she finally had more confidence weaving at the loom.
At 12, she was already able to weave textile using the difficult bunga sama technique wherein a single design element requires thread to be passed seventy times through the loom. Over the years, her weaves have evolved to become the visually arresting and highly textured works of art for which she has been renowned
Her specialty includes two hallmarks of the Yakan weaving tradition, the suwah bekkat or cross-stitched embellishment and suwah pendan or embroidered embellishment, both staples in their traditional trousers and overskirts.
A rich weaving tradition
Weaving is an indispensable part of Yakan culture and continues to be alive in their community. Its history can be traced to the time of their ancestors who had to find ways of producing fabric for their clothing.
All Yakan women in the past were trained in weaving and many of their men can also weave. If a woman possessed the three skills of warping, designing, and weaving, and was able to produce cloth and sew a complete ensemble for her family, she was regarded as an honorable wife and mother. This was how Apuh Ambalang was acknowledged in the Yakan community.
Professor Emeritus of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman Norma Respicio says that Yakan weavers make the sinalu’an.
These traditional woven trousers have the most number of warp yarn count in all of Philippine textile weaving traditions. A warp yarn is one of the two basic components used in weaving to turn thread into fabric.
The author and expert on indigenous weaves says that a foot of sinalu’an could have as much as 1,000 warp yarns.
Apuh Ambalang shares that their textiles and designs serve different purposes. There are specific designs used for clothes, head covers, and table runners.
Their colorful and ornate weaves are mostly inspired by nature, from snakes to butterfly wings. For example, diamonds called mata-mata or dinglu-dinglu represent rice grains while X patterns illustrate rice mortars. The interplay of these two elements symbolizes an abundant harvest.
These symbolisms reflect how the Yakan look to nature as the mother of art. It is through weaving that they are able to record and honor the beauty of their surroundings.
She explains how a meter of the simplest pattern takes up to three days to finish, a single seputangan or headdress with the most ornate design can take months to complete. No wonder, their seputangan holds pride of place in museums and private collections around the world.
A Manlilikha ng Bayan through and through, Apuh Ambalang has been weaving for close to seven decades. Despite being almost 80, she can still weave for an entire day, resting only to cook, eat, and pray.
The mother of three has passed on her skill to her children and continues to mentor a younger generation of weavers.
Yakan weaving tradition continues to thrive, largely through the untiring efforts of Apuh Ambalang. This is proof of their people’s resilience against the armed conflict and civil unrest that used to cast a shadow over Basilan.
Visitors can purchase the renowned weaves of the Yakan at the GAMABA Cultural Center in Parangbesak. They come in different forms with the most intricate ones priced higher. One can buy their weaves as table runners, placemats, scarves, blazers, bags, and purses—all in their signature vibrant colors.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, you can also buy woven face masks for only Php100/each.
Access to Basilan is usually through Zamboanga City. From there, a 1 hour and 45 minute ferry ride will take you to Isabela de Basilan and Lamitan. The fare ranges from Php20 (student and senior citizen’s discounted fare on some conventional ferries) to P70 (first-class w/ aircon). Visitors can also take a “Fast Craft” which only takes about 45 minutes.
Another option is to travel to Isabela and from there get on a bus plying the Isabela-Lamitan route. There is a bus available every hour.
A great way to explore the city is on a motorcycle or habal-habal. You can ask the rider to drop you off at Apuh Ambalang’s place in Parangbesak.
It is highly recommended to coordinate with the Lamitan Tourism Office prior to your trip.
Outsource the Planning
For a seamless trip, you may leave the planning to DOT’s accredited tour operators in Region 9:
- Itravel Tourist Lane
(062) 991-1174 / 0917-722-6410; email@example.com
- Buenas Travel and Tours
- Travel Max Tours
(062) 990-2100; firstname.lastname@example.org
- Happy Campers Tour and Leisure
- MTR Travel Specialist
0930-061-1690 / 0997-745-2957; email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
All tourist destinations in Basilan have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Everyone is expected to comply by wearing face masks, regularly washing their hands, and practicing physical distancing.
To check out up-to-date information regarding local destinations that are open and the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location, you may visit www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel or the Google Playstore.