Getting to know Lombok
This was not an easy piece to write. Lombok is like the amazing secret lover you don’t want people to know of. You canoodle, enjoy days of passionate rendezvous and live to tell a couple of close friends about it, but nothing more. You look through your journal, at the scribbles of what you’d seen and done in Lombok, and flick through pictures that obviously did little justice to the actual sights you beheld - sights you hope would stay engraved in your memory and would never ever forget.
I embarked on this four-day trip thinking about how I would unearth the breath-taking sights and things to do when you’re in Lombok. Indeed I have found them, and they are so beautiful. But while standing at the shores of the Kuta beaches surrounded by little Sasak children picking sea creatures off the seaside, I started to perceive beauty and wonderment in different ways.
The Baby Bali
Lombok, an island located in the West Nusa Tenggara province is like a baby Bali. Together with Sumbawa in the east, the West Nusa Tenggara province is home to about 4.5 million people, mostly comprised of the Sasak peoples. This majority ethnic group is responsible for the distinct Lombok cuisine and way of life.
The only place in Lombok where you get to witness a crowd is the Lombok International Airport, where families come in herds to welcome Lombok men returning after months of hard labor overseas. The mall with escalators and lifts and the airport runway are new spots for villagers to hang out at, amazed by all that technology and novelty.
It’s a peculiar trend. Right now, we’re standing at the cusp of tourism development, caught in its takeoff. Which came first, tourist infrastructure or travel reviews like this? This was a longstanding question I harbored throughout the trip. I haven’t figured out the answer yet. What I have figured out though, are the places you ought to go, places that translate into 10 reasons why Lombok is such an understated place of tropical beauty.
You in all that pearl green hues
1. Revel in the uninhabited Mawun Beach
The beach is a sprawling expanse, and an incredible sight to behold. The specks of people you see in the picture are the only people present at the beach. According to the Lombok Tourism Board, they’ve seen the biggest increase from Australian surfers, a 14% increase since April this year. The colors of the sea, so vibrant and unreal made for the prettiest real-life pantone strip.
2. Frolick with little children along Kuta Beach
Before they start to find out what touting means, go to Kuta Beach. The children took advantage of the low tides and ran around the shore collecting itty bitty sea creatures. Go because this is what children should do at the beach, go because they haven’t yet fully been tasked by their parents to either tout handicrafts or ask strangers for money.
Step into Sade Village where husbands and wives continue to sleep separately
3. Live in huts made from buffalo dung
Buffalo dung and bamboo plaster the village huts. The Sasak people who live in the Sade Village believe dung keeps away pesky termites and make for better, non-slippery floors. The bamboo walls also make sure the interiors of the hut are kept cool.
Within the hut, there are two levels; the upper one is the cooking area and women’s living spaces, and the first level is meant for the men of the house.
“The reason we’re poor is because we eat too much kangkong, we feel sleepy all the time”
4. Start all your meals with a kangkong salad dressed in piquant belachan
I didn’t get the memo on kangkong rivalry, but apparently the Lombok kangkong is crunchier than the ones found in Java. The belachan here is also better tasting, with a less pungent flavor. I also never knew kangkong was such a staple, I probably ate a month’s worth in less than a week. I’m staying away from sambal kangkong from now on.
The view often outshines the food you’re having
5. You may dine against a dipping, ochre sunset...
6. or go to Ashtari, a fancy restaurant perched atop a hill
Forget about eating altogether when all you’re faced with is the sea stretched out so far, you almost lose sight of the horizon.
What could possibly be any more inconsequential is the wait staff you’d meet. Tourism development is often a double-edged sword and the intensity at which this is occurring can be both a blessing and curse for people directly involved in and affected by it.
I didn’t manage to get the name of this waiter but he was an eloquent one. So impressed they were with him, my companions raved and lauded his capabilities to restaurant owner Priss. The compliments showered revolved around things like “wow he’s so well trained!”, “you just need to get a good one to train, and they will be good always!”. And then Babyface’s How Come How Long came blasting from the restaurant’s stereo and a little chuckle escaped my mouth.
Sure the optimism and concrete opportunities that stem from tourism are boundless for impoverished locals, but so are the first world’s burdens we consciously and not so consciously unload onto them. When I looked around, Ashtari was probably about 90% completed, the restaurant was in the middle of constructing an extension by the side and there were metal rods and wooden planks lying around. Construction workers were dressed in shabby flip flops, teetering from dangerous places.
7. Drive up the Malimbu cliff for a tranquil, bucolic sunset
Standing up on the cliff and having that stunning sea view laid out before my eyes allowed me to put aside everything else that was on my mind. Like the beaches I’d been to, the Malimbu cliff looked every bit like a deserted paradise.
