Not just the “next Bali”
Lombok is like Bali 30 years ago. This statement was repeated to me several times during my visit to the smaller than the size of the metropolis of Perth Indonesian island paradise. The comparison is something that the Indonesian government and Air Asia airline want to do internationally through their “10 New Bali” plan. It’s a budget-friendly tactic to attract tourists who might like the tropical vacation vibe Bali offers without the chaos. It’s smart too. Marketing will soon begin in cities that receive direct flights from Lombok, such as Perth. Tourists who love Bali‘s proximity and cheapness but don’t want to slam five Bintangs for breakfast or pretend to drop Byron Bay by pedaling Energy Crystal Retreats will fall in love with the hook, line and sinker. Lombok needs tourism to help it recover from the August 5, 2018 earthquake that destroyed thousands of buildings and killed 563 people, but simply describing it as a new Bali is doing the island a disservice. It is unmistakably Indonesian but with an identity of its own.
Life is a beach
Our guide’s name was Bobby ‘Goofy’, which he proudly exclaims as a nickname he has chosen among Australian visitors over the years. This is the first local in Lombok that I meet and relying on Australian slang I have an early idea of the Indonesian hospitality that makes Bali so appealing. Bali’s flashbacks continue as he takes us to our first hotel in Kuta, in the south of the island. Ignore those memories of dancing in arak-soaked cages at Bounty nightclub, this Kuta is the antithesis of Bali Kuta. It’s chockers with hidden white sand bays, quiet beach resorts, great surf spots, and a quaint little cafe and bar scene that would satisfy even the trendiest of Fitzroy. We have been told that the 2021 Moto GP is set to race on a new track in the Mandalika area of Lombok, new hotels and infrastructure are being built to cater for an influx of people and the area will see a boom in the years to come. I hope it retains its laid back charm.
Our tour bus traveled all terrain bringing us to one of the southernmost secluded bays of the island. It was lined with beach bars little more than bamboo huts serving bintangs and coconuts for visitors to enjoy as they watched the breaks in the back dissipate onto the calm shore. Locals serenaded the incredibly tanned Scandinavian backpackers with questionable but heartfelt renditions of Ed Sheeran songs as the stray merrily played around them, sometimes getting close enough to rub their tummies or tummies. After filling up with coconut water, we were taken to Bukit Merese Hill. By day its grassy geography is used by farmers to graze livestock, but at night it is the perfect place to watch the sun set over the bays of southern Lombok. When we visited there were at least 150 like-minded people. There was also a group of backpackers listening to Bob Marley and doing yoga, which intensified as the sun went down further on the horizon. Not my bag, but each his own. The whole day would have been perfect without the rubbish lining the beaches and the countryside. While not as bad as Bali, Lombok is not immune to the plastic problem in Indonesia and it hurts to see such beautiful places soiled with discarded packets and cups of noodles.
Our second location, Senggigi Beach, did not suffer from the same problem. Located on the east coast of the island, it is currently the main tourist strip. The resorts stretch for miles and the main drag is dotted with bars playing live music with an odd karaoke joint wedged in between. The Happy Cafe was our temporary home and has stayed true to its name. The seafood restaurants by the beach provided an incredible view in the evening. The sun would set just behind Bali’s Mount Agung, casting bright yellow and orange rays across the sky.
The coast is beautiful, but the interior of Lombok also has a lot to offer. There are lush green rice fields and soybean farms all over the island. The gentle slopes of Mount Rinjani in the north of the island overlook it in all directions. We were told there are some amazing waterfalls in the national park and that a popular activity for the more adventurous is a weeklong hike to the top of the volcano where there is a crater lake. However, we were unable to visit the park due to damage to the trails following the earthquake.
It’s not just coconuts and hikes; Lombok has a culture and a history to discover. The island’s 3.1 million inhabitants are mostly Muslims, but as Bobby stated, Islam came after Hinduism and after the “animist” religions, so the island is a unique melting pot of religion and culture. The local Sasak tribe is the largest in Lombok and we visited a traditional village where people lived in huts built with clay foundations, bamboo walls and grass roofs over 200 years ago. A villager beamed when he told us they were unharmed during the earthquake because “grass roofs are very flexible”.
The real Lombok sapphires in the crown are the Gili Islands located just off its northwest coast. Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air offer the whole tropical island experience. We hopped from island to island for a day of snorkeling around stunning reefs where tropical fish ate from our hands before ending up on Gili Trawangan for a bike or horse and cart ride around the island . Bobby called these “Ferrari Lomboks of a power”. Gili T is a bit more free and loser than the mainland with bars lining the main drag and plenty of opportunities to make a fool of himself on a dance floor. I thought it was a party island as soon as I saw a sign for a Star Wars themed May 4th celebration at a bar. Customers had the choice of either a Jedi or Sith shot at the entrance. The inhabitants are also more relaxed than the mainlanders. On several occasions hawkers tried to sell me goods from horizontal positions and when I refused they just said “ok man” and continued to relax.
Most of Lombok’s road network is new and the roads are often empty, which gave me the feeling that he was anticipating a new chapter in tourism. In 2013, Jetstar tested direct flights from Perth to Lombok, but phased them out just months after citing stable demand. Air Asia, which is launching direct flights from other Asian cities as well as Perth, believes this time around they will work given the support they receive from the Indonesian government. This optimism is felt across the board. There is a buzz of excitement among the locals with the development happening in the south. While I don’t think Lombok can or should be considered a new Bali, it will become a real competitor for Australian tourists who want an Indonesia with a little less chaos.