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Sumba - Sumba - a remote Indonesian island.

Updated on March 5, 2015
ancestral village of Tarung - west Sumba
ancestral village of Tarung - west Sumba | Source

Sumba - ancestral villages and much more

Sumba. It’s a place the daughter and I have always wanted to visit. Now we have time to indulge ourselves, to step back in time and explore.

This Indonesian island, a part of the East Nusa Tenggara chain, lies south of Flores and south west of Timor.

It’s an island that has mostly escaped tourism. The Dutch colonialists didn’t arrive here until early in the 20th century and don’t appear to have had much impact. Back then it was known as Sandalwood Island, for the precious wood valued largely for its fragrance, woodworking and suggested medicinal qualities.

Sumba was so isolated that when independence was declared on 17th August 1945, it took six months for the news to reach Sumba. Or so the story goes.

Happy smiles everywhere
Happy smiles everywhere | Source


We leave from Ngurah Rai International Airport, Denpasar, Bali and land with a thud at Waingapu, East Sumba’s tiny Mau Hau airstrip. We collect our luggage and lazily look around. We took to long. The only transport available to the town and accommodation is by motorbike. Not my usual style.

And so I find myself clinging on to my hat, my camera and a stranger. My backpack is precariously balanced. The daughter is somewhere behind. I briefly wonder if I’ll see her again and if my travel insurance covers trauma and disappearance.

sumba | Source


We find room at the Sandalwood Hotel and move in.

I’m huffy at first. It’s near the road listening to the constant motorbike roar. But you soon become accustomed to it. Hawkers sit on and around our doorstep chatting and laughing. Yes, you become accustomed to that too.

It’s basic but welcoming - a large room and the air con works. The bedding is clean. Our own mandi – a tub of cold water with a container to allow you to throw water all over yourself. I love mandis, so refreshing. Pink silky curtains. Wooden furniture.

The staff are kind and helpful, such friendly people. They cheerfully bring breakfast down to our room - hot sweet tea and toast. Delicious with bananas..

Then a hitch, we are informed many roads are impassible. We ditch the backpacking notion and instead opt to hire a car and driver to cover both east and west Sumba from our base in Waingapu. A car and driver materialize at little price.

village store
village store | Source

The island and Horses

It's almost like there are two Sumbas – the terrain and climate are so diverse. East Sumba is dry, the west fertile and tropical. Everywhere has evidence of farming, cattle, buffalo, goats, pigs.

Indonesia’s famous sandalwood horses roam everywhere. These horses bred in Sumba are said to be the strongest in Indonesia and are exported to other islands.

The island and horsesHorses are also symbolic of wealth and status, used for dowries and appear as tomb decorations. They are worshipped in statues and, in the past, were sacrificed to accompany the dead to the next world.

Ikat is the local hand weaving process and once again horses are often depicted.

Waingapu is a dusty little town, bustling with Bemos – a small vehicle used to transport passengers and everything else you can think of, shopping, chickens, goats - pile them on. Motorbikes are plentiful, becaks and an odd assortment of vehicles. There’s a big bustling market and not much else.

It’s difficult to maneuver when walking, especially on a dark night – if you value your ankles watch out for the large holes in the roads and pavements.

how to relax in sumba
how to relax in sumba | Source

Betel Nut

Our first quest is visiting ancestral villages. We’re advised at the hotel to take betel nut as our offering.

The customary use of the areca nut known as betel chewing is clearly evident and – who knows? - may help along the happiness. The dried nut is a stimulant and an astringent. It’s also purported to have medicinal value and may be considered useful for headaches, stomach upsets, fevers and as a breath freshener.

The preparation of the betel chewing procedure is an art form. A small personal cane betel bag holds the areca nut, betel leaves and limes. It’s debatable whether it’s the nuts or lime that are responsible for so many rotted teeth.

Mouths and lips turn crimson from the juice of the nut. Elderly women smile with stained bright red teeth. Little wonder early European explorers thought they all suffered from tuberculosis!