Battling fierce gusts of winds that, with every bellowing howl threatened to tip me over the cliff, I tried to keep my feet firmly rooted to the ground and hair pulled away from my face. I needed the sun to set, and to remain in constant descent forever.
Spend an entire day cast away
8. Snorkel with Nemo and marvel at orange Patricks
Gili Nanggu is an island located about 50 km from Mataram City. When you arrive here by car, you board a ferry at the Lembar Harbor to get to the three tinier islands - Gili Tangkong, Gili Kedis, and Gili Sudak in Gili Nanggu.
After you snorkel in Gili Tangkong, enjoy pretty barbecued fishes at Gili Sudak, and gather starfishes on your way back to the Lembar Harbor.
Take a ride on horse carriages and go marketing with the locals
9. Gunung Sari - the local par sat
I was in Lombok during Ramadan, so I probably missed out on a lot of action. Nevertheless, it’s not every day I find myself in a market so heavily punctured by the smells coming from various spices, fermented foods and poultry.
Affectionately called the 7-11 of Lombok by its people - because it operates between 7 AM to 11 AM daily - the first five seconds upon entering the market nearly did me in. I’ve never smelt anything nearly as pungent and as overpowering as this. I distracted myself by focusing on looking at the produce on display and engaging in pathetic, incoherent conversations with the stall holders. And then I saw this.
The odor should have obliterated me by now but I realised I’d gotten used to being inside the market and there was a lot left to check out.. literally.
Do they really need that much food to feed the people in Lombok?!
Take a not so tough trek to see Sendang Gile
10. Take 315 steps to Sendang Gile
We lacked the time to climb Mount Rinjani, the second largest active volcano in Indonesia, so we tried our hand at surmounting Sendang Gile instead. Most rewarding 20 minutes trek ever. You could dip in the lake, at the base of the waterfall, or take a few sips from it to go back 10 years in time. This two level waterfall is located 600m above sea.
We don't want to be another Bali
This was the inevitable comparison that was made throughout the trip. If it wasn't explicitly stated, you could bet it was what most of us were thinking. Tourists numbers currently stand at 1.3 million and are expected to rise up to 2 million by 2018. The reason for such a conservative forecast is because most of the areas in Lombok look like this:
This island wants to mirror Bali's success without being it. To this end, they play up on the 'genuinity of beauty' and safety levels in Lombok, friendly natives, and the construction of an idyllic retreat minus the ugly traffic congestion you face in popular island vacation destinations.
For now the Lombok Tourism Board promises they would only accept investors who come armed with an understanding and appreciation of the culture and way of life in Lombok. Tourism is slowly becoming a priority for the Indonesia government - they now receive a 25% allocation of the budget - infrastructure will slowly but surely be in place to accommodate those 2 million tourists they hope to receive.
I left the talk with the chairman of Lombok Tourism Board feeling unsettled. I sensed his passion and excitement when he talked about the plans he had for the island. I also saw the bright glimmer in his eyes when he was showing me the magnificent peaks and seas Lombok has to offer to the world.
But when I asked, at what price would this be to the locals? He came down from the clouds and told me that opportunities for them would be to provide logistical support for tourism infrastructure, and reassured me that the end goal was still sustainable tourism. I have little training in the areas of tourism and hospitality management, so I stopped probing and went back to eating the scrumptious three-course meal my beachfront hotel laid out for me and my media partners.
Getting to Lombok with the new AirAsia Sky Shuttle service
I’m not going to lie, getting up after a three hour nap to catch the AirAsia Sky Shuttle bus from Kranji at 4 am did little to flame any pre-trip excitement I had going on. Because AirAsia does not offer any flights between Singapore and Lombok, this service is meant to convenience Singaporean travellers by offering a connection between here and Senai International Airport in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, where you eventually depart for your flight.
The shuttle service is free and you can choose between three pickup points - namely Newton MRT, Queens St Terminal, and Kranji MRT. With the exception of the Kranji pickup point, buses start running at 6 am and stop at 11:30 pm. For Kranji MRT, the first bus starts at 4 am and the last service is at 11 pm.
In-flight Hot Meals
If you’re going to board the shuttle at 4 am, and the flight at 7 am (the flight frequency from Johor Bahru to Lombok is thrice per week - every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday - at 0650hrs. Return flight frequency is similar, but at 1005hrs) chances are you’re going to get hungry on-board.
Although if you’re anything like me, you’d probably fall asleep immediately when you get on the plane and miss out on AirAsia’s hot meals selection. I got the chance to try it on my returning flight though - Uncle Chin’s Chicken Rice.
Nothing like my favorite Ah Tai chicken rice although it was rather fragrant and was served piping hot. AirAsia offers you the choice to pre-book your meals online and save up to 20%. Food served onboard is HALAL-certified.
Book your flight to Lombok by heading over to the AirAsia website now!
This post was made possible by AirAsia and Tourism Indonesia