Just 35 kilometers from Bali, this Indonesian island can feel generations behind. Before the inevitable tourism boom, HOLLY MCDONALD enters the time lapse, to the clip-clop of horse carriages and the crashing of waves on one empty beach after another. Photographed by ERNEST GOH.
Published on Nov 13, 2015
Restless horses shuffle their carts outside the market, waiting for fares. In Lombok's smaller towns and villages, the traditional cidomo remains a popular means of traveling short distances. But, with the sky glowing indigo above a sea of roughly beaten silver, we opt instead to arrive from across the bay by wooden outrigger, one among dozens of similar vessels plowing towards land in the morning market's version of a D-Day invasion. With their night's work done, the local fishermen bring their haul to Lombok's Tanjung Luar. We've come ashore to check out the seafood for sale on this Indonesian island's under-touristed southeast coast, as dawn spills into the day.
The activity is frenetic. Women clad in sarongs and shod in flip-flops jostle for position next to tubs of pink-gray baby squid and Styrofoam boxes of striped, spotted, plump, long, round fish; a man chips away at a huge ice block—no refrigeration here, aside from what he provides. In a crowd of scurrying fishmongers balancing buckets of the sea's bounty on their head, it's dangerous being 1.8 meters tall; I’m alert to those weaving around me in the madness and dodge a few mouthlevel, flopping tails. Even for someone who's seen plenty of Southeast Asian markets, the buzz here is worth soaking up.
Tanjung Luar fish market.
Authorities in this part of the world are finally cracking down on the now illegal practice of fishing for manta rays and slaughtering sharks for their fins, and a prominent sign warns against the capture of certain species. We do see some sharks, but none are de-finned. It's a start.
Squinting as the sun rises properly now, we board our boat and glide past massive fish traps emerging from the sea, looking like a film set for Waterworld. My guide points to a pristine, empty stretch of yellow sand nestled between striking headlands. "A 400-room hotel is supposed to be on the way," he says.
Right now, this corner of Lombok, one of the Lesser Sundas in Indonesia's West Nusa Tenggara province, remains almost devoid of visitors, with just a few places to stay. In fact, the entire sleepy isle sustains a tourism infrastructure that right now punches far below the hefty weight of its offerings. But with stretch after stretch of empty inviting beach, and neighboring Bali seeming to multiply in popularity by the year, development seems inevitable. "When the holidays arrive in Bali, the expats come to Lombok," a hotelier tells me during my trip. "'It's so crowded there,' they say." He's right. I know because I'm one of those Bali-dwelling expats, and I've taken the 25-minute air-hop to Lombok to slow down, even as I nearly circumnavigate the place. While it's not true that Lombok is like the Bali of yesteryear—they are too culturally different—it's fair to assert that time has moved at a different pace here.
A day earlier, I arrived at Jeeva Beloam Beach Camp, a cluster of 11 alang-alang and recycled wooden bungalows strung along a picturesque private beach on Tanjung (meaning "peninsula") Ringgit. To get there from Lombok's international airport, we drive through paddy after paddy crisscrossed with cassava and banana palms, all gilded by the lemon-light of late afternoon.
Jeeva Beloam from the headland.
We pass villages of cement bungalows with windows shuttered like demure eyes, often with a domed mosque rising in their midst. Red hibiscus flowers bunch shut from an earlier rainstorm and as the day winds down, children in beige-and-chocolate school uniforms crowd outside a warung, or street-side shack, slinging iced desserts in garish colors; men in black velvet peci and batik shirts chat by the side of the road or attend to fighting cocks in woven cages; women soothe babies in slings tied around their necks, some wearing Muslim headscarves, called jilbabs, some not.
Lombok was once ruled by the vast Southeast Asian Majapahit Empire. The indigenous Sasak people converted to Islam in the 16th and 17th centuries, but blended the creed with their established Hindu-Buddhist beliefs to create the local Wetu Telu religion. Bali's Gelgel Kingdom conquered the west of the island in the early 1600s—which is why, though the majority of Lombok's population is Muslim, a small percentage remains Balinese. The colonizing Dutch took control in 1895, keeping the reins until the Japanese invasion and occupation of World War II. The island joined independent Indonesia in 1945, tourism rose in the 1980s, but was later slammed by the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and is only now picking up after the Bali bombings across the strait.
