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Lake Sebu Lotus Garden: Paddling through the T’boli Culture

As our owong glided over the calm lake, I felt like I was slowly drifting off to a deep slumber with such a beautiful dream except from the fact that my eyes were open and I was wide awake. Everything around us was peaceful and in an impossibly perfect harmony – the misty mountains from afar, the cool morning breeze brushing my cheeks, the distant cock-a-doodle of the roosters, the gentle splash when the paddle touches the water; everything. As we quietly approached the area where the lotuses are, time stood still as I soaked in the reality. The dream of finally experiencing Lake Sebu Lotus Garden is a dream no more.

About Lake Sebu

Lake Sebu is a municipality in South Cotabato, one of the provinces in the SOCCSKSARGEN region (South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani including cities like General Santos, Kidapawan, Tacurong and Koronadal) located in South-central Mindanao. It is seated at about 1,000 Meters Above Sea Level resulting to its cool climate. Though a melting pot of various cultures, Lake Sebu is largely inhabited by the T’boli tribe. The town is named after its biggest lake.

Locally, they call this 380-hectare body of water as “El” that they named as “S’bu”. Eventually they called it Lake Sebu. It is the biggest of the three lakes in the town with its deepest part at 60 meters. The other is known as Lake S’loton (Seloton) which is the deepest at an 80-meter depth; and Lake Lahit, the smallest of the three that is about 48 hectares. These lakes serve as the source of water of the town’s famous falls unlike the usual ones with their waters cascading down from the mountains to a basin.

Lake Sebu Lotus Garden in bird’s eye view

Apart from being the source of water to the falls, these lakes have also provided the people residing around it a livelihood. Primarily, it is where they farm Tilapia. Aside from Tilapia, Lake Sebu has had the Lotus Garden which has been providing a different means of livelihood to them through tourism.

The Lake Sebu Lotus Garden Experience

We woke up to a chilly November morning and prepped up ourselves and our rented T’boli costume from School of Living Traditions. It was still dark and the town was still asleep except from us who were alive and thrilled for that day’s fun. Sir Jorie, our tour guide picked us up at 5:30 AM at SLT. We then took a habal ride to Poblacion where sir Jorie gave a short briefing about the activity.

The T’Boli Costume

After the brief, Sir Jorie assisted us in wearing the T’boli costume. Franco and Radd wore the T’Nalak (T’boli’s sacred cloth from weaving abaca fiber) vest and pants. They also wore the ulew or scarf on their heads in which the way it’s worn symbolizes one’s role in the tribe. Franco wore it the Datu way and Radd, the warrior.

Since the T’boli tribe is traditionally conservative, I wore the kegal libun T’boli — the attire for women composed of a long sleeve blouse called kegal kenibang and malong called lewek. I had the kegal kenibang and lewek secured around my waist with the belt that they call as hilet. This belt’s latch is made of brass with intricate designs, and it has dangling embellishments made of beads in black, red, white and yellow color and tiny bells on its ends. We also had accessories on like the necklaces locally known as lieg for the guys and sewat for me — a headdress for ladies made of wooden comb adorned with the beads hanging around it.

Renting the T’boli costumes is also a means of supporting the studies of the T’boli kids. They are actually the ones who own it as they or their parents themselves made and had it out for rent. Their earnings from the rental help them in their fees in school.

The Owong (Canoe)

After wearing the costumes, we hopped onto our canoes. Locally, these canoes are called Owong. Owongs are made of Lawaan tree. There are two kinds of Lawaan that they use for the canoes: the red and the white. The canoes made from white Lawaan could only last two to three years. The ones made from red, on the other hand, could last five to seven years.

Since we’re all used to riding an outrigger boat when cruising through the waters, we were a bit worried that the canoe may tip in one slight movement. Sir Jorie, however, made sure that it won’t. According to him, there’s 99% percent chance that it won’t. Calmly, the boatmen in Asian squat on one end of the canoe paddled from where the owongs are parked and passed the Tilapia pens. We were just amusing ourselves with the morning scene and before we know it, the lotus garden was right in front of us.

The rotten canoes

The Sawa (Lotus)

We reached the Lotus Garden after few minutes of paddling. It was among the most peaceful scene I’ve ever witnessed. Lake Sebu was so calm and so was that morning. The faint sunlight peeked through the canopy of clouds. The lotus around us, locally known as “sawa”, which seemed floating in the lake were in full bloom. It sure felt like a dream.

Just when we thought that they were floating, Sir Jorie told us that they actually aren’t. They’re rooted on the ground or mud. Hence, the depth of the lake is the length of the lotus flowers’ stalk. As Sir Jorie put it, these flowers may be raised from the mud but it actually blooms into a purely beautiful attraction.

These flowers are in full bloom from 5:30 AM until 9:00 AM. The petals start to close at 9:00 AM and they are totally closed at 11:00 PM. They are in full bloom every morning all year round and it takes 3 to 4 months for them to be in this vibrant magenta color. The ones cut from its stalk lasts for two hours only.

Though a lot of tourists have been captivated by the beauty of Lake Sebu and its Lotus Garden way back, the activity rose to fame even more when Miss Universe 2016, Catriona Gray visited Lake Sebu, tried and promoted the activity, too.

Lake Sebu Lotus Garden Fees and Rates

  1. T’boli costume rental – Php 200.00 (School of Living Tradition)
  2. Boat rental – Php 200.00 per head
  3. Habal rental (day trip) – Php 750.00

Tips When Visiting the Lotus Garden

  1. The best time to visit the lotus garden is at 5:30 AM to 7:00 AM. Though flowers are in full bloom until 9:00 AM, there are not much of tourists during this time yet; hence, you may have the lotus garden to yourself first. The flowers’ petals are completely closed at 11:00 AM.
  2. Rent the T’boli costume the night before your trip to the Lotus Garden. Bring a tote or an extra bag for these costumes especially if you’re riding the habal habal.
  3. Hire a local guide. The local guide will give you a deeper understand thus appreciate the lotus garden, the activity and the T’boli culture as well.
  4. Bring dry bags for your valuables.
  5. Bring more than enough cash. Take note that there are no ATM in the town. Some establishments though would accept Gcash.

How to Get There

From Manila

There are no airports in South Cotabato. The nearest that you can fly to is at General Santos City. Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines have several flights daily from Manila to General Santos City, v.v. Make sure that you’ll book a flight in the morning if you intend to travel straight to Lake Sebu since the last van or bus trip is at 5:00 PM.

General Santos City Airport (Option A):

  1. Make your way to Bulaong terminal where you can take a van.
  2. Take a van going to Marbel (Koronadal City). First trip is at 4:00 AM and the last departs at 9:00 PM. Alight at the public terminal.
  3. Take another van going to Lake Sebu. First trip departs at 6:00 AM and the last at 6:00 PM. You may also take a van to Surallah if you won’t be able to catch the last trip to Lake Sebu. Then from Surallah, you may take another van or habal straight to Lake Sebu.

General Santos City (Option B):

  1. Make your way to the Yellow Bus Terminal and hop into a bus bound for Marbel (Koronadal City). This may take more or less an hour of land trip.
  2. From Marbel’s bus station, take another Yellow bus going to Surallah. This may take less than an hour.
  3. Upon arrival in Surallah, take a van or jeep going to Lake Sebu. The trip takes 30 minutes.

Sultan Kudarat:

  1. From any point in Sultan Kudarat, take a tawnis, van or bus going to Tacurong.
  2. At the terminal in Tacurong, take a bus going to Marbel (Koronadal City). Fare is at Php 72.00 and the trip may take an hour. Tell the drive to drop you off the Integrated Transport Terminal.
  3. From the Integrated Transport Terminal, take the left wing where the vans going to Lake Sebu are parked. Take a van to Lake Sebu. Fare is at Php 150.00 and the trip takes an hour. Take note that the last trip is at 6:00 PM. See to it though that you’ll arrive at the terminal at around 5:00 PM to get a seat.


  1. Take a taxi going to Ecoland Terminal.
  2. From the drop off point, take a bus going to Bulaong Terminal in General Santos City.
  3. Then, you may take option A or B coming from General Santos City.

Awang Airport, Cotabato City:

  1. Take a taxi, habal or a tricycle going to Cotabato Public Terminal.
  2. Take a van or bus going to Tacurong City Terminal.
  3. Take a van or bus going to Marbel (Koronadal) Integrated Transport Terminal.
  4. From the Integrated Transport Terminal, take the left wing where the vans going to Lake Sebu are parked. Take a van to Lake Sebu. Fare is at Php 150.00 and the trip takes an hour. Take note that the last trip is at 6:00 PM. See to it though that you’ll arrive at the terminal at around 5:00 PM to get a seat.

Lake Sebu Tour Guide

Jorie Untang Sabal
Mobile: +63 905 8240 725
Sir Jorie gave us the best Lake Sebu experience. He made us understand a part of the T’boli culture and let us experience it with full understanding. In that way, we appreciated the experience more and made us understand how relevant Lake Sebu is to the T’boli tribe at large.

Other Places to Visit in Mindanao:

Anne Elizabeth Gumiran, also known as Queenie, is a 20-something, full-time public school teacher, a part-time travel blogger and a freediver. She started putting her stories of adventures and misadventures into words and pictures in 2017 and continues to do so as she shares her advocacy, Sustainable Traveling.

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