Unique attractions of Bima, East Sumbawa

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

The nominal capital of East Sumbawa, the unpretentious town of Bima, is dusty, plain and boring. It does have a handful of hotels in various stages of dilapidation, none of them luxurious or even really comfortable. But do not let this put you off - East Sumbawa, a territory entirely off the radar of any foreign or domestic tourists (except for a few truly maniacal explorers), has a number of rare and beautiful natural attractions, unchanged tribal culture, and unique traditional horse races to boot.

Pulau Sangeang

© Mark Levitin

A small island off the north shore of Sumbawa, Pulau Sangeang is the only spot in the area occasionally visited by foreigners - liveaboard cruises from Bali to Komodo often make a brief stopover here. The reason is a pinisi-making village. Pinisi are 2- or 3-decked wooden schooners, once traditional vessels of the Bugis (an Indonesian ethnicity), nowadays a favorable replacement for a luxury yacht - with an ethnic twist. They do look glorious, like the legendary frigates of the sail-and-wind era. The village is tiny, and the makeshift wharf is much smaller than those in South Sulawesi, Bugis' homeland, but there are usually one or two pinisi in the making. The settlement and the boatyard also look much more rustic, particularly good for photography. Those with more interest in the wilderness will find more pleasure in climbing the volcano that essentially forms the island - 1700 m tall Sangeang Api peak. The volcano is highly active and erupts regularly. If you coincide with a strombolian eruption, the view of incandescent ejecta fountaining out of the crater will outshadow even the great marine panoramas visible from the summit (which in this case will be too dangerous to access). 

Pulau Ular

© istock/richcarey

Nobody knows exactly why, but a small islet near the coast of Sumbawa attracts thousands of sea snakes. You may be able to see a few of those brightly colored reptiles basking on the rocks, but the best way to appreciate their beauty and sheer numbers is to go underwater: snorkeling or free diving, as no scuba equipment is available anywhere nearby. While most sea snakes are venomous, their natural prey are small fish, and humans will usually be ignored. The only way to reach the Snake Island - Pulau Ular in Indonesian - is to hire a boat from one of the fishing villages in Sumbawa, so you will be in the company of an experienced local. Just listen to your captain's advice, and you should be safe. And this kind of natural occurrence is just too rare to willingly miss. 

Bioluminescent plankton

© istock/Justin Bartels

As if this were not enough, the sea in this part of Indonesia often shines at night with the blue light of bioluminescent plankton. It does not happen on schedule, but often enough during the dry season. Come on a moonless night to maximize your chances - apparently, the tiny glowing organisms do not like competition. Choose any small island or even an unpopulated part of Sumbawa's northern coast, camp for a night or two, and keep your eyes peeled. Blue sparks in the water make the sea look like a shifting starry sky smashing the dark volcanic sand again. Photographing such a faint glow requires professional skills and gear, but swimming in luminescent waters, a human figure surrounded by a halo, requires nothing but a bit of luck.

Uma Lengge and maen jaran

© Mark Levitin

The indigenous people of the Bima region, known as Mbojo, have their own architectural customs. This is best expressed in the traditional Mbojo rice barn, uma lengge. The building stands on four stilts ending in flat wooden disks - apparently, to prevent rodents from climbing higher up. Next comes a platform where village women sit in the afternoon, weaving and stitching, and finally, the top floor - a triangular structure holding the essence of life, rice. The roof is made of straw. Uma lengge can be seen in many villages, but the best location is a specifically designated tourist attraction, a spot where a number of rice barns have been restored and put together. It is called simply "Uma Lengge" and is pinpointed on Google Maps. Cultural events are frequently staged there - folk dance, martial arts performances, communal gatherings. Another interesting local event, usually organized in the second half of the dry season (Aug-Oct), is maen jaran - traditional horse races of East Sumbawa. The unique feature here is that all the jockeys are adolescent - no grown-ups are allowed to participate. The kids ride bareback and without stirrups: pure skill, no tools. This is a rural event, not a big sport, and there are no stadiums or hippodromes. Flat space is selected by villagers, and the schedule is only announced in local newspapers (if at all), so it is almost impossible to find without the help of a native Sumbawan.

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