If you're only in Indonesia for a relatively short time, but still want to see a less touristed part of the country with a judicious use of domestic flights, you can spend a week exploring one part of Sumbawa to whet your appetite for a longer two- or four-week trip in the future.
Sumbawa's main points of interest are clustered to the east and west of the peculiar, almost bunny rabbit shaped island, and both are reasonably heavy on beachtime. In our opinion, the western area has the better (and a greater variety of) beaches, so if you're limited to a week, this is where to head – if you're set on the east of the island, please see the eastern portion of our two-week Sumbawa itinerary. Got longer? The four week trip is for you.
This one-week trip starts in the western capital of Sumbawa Besar (which has an airport) and finishes at Maluk, from where you can get a ferry direct to Lombok, although it can be done in either direction.
Sumbawa shares the same climate system as Lombok and Bali: The wet season is roughly mid-October to mid-April, with the rest of the year dry. The best surfing in Sumbawa is between April and September. Climbing Tambora is not recommended in the height of wet season and the peak may well be closed. Tourism wise, Sumbawa is pretty much never busy.
While not included in this itinerary, if you're planning on climbing Tambora, we'd suggest setting aside a minimum of four days to do so, as you'll need an absolute minimum of two days to climb the peak and return to Pancasila, and we'd certainly recommend a day to recover. Pancasila is also quite out of the way, and it will take the best part of a day to get there.
Day 1 – Sumbawa Besar
The largest city in Western Sumbawa, Sumbawa Besar is low on high-profile attractions, but forms a comfortable spot to kick off from, with a gaggle of decent hotels and no shortage of places to eat. Those content to just schlep it in town should swing by Dalam Loka, while if you're keen on exploring further afield, consider visiting the megalithic site at Aik Renung and the nearby cave of Liang Petang – though you will need to get a guide (and have a full day) to visit this.
If you're not fussed about staying in town, Kencana Beach, some 11 kilometres west of town, is a comfortable beachside option. Eat and retire early (easy to do in Sumbawa Besar, as nightlife is limited) as you have a big day tomorrow.
Day 2 – Gili Bedil & Merente
First thing in the morning, get to Sumbawa Besar's bus station on the road out of town to the west and jump on any west-bound bus. Explain that you want to be let off at the turn-off to Labuan Pade, which is around 2 kilometres west of the town of Utan (itself 30 kilometres from Sumbawa Besar). There is a tree-sheltered ojek stand by the turn-off and there **should** be a clutch of ojeks (motorbike taxis) here who will whisk you the 5 kilometres down to Labuan Pade, from where you can organise a boat out to Gili Bedil and back. The snorkelling midway to the island is good (though with some current) and it's also great around the island. Allow a couple of hours for the whole excursion – boatmen will offer to also take you to Gili Keramat, but as time is short, we'd stick with just Gili Bedil on this trip.
Merente is a small village in the hinterland behind Alas, and is home to a single community-based tourism project where you can stay in a local house and trek into the jungle to visit a couple of waterfalls. It is essential that you contact them before hand. See the waterfall in the morning, then push on to Jelenga the same day. You'll need to first get to Alas then Poto Tano, then to Jelenga, or worst case, Jereweh – from where you'll need to organise another bemo to Jelenga. This is a long day, so if there are a group of you, ask about organising transport direct from Merente (or Alas) to Jelenga to save time.
Day 3-4 – Jelenga
Jelenga is a laidback beach hamlet, with just a couple of places to stay open year-round. The pace of your trip will slow right down here. The area is known for its surfing – thanks to ominously named Scar Reef – but even for non-surfers, this is a rewarding spot for a few lazy days. You can organise boat trips to the reef and some very photogenic surrounding bays for a bit of snorkelling, plus there is also a great waterfall with a swing and swimming hole within easy scooter distance of the guesthouses. Do a boat trip one day, and the waterfall the other. Or just sit on the beach, sprint after crabs and enjoy the fiery sunsets.
Day 5-6 – Maluk
From Jelenga it is a short hop and jump further south to Maluk, which is home to one of the most attractive white sand beaches in the area. Sadly the accommodation in town is considerably less beautiful than the beach, but on the southern headland there are a cluster of terrific surfer-orientated places to stay (we loved Merdeka House). Set up house here and spend your time surfing or just lazing around on the beach.
The beaches further south of here—Yo-yo's and, further south again, drop-dead gorgeous Tropicals — are well worth taking a look at, but Maluk itself isn't at all shabby. Once you've filled out two days here, head one bay north to Benete, where the Newmont ferry heads to Kayangan on Lombok. And that's it—your one-week taster of West Sumbawa.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.