Bajawa, a small hill town in West Flores, Indonesia, is famous for its many Ngada traditional villages scattered in the district. The Ngada culture and traditions are fascinating to discover, and the scenery is impressive. There are two volcanoes you can climb nearby, several waterfalls and some hot springs you can swim in.
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The Ngada Culture – Bajawa, Flores
The Bajawa Plateau is home to 60 000 Ngada, officially Christian (in Indonesia it’s mandatory to choose a religion and animism is not an option), they still practice animal sacrifices, like in Tanah Toraja and So’E. They worship Gae Dewa, the combination of Dewa Zeta and Nitu Sale, heaven, and earth. Formerly hunters, they now live from farming and some villages from tourism.
Each village is organized by clans (family), it is mandatory to marry inside the village, and the propriety descends through women, the eldest child receiving the inheritance. But the men are the ones taking all the political decisions. After marriage, the husband lives with his wife clan until he paid the bridewealth.
Ceremonies are essential, especially the ones for agricultural fertility, but also for weddings, births, deaths, and house making. Tourists can assist, you just need to be there at the right time. It’s pretty impressive, really festive with a lot of traditional dancing and singing and the sacrifice part, usually buffaloes, is a bit gory. The best moment to be there would be during the 6 days Reba ceremony held every year at the end of the year or the beginning of January.
The houses are made of wood with a high thatched roof, the doorway is usually ornamented with buffalo horns and jawbones, the number of them indicating the family’s success. The houses go in pairs, so each clan or family has two houses. One is female with the bhaga symbol perched on the roof, and one is male with the ngadhu symbol, also on the roof. The bhaga is a miniature house and the ngadhu looks like a parasol with an impressive carved wooden pole, they usually are about 3 meters high, except when they’re on top of the houses where they sometimes look like a figurine.
Some would say these villages are not really authentic and are only for tourists, I would say yes and no. On the one hand, people there mostly live thanks to tourism, by charging an entrance fee and selling their ikat (handcraft traditional clothing). They understand that by keeping their ancestral way of living, they’ll make money out of it. In some of the main villages, you’ll feel that they only see you as a cash machine. Some people also complain that they are not truly living the authentic way, that they are living modern life etc… Well, you cannot really complain if people want to improve their way of life and don’t want to live as their ancestors did. One thing you have to know is that for most Indonesian people having a concrete house is the sign you succeeded in life, so most of them are trying to achieve this goal.
On the other hand, people in Bajawa are still really attached to their traditions and culture, they are proud of it, and even if they live a “modern” life that’s still an important part of their daily life. They would probably be living the same way they do now with or without tourists.
Don’t expect something 100% authentic, the villages are still really nice to visit, the culture is super interesting to learn about, but there are too many tourists coming. Some villages around Bajawa are less touristy mostly because they are harder to reach, farther there are also some really remote villages, in which you probably won’t see many tourists, but you’ll need a guide. Be ready to have to trek for a day to get there, and to have to spend the night in something really basic. At least this is a real adventure.
What to do around Bajawa, Flores
The best way to explore Bajawa is by renting a scooter, you can also hire a driver with the motorbike if you don’t feel comfortable driving. Some roads to less frequented villages are in bad condition. They usually give you a map, and there are signs along the road pointing to the villages.
A good idea, if you want to learn more about the culture and be able to interact with the people, would be to hire a guide for the day, but you can also choose to go on your own.
1- Visit the traditional villages near Bajawa, Flores
While in the villages notice the people cleaning the rice, drying cocoa (ask to try the fruit) and nuts, also notice the craftsman making knives, musical instruments, and so on. You’ll probably also see women making ikat, ask them how long it takes to make it you’ll be surprised.
The most famous village and most spectacular, the road leading to it is amazing. When arriving near the village, you’ll be able to see it appearing through the bushes and trees. Bena is home to 9 clans, the houses are divided into two rows, and in the middle, you can see amazing rock monuments, megalithic tombstones, ngadhu and bhaga (where they make the sacrifices).
It’s possible to arrange a homestay here, but be aware that most people don’t speak English.
Located 2 km from Bena, this village is home to 4 clans, notice the beautifully done carvings and paintings representing animals, symbolizing power and protection. In the courtyard, some ngadhu and bhaga.
Tolo Lela Village
Less frequented because hard to reach, the people here are very welcoming and will want to interact with you.
This one is definitively worth a trip if you’re looking for a more authentic experience. There is no road to it, the starting point of the trek is in Pauleni, 45km from Bajawa. The path is really steep, in the middle of the rainforest, you’ll need to walk for about 90 minutes. You will need to hire a guide, it can be done as a day trip, but you can also choose to spend the night there.
There are many more villages to explore, just follow the signs along the main roads, and you’ll find plenty of less-visited villages.
2 – Enjoy the hot springs in Bajawa, Flores
Air Panas Malange
This spring is truly amazing, there, a super hot stream meets a cold stream, they unit together, making it the perfect temperature. There’s a small shop there where you can buy coffee and noodles. You can find the spring about 6 km away from Bena, there’s a sign on the right with a small area where you can park.
Air Panas Soa
More accessible, but also more frequented and less natural, you’ll find two pools there of different temperatures.
3 – Climb a volcano:
This 2245 meters high, really steep volcano can be climbed in a day, you’ll need to start at down and hire a guide. You definitively need to be fit to do it.
This volcano in Flores is famous for its impressive lake, similar to the ones in Kelimutu. You can drive a motorbike almost all the way up there during the dry season. During raining season, the path will get super muddy, so even trekking gets complicated. You can go on your own, using maps.me (the path is on it), don’t hesitate to ask your way to locals if you’re unsure. Bring plenty of water.
How to get to Bajawa, Flores:
The bus station is on the main road but is a bit far from the city, you can ride a bemo for 3k. Don’t listen to the ojek drivers who will tell you there’s no bemo going to town.
Where to stay in Bajawa:
There are plenty of accommodations to choose from, no backpacker options though, it’s mainly guesthouses. Call in advance to say what time you will be coming because the owners often work during the day and you won’t find them if you arrive unexpectedly.
Here are a few options you can check out:
- Madja Edelweiss Homestay: great budget option, nice rooms with private bathrooms, breakfast included.
- Wolokoro Ecotourism: Bungalows, each with a view over the volcano, surrounded by peace and nature, a great place with you want privacy and quiet.
- If you want to treat yourself, check out Manulalu Jungle, the settings are incredible and the hotel is just magic.
What to eat in Bajawa, Flores
Flores offers rich gastronomy and has a few traditional dishes you shouldn’t miss:
- Ubi Nuabosi: a type of sweet potato usually served with dry fish;
- Jawada: a fried sweet made of rice flour and coconut;
- Catemak Jagung: made of corn, peanuts, green beans, and pumpkin, it’s eaten after the main course but it’s more of a second dish than a dessert;
- Tapa Kolo: red rice cooked inside bamboos;
- Se’i: smoked meat cooked using ancestral techniques;
Further articles to help you plan your trip:
- Kelimutu National Park and its three color-changing volcanic lakes.
- Paga: Discovering the beauty of Flores
- Everything you need to know before planning your trip to Indonesia.
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