(Very) Rough Guide: Madura, Java’s Underrated Gem
Welcome to Madura
Even in a country as complex as Indonesia, Pulau Madura remains shrouded in mystery.
By rights the island should be a highlight of any trip through the region. It has an ideal location, perched off the east coast of Java and a stone’s throw away from Bali. Madura’s history, scenery and culture is one of the most distinct in the region.
And yet, this rugged island remains so far off the beaten track that many visitors to Indonesia are unaware of its existence.
However, therein lies Madura’s charm. With the lack of crowds comes the room to breathe. Certainly, those who make the effort will encounter sleepy towns, raging bulls, gloriously beautiful mosques, vibrant festivals and an independent streak as intense as anywhere in Indonesia.
Madura exists in its own little sphere, a corner of Indonesia unbound to the prism of tourism. Although the island is only an hour or so from Surabaya thanks to the Jembatan Suramadu – the bridge itself is a now-iconic Javan image – this accessibility does not translate into simplicity.
English is not widely spoken, public transport is cramped and there is not much tourist infrastructure. The overriding mood is one of blunt honesty and few concessions are made to visitors. As a predominately Islamic island alcohol is not widely available.
All of which goes to make Madura such an endearing and adventurous destination. Each visit feels like a trip into the unknown. A cramped bus ride brings with it colourful characters, strangers warmly welcome passers-by and vibrant festivals showcases the island’s storied history. Locals greet tourist – a rare species – with arms wide open and just a touch of incredulity.
The beauty of Madura lies in its remoteness. Happily, people are glad to help newcomers meaning so it’s easy to organise trips and transport.
As a general rule Madurese towns and villages are picturesque and reward exploration on foot. A peaceful jalan jalan will reveal sights, sounds, smells and characters not immediately apparent upon first arrival.
For many, the first major stop from Surabaya in Bangkalan, a town worthy of a night or two’s stay. Many head here for the bull racing and the town is home to the colourful Gelora Bangkalan Stadion (Jl. Raya Teuku Umar), where Madura FC play most of their home games. For anyone who’s got their own transport, the salt mines of Bukit Jaddih (5,000R entrance fee), pictured below, are worth the 25-minute journey. The beautiful white limestone cliffs combined with the views afforded by the hill’s peaks make for one of Madura’s most stirring sights.
Heading further central, Pamekesan is home to the Monumen Arek Lancor, pictured below, perhaps the island’s most enduring image. Standing proud in the city’s alun (square), the monument writhes in an attitude of prayer and devotion, as though inspired by the ornate Masjid Agung Asy-Syuhada behind it. Coupled with rousing Uldaul festivities – comprising floats, costumes, music and traditional songs – the town offers a kinetic, rousing celebration of Madurese culture.
Located about 12km to the city’s south-east, Jumiang Beach is a popular hang-out spot. The myriad cafes and warungs make for a congenial atmosphere as the nearby salt ponds stretch into the distance.
Sedate Sumenep, to the east of Madura, is the island’s capital and one of Java’s most charming destinations. The calm pace of life, open streets and rugged surroundings give it a distinctly Mediterranean feel. It’s easy to spend an enjoyable couple of days soaking up the serene atmosphere. Since Madura is home to some of Indonesia’s most unique Batik designs there’s good reason to go shopping here. Well-made, sturdy shirts cost as little as 50,000R and while the material itself can be pricey – in some cases over 900,000R a roll – the quality is excellent. Toko Apollo Batik Madura on Jl. Raya Sumenep is a good place to start but be sure to shop around. Most stores offer high-quality goods at competitive prices.
Sumenep is easily explorable on foot. A leisurely walk from the Masjid Jamik Sumenep – Madura’s most iconic mosque – to and fro the Royal Tombs (Makam Raja Sumenep Asta Tinggi, below) should take no more than a few hours. Factor in a stop at the Stadion Karapan Sapi, home of the annual bull races, for a complete sweep of the town’s landmarks.
A common perception of Madura is one of stubborness, coarseness and fiery tempers. A temperament to match the island’s arid climate. Historically it has had an uneasy relationship with Java, and tensions are still evident on either side of the Suramadu Bridge.
Whilst visitors will most likely not experience this enmity they should notice a stark contrast nevertheless. Colourful batik clothing is everywhere and many women are resplendent in vibrant sarongs and kelambi (blouses). Madurese is spoken alongside Bahasa Indonesia as a unique culture of which the indigenous population are rightly proud reveals itself. Picturesque mosques dot the landscape and colourful street art adorns many nooks and crannies.
In short, stepping onto Madura is akin to stepping through a portal to some alternate dimension which is not quite Indonesia.
This self-contained, brusque nature manifests itself in an extremely friendly welcome. There is not much in the way of shyness: An impromptu chat on a bus, an invitation for coffee or the offer of a bike ride will make strangers feel at home. It may well be tinged with curiosity – not many people visit Madura, after all – but never intrusive.
