Madura’s social and cultural heart is the crucible of modern Indonesia. Here you will find an oft-neglected region of rare tradition, historic significance and idyllic beaches with nary a foreign visitor in sight.
Key areas in Sumenep
The easygoing charm of Sumenep quickly reveals itself as the city centre’s open streets allow for cool breezes to create a distinctly Mediterranean vibe. Gloriously ornate mosques are manifold, and the surrounding rice fields ripple in a pleasingly serene fashion.
Warungs – simple cafes – line the streets, and there are plentiful coffee shops to suit every occasion. Try the iced green tea in Ramio for a beautifully refreshing beverage, low on the brain freeze.
Here is an altogether grittier aspect of Sumenep. The streets are busier, the motorbikes louder, the vibe greasier.
Madura’s notorious karapan sapi bull races have their home at Stadion Giling – look for the giant golden bovines. These races might not be the reason people visit Sumenep, but they cannot fail to notice the bond such events with the city. Bull iconography is everywhere and, from a folkloric perspective, woven intrinsically with the regency’s DNA.
The races are big business – and even draw the machinations of black magic warlocks who, rumour has it, cast spells of nefarious providence to ensure the victory of their favoured beasts. Eagle-eyed visitors might even notice the bull’s role as the mascot of Madura United, the island’s representative top-flight football side.
From a more traditional perspective, plough teams in days gone by would race across fields, and modern events are no different. Two pairs of bulls, bedecked in colourful liveries with young ‘jockeys’ perched behind on wooden sledges, thunder down the track with all the drama, noise and controlled chaos of an ancient chariot race.
You seek beaches, these are where you go. In all honesty, there’s little to recommend; Slopeng, on the northern coast, is home to a disheartening build-up of plastic waste, while its eastern cousin Lombang is so wide and expansive as to convey the impression of crushing loneliness.
Luckily, both areas have other ways to entice visitors. Try searching out a topeng dhalang mask craftsman around Slopeng village; the distinctive wooden visages are found all over Madura and attract serious interest from collectors and dance ensembles across the archipelago.
Gili Iyang, Gili Labak
‘Private’ islands, free of crowds. Gili Iyang is better known as Pulau Oksigen on account of its abnormally high O2 levels, manifested in the hearty vitality and long lives of its inhabitants.
Head to tiny Labak for an equally sedate affair. Home to 50 people, here is an island offering stirring sunrise and sunset spots. Spend the night staring at the stars and marvel that somewhere so close to Bali remains off the tourist radar.
Where to stay in Sumenep
Tourism is still in its infancy in Sumenep, reflected in the scope of its accommodation. The budget-conscious should not be put off, however, with enough places for visitors to call home. As a rule, the more rural the area, the scarcer the places to stay.
Near-neighbours Family Nur and C1 are good hotel choices, being close to coffee shops, restaurants and ATMs. They also offer the potential for socialising: take a stroll towards Javain coffee shop, and chances are you’ll find yourself press-ganged into a football kickabout on the nearby pitch. Hotel Surabaya is a more central option and a short walk from Masjid Agung.
For those wanting quick access to Aria Wiraraja bus station on the outskirts, Hotel Musdalifah and Hotel Kangen provide a convenient location. The latter, in particular, benefits from a peaceful, green setting.
Light sleepers should remember that mosques are planted liberally around Sumenep, and loud calls to prayer begin at dawn.
The excellent Tourism Information Center (TIC) can provide help with all aspects of visiting Sumenep. Call Ramadan on +62 813 3428 7550.
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. All life in Sumenep seems to gravitate towards it, such is its import, and visitors will marvel at the understated yet grand mixture of Chinese, Javanese and European architecture.
Remember what we said about Sumenep being the crucible of Indonesia? It happened here, in the 13th century, at the royal palace. Aria Wiraraja, the area’s governor, implemented a scheme to establish a new kingdom named Majapahit which would eventually inform the very foundations of modern Indonesia. Factor in an invading Mongol horde, rebellion, political machinations and backstabbings, and you have the recipe for a tasty Hollywood blockbuster.
The site itself is a great way to absorb the regency’s history with an attendant museum housing relics, ancient weapons, manuscripts and more.
Inhabit the role of a devotee as you visit the royal tombs, a renowned pilgrimage site across Madura. Treat it with the reverence it deserves. Walk 4km north from Masjid Agung and be sure to take in the sights, smells and sensations, but try not to flagellate yourself too much; no journey is worth missing out on deliciously gooey roadside pisang goreng (fried bananas) in the name of sacrifice.
Upon arrival, you will find a courtyard framed by palm trees, the buildings beyond it heavy with an atmosphere of understated grandeur. If you want to visit the site’s interior, remember to wear long trousers: this is a tomb, after all, and a little etiquette is expected.
This is the sound permeating Sumenep’s aether: a kinetic form of music often soundtracking traditional Madurese events. Saronen folk ensembles sport silk outfits and play in the gamelan tradition, inspiring a hypnotic fervour as their choreographed dance moves merge with an insistent, cyclical combination of gongs, drums and double reed. Head to the bull races and chances are this is the sound used to psych up the competitors.
