Sumbawa is so big, we’ve split it up into areas, select one of the below for detailed accommodation and food listings in that area. Sights and general overviews for Sumbawa as a whole can be found via the icons above. Don’t know where to start? Read an overview of Sumbawa’s different areas.
If you drew a line between the western and eastern extremities of the Indonesian archipelago — Pulau Weh to Papua — and dropped yourself at the midpoint along the main island chain, you’d end up somewhere on mutant-bunny shaped Sumbawa (the bunny is facing east if you can’t see it). Home to The Volcano That Changed The World, Sumbawa boasts world-class surf, tremendous wilderness and some fabulous islands and beaches, yet almost no foreign travellers go.
The ninth largest in Indonesia, Sumbawa is a deceptively big island, slightly larger than Flores and almost 50 percent bigger than far more popular Bali and Lombok combined — and with less than a quarter of their combined population. It is a big call to say Sumbawa is the most strangely shaped island in the country — Sulawesi, anyone? — but its peculiar outline contains some truly beautiful scenery and is home to more than a million friendly and welcoming Indonesians.
There’s an airport more or less at either end of the island. The network of roads, by Indonesian standards, is excellent. It’s certainly better than Bali’s for example: It’s in largely good condition and suffers a fraction of the traffic. Regular ferry connections run from either end — in the west to Lombok and the east to Flores — and there is frequent and relatively comfortable bus transport from one end to the other. All these factors come together to make Sumbawa a no-brainer for overland travellers making their way across the archipelago.
Save for the two surfing regions, there are virtually no foreign tourists here. When we say none, we don’t mean “not too many” or “fewer than Lombok or Flores” — we mean NONE. In nearly a month travelling Sumbawa top to tail, outside of the two surfing regions, we saw three foreign tourists. Three.
Sumbawa is best known for its surfing. Southwest Sumbawa boasts absolute world class breaks scattered through Kertasari, Jelenga, Maluk and Sekongkang — or to use surfing terminology, Northern Rights, Scar Reef, Super Suck and Yoyo’s. In Central Sumbawa’s Dompu Regency you’ll find a second cluster of breaks centred around Lakey Peak and Periscopes. Both these regions attract surfers year round, with the best waves in June, July and August. Yet these surfing areas attract few more general beachgoers, which is a shame as the beaches, like the waves, are world class and often completely and utterly undeveloped.
The north coast of Sumbawa and the “tuck behind the bunny’s ears”, the Saleh Sea, are host to more than a dozen tropical, often coral-fringed islands. Poto Tano, Sumbawa’s western port, is alone ringed by no fewer than eight islands, and all save one are totally undeveloped. Cruising along the north coast you can visit the stupendous Gili Bedil, or for those with a bit of cash and time, the spectacular Moyo Island, home to the most beautiful waterfall we’ve ever seen and some damn good snorkelling as well. Further west sits Pulau Satonda, a semi-submerged volcano with more snorkelling, or duck into the Teluk Sea for Gili Pudu.
Perched off the northeast coast sits Pulau Sangiang, which is dominated by 1,950-metre Gunnung Api, an ill-tempered volcano with a habit of closing regional airports when it throws a bit of a tantrum. Roll down the east coast and there are more islands and glistening beaches still, easily reached from Sumbawa’s eastern port of Sape.
There are more beaches and islands of course — these were just some of our favourites that we managed to fit into the time we had exploring the region.
Look at any map of Sumbawa and you’ll see, sitting at the end of the bunny ears, an enormous volcano. Meet Tambora, which at 2,722 metres (or 2,737m or 2,851m depending on which figure you want to go by), is the highest point on the island. When Tambora erupted in April 1815, it became the biggest, most destructive volcano in human history. When it finished blowing off steam, and the peak collapsed on itself (it is thought to have originally been more than 4,300 metres tall), the collapse formed a caldera six kilometres across. The eruption set the ball rolling on a period of global climate change, causing what became known as the “Year without Summer”. We climbed it and this means you can too.
On a less destructive note, Sumbawa’s hinterland boasts spectacular waterfalls, one of which can be visited from a community-based tourism scheme at Merente. Ancient megalithic tombs can be found outside Sumbawa Besar, and lush ricefield terraces sit just north of Dompu. From far eastern Bima you can visit a traditional shipyard where massive wooden pinisi boats are still built by hand. This is one of only two spots in all of Indonesia where this can be seen. Here it’s under the watching eye of Gunnung Api.
And yet — almost nobody comes here to do anything but surf.
It’s true, Sumbawa’s tourism infrastructure is nascent. Most hotels are dated, a bit pricey for the standards, and cater more to the needs and tastes of local business travellers than foreign tourists. But we think this is changing — and we did find a handful of terrific places to stay.