Chewing increases the saliva and it is customary to spit out brilliant red sputum. Sound disgusting? It’s the eye of the beholder. When tourists call into villages inappropriately dressed, with lashings of uncovered flesh, these tolerant people are seriously distressed.

ancestral village
ancestral village | Source
need a tv?
need a tv? | Source

The Ancestral Villages

There are many villages. Rende, Mangili,Tarung are all very much dedicated to the ancestors, all operating today as they have for centuries. These villages are not tourist venues although they will welcome you and are usually very hospitable.

As we enter the first village a ceremony takes place. A bamboo mat is unrolled for us to sit on. We are offered betel nut in a container woven from dried plaited leaves. This is our welcome. It’s appropriate to accept a small piece but not necessary to chew it.

We then present our own offering. We may now stroll around their village, take photos, talk to the locals. At some villages a visitor’s book is presented to sign and add a few rupiahs.

Marapu, a form of ancestral religion is clearly respected. Traditional Sumbanese houses are built with pyramid shaped roofs, with a wooden beam at each end to allow the ancestral spirits to enter the house.

The four main posts supporting the houses, the intricate carvings and sculptures are all closely associated with ancestor worship.

Impressive megalithic tombs are made from hard stone and built in front of the houses. Massive rocks, some weighing as much as 70 tons have somehow been hauled across the countryside by hand.

ancestral village
ancestral village | Source
horses and chicken figures
horses and chicken figures | Source

The Sumbanese People

In the villages life continues as it has for centuries.Elderly women are highly respected in the community and fiercely proud of their heritage. Protective of tribal rites and family, a harsh lifetime is etched on their faces. No botox here.

Laughter is never far away though, echoing from the children playing to the rest of the community.

In the towns we are welcomed; if we’re lost people will cheerfully accompany us to show the way.

The hawkers are now our friends, our guides - they enthrall us with stories of their island, their lives, their families, their dreams. Every morning they arrive around seven am – cheerful and ready for the day. They laugh; talk, until around 8pm. We share tea and biscuits and enjoy the company. With so few tourists around I don’t know how they make enough money to survive.

friends and guides
friends and guides | Source

Nihiwatu Resort - a Surfing Paradise

At first Sumba seems an unlikely place to find one of the five best eco-hotels in the world. Nihiwatu Resort is just that, a paradise offering serenity and world famous surfing. The venture has proved beneficial to many of the people Sumba providing employment and community based projects.

Food, is sourced locally, produce organically grown, fuel is produced through harvested coconut flesh, chicken is farmed and the resort is self sufficient in fresh fish.

Here’s nature at it’s best, 560 acres of unspoiled land, visitors stay in villas of exceptional exclusivity, all activities expertly crafted towards a personal approach for guests.

Surfing is the highest of priorities, Nihiwatu offers access to one of the world’s best left-hand break waves. Add to this diving and world-class sport fishing.

The philosophy of the resort is to dedicate profits towards the Sumba Foundation.

For many people of Sumba availability to water is a problem. In the dry season when streams dry up dependence on wells is necessary. Many people have to travel several miles to access daily water.

The Sumba Foundation has been active in raising awareness and sponsorship. To help reduce poverty the Foundation are responsible for supplying many schools with water and sanitation.

The Foundation has set up 15 primary schools and five clinics, 172 villages have clean water and 48 water wells have been established. With more to come.

The Wave has always remained central to Nihwatu’s story, the famous left-hand break attracts surfers from all over the world.

What a wonderful contribution to the island and the beautiful people of Sumba.

West Sumba traditional music

Ibu and Ibu wearing ikat the hand woven sumbanese material
Ibu and Ibu wearing ikat the hand woven sumbanese material | Source

The Pasola Festival

In Feb/March Sumba has a festival named Pasola, a unique Sumbanese event not staged for tourists. It’s a simulated war game; a tournament played by dozens of men on horse back. Horse riders use no saddles or stirrups and are armed with wooden spears.

