Even in a country as complex as Indonesia, Pulau Madura remains shrouded in mystery.
By rights, the island should be a highlight of any trip through the region. It has an ideal location, perched off the east coast of Java and a stone’s throw away from Bali. Madura’s history, scenery and culture are some of the most distinct in the region.
And yet, this rugged island remains so far off the beaten track that many visitors to Indonesia are unaware of its existence.
However, therein lies Madura’s charm. With the lack of crowds comes the room to breathe. Certainly, those who make the effort will encounter sleepy towns, raging bulls, gloriously beautiful mosques, vibrant festivals and an independent streak as intense as anywhere in Indonesia.
Madura exists in its unique little sphere, a corner of Indonesia unbound to the prism of tourism. Although the island is only an hour or so from Surabaya thanks to the Jembatan Suramadu – the bridge itself is a now-iconic Javan image and the longest such structure in the region – this accessibility does not translate into simplicity.
English is not widely spoken, public transport is cramped and there is not much tourist infrastructure. The overriding mood is one of blunt honesty and few concessions are made to visitors. As a predominately Islamic island, alcohol is not widely available on Madura.
All of which goes to make Madura such an endearing and adventurous destination.
Each visit feels like a trip into the unknown.
A cramped bus ride brings with it colourful characters, strangers warmly welcome passers-by and vibrant festivals showcases the island’s storied history.
Locals greet tourists – a rare species – with arms wide open and just a touch of incredulity.
The beauty of Madura lies in its remoteness. Happily, people are glad to help newcomers meaning so it’s easy to organise trips and transport.
As a general rule Madurese towns and villages are picturesque and reward exploration on foot. A peaceful jalan jalan will reveal sights, sounds, smells and characters not immediately apparent upon first arrival.
For many, the first major stop from Surabaya in Bangkalan, a town worthy of a night or two’s stay. Many head here for the bull racing and the town is home to the colourful Gelora Bangkalan Stadion (Jl. Raya Teuku Umar), where Madura United FC play most of their home games and enjoy a raucous support, even as they labour to respectable upper-mid table finishes in Liga 1.
But of course, Bangkalan is but one town, and the first port of call for newcomers, who shall find an entire island with a culture and heritage as diverse and illuminating as any in Indonesia.
For anyone who’s got their own transport, the salt mines of Bukit Jaddih (5,000R entrance fee), pictured above, are worth the 25-minute journey. The beautiful white limestone cliffs combined with the views afforded by the hill’s peaks make for one of Madura’s most stirring sights.
And thus, the visitor’s attention is attracted further across the island, where different sights, some hidden and some very much visible, await exploration.
Heading further central, Pamekesan is home to Monumen Arek Lancor, pictured above, perhaps the island’s most enduring image. Standing proud in the city’s alun (square), the monument writhes in an attitude of prayer and devotion, as though inspired by the ornate Masjid Agung Asy-Syuhada behind it. Coupled with rousing Uldaul festivities – comprising floats, costumes, music and traditional songs – the town offers a kinetic, rousing celebration of Madurese culture.
It would be remiss to suggest that Madura is a premium destination for the beachcomber. Whilst the island offers innumerable fascinations, its coastlines lack any conventional attraction and would most likely leave connoisseurs of such places compiling a mental checklist of other places they prefer. A re-calibration might be in order in these instances, perhaps accompanied by downgraded expectations of what can be found.
Read more: The limestone quarries of Batuputih, Madura.
That’s not to say Madurese beaches should be avoided. Located about 12km to Pamekasan’s south-east, Jumiang Beach is a popular hang-out spot. The myriad cafes and warungs make for a congenial atmosphere and as the nearby salt ponds stretch into the distance and a fleet of fishing boats cut a swathe through the brine, the impression is one of homely and wholesome enjoyment, rather than the hollowed-out fruit cocktails and world-renowned beach clubs of neighbouring Bali.
Bali, it should be said, is one of the world’s most attractive destinations for holidaymakers. And this is justifiable for reasons no reader will need explaining; it’s also why Bali is worth avoiding, if only to escape the crowds. Consider instead remaining on Madura and heading further east to see what resides there.
Sedate Sumenep, to the east of Madura, is the island’s capital and one of Java’s most charming destinations. The calm pace of life, open streets and rugged surroundings give it a distinctly Mediterranean feel. It’s easy to spend an enjoyable couple of days soaking up the serene atmosphere. Since Madura is home to some of Indonesia’s most unique Batik designs there’s good reason to go shopping here. Well-made, sturdy shirts cost as little as 50,000R and while the material itself can be pricey – in some cases over 900,000R a roll – the quality is excellent. Toko Apollo Batik Madura on Jl. Raya Sumenep is a good place to start but be sure to shop around. Most stores offer high-quality goods at competitive prices.
Sumenep is easily explorable on foot. A leisurely walk from the Masjid Jamik Sumenep – Madura’s most iconic mosque – to and fro the Royal Tombs (Makam Raja Sumenep Asta Tinggi, above) should take no more than a few hours. Factor in a stop at the Stadion Karapan Sapi, home of the annual bull races, for a complete sweep of the town’s landmarks.
(Editor: Don’t forget to read parts two and three of EITM’s Madura guide as well)
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