Jutting out of Java’s northeastern corner like the incisor of an ancient predator is the island of Madura.
At the far eastern tip of this jagged landmass lies Sumenep, a historically significant regency home to bull-racing, enticing traditions and idyllic beaches. Until recently an oft-neglected corner of Indonesia, this endlessly fascinating destination is slowly revealing itself to visitors.
Why is Sumenep so important?
For such a little-known destination, Sumenep can claim a role of considerable in Indonesia’s development, traceable to the 13th century and the Mongol invasion of Java. It was a period of rebellion which saw Raden Wijaya, heir to the Kingdom of Singhasari, flee to Madura in 1292 following a coup d’etat by Jayakatwang, Kediri’s viceroy.
It was in Kota Sumenep, the regency’s capital city, that the area’s governor, Aria Wiraraja, implemented a scheme to establish a new kingdom: he and Wijaya would ally themselves with the Mongol horde to defeat Jayakatwang. The plan worked, and by 1293 Jayakatwang tasted defeat before the coalition forces turned their attention to routing the invaders. Power thus gained, a new Javanese kingdom, Majapahit, was forged with Wijaya at its head.
Majapahit would prove to be one of Indonesia’s most enduring empires, with tendrils stretching from Sumatra to West Papua. References to the kingdom exist in regional legends as far away as Sumbawa, while its red brick and terracotta architectural techniques prompted the Balinese style. Such was its influence, Majapahit’s red and white royal colours inspired the stripes of Indonesia’s current flag.
As befitting its historical significance, Sumenep is known as ‘the Soul of Madura’, where aristocratic grace and ancient traditions exist proudly alongside a culture of hospitality. Over time, the Madurese garnered the reputations a tough, pious people, but they are also among Indonesia’s most courteous hosts. Visitors should expect a warm welcome and friendly disbelief that anyone has taken the time to come to the island.
Five things to see and do in Sumenep
Sumenep’s beauty lies in its flat, rugged terrain and peaceful backwater charm. However, even with the opening of the Suramadu Bridge from Surabaya in 2009 and a budding tourism scene the region remains behind a veil of semi-obscurity compared to mainland Java or nearby Bali. Centuries of culture are ready to be absorbed against a colourful canvas of batik clothing, checkered sarongs and peci caps.
The excellent Tourism Information Center (TIC) can provide help with all aspects of visiting Sumenep. Call Ramadan on +62 813 3428 7550.
- Witness the power of bull-racing
The renowned Karapan Sapi bull races run at Kota Sumenep’s Giling Stadium between July and October along with exhibition events throughout the year. They act as a fine introduction to the island’s folklore: in a nod to a time when plough teams would race across fields, current events see two pairs of bulls, their young ‘jockeys’ perched behind on wooden sledges, thunder down the track with all the drama of an ancient chariot race. The scene is kinetic and rousing and often soundtracked by a traditional Madurese saronen folk ensemble. These musicians, sporting silk outfits and playing in the gamelan tradition, inspire a hypnotic fervour as their choreographed dance moves merge with an insistent combination of gongs, drums and double reed.
- Witness a beauty contest for cows
Livestock and the prestige associated with it is big business in Indonesia. Such beliefs are crystallised in Sape Sono’, a beauty contest for cows taking place around the regency in October. The animals, bedecked in finery mimicking bridal elegance, are judged on their appearances and grace of movement.
- Experience Tong Tong’s carnival atmosphere
October is a busy month in Sumenep, with celebrations marking the anniversary of the region’s founding. Perhaps the most exciting is the Tong Tong music festival, where thousands line Kota’s streets as bands of percussionists, trumpeters, dancers and singers, resplendent in traditional costumes and transported on a procession of ornately carved carts, weave together Madurese songs and music.
- Explore Batuputih’s limestone scenery
The mined limestone cliffs of Bukit Kapur are worthy of an excursion to Sumenep’s northern coastline. Their distinct carvings and angular forms dominate the surroundings and create a surreal landscape reminiscent of the skewed artwork of M C Escher.
- Soak up a slice of history
Kota Sumenep rewards visitors keen to explore on foot. Start a sightseeing tour at Masjid Agung Sumenep, one of Indonesia’s oldest mosques and an iconic landmark thanks to its striking white and yellow gateway. From there, cross the road to Sumenep city park, an excellent hangout spot which occasionally hosts batik fashion festivals. It’s then just a short stroll to Keraton Sumenep, the former palace complex with an attendant museum housing relics, ancient weapons, manuscripts and more. Finally, head for the royal tombs of Asta Tinggi, a popular pilgrimage site boasting a unique blend of Hindu, Chinese and European architecture. The 10km round trek features many nooks, crannies and colourful side streets ripe for exploration, although if the humidity proves too much catch a lift on a becak rickshaw. These modified bicycles are a ubiquitous presence and offer a smooth respite as they float along Sumenep’s street, seemingly carried by the cool breezes buffeting the locale.
Getting there and away
Daily direct flights with Wings Air are available between Juanda International Airport in Surabaya and Trunojoyo Airport. Flights leave the former at 12.50pm and make the return journey at 1.50pm.