The name of the game is to knock one’s opponent off his horse with a wooden spear. The spears represent different villages. Spears are not sharpened but they are potentially dangerous and injuries and deaths are not unknown.

I cannot give you exact dates for the Pasola. This is determined by the full moon and the arrival of nyale, or beach worms. After this the date is announced by a local official.

Sumba is a little visited and a fascinating outpost in Indonesia’s southeast island chain. Anyone visiting will be impressed by the warmth and charm of wonderful people.

pasola festival statue
pasola festival statue | Source


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    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 

      2 years ago from Essex, UK

      Thanks for the insight into the island of Sumba travmaj. One day I hope to visit Indonesia, which generally is an area resonating with so much appeal (Bali, Komodo, Krakatoa etc). And it's nice to receive a personal review of ordinary life in villages on one of the islands, because I have experienced similar villages in Thailand - it was nice to be able to compare. Cheers, Alun

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from australia

      Hello Kay, lovely to have you visit Sumba with me. It is indeed fascinating and such traditions are great to experience. Thank you again. Maj

    • profile image

      Kay Readdy 

      3 years ago

      Wonderful commentary, pictures and video of Sumba. What a fascinating place, and how great it still adheres to traditional values. I particularly love the picture of author and ibu wearing ikat. Also love the villages although I hate to think what cyclones might do to them.

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from australia

      Hello Peggy W - Sumba surely is an interesting place to visit - I'm so happy you enjoyed this visit. Yes, I'm lucky to travel so much although home is a good place to be. I thank you for comment, vote and share. Much appreciated Peggy.

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from australia

      mary615 - I'm happy you enjoyed this visit to Sumba. It really is a lovely island and the people are so warm and welcoming. Thank you for your comment, vote and share. Much appreciated and good to see you here. Best wishes for Easter.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks so much for sharing your photos and memories of visiting Sumba - Sumba. While I will never get to travel there in person, at least I have some idea of what it is like thanks to your writing this hub. You are obviously very adventurous! Many up votes and happy to share.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      3 years ago from Florida

      I am an "armchair" traveler, and I enjoy reading about places such as this. When our weather gets cooler here, I dream of visiting warm tropical islands!

      Your photos are amazing! Sumba sound like a placeI'd sure like to visit. Voted UP, etc. and shared.

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from australia

      Hello Peg, thank you for visiting Sumba with me - the people, the culture, the whole visit was impressive. It's quite something to see the people always smiling and eager to assist and chat - their lifestyle is to be admired.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Fascinating travel log of your visit to Sumba. The people and their culture are amazing and the hospitality they showed was impressive. Thanks for sharing this part of your journey here.

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from australia

      Kay- sorry I missed this comment way back. Great you enjoyed this visit to Sumba with me - it really is an awesome experience. Thank you for commenting.

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from australia

      dis-cover - thank you for your positive comments and vote. Sumba is one of my favourite islands, so unspoilt and the people are gracious and welcoming.

      I'd love to visit again someday.

    • dis-cover profile image

      Nikolic Predrag 

      4 years ago from Serbia, Belgrade

      I really enjoy while I am reading your articles about travel. Sometimes I feel like I'm there on the spot. It sounds like a great place to visit, such exotic place. Wonderful hub, voted up as awesome!!!

    • profile image

      Kay Readdy 

      5 years ago

      I really enjoyed your description of Sumba Sumba, and now look forward with much anticipation to what you thought of Flores. Amazing to think such primitive customs remain in villages where residents are clad in t-shirt and jeans!

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from australia

      Hi mizjo - I'm so pleased you stopped by - we were in Sumba about a week - I would have liked longer but then there's always more to see. My daughter worked in Indonesia at the time - another island Flores which I'll write about soon. Sumba is nearby. I agree with you re Bali - the people are magic and always welcoming - thanks again for visiting sumba with me...

    • mizjo profile image


      5 years ago from New York City, NY

      Hi, Maj, how many days did you stay? Did you have enough time to see and experience all you wanted to? And how did you find such an isolated island in the chain to visit?

