Eclipsed by more famous destinations such as Papua, Sulawesi, Sumatra and Flores, remote Sumba is primarily visited by travelers with a keen interest in ethno-tourism. Way off the beaten path – or any path for that matter – you don’t just end up here by mistake; you come here specifically to take in the unique Sumbanese tribal art, architecture and cultural heritage. Sumba is a tough place to travel: there are few accommodations, roads can be adventurous and English is non-existent.
Sumba is a land of contrasts. The east of the island is made up of arid grasslands and limestone plateaux, while the west is fertile and green, with rolling hills and a long rainy season. Waingapu the capital, is well known for producing the finest ikat fabric in Indonesia. A little further out at Rende and Melolo sit stone tombs with bizarre carvings, and in other villages on the east coast you’ll find quality weaving, traditional structures and deserted beaches. The main town in the west is Waikabubak, where characteristic houses with thatched roofs soar to an apex over 15m above the ground.
One of the main reasons to visit Sumba is to experience the extraordinary agrarian animist cultures in the villages. These villages, or kampung, comprise huge clan houses set on fortified hills, centred around megalithic graves and topped by a totem made from a petrified tree, from which villagers would hang the heads of conquered enemies. The national government insisted that all totems be removed back in the 1970s, and though some do remain, many have disappeared.
The most important part of life for the Sumbanese is death, when the mortal soul makes the journey into the spirit world. Sumbanese funerals can be extremely impressive spectacles, inspiring several days’ worth of slaughter and feasting, the corpse wrapped in hundreds of exquisite ikat cloths.
Ostensibly, visiting the villages often involves nothing more than hiring a motorbike, but the difficulty for Western visitors to Sumba is that traditions and taboos in Sumbanese village life are still very powerful and sit ill at ease with the demands of modern tourism. A visitor to a Sumbanese village should first take the time to share sirih pinang (betel nut) with both the kepala desa (village headman) and his hosts. Bringing betel nut is seen as a peace offering (enemies would rarely turn up brandishing gifts), while its use is a sign of unity; Sumbanese ritual culture sets great store by returning blood to the earth, and the bright-red gobs of saliva produced by chewing sirih represent this. (The central purpose of the Pasola festivals is similarly to return blood to the soil). Many villages that are on the regular trail for tourists have supplanted the tradition of sharing betel with a simple request for money, but if you come with gifts (betel nuts, cigarettes, or anything else that can be shared) you’ll be far more welcome.
The process seems to be more of a modern interpretation of some traditional gift-giving ritual that applies to Indonesians and other locals as well. Unfortunately, betel nuts aren’t cheap and visitors would go through a mountain of cash if they bought betel nuts for everyone. These days, many visitors buy packs of cigarettes and pass out individual cigarettes instead.
Whereas villagers in Lombok, Flores and Alor are quite hospitable, the Sumbanese seem more aloof and often somewhat suspicious. Despite the coolness, the fascinating villages are incredible windows into the past with massive megalithic tombs, table-like spirit stones (kateda) used for offerings to the dead, and skull trees (andung), where headhunters once hung their trophies.
But what really grabs visitors’ attention is the impressive Sumbanese hut architecture. Absurdly vertical roofs soar out of the broad-based, more functional open-sided living areas. Beams and lintels are often carved and porches are frequently decorated with lines of buffalo skulls. Unfortunately, like termites gnawing away at a masterpiece, art collectors are taking their toll on Sumba’s unique heritage.
Despite that toll, there is much here to thrill visitors with an interest in traditional culture. Local dress remains a part of daily life to some degree. Older women often go topless dressed only in their traditional ikat (a heavy, ornately woven sarong). Younger women, however, usually wear ikats with T-shirts. Men like to wear their ikat bunched up around their waist as a kind of belt over western clothing. Some men also wear a cloth chaotically tied around their head. Almost every man, young and old, carries a sword, which they unfortunately still use when tempers flare.
Each year, the exotic Pasola season begins when village shamans along the coast determine that a specific sea worm (nyale) has arrived. Upon the arrival of the ocean worms, villages organize bloody boxing matches in which the fighters wrap their hands with razor-sharp grasses rather than using gloves. After the fights, Sumba’s warriors take part in ritual lance battles often injuring and occasionally killing each other in the process.
Religious realities are best displayed in Sumbanese death rituals. When a person dies, the family members must sacrifice large numbers of horses and buffalo to appease the marapu and allow the dead person to enter the invisible world. Families spend enormous sums on these sacrifices and the economic toll on surviving family members can be devastating. It’s an interesting topic to take up with more modern Sumbanese living in towns.
Sumbanese culture is beyond fascinating. For this reason, Sumba is – without a doubt – one of the most unique and rewarding regions we have experienced in Indonesia. While change is definitely coming to Sumba, there are few places on the planet where you can encounter such deeply traditional people and explore such authentic villages.
How to get there:
Access to Sumba is either by ferry from Ende in Flores to Waingapu or from Sape in Sumbawa to Waikelo, or by air to either Waingapu or Waikabubak. Most people choose to fly out of Waingapu rather than Waikabubak, which has a very chequered record for reliability and cancellations.
Merpati airlines has a regular flight to Waingapu airport. It provides flights from Kupang via Maumere and from Denpasar four times a week. Transnusa also provides this route from Kupang but its schedule is tentative. Merpati flies with the same frequency to Tambolaka in West Sumba, but from there, you have to take a four-hour drive to Waingapu. Although winding, the condition of the roads from Tambolaka to Waingapu are good. Meadows and savannas in East Sumba provide amazing scenery along the way.