Madura is also well-served by a regular bus service. Journeys between Surabaya’s Bungurasih terminal and Aria Wirajaya terminal on Kota Sumenep’s outskirts should take anything between four and eight hours. Bear in mind that conditions can be cramped and stifling, especially from Surabaya where many vehicles do not leave until all space – including the stairwells and passageways – are full.
Getting around Sumenep
Kota Sumenep is compact and lends itself well to walking: the streets are open, the pavements are mostly in good condition and the traffic rarely becomes too heavy.
All points north, east and south of the city are reachable via a more unreliable minivan service. Should visitors wish to go to any of these destinations, it is advisable to use their own transport or hire a private vehicle. Locations to the west of Kota are reachable via Aria Wiraraja bus terminal.
Motorcycle taxi ranks are plentiful, while both the Grab and Gojek apps have coverage, although it tends to thin out in rural areas.
Where to stay in Sumenep
The best bet is to stay in Kota itself, especially if planning day trips because rural options are limited.
Near-neighbours Family Nur and C1 are good hotel choices, being close to coffee shops, restaurants and ATMs. Hotel Surabaya is a more central option and a short walk from Masjid Agung. For those wanting quick access to the bus station, Hotel Musdalifah and Hotel Kangen both offer conveniently close locations. The latter, in particular, benefits from a peaceful, green setting.
Light sleepers would do well to remember that mosques are planted liberally around Sumenep, and loud calls to prayer begin at dawn.
Food and drink
Eating is a cheap, no-frills affair in Sumenep. Warung restaurants, usually of the point-and-pick Padang variety, are commonplace, as are kaki lima carts. In both settings the usual Indonesian staples – rice, noodles, satay, tofu, tempe, water spinach and so forth – are down-to-earth, filling and effortlessly delicious.
Happily, the region also has unique delicacies to share. Rujak should appeal to Gado-Gado fans thanks to its combination of banana leaf, vegetables, peanut sauce and fermented petis shrimp paste. For added authenticity watch it being made at roadside stalls using the traditional flat cobek mortar and pestle. Cow legs are also a menu mainstay: kaldu soto sees them put in a broth with green beans, while kaldu kokot adds fish paste to the mix. The use of bones in campor, along with peanuts, coconut milk, banana leaf and cassava, ensures no part of the limb goes to waste.
Sumenep’s take on Soto Madura, the island’s speciality soup, offers a distinct flavour incorporating bean sprouts, noodles, chicken, boiled eggs and steamed rice. Should that not prove too filling, indulge in nasi jagung, a unique blend of rice and corn.
There are rich pickings for those with a sweet tooth, too. Gettas, gooey fried lumps of glutinous rice and grated coconut covered in sugar, is a popular snack, as is angsle, a soup-like dish of milk, bread, peanuts and boiled green beans. The daintiest sweet prize goes to jubede, a miniature log-like roll made from rice flour and brown sugar, all tied up in a tiny bow.
As a predominantly Muslim area, alcohol is widely unavailable in Sumenep. Instead, vendors offer a wide range of teas, coffees and iced fruit juice concoctions, including stinky durian flavour. At night, coffee shops are the social scenes of choice. Take a pick from the larger, cavernous venues complete with live music and karaoke, such as Java In or Ramio, or enjoy the intimacy of smaller haunts as found in Tabularasa or Mbahid.
Islands and beaches
Sumenep’s rocky landscape means it is not widely regarded as a beach destination, although there are certainly a few ocean settlements to investigate. Outside of holidays and weekends, many spots are deserted.
The northern coastline’s rocky cliffs and verdant rice fields exude rustic charm, which extends to the open expanse of Slopeng beach in Ambunten. Here are found sweeping sands and swaying palm trees but also, unfortunately, a build-up of plastic waste. Combine a trip to the beach with visiting Slopeng village, where mask craftsmen sculpt the colourful wooden offerings found in Topeng Dhalang dance performances across the region.
Across on the east coast, Lombang is a long and flat beach where the boundary afforded by casuarina trees results in an intimate, private atmosphere. Getting here can be tricky due to unreliable public transport and GPS coordinates; adventurous visitors should try catching a minivan from Bangkal market in Kota.
There are 126 islands around Sumenep, 44 of which are inhabited. Gili Genting is the closest and boasts Pantai Sembilan, so-called because of its resemblance to the number nine. The waves are calm, the water is clean, and it offers a pleasant setting for snorkelling, although the beach can become crowded. To get here, take one of the regular daily boats from Tanjung port.
Those seeking solitude would be well-advised to visit Gili Labak, a pocket-sized teardrop with plenty of spots to watch sunrises and sunsets. The principal trade is snorkelling and diving day trips, but come the evening a beatific calm descends on the island. To reach Labak, catch a boat from Tanjung port, with regular crossings starting at 5am. Contact the TIC to arrange homestay accommodation.
Serenity is also the byword on Gili Iyang. Known as Pulau Oksigen due to the island’s higher-than-average oxygen levels, its inhabitants can enjoy long and healthy lives. Indeed, it is not uncommon to witness older generations scaling palm trees with the speed and grace of someone a fraction of their age. Iyang is a rocky island but Pantai Ropet and Batu Cangga both provide atmospheric sea views while caves and a shark fossil showcase the island’s history. Daily boats leave Dungkek at 10.00am and return at 2.00pm. The TIC can arrange homestays.