When I get to my beruga (traditionally, a stilted, open-sided Sasak pavilion used for family gatherings) on the dunes of Jeeva Beloam's secluded beach, the sudden surge in volume of nature's sound track is a shock. Waves crash meters away. Insects hum. Simplicity rules. I cannot be distracted by fiddling with a TV remote—there's no TV. No point in asking for the Wi-Fi password—we're Internet-free. I can't send a text because we're far out of range, and I can't fix myself a drink because there's no mini-bar.
Draped over a daybed on the veranda, soaking up the tranquility is sublime. Sumbawa, the next island to the east in Indonesia's sprawling archipelago, sits on the horizon across the Alas Strait; an occasional crack of rainless thunder ricochets around the bay. The beachside flora is scrubby and tough, anything delicate long-ago slain by the sun. Australia lies to the south, and the geography indeed feels more defiantly antipodean than lushly Southeast Asian.
Jeeva Beloam sits on the Alas Strait.
The activity list is short, but sweet. Aside from visiting Tanjung Luar, I trek out to the headland, sharing the track with a shy monkey… how quaint—shyness is not a trait you see in Balinese monkeys. We see the beloam (it means "hole") worn away by the ocean's currents in rocks that are alive with scuttling crabs, as well as breathtaking views back to the resort.
I snorkel at nearby Pink Beach, a stretch of sand renowned locally for its unusually pretty color created by the breakdown of fuchsia coral in the surrounds. Fusiliers, butterfly fish and huge intact coral gardens can be enjoyed with little surrounding boat traffic; when I pop my head up in the bay, the silence is striking. Goats amble along the beach, lined with a handful of warungs, and Mount Rinjani towers in the distance.
Gunung Rinjani, Indonesia's second highest volcano, is never far from view on Lombok, whether smoldering behind moody monsoon clouds, or showing its crevices etched crisp against a freshly washed blue sky. Driving the northwest coast, my driver is gleeful about the near-empty roads—it's Friday prayer time. Rinjani peeks through buildings, then fields. We pass mud-slicked water buffalo, their crescent horns swaying behind rows of maroon-tipped corn.
At a Sasak weaving village, we see women working rhythmically at oldstyle looms. We cruise past the looping bays of Senggigi, Lombok's key draw for tourists since those 80s heydays. But competition is tougher now, with higher-end hotels further afield, and we're checking out the white sands of Sire Beach, home to a Tugu hotel.
Traditional weaving at Sasak village.
The eccentric Tugu is ramshackle, mystical luxe: the hotel overflows with hundreds of Indonesian antiques and artworks—some dusty, some quirky, all interesting—sprinkled across the grounds and rooms, with a focus on Lombok's history. You can't lift your hand to signal for a cocktail without hitting a statue. I come across stone carvings even under the water in the iridescent green pool.
Hammocks are strung between palms, beach loungers await basking on Sire Beach, or there's my private infinity-edge pool lunging towards the ocean. In the dark, atmospheric bar, I meet a Texas couple here for a long weekend from Jakarta. "We went to Bali a few years ago for New Year's Eve," they drawl between sips of wine. "Too crowded!" I decide to strike out alone. First stop is a market, where fresh tobacco is sold in mini-bales, along bags of green coffee beans and buckets of rice. Hungry shoppers snap up grilled fish on sticks and take-away bags of gado gado.
At art-filled Tugu, there are even carvings in the pool.
At the starting point of the trek to Kerta Gangga Waterfall, the locals have prepared for a boom that hasn't quite arrived. A pristine strip of small shops awaits tenants, but only six tourists have been this week, my guide says. The owner of a few modest bungalows here with priceless paddy and ocean views immediately tells me that this land is for sale. "From here to that coconut palm over there!" he cries.
The walk to the first two sets of falls is easy enough, but the third is challenging, and to reach the viewing spot we have to wade through the river a few times before clambering up bamboo poles, wedged between rocks at a near-45-degree angle while water rushes down them. I can't remember the last time I did something quite so thrilling and dangerous, but I make it despite the voice in my head repeatedly asking how exactly I'd get out if I broke a leg. Two huge, crystal-clear falls tumbling from the near-summit of Rinjani make it worthwhile.
At a more chill pace, I take a breakfast cruise on Tugu's wooden outrigger to watch the sun rise over Rinjani. The clouds don't quite cooperate, but another stunning strip of Lombok coastline preens in the dawn light. We can see the volcanoes of Bali, then Java; this is the way to enjoy coffee and pastries. We can see Lombok's "Gilis" from here too: the resort islands of Trawangan, Air and Meno. While there are plenty of other gilis (the word for "small islands") off Lombok's mainland, "The Gilis" has stuck for this particular trio of car- and motorbike-free ones, probably more popular today than Senggigi.
Plying the sea between Lombok and Gili Meno.
My next stop, in fact, is Gili Meno, from where Karma Reef Resort dispatches a speedboat to collect me from Sire Beach. We zoom past Gili Air, straight to the sands of Karma, where 10 bungalows in the style of lumbungs (traditional rice barns) line facing the ocean. All boast a lounge and kitchenette and, upstairs, an ocean-view bedroom; the vibe is social and chic here, with movie nights, resident DJs, and a restaurant cooking exceptional Mediterranean-style fare.
It takes about an hour to circumnavigate Meno on foot following a mostly sandy path. The hushed island feels like it's had a heyday that passed, but is on the verge of taking off again; I hear rumors that one abandoned resort plans to reopen while a sprinkling of new hotels, such as Karma, have staked out their claim on the turquoise shores.
I could snorkel with turtles, or head out on a glass-bottomed boat. But there's a bohemian spa-in-a-tent at Karma, and I'm tired. Two sunrises, multiple waterfalls and markets… I succumb to a massage a day on this throwback paradise, blissing out to the jangle of cowbells clunking on wandering cattle and the clip-clop of passing cidomos.
Sunrise at Karma.
As for Bali—well, you can't even see Bali from this side of Meno. Which suits me fine. Because I'm looking back over to Lombok, eager to see what other adventures might await there.
Garuda, AirAsia and Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) fly to Lombok's international airport, while Bali is a 25-minute flight away. Visas are available on arrival in Indonesia for most nationalities.
Jeeva Beloam Beach Camp Jalan Pantai Beloam, Sekaroh, Jerowaru; +62 370 693 035.
Hotel Tugu Lombok Jalan Pantai Sire, Sigar Penjalin Village, Tanjung; +62 370 612 0111.
Karma Reef Gili Meno; +62 370 630 982.
IF LOMBOK DIDN'T SEEM LAID-BACK ENOUGH ALREADY…
This island boasts a veritable bounty of tucked-away places to stay that are more rustic than luxe, but great for simply chilling out. Forget, for instance, finding spas at these spots; expect instead a connection to nature and good oldfashioned hospitality.
Rinjani Beach Eco Resort offers a cluster of spacious bungalows made of all-natural materials in welltended gardens right on Sire Beach, and an exceptional restaurant. Lounge by the pool or on the black sands, overlooking the Gilis. Karang Atas, Sokong; +62 819 3677 5960.
Gili Gede is one of Lombok's "new" gilis—a smattering of white-sand islands to the southwest piquing the interest of backpackers who eschew the more popular trio. Head to super-chilled Madak Belo, with three rooms above a restaurant sharing a veranda with great ocean views, plus a few freestanding bungalows. Medak Belo Beach, Gili Gede Indah, Sekotong Bay; +62 818 0554 9637.
The menagerie of free-range animals at Rinjani Mountain Garden enjoy views down to the ocean and back up to Gunung Rinjani. This isolated pad is great for simply getting back to nature. Don't miss the house-smoked fish: the German couple that runs the place cooks food that is especially impressive given the size of the little kitchen. Teres Genit Village, Senaru; +62 818 569 730.
With just four rooms set on a huge lawn abutting the rich black sands of Labuan Pandan, Pondok Siola is all about tranquility and beachcombing; for a change of pace, hire a wooden boat for day trips snorkeling the little-visited islands to both the north and south. Jalan Labuan Lombok-Sambelia, Labuan Pandan, Sambelia; +62 819 9776 9364.