Two beauties beckon from the crystal seas. Bali calls from her jungle hills and her hollow temples; she draws you close in dazzling colors and wraps you in the wonder of her fabled name. Bali—a fading star who knows her dark charms: ricefields rife with stone demons scowling, gentle drip of water into rippling pools, monkeys roaming the shadow hills and swallowing whole the offerings dropped for ring-haired gods. This is Bali, the fading star who knows her dark charms.
With a jealous eye she watches the rising upstart in the east: Lombok—isle of light dancing across the foaming waves, isle of hopes for all Bali’s jaded cast-offs, refuge for souls wanting to wander further than a tourist office and a restaurant serving pizza and burgers. She is Lombok, stepping stone for those continuing east, island of a thousand hills jutting from the jungle floor, beach after dazzling beach arcing between cliff after stalwart cliff. Lombok—where good food comes cheap and the cattle wander a hundred crazy ways beneath the piercing leaves of a thousand thriving coconut palms.
Say goodbye, Bali, because a new name hangs over the horizon. She’s a fresh face and a dazzling beauty decked in gold and green and grace.
That’s right: I heart Lombok.
Chapter 1: Wave Goodbye
Poetry aside, here’s the departure from Bali: a rusty, crowded, 7AM bus from Ubud—a backpacker-type deal that includes the slow boat ticket and a couple obnoxious Germans, the kind who bob their chubby cheeks and blonde locks and holler to each other in syllables more fit for an iron smelting get-up than a morning bus.
Andy groaned beside me. “If they’re going to be so loud, at least they could pick a pretty language.”
“Take it easy, Babe,” I consoled my sleepy bride, “it’s nothing a couple ear-plugs and a tazer can’t fix.”
But you know what a tazer can’t fix? An early-morning procession to the sea by a few thousand villagers. Dressed in white and hauling baskets on their heads, they beat their drums and sometimes chanted on their way to drop some… uh, things in the ocean. “Is it a funeral?” we asked each other, or are they just reincarnating some poultry?
“Ich Bin Ein weisser switz sheisser!”
Great. The Germans are awake again. Any charge left in that tazer, Babe?
Procession dispatched with, the bus lands us in Padang Bai: a seedy little wharf with a harbor as big as the town. In a bus stop café specializing in cigarette smoke, greasy laminate on the menus, and coffee more acidic than the gunk on your car battery, we shop for snack and wait for the ferry.
If the bus and the scene at Padang Bai sound rough, consider this: it’s under fifteen bucks for the trip. The going rate for the ultra-obnoxious fastboats (they still haven’t caught on the “speed boat” terminology) running the route is nearly quadruple that. Consider also that the public ferry offers a smoother ride, a chilled-out vibe, and more ocean breezes than you can ward off with a light jacket.
Chapter 2: The Slow Boat
Lombok wafts gently in through the open deck of ferry. It whispers of peace, and assures us that now, yes now, things will finally, finally calm. Moment by moment, in the churn of the giant screw beneath, Bali’s star fades into the sea-mist, and the strange jags of Lombok grow larger and larger.
The four-hour ferry to Lombok is filled with guitar-strumming youth and napping backpackers, but mostly, locals with Indo-Mie and cigarettes fill its empty spaces. They lounge across the hard plastic chairs or spread out on cardboard mats across the floor. Long-haul buses and gritty motorbikes pack the dank hold beneath, and all their scores of passengers fill the sun-glowing upper decks, gazing across the strait to the saw-toothed mountains and wild surf of Lombok.
She calls each of us eastward.
Luiza sunbathes at the rail, Andy scrolls through photos, and I nap and read. The lift and dip of the ferry is hypnotic. The chugging motor hums sleep to our languid ears. We’re too lazy to yawn or complain of the cigarette smoke. We doze and dream of Lombok.
But understand that the simple ferry is no dream-boat: I chase away the guitar youths three times before they figure out I’ve got no spare change; the saltwater breeze is, often as not, perfumed with the Indonesian abomination of the Kretak cