Sumbawa is somewhat of an enigma. It’s separated from its western neighbour Lombok by only 20km’s and is three times the size. And if you happen to be flying over it on your way to Flores or West Timor, you can’t help but notice the rugged topography and jagged coastline interspersed with long expanses of white sandy beaches. It looks intriguing yet despite its promising appearance and easy access from Lombok and even Bali, it has stayed firmly off the tourist radar.
Sumbawa is rather conservatively Muslim, without the well-preserved traditional villages and ageless indigenous cultures of its neighbours Sumba and Flores. That’s because its ancient culture was devastated by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. Archaeologists are starting to unearth some intriguing artefacts dating back to the Neolithic period but it remains something of a mystery. We do know that Sumbawa has traditionally been occupied by two distinct ethnic groups, each with their own languages and customs. The Sumbawanese in the west are closely related to the Sasak people on Lombok, the Bimanese in the east closely related to the people of Flores. A third, linguistically separate minority group called the Don Donggo are also found in the eastern highlands.
During the 14th century, and perhaps sometime before, Sumbawa was ruled by the Java based Majapahit kingdom. After the fall of the kingdom in the mid-15th century, west Sumbawa was intermittently controlled by the Balinese, the Islamic Makassar’s of South Sulawesi and the Dutch. The hotchpotch of influences and the Mt Tambora eruption has understandably, left Sumbawa without any real cultural identity of its own. That’s no reason to pass over Sumbawa though, for the island has abundant natural attractions and a laid back atmosphere that’s contagious.
The few tourists who set foot on Sumbawa are often completing a sea/land crossing on their way to Flores. They step off the ferry at Poto Tano onto a bus and don’t step off that until they reach the outward port of Sape on the east coast. Most are totally unaware that they are passing right by some absolute hidden gems.
Surfers’s have been coming to the island for decades. The southwest corner is renowned for perfectly formed breaks with names like Supersuck, Yoyo’s, Big Brother and Scar Reef. But it’s not just the waves that draw them; it’s the whole package. Beautiful beaches, clear warm tropical water, a hinterland bedecked with jungle, rice fields and banana plantations, quiet villages and friendly locals. It’s the epitome of a tropical paradise; like Bali in the raw four or five decades ago.
And just like Bali back then, the real adventure is just getting out there and having a look around. Gorgeous beaches with lots of calm, flat water ideal for swimming and snorkelling. The interior has some excellent hiking opportunities, including climbing the mega volcano, Mount Tambora. There are waterfalls, caves and fascinating archaeological sites.
We’ve endeavoured to pull together a comprehensive list of attractions to help you plan your Sumbawa adventure.
The island of Sumbawa is almost split in half by the northwest facing Saleh Bay. Only a narrow strip of land at the bottom of the bay and a surprisingly good highway joins west and east Sumbawa. The Trans-Sumbawa highway starts on the west coast at Tailiwang, heads right around the northern half of West Sumbawa through the ferry port of Poto Tano and the capital Sumbawa Besar. It drops south then traverses the narrow strip of land at the bottom of Saleh Bay into and runs almost straight through the guts of East Sumbawa via Dompu, Bima before finishing at the small port town of Sape on east coast.
Sumbawa Besar in West Sumbawa is the islands capital. It’s clean and leafy with wide streets and modern facilities but doesn’t have anything in particular to hold tourists, other than the airport and possible a daytrip to nearby Moya Island. On the eastern side of the island, the main centre is Bima. It’s a rather drab, unappealing place and like its western counterpart has little to offer travellers other than a transit point on or off the island. Dompu is the islands third largest town, followed by Sape, the jumping on or off point for the daily Flores ferry.
It would be fair to say none of Sumbawa’s main centres are particularly appealing and maybe that explains why travellers doing the land/sea crossing from Lombok to Flores don’t feel the need to break their journey.
Sumbawa’s infrastructure is a mixed bag. The main roads are sealed and relatively good but they deteriorate quickly away from the main routes. Narrow, sealed (in a manner) and unsealed roads with potholes and wash-outs are common and makes travelling slow; something to keep that in mind when you’re planning your forays around the island.
Air – Sumbawa Besar on the western side of the island and Bima on the eastern side both have daily flights to and from Denpasar, Bali and Lombok. Sekongkang also has small airport but flights were suspended after the regional airline servicing it went belly up. However, as always in Indonesia, things can change quickly and frequently so for the latest information about flights check out tiket.com.
Sea – These easiest way to get to Sumbawa is by fast boat from Lombok’s eastern sea port, Labuan Lombok to Poto Tano in Sumbawa. The crossing takes 1.5 hours and boats run 24 hours a day except in bad weather.
To or from Labuan Bajo in Flores, there’s a daily slow ferry or a fast boat which runs three times a week. Both services land at the small port of Sape on the east coast of Sumbawa. The fast boat also goes to Sumba twice a week. You can try contacting Kapal Cepat Express Bahari on 0823 592 8 7 257 in Sape, 0822 373 68 767 in Labuan Bajo or 0812 3743 6447 in Waikelo (Sumba).
Although most of Sumbawa is serviced by public buses, there’s no single long distance bus running across the island. It means you’re going to have to connect with local buses servicing short routes which fortunately cover most of the main centres and attractions. They places they miss are picked up by minibuses and bemos. Trucks (biskaju) cover the routes where the roads are bad. Seating is in the form of wooden benches installed in the back of the tray. They’re open, often crowded and rough but it can be a lot of fun bumping around the countryside with the locals, especially if you can manage a few words or Bahasa Indonesia.
If it sounds a bit confusing, don’t worry. At the bus terminals and market places where buses and bemo’s usually stop, the locals and drivers will see you onto the right bus. If you can, try to find out what fares the locals are paying before you approach the bus driver as there have been reports of rampant overcharging.
If you prefer private transport, you can rent a car with a driver or engage an ojek. Alternatively, hiring a scooter and taking yourself around is a great option. The roads are quiet and although there aren’t any particularly good maps, the locals will point you in the right direction if you get lost. Scooters can be hired easily and cheaply through your guesthouse around the popular surf locations such as Lakey Peak and around the west coast of Sumbawa. Elsewhere in Sumbawa, hire scooters are difficult to come by - you'll need to ask around to try to rent one privately.
ACCOMMODATION & FOOD
Most of Sumbawa has reasonable accommodation in the form of surf camps, basic hotels and guesthouses. In more out of the way places, locals will generally open their homes for little or no payment, although never leave without a parting gift of some sort. Hot water and air-conditioning, if they exist, will generally cost extra. There are a couple of more up-market resorts at Sekongkang but that’s about it for the top end of the market.
Meals are readily available in warungs or at the local market in most towns and villages throughout Sumbawa. The food is a little more spicy than the “spiced down for tourists” versions on Bali and Lombok but very tasty.