Traditional Ngada Villages near Bajawa, Flores: A Surreal Experience


Dismounting my motorbike and stepping into the village of Gurusina was like entering an alternative reality, a surreal experience. Children played with rubber tyres on the dry terraced ground in the central space of the village, while women and men sat around chatting on their front porches. An elderly woman was grinding some grains and the beats of pop music from a sound system could be heard from a few houses down.

Gurusina VillageBena Village

I had hired a guide for the day, Johannes, a native Ngada person from the Bajawa area of Flores, who could speak the local language and was an expert on the culture and traditions of this region. We visited Bena village first, the first stop for many visitors who wish to see traditional Ngada villages.

Although I had heard that Bena was touristic, it was nothing compared to other tourist places I have visited in Indonesia. The village was peaceful as we entered, with no tourist hassle. Women sat on their verandas weaving the fabric that is one of the trademark handicrafts of this area.

Ngada Traditional Culture

We climbed the steep steps up to the first terraced level of the village and Johannes told me about Ngada culture.  Although the Ngada people are Catholic, traditional beliefs play a big part in their lives.

Three bhagasThe houses in a village are arranged in a square shape on terraced land completely cleared of vegetation. The space in the centre of the square is used for ceremonies and gatherings. Wooden structures are built by each clan, called ngadhu and bhaga. The construction of a ngadhu is in itself a special event, with auspicious items buried in the foundations of the structure, including a live chicken.

NgadhuThe ngadhu is shaped like a large wooden thatched parasol, the trunk of which features intricate wooden carvings which related to the number of generations of the clan represented. The stone base is used for buffalo sacrifice, and when we were in Bena the sticky blood from a very recent sacrifice, with its putrid smell, was attracting flies. The bhaga is in the form of a miniature Ngada house.

The Ngada are a matrilineal people so the houses are passed from mother to daughter. Some of the thatched rooftops had little model people or houses perched on top of the highest point; I was told that this signifies the house of the leader or highest generation of a clan, with other clan members on either side.

Clan leader houseBena village is 900 years old, and from the back of the village you can look out across the hills and mountains to the ocean. I could see other Ngada villages dotted across the green landscape, identifiable as small brown areas surrounded by green.

Gurusina Village

Leaving Bena, I made a small Rp. 5000 donation and signed the visitors’ book. We headed off to our next stop, Gurusina village. This village is less frequently visited by tourists, and we found the residents to be friendlier. We perambulated around the village, climbing down the very steep steps of the terraced ground.

Gurusina is not as old as Bena, having moved to this site some 200 years ago, when residents believed the original site, on a steep mountain side, would be threatened by earthquakes. We chatted to the current residents about their lives, and I was interested that although they live in traditional houses, with a traditional social structure and beliefs, their children do go to school nearby. With the recent welcome installation of electricity, there are televisions and sound systems in the village, as well as, of course, lighting.

A traditional Ngada house

I was pleased to be able to ask about the traditional houses with their characteristic wooden frames and thatched roofs, and one of the villagers kindly let me see inside his house.

Traditional carvings on houseIt turns out that although modern tools such as chainsaws are now used to build Ngada houses, traditional rules are still adhered to. For example, the grain of the horizontal wooden beams must point clockwise round the house. Around the door of the house the wood is carved with intricate designs, all with their own significance, for example a butterfly might be carved, symbolising something that is difficult to catch.

The roofs of Ngada houses are thatched in a distinctive shape with reeds from the area. A house might last around thirty years before needing to be rebuilt.

Inside the house is one large room, with a corner used as the kitchen area and other parts of the rooms for sleeping. Also leading off the outside veranda are side rooms on either side of the main room. These are outside the square structure of the house.The kitchen corner in the house

A Contented Traditional Lifestyle

When I had visited the Batak region of North Sumatra last year I was told that the Batak people were no longer able to build traditional Batak houses; the knowledge had been lost, and anyway, most people wanted to live in a modern house and moved out of the traditional longhouses as soon as they could afford it. Here in Ngada Flores, however, it was a different story. People I spoke to in Gurusina village seemed to genuinely enjoy their lifestyle, without yearning for a modern house. New houses are built in Ngada style all the time, and they have integrated some elements of modern technology, such as the use of chainsaws, into the traditional building methods.

How to See the Ngada Region

There are many Ngada villages arranged in this traditional style across the area around Mount Inerie. As well as visiting for a few hours, it is possible to stay the night in some villages. There are even villages that are inaccessible by road and must be reached by trekking through the forest. Most villages have a visitors’ book which you should sign and it is normal to leave a small donation of around Rp. 5,000 – 10,000.

My guide, Johannes, was extremely knowledgeable, himself an ethnic Ngada who spent his childhood in a traditional house. He also acted as my interpreter for some conversations, because although I speak fluent Indonesian, not all the Ngada people speak Indonesian. Many older people and children I met, as in many parts of Indonesia, only spoke their ethnic language. Johannes translated for me.