Accommodation tends to be at the pricier end of the budget spectrum. Although prices are liable to change they are correct at the time of writing.
- In Bangkalan, Hotel Ningrat (Jl. KH Mohamad Kholil) is the only choice to speak of. Expect to pay 310,000IDR for an ensuite room. It’s a 5km, 20,000R angkot ride from the bus drop-off point at Tangkel. Call +62 31 3095388.
- Sumenep has slightly more choice. Hotel Utami Sumekar (Jl. Trunojoyo) is a good central option, with ensuite rooms from 160,000IDR including breakfast. It’s a 45-minute walk from Terminal Bus Antar on the town’s outskirts or a 20-minute ride on a becak rickshaw. Call +62 328 672221.
- Visitors to Pamekasan should try Ramayan Hotel (Jl. Niaga). Ensuite rooms cost 210,000R and there are plentiful food stalls and sights within easy walking distance. Call +62 324 324575.
- Pick of the bunch in Sampang is Hotel Trunjoyo (Jl. Rajawali). With ensuites from 150,000R, the hotel is a five-minute minute walk from Bus Terminal Sampang.
For a tasty regional specialty, try rujak, a salad dish mixing vegetables with peanut sauces, cassava chips and subtle spices. Find it at roadside stalls and watch it made from scratch using the traditional flat Indonesian mortar and pestle.
There are many warungs around the football stadium in Bangkalan, with a bowl of mie goreng, above, typically costing 20,000R. In Sumenep Pondok Salero (Jl. Tunojoyo), pictured below, offers fine, cheap Padang-style food while the stalls down Jn. Sedulang deliver piping hot sate with thick peanut sauce for 15,000R. Those looking for bakso should visit Warung Galipat on Jl. KH Wahid Hasyim.
Amble down bustling Jl. Niaga in Pamekasan for street eats, cafes and wandering minstrels with guitars. Some tasty offerings in Sampang can be found opposite the general hospital on Jl. Rajawali.
(Bahasa Editor: If you want a takeaway, use the word ‘bungkus’. For example, to ask for fried rice to go you could say, ‘Tolong, saya ingin nasi goreng bungkus’. Don’t forget, the Bahasa word for food is ‘makan’ and drink is ‘minum’.)
While travelling around Madura is simple in theory, in practice it can be trying. There are regular buses but oftentimes they are cramped and sweaty; our researcher spent one journey jammed in the stairwell trying to avoid a sea of vomit on the floor.
Don’t be put off though. While it can be daunting it’s also a communal scene – fellow passengers will always strike up a conversation and there are plenty of smiles going round. As with everywhere else, a few Bahasa phrases go a long way.
Take the following as a (very) rough guide for bus travel:
- Damri bus from Surabaya airport to Terminal Purabaya/Bungurasih (Surabaya): 25,000R, 30 minutes
- Terminal Purabaya/Bungurasih (Surabaya) to Bangkalan (Tangkel stop): 40,000R, two-three hours
- Bangkalan to Sumenep (Terminal Arya Wirajaya): 40,000R, up to eight hours. The traffic outside Bangkalan at weekends or on market days can be heavy
- Sumenep to Pamekasan (Terminal Ronggosukowati, pictured above,): 15,000R, one hour
- Pamekasan to Sampang (Terminal Sampang): 15,000R, one hour
- Sampang to Surabaya (Terminal Terminal Purabaya/Bungurasih : 40,000R, four hours
In addition there’s also an overnight bus from Bangkalan Terminal Bangkalan Ceria to Jakarta.
In terms of getting around, the ubiquitous ojek motorcycle taxis are everywhere. So too are becaks, pictured below, the cycle rickshaws offering a calmer alternative compared to their noisier bike cousins. There is no Grab or Gojek app coverage on Madura.
Useful things to know
Population: 3.65 million
Language(s): Madurese, Bahasa Indonesia; Basic English understood and spoken
International dialling code: +62
Money: Indonesian rupiah (IDR), currently around 18,360IDR to UK£1. Banks and ATMs can be found in the main towns.
Madurese language primer
Although Bahasa is widely spoken across Madura it would be useful to have a few indigenous words handy. Whilst this is by no means a comprehensive list, if you want to know the Madurese for ‘bald’ look no further:
Thank you – Sakalangkong
No problem – Depadeh (artinya)
Excuse me (seeking help) – Ta’ langkong/takalong (similar to ‘permisi’ in Bahasa)
Please (greeting) – Tore lenggi
I want… – Kaule terro
Ask – Atanya ah
Where is… – Edimah…
Assassination Classroom – Kelas ghebei mate e oreng*
Bald – Bhutak
Tall – Tengghi
*No, us neither
(Transparent Editor: This is a compendium of our previously published Madura guides. Parts one, two and three are available in bite-sized chunks. We’re still trying to work out why part two is by far the most popular section.)