Billed as 'Bali before Bali became Bali', Lombok is a quiet, far less touristed island just east of Bali. Before the 2002 bombing in Kuta, Bali Lombok was starting to grow into its own as tourist destination and several beautiful resorts popped up around the island. The town of Senggigi, on the west coast designated itself as the hub of the tourist activity and restaurants serving western food, dive shops, and tour companies dotted the main street of town. The bombing devastated the tourist industry in all of Indonesia and Lombok took it particularly hard. While Bali is 90% Hindu and already boasted a well-developed tourist infrastructure and reputation as a beach holiday destination tourists started to trickle back to Bali. Lombok, which is predominantly Muslim, hasn't fared as well. The beautiful resorts sit mostly empty (you know things are slow when the Sheraton Resort is offering rooms for $80—still beyond our budget, but it was tempting), several have closed, restaurants are offering 4 hour "Happy Hours" trying to lure in the few customers roaming the streets, and every price is negotiable. We even got a totally unsolicited 20% discount on a meal for being repeat customers. The dearth of tourists is obviously a boom for the budget travelers. You can live very well on very little money. Of course, the lack of tourists means many people who make their living off the flow of guests to their island don't have much to do. As soon as we would walk out of our hotel the same guy would try to talk us into buying a watch—3 or 4 times a day, everyday for a week. If it wasn't a watch, then it was a necklace, or a wooden frog, or transportation, or a kite, or a ring, or a sarong, or... it was endless. But we rarely saw anyone begging. Everyone seemed to want to make an honest living. Unfortunately, none of them were selling anything we wanted to buy. But, they were always friendly.
The real truth is that Lombok is one of Indonesia's best-kept secrets. The white sand beaches stretch for miles, the people are so friendly and helpful, and the pace of life is refreshingly slow and relaxed. We loved our week in Senggigi. In between days of pure relaxation by the pool (we discovered the fancy hotels with nice pools often have 'day rates' to enjoy a day by their pool) we took two bike trips with Lombok Biking (www.lombokbiking.com) and took a day trip up to the Gili islands off of the north coast of Lombok.
The bike rides were awesome. We felt like we were really seeing how people live on Lombok. The first ride took us along the southern coast and we rode through villages lived on fishing and brick making. Because of the soil in southern Lombok some of the best bricks in Indonesia come from that area. The scenery was beautiful and, as always, the people were so friendly. We also had an opportunity to visit a ceramics workshop and store. Anyone who knows me well is familiar with my obsession with ceramics. Of course we had to stop and check it out, and of course, a couple purchases were unavoidable. We enjoyed the day of riding and getting to know our guide, Bahri. He's 25 years old, originally from Sumbawa, the next island east of Lombok. His English was very good and we were amused to learn that, though he studied English in school, he became more proficient after living in Saudi Arabia for two years practicing English with the Pakistanis.
We had so much fun with Bahri the first day that 3 days later we signed up for another ride and asked that he be our guide again (it threw off their guide rotation system, but it gave us more time to get to know Bahri). This time we drove to the middle of the island and rode, mostly up hill to a cold spring coming out the side of the Volcano Rinjani. This ride took us through tobacco country. Field after field was in various stages of growing, harvesting, and replanting tobacco. About every third field had a huge 2-3-story cinder-block drying "oven". The sweet, pungent smell of tobacco filled the air, especially as we rode by the line of 15 trucks over-loaded with dried tobacco heading to market. In addition to tobacco we saw fields of corn, peppers, cabbage, lettuce, cassava, and, of course, rice. Rice paddies are everywhere.
The cold spring is a small waterfall coming out the side of a rock face and had been funneled into two pools. The cool water was very refreshing after the hot ride up there. Although it was a weekday, the pools were full of families playing the water. Being the only foreigners there we attracted lots of attention. A trio of teenage girls who spoke a bit of English took quite and interest in us, and took us over to show us the waterfall. As soon as we pulled out our camera chaos ensued. Everyone, of all ages, was keenly interested in having an opportunity to mug of the camera. The teenagers smiled and laughed and poked each other. The adults stood very seriously for their pictures, but inevitably cracked a smile when seeing the picture after. Poor Snow was being called in every direction to snap a picture. We didn't quite understand the tendency to hold their hands up either waving or with the peace symbol in front of their faces. We have a lot of pictures of peoples' hands with on occasional nose or eye peering out from behind.
The northern Gilis are a group of three quintessential desert islands hovering off the northwest coast of Lombok. The impossibly clear turquoise water sets off the endless white sand beaches that encircle the clump of palms on each island. With no cars or other motorized vehicles on the islands life is very slow and mellow and centered around swimming, snorkeling, and diving. Although the Gilis are only a few kilometers off the coast of Lombok, while Lombok gets pummeled with torrential rains many afternoons, not a drop falls on the Gilis. It is very hot and dry and sparely developed. There are a handful of small high-end accommodations that offer pools and nice bungalows, and several budget backpacker places, a couple restaurants offering seafood on the beach and a dive shop. We enjoyed a horse and bugging ride (the only transportation on the island) around one of the islands to check it out. We had discussed going up to the islands to spend a couple nights, but really liked Senggigi and were happy to avoid having to pack up and move again, so we opted for a day trip of snorkeling.
Though our boat was long and narrow and a bit rough, it proved to be quite seaworthy with the help of the outriggers on both sides of the boat, making it look like a spider or a crab. The bonus of the outriggers is that it limits the side-to-side rolling and most of the boat movement is rocking bow to stern, which is much easier on the stomach. We stopped in two different locations before lunch as saw heaps of colorful fish, but the highlight was seeing the sea turtles. We probably saw about half a dozen of them spread out gliding along the bottom munching on coral. Several years ago I worked on a project with sea turtles in Costa Rica. I have seen many on land, but had never had the opportunity to see them in the water, where they are far more graceful creatures.
The ride back to Senggigi was far more eventful than our ride up. The sea had far bigger swells that continually broke over the bow of the boat, spraying us with warm seawater. Since we had just been snorkeling before heading back we were already wet, so the spray didn't bother us. As we got closer to Lombok the afternoon rain overtook us and completed the dousing with big cold wet drops. We were thoroughly wet, though happy, when we returned to Senggigi.
We would highly recommend a visit to Lombok if you were heading to Bali as well. Though it lacks the beautiful Balinese culture of Bali, it offers its own Lombok flavor and charm.