      I was in Bali last year and was totally enchanted by the people and customs. They practise the Hindu religion and leave little offerings of flowers, fruit and leaves everywhere. I was always careful not to step on them.

      Voted up and all.

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from australia

      inguidenet - thank you so much - I appreciate your stopping by and your comments and vote - yes, many more islands to visit and places to see.


    • iguidenetwork profile image


      5 years ago from Austin, TX

      It sounds like it's a great place to visit and also the people too are so warm and welcoming. Sumba and many more islands there may still be waiting to be discovered by more people -- the charm of their land and the warmth of their people. Voted up and interesting. :)

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from australia

      girishpuri - thank you for visiting Sumba on my pages - glad you enjoyed it -

    • girishpuri profile image

      Girish puri 

      5 years ago from NCR , INDIA

      Very nice visit of Sumba, sounds like a great destination, very well presented hub, thanks a lot.

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from australia

      and thank you ignugent for visiting Sumba - it is beautiful and glad you enjoyed it also.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing your adventure. It is always nice to see beautiful and exciting places.

      Voted up and interesting. :-)

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from australia

      Well thank you Gus - glad you liked the photos - its such a fascinating place you can't go wrong. Appreciate your stopping by and finding Sumba of interest - cheers -

    • GusTheRedneck profile image

      Gustave Kilthau 

      5 years ago from USA

      Howdy travmaj - I really enjoyed the fine tour here. Think of all of the words you didn't have to write because each of those great photos must be worth 10,000 words, right? Thank you very much for this interesting article.

      Gus :-)))

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from australia

      Hi Cathy - thank you for stopping by and your welcome comments - the betal nut is just what they do and they really are remarkable people. I hadn't heard re the toothpaste - will have to investigate - cheers...

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from australia

      midget - thanks for stopping and commenting - yes Sumba is a fascinating place and I'd love to visit again one day - also thanks for sharing -

    • Cathy Fidelibus profile image

      Ms. Immortal 

      5 years ago from NJ

      Thank you for the visit to Sumba!

      I would not want to be around those betel nut chewing spitters, but find it fascinating.

      I have read that the betel nut is a very addicting stimulant, like caffeine and nicotine. It is even added to some asian toothpaste.

      voted up

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 

      5 years ago from Singapore

      It does sound like a great place to visit and learn many things. Thanks for the introduction, Travmaj!! Thanks for sharing! I share as well.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks Valley - appreciate your comments and it is indeed fascinating. Meanwhile I'm in London and have some hefty travel ahead so probably not much hubbing, However, will be back with heaps to say! Thanks again - will catch up with yours when I can...

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This was a very interesting read, sounds like a fascinating place to visit. There are so very few places left unspoilt. Thank you for sharing this experience:-))

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from australia

      Mhatter - thank you for joining it - pleased you approved and appreciate your visit.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for this truly fascinating tour.

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from australia

      GoodLady - thank you for your comments - yes, I admire these people and learn so much - mud floors and all. The lady in the photo cooked us a yam on an open fire in the centre of her house. Haven't experienced remote Philippines - never quite know what's in store do though, do we? Thank you again - appreciate your interest.

    • travmaj profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from australia

      Hi Pavlo - we spent five days in Sumba before leaving for the nearby island of Flores which I'll write about soon. Fabulous island. My daughter is fluent in Indonesian and spent much time over there. So that made it easy. I'm off travelling for several weeks now so may not be hubbing much but I hope to log in now and then. And be back with some stories. Thank you - know you love travel.

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 

      6 years ago from Rome, Italy

      It is amazing how our ancestors managed to lug massive rocks from one place to the other.

      Sumba sounds quite a find and reminds me a little of what some of the remoter islands of the Philippines were like (except that the people sound like a more peaceful lot). I could smell the mud floors as you were writing your very interesting account.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 

      6 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      I want it too.... :) How many days did you stay there? Did you just know it is a great place or someone told you to visit it?


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