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 Taliwang, heads right around the northern half of West Sumbawa through the ferry port of Poto Tano and the capital Sumbawa Besar. From there it drops south, traversing the narrow strip of land at the bottom of Saleh Bay then runs almost straight through the guts of East Sumbawa via Dompu and Bima before finishing at the small port town of Sape on the east coast.
Once you’ve spent some time on both sides of the island, it becomes apparent that the geographical divide created by Saleh Bay has endowed Sumbawa with two distinct personalities. West Sumbawa is the more vibrant of the two, has better infrastructure, a stronger economy and more self-awareness. One get’s the impression East Sumbawa is still trying to catch up after suffering the brunt of the devastating Tambora eruption. Additionally, East Sumbawa is more conservatively Muslim. Female travellers should dress conservatively with covered shoulders and knees, even when swimming.
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 in mind when planning your forays around the island. Many villages also rely entirely on generator power which means restricted supply, so take a torch if you’re planning to stay away from the main centres.
Sumbawa Besar in West Sumbawa is the island’s capital. It’s clean and leafy with wide streets, modern facilities, an airport and decent accommodation. It’s a good base from which to explore the ancient megalith sites around Batu Tering and Temang Dongan, the Merente waterfalls and nearby Moyo Island. From Sumbawa Besar right around the south-west coast to the surfing hotspots of Sakongkang and Jalenga, accommodation, restaurants, transport and guides are fairly easy to come by.
The same can’t be said for East Sumbawa. Few tourists make it to that side of island other than those passing through on their way to Tambora, Lakey Peak or Sape, the small port which services ferries to and from Flores and Sumba. With the possible exception of Lakey Peak, east Sumbawa has almost no tourist infrastructure. That’s not to say it lacks appeal or attractions – just that one has to work harder here to experience the best of this part of the island.
The administrative and commercial hub of east Sumbawa is Bima. It’s a rather drab little city but it’s a handy base for scenic daytrips around the north-east tip of the island taking in the phinisi boat building village of Wera (Sangeang), Snake Island and the quaint port town of Lamere. To the east, across the bay, there’s the ancient Wadu Pa’a engravings and Don Donggu mountain villages to explore.