The little-visited island of Madura
Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine, October 2008
People warned me not to go to Madura. It was hot and dirty, they said, with nothing to see. And the inhabitants of the long, low island that lies off the north coast of Java were rude, aggressive, and possibly even dangerous. But none of the people who told me these things had ever been there. I was looking for an off-the-beaten-track destination easily accessible from East Java, and the terrible rumours only made me inquisitive: I went, and I discovered how wrong people were about Madura…
Madura is dwarfed by its southern neighbour, Java, but it is a big place, 160km long and 35 km wide. The gateway to the island is the sprawling East Java capital of Surabaya, a thirty-minute flight from Bali. Madura is just twenty minutes from Surabaya by ferry across a narrow channel crowded with shipping, but it is a world away from the hectic metropolis.
Madura is overwhelmingly rural, with small, orderly towns, far removed from the gridlocked cities of Java. A ridge of low limestone hills runs its length, cloaked in dry forest, and the level plains are a patchwork of rice fields and villages. And as I travelled east from the ferry port at Kamal, the first thing I noticed was just how beautiful it was. The fields were heavy with ripening rice, running out to banks of dark trees, and neat clusters of whitewashed, red-tiled houses stood back from the road. Inland there were craggy outcrops of weathered stone, and by scrambling to the top of one of these I was rewarded with a fabulous panorama of forest and fields sprawling south to the pale blue of the channel. There was no sign of the filth and squalor people in Java and Bali had warned me of; in fact it all seemed remarkably neat. And as for the infernal heat – well, this was Indonesia after all, so of course it was hot, but a light breeze was stirring the treetops, and there was not even a whiff of traffic fumes!
I travelled on eastward sometimes passing close to the coast, sometimes bending inland. In the late afternoon I reached my destination, the little town of Sumenep.
Sumenep is definitely the best destination in Madura, a grid of clean, lazy streets where brightly decorated becak (pedicabs) trundle by. It was here that I chose to spend a couple of nights. Virtually no tourists visit Madura – perhaps put off by the ill-informed stories of Indonesians from other parts of the country. But there are a few simple hotels scattered through the towns, and it took no time to find a bed.
Sumenep was a wonderfully friendly town. People were not used to foreign visitors, but they were eager to chat and as I wandered the streets I was met with warm greetings. It seemed that the negative stories I had heard about the Madurese people were far from the truth.
Sumenep has a handful of interesting sights, and the next morning I wandered from the crowded traditional market at Pasar Anom to the remarkable Mejid Jamik, the town’s oldest mosque. The mosque was built in the 18th Century by the ruler of East Madura, and it is fronted by a remarkable tiered gateway of stark white edged with yellow. It seemed to glow in the morning sunlight. Not far from the mosque is the keraton, the palace, a miniature version of the famed royal houses of Yogyakarta and Solo. I wandered the cool hallways, admiring the fine woodwork, and the decorations of the little pavilions in the courtyard outside, shaded by towering banyan trees. I found more notable architecture on an airy hilltop on the edge of town where the members of the old royal dynasty that once ruled Madura are buried. The mausoleums were crowded with pilgrims who come here to pray at the graves, and to make offerings of delicate flower petals.
Sumenep was a charming little place, and I wondered why it saw so few visitors, but once I headed out into the countryside beyond the town I became more bemused by Madura’s lack of tourists. The eastern part of the island is gorgeous. Narrow lanes wind through stands of tall palm trees, and cut through level rice fields of rich emerald green; side tracks open suddenly to gentle coastline and blue water, the horizon marked by the offshore islands of the tantalising Kangean Archipelago.
At Lombang Beach at the eastern tip of Madura a great sweep of yellow sand lies in front of a bank of whispering casuarinas trees, and following the rough track north along the coast from there, I found many other tiny beaches, utterly deserted beside the wide blue of the Java Sea. The next day too as I travelled on along the north coast road, passing through fields, palm stands and bustling fishing villages with inlets crowded with traditional white boats, I passed many stretches of clean, empty sand.
Madura is famous for a few things. Its crafts are renowned. In the little hamlet of Tajjian I was shown the intricately carved and decorated masks known as topeng, used in the dance versions of the great Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Villagers in East Madura have passed the skill of carving from generation to generation for hundreds of years, and traders from Yogyakarata and beyond still make their way there to buy the pieces. Madura is also famous for its batik. The silks and cottons here are decorated with some of the most elaborate and intricate designs anywhere in Indonesia. Motifs of birds and flowers in rich, deep colours are the norm, and in the batik-making village of Tanjungbumi with its warren of whitewashed alleyways, I was shown some of the most gorgeous pieces of cloth I had seen, far more impressive than the staid, formal designs of mainland Java.
Another famous Madurese export is its food. Throughout the archipelago simple stalls sell sate and sotto, renowned Madura specialities. But of course, locals will tell you, it is only on the island itself that you can taste the little kebabs of skewered chicken, and the deliciously fresh-tasting chicken soup as they should be eaten.
And Madura is famous for one more thing; indeed it has only one acknowledged tourist attraction: bull racing. As an agricultural heartland cattle have always been important on Madura, and out of a fun way to plough the rice fields a spectacular, high-octane sport developed. Every year in the Dry Season great championships are held in the towns of Madura where teams of two bulls and a man race a astonishing speeds across a hundred-metre course.
There were no bull races when I went to Madura, but I didn’t care. I had discovered that the island had a wealth of other attractions. There was beautiful countryside, pleasant, slow-paced towns and a cluster of historical sights; the food was good and the traditional crafts were still practiced as they always had been, without the effects of mass tourism. The coastline was dotted with clean, unspoilt beaches, and the whole island was the ideal place to sample a traditional part of Indonesia completely untouched by tourists. And above all, the people were delightful. Everywhere I went there was open hospitality and good humour.
As I made my way back to the western part of the Island, and back across the channel to the chaos of Surabaya, I was very glad I hadn’t listened to the terrible rumours.
© Tim Hannigan 2008