Food likewise is simple — Sumbawa is no south Bali when it comes to eating — but the food is good and cheap. The island is near universally Muslim and outside of the surfer areas you’ll generally not see alcohol being consumed in public at all. It is there, but not in the minimarts. Your hotel will often get you some beer if you ask (be sure to mention you’d prefer it cold) and Chinese restaurants also often sell it.
Getting around by bus is straightforward but swings between quite comfortable (Damri government buses and snazzy private minibuses) through to the more rustic and not really comfortable at all (door bolted on, can see the road through the holes in the floor) varieties. It is however uniformly affordable. Private boat charters can get pricey, especially as boatmen levy a bule tax as soon as they see a foreign face.
While a car and driver can be hired relatively easily, outside of the surfer areas, motorbikes can be quite difficult to hire, especially longer term. You’ll need some patience, and preferably some Indonesian language skills to sort this out sometimes.
On the topic of motorbikes, if you are planning some motorcycle touring (on your own bike or a rental) it is sensible to not ride at night and preferable to be off the road by late afternoon. We were repeatedly warned off certain very isolated roads — in particular the southern road from Parado to Lakey (essentially approaching Lakey from the south) due to the risk of theft and assault. Be sure to ask around for local advice and use your common sense. In our time in Sumbawa we had no problems whatsoever, but rumours of these kinds of problems were persistent — in all but one case, these rumours were secondhand. Essentially, this is a similar problem to what you hear about happening in southern Lombok. While frustrating, it’s simply best addressed by not riding alone and not riding at night.
Sumbawa’s largest city, Bima, lies to the east, Bima. The second city, Sumbawa Besar, is to the west. Both have airports with flight connections to at least Bali and Lombok. Dompu, Sumbawa’s third city, is found between these two larger cities. There is one eastern port, Sape, with daily ferries to Flores, and two western ports — Poto Tano and Berente (near Maluk) — with ferry connections to Lombok.
The Trans-Sumbawa Highway runs right across the island. It begins in Poto Tano in the west and passes through Sumbawa Besar, Dompu and Bima before finishing up at the eastern port of Sape. Other roads, such as Dompu to Pancasila (for Tambora) and Dompu to Hu’u (for Lakey), are also excellent.
International-access ATMs are in all major centres and many smaller towns. Lakey and Pancasila were the only places we visited that lacked an ATM within a reasonable (say 10 kilometre) distance. Telephone and 3G coverage is generally good with the exception of Tambora (none), Merente (very patchy) and Jengala (none).
Sumbuwa Besar, Dompu and Bima all offer hospitals and medical care, but for serious issues and injuries, Bali is an an hour’s flight away. Make sure you have adequate insurance coverage. All major towns have police stations and both Bima and Sumbawa have immigration offices where tourist visas can be extended (going from one story we were told, processing time is two to three days, depending on how many tattoos you have!)
As with all islands east of Bali, Sumbawa is officially considered a malaria risk area. Despite this, few hotels supply a mosquito net (though some do). If your hotel supplies a mosquito net, use it. Also use repellant and pack a mosquito net (and string to tie it up with) if mozzies tend to bite you. Seek medical advice from a travel health specialist with a solid knowledge of Indonesia (perhaps in Bali) regarding the need to take malaria pills while in Sumbawa.
Sumbawa shares the same climate as Lombok, Bali and Flores. The wet season runs from roughly November to March, dry from April to October. Sumbawa’s dry season is very dry and before the first rains, the entire island is parched and brown. Conversely, at the end of the wet season it is incredibly lush and green. We’d say the best time to visit Sumbawa for sightseeing is the cusp of the end of the wet season — March and April. You’ll still get some rain most days, but the countryside is incredibly beautiful at this time of the year. The peak surfing season is June, July and August with August and September bringing strong winds that see a big kitesurfing scene in and around Lakey Peak.
Sumbewa is near universally Muslim. Local etiquette holds that when in a public place, men should always wear a shirt and women should wear clothing that covers their shoulders and to the knees. Don’t drink alcohol in public. Please keep local sensibilities in mind when you’re getting out and about.
How long in Sumbawa? How long have you got? If you really want to see all the island has to offer, you need to dedicate at least three weeks to the island. Two weeks would be sufficient to explore the southwest beaches, Merente, Sumbawa Besar and Moyo Island. Add another four to five days if you want to climb Tambora.
One week lends itself to either the southwest beaches and Sumbewa Besar or the central beaches, Dompu and Bima. We spent three and a half weeks here all up and could have done with probably one more week to cover just a few straggling spots we didn’t make it to.
If you have to choose between the east and the west, we’d suggest West Sumbawa as it a larger number of beaches and a couple of great places to stay.
Come for a week, but you’ll wish you came for three.
By Stuart McDonald.
Last updated on 27th November, 2016.
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