Johannes, my guide for the dayTaking a guide enabled me to visit more places within a shorter time and to take steep, bendy roads that I may not have braved alone. Johannes was excellent and I recommend contacting him if you would like to explore the Ngada region. He can also arrange tours throughout the island of Flores. He can be contacted by email at johannes.guide@yahoo.com and by telephone on +62 (0)81 353 061310.

The Island of Flores: An Introduction for the Inquisitive Traveller


Flores, located in eastern Indonesia, just east of Sumbawa, Rinca and Komodo islands, is a paradise island of forested hills, volcanoes and beaches. Although the major guidebooks all cover Flores and some tour operators offer trips to this island, Flores sees far fewer visitors than many other Indonesian islands; it is an absolute jewel of an island, waiting to be discovered by the mainstream tourism industry.

People of Flores

Flores has many regional languages and strong local cultures, still very much alive today. With travel limited by the mountainous terrain the local peoples have retained their individual languages and cultures much more than in other places I have visited. To speak to someone from a different ethnicity, the national language, Indonesian, is used. Unlike much of Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world, Flores has a Catholic majority, with many people following thWeavers of Nuandarie religion quite strictly.

I found the people of Flores to be honest about information such as prices, and genuinely helpful, which was a welcome break from the tourist rip-offs and downright dishonest conmen in certain other parts of Indonesia.

Traversing the Island

With a long shape, measuring 450km from east to west, Flores has only one main road, a two-lane bendy asphalt strip that weaves through forested hills and mountains and along the south coast, covering over 600km with its twists and turns. Most travellers choose to enter at either the eastern port of Maumere or at Labuan Bajo in the west, both of which have airports, and travel in a west or east direction, exiting via the other port. Ende, located on the south coast in the middle of the east-west route also has an airport, offering another port of entry.

Due to the twisty nature of the road, it can easily take an hour to travel only 30km, and the journeys easily cause motion sickness. The road is fairly quiet and there are certainly no traffic jams! As an independent traveller you have several transport options. You can hire a car and driver for around Rp. 500,000 per day, which may work out well for groups. Travelling alone as I did, however, this becomes too expensive. You can hire a motorbike, but if you aren’t used to riding on twisty mountain roads this would be a very tiring option. There are public buses where you ride amongst the chickens, goats and pigs that are being transported. This is definitely the cheapest option, but if you want something nicer, try bemos. These are minibuses that ply the same route (there is after all only one main route, with two directions).

Kelimutu Coloured Crater LakesEven more pleasant, however, is going by “travel”. Here in Flores the word “travel” is used to refer to public cars, just like ordinary cars, but with yellow number plates, which are allowed to pick up and drop off passengers. You can avoid traipsing to and from bus terminals and order a “travel” to collect you from your hotel and take you to your hotel at your destination. Essentially you get to travel by comfortable car, with other passengers, for a fraction of the price of hiring your own car and driver. This was my chosen form of transport to traverse the island.

My Route

According to Wikipedia Flores has a population of 1,831,000, much of which consists of villages and hamlets spread across the island. Entering at Maumere, Flores’s largest town though it’s really not very big, it is possible to go east to Larantuka, or head west to Moni, which is what I did. Paga makes a nice place to stop for a rest by the beach, to eat grilled fish, freshly caught.

Moni is the village with accommodation that is closest to Kelimutu. These coloured volcanic lakes are justifiably at the top of every visitor’s must-see list for Flores. The fresh air and picturesque countryside may tempt you to spend a few days relaxing in Moni, visiting nearby villages, waterfalls, hotsprings and more.

The next destination for many visitors is Ende. I chose not to spend the night in Ende, but in changing cars there I was able to see its black sand beach. People will tell you to go there to see the blue stones on the beach, but I saw loads of them collected in piles by the roadside as I headed towards Bajawa and they didn’t seem that special.

Traditional Ngada HousesIt is worth spending time looking around the Bajawa area, which offers an array of sights. I trekked up to Wawo Muda volcanic lakes and visited traditional Ngada villages, both of which I highly recommend. There is also a hot spring at Soa where you can bathe in the waters, and the town of Bajawa itself is worth a look around.

After Bajawa I stopped at Ruteng for a night, and stayed at a Catholic convent. If you have time and transport there are sights to be seen in the mountainous countryside around Ruteng which is in the Manggarai ethnic region, including terraced rice fields.

The final leg of my journey was to Labuan Bajo in the far west of Flores, an entry or exit point for most visitors to the island, and starting place for tours to see the famous Komodo dragons lizards on the neighbouring islands of Rinca and Komodo. I’ll be covering Flores in more detail in forthcoming articles, so follow AnySomewhere.com if you are curious to know more about this jewel of an island.