Rarely visited by westerners, Sumba has an interior not unlike Texas hill country, only hotter, containing fewer people, bigger hills and more rugged roads. It is a sparsely populated island with just 700,000 people spread across its 11,000 km2.
Sumba is famous for having one of the most expensive resorts in the world (Nihi Watu Resort, where a night's stay costs about USD 1,000). Aside from a few resorts, tourism infrastructure is very basic and it is not an easy destination for independent travel except for the most hardy of traveler. If you do make the effort, though, you will be rewarded by experiencing a unique culture and some stunning beaches.
Sumba is probably ten years (or fifteen) behind Flores (the neighboring Nusa Tenggara island) in tourism maturity. If you haven't visited Flores, you should visit it first before you check Sumba. Tourism is newer in West Sumba than in the eastern part, so the locals there still have more of a tendency to cheat and sell hard, as of 2018.
Christianity is the dominant religion but an estimated 30% of the indigenous population practice the animist Marapu religion, the customs and rituals of which are of considerable interest to the travelers who do make the effort to visit this rugged and remote island. Many Christians on the island combine their faith with Marapu practices.
The Marapu religion believes in temporary life on earth and an eternal life in the world of spirits in Marapu heaven (Prai Marapu)). Marapu teaches that universal life must be balanced and only then can happiness be achieved. This balance is symbolised by the Great Mother (Ina Kalada) and the Great Father (Ama Kalad) who live in the universe and take the forms of the moon and the sun. They are husband and wife who gave birth to the first ancestors of the Sumbanese.
To honor Marapu, the Sumbanese put effigies on stone altars where they lay their offerings and sacrifice cattle. A further manifestation of devotion to the ancestors is reflected in the construction of impressive stone burial monuments, vestiges of one of the last surviving megalithic cultures on the planet. Funeral ceremonies and burials can be delayed for decades during which the bodies of the deceased are kept in the homes of the living
While the influence of evangelical churches is growing in Sumba and reflected in mass conversion ceremonies, many islanders retain their beliefs and practice in secret. These conversions can be traumatic for elderly Sumbans who believe by doing so they sever the relationship with their forebears. Others, particularly young people, convert for more pragmatic reasons. Indonesia formally recognizes five state religions, and sought-after positions in the civil service, police and military are closed to Marapu practitioners.
Sumba always seems to have been a sparsely populated island and pre-colonial era records are few and far between. The first European ship arrived in 1522 and the Dutch East India Company slowly took control of the island. It was never a major colonial consideration, though, and it was not until well into the 20th century that the island was truly part of the Dutch Indonesian administration. The Japanese arrival in World War II also brought some hard times.
The Sumbanese speak several closely related and localised Austronesian languages. Not much English is spoken around these parts, but if you can speak Indonesian, generally the people in Sumba will understand you. Dutch may be spoken by a few elderly people, a legacy of Indonesia's Dutch colonial past.
Regional carriers Garuda Indonesia and Lion Air with its low cost branch Wings Air operate direct flights to Tambolaka (TMC IATA) and Waingapu (WGP IATA) from many several cities in eastern Indonesia, with less frequent flights also offered by Batavia Air and Pelita Air Services. There are a little over 20 flights from Bali to Tambolaka airport every week.
The Pelni passenger ship Awu calls in at Waingapu twice on its 14 day round trip of Nusa Tenggara. This allows access from Kupang and several other cities in the region. The Awu is by far the safest and best way to reach Sumba by sea.
Independent travel to and within Sumba has its challenges, and many visitors do so by joining an organised tour starting in Bali or Lombok. Once a rarity, these are now increasing and the quality of experience improving.
Transportation is expensive in Sumba due to the limited availability of vehicles for tourism. In general you can expect (as of Dec 2018):
- Motorbike rental for a day: Rp 100,000-150,000
- Car rental (with driver) for a day: Rp 500,000-700,000
- Bus ride: Rp 15,000-50,000 (depending on route)
- "Travel" (similar to Flores, a shared car that you pick up on the road side or booked through your accommodation), rate varies on route
- There is no official taxi in Sumba
- Ride-hailing apps such as Grab and Go-Jek have not reached Sumba yet.
Sumba is one of the very few places globally where the neolithic/bronze age practice of burial in megaliths remains intact. Stone megaliths (and other standing stone stuctures) are widespread on the island.
A number of pasolas are held each year in western Sumba near Waikabubak, usually sometime in either February or March (or both). These are ritual horseback jousting trials which including a ritual battle where mounted riders attempt to dismount other riders using blunt-tipped spears (sometimes there are fatalities). The pasola is an important annual ceremony and a key, unique attraction in Sumba.
If you receive an invitation to attend a wedding, birth, or funeral, never miss it. Those are the best way to learn about the culture. Ask for the norm (what to bring along, what not to do) and behave (e.g. avoid taking excessive photos during sensitive time).
Sumba is getting famous for surfers due to its big waves. For the same reason, it is not well-known for snorkeling (or maybe not discovered yet).
Sumba is probably most well-known for its handicrafts such as necklace, carvings, and woven cloths.
If you visit Sumba, be sure to try goat.
The local version of arak (palm liquor) is called Peci.
Since Sumba is far from other major cities, it is recommended to have Telkomsel. Other operators have limited coverage in this island.
Many Sumbanese are still adapting to tourism. Most locals would assume that all tourists are rich, so you are potentially offending them if you are too stingy with voluntary entrance fees to tourist sites or bargain too hard for souvenirs (as of Dec 2018).
The most notorious area for violence and banditry to locals or foreigners alike, is in West Sumba, especially near Kodi. Do not travel alone in the evening there.