A little out of the way, this, but worth the effort. Halfway along Jl KH Zainal Arfin lies a mosque. Its name is obscure, but the view is superlative: find it in time for sunset and witness the distinct domed roof casting a silhouette across the rapidly bruising sky. Amid a busy section of the city lies this bubble-like scene of calm and as such, qualifies as Sumenep’s most underrated attraction.
Legung Sand Mattresses
Here is a village in thrall to the sands of time. Quite literally, as explorers of Sumenep’s east coast will soon discover. The logic is simple: the inhabitants of Legung have a communal room in their homes dedicated to sand; no beds, no furniture, no pillows. Only sand. The theory is lost to history, but the sand mattresses are now bound inextricably bound to the villagers’ lives: they are born on the sand, they live on the sand, they die on the sand.
Eating and drinking in Sumenep
Eating is a cheap, no-frills affair in Sumenep. Warung restaurants, usually of the point-and-pick Padang variety, are commonplace. Regional delicacies and the usual Indonesian staples – rice, noodles, satay, tofu, tempe, water spinach and so forth – are down-to-earth, filling and effortlessly delicious.
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. Should that not prove too filling, indulge in nasi jagung, a unique blend of rice and corn.
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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.
At night, coffee shops are the social scenes of choice. Take a pick from the larger, cavernous venues replete with live music and karaoke, such as Java In or Ramio, or enjoy the intimacy of smaller haunts as found in Tabularasa or Mbahid. Visitors should remember that Madura is a mostly Muslim island and alcohol, whilst not forbidden, is nevertheless tricky to locate. A few of the warung on Gili Labak carry Bintang, but that is most definitely the exception, not the rule.
The ‘ultimate’* Sumenep itinerary
Check-in to: Family Nur. Slightly out of the city centre, here is the ideal base from which to explore Kota and beyond. Restaurants, coffee shops, ATMs and ojek motorcycle taxi ranks are all within striking distance.
Walk around: The best way to orient yourself in Sumenep is on foot, and usually with no agenda. The people are friendly and will happily point strangers in any direction they require, but such is the city’s size and shape that you’ll invariably end up at the main sites regardless of route. Instead, take this opportunity to delve into any nooks and crannies you may find.
Hit the bull racing stadium: Check with the TIC to see if there’s an event happening at Stadion Giling. There is? Fantastic. What type? Well, is it an exhibition or league race? Doesn’t matter. Instead, witness the cacophonous blast as two teams of beasts chunter down the track at full pelt. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Dine at: Pondok Salero on Jl Tunojoyo offers fine, cheap Padang-style food. The warm welcome is infectious, and their percedel potato cakes are hands-down Sumenep’s tastiest.
Go sightseeing: Now is the time to explore. Conventional wisdom suggests working north to Asta Tinggi tombs from the royal palace: you’ll pass via Taman Adipura and Masjid Agung, and might well witness as batik fashion festival. Particularly unlucky visitors will find the insidious smell of durian insinuating itself on their sinuses, for there are many such stalls en-route.
Lunch at: Warung Galipat on Jl. KH Wahid Hasyim. Bakso is the suggestion here: succulent pork dumplings in a simple broth flavoured with spring onions and chilli. Simple but effective, and proof-positive you don’t need to pay through the nose for a filling feed.
Go shopping: On some level, the visitor will comprehend something intrinsically important: Sumenep is an effortlessly colourful place. This splash of joie de vivre is inevitably the result of batik clothing, which, lucky for us all, can be found everywhere. 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.
Have a coffee at: TabulaRasa. An intimate setting and a relaxing one away from the constant thrum of incessant motorbike traffic. The venue’s courtyard is a great place for mingling and, while the menu is generally excellent, the iced coffees are particularly refreshing. Keep an eye out for Guns n’ Roses guitarist Slash, de-aged and transposed into Madurese form.
Dine at: Warung Ayu Dewi, a 24-hour eatery where the fried rice/noodles are a steal at 10,000R (55p). The real reason to eat here, though, are the condiments, among which is a chilli sambal paste which displays the perfect mix of lethality and taste enhancement.
Take a day trip: Head to Slopeng on the north coast. The beach is nothing to write home about, but the surrounding countryside most certainly is, thanks to its rolling verdant rice fields, charming villages and unspoilt rural atmosphere. Stop off at the surreal limestone cliffs of Batuputih and wonder how nature could construct such stern, otherworldly shapes.
Eat at: Follow your nose – floating, as they do in the cartoons, you know the ones – towards the stalls on Jn. Sedulang where they deliver piping hot sate with thick peanut sauce for 15,000R. Both the quality and quantities are of a ridiculously high standard, and while our preference is for the chicken, the goat ones are just as lip-smacking.
Go to: Burn off the sate with a stroll down to Ramio, the enormous coffee joint where iced green tea will perfectly complement the unintrusive live music. Pro-tip: if you’re from the UK the musicians will insist on serenading you with Adele or Ed Sheeran tunes, so at the very least pretend you like them.
How to get there
Daily direct flights with Wings Air are available between Juanda International Airport in Surabaya and Sumenep’s 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 refuse to leave until all space – including the stairwells and passageway – has been filled.
*(Cynical Editor: Does anybody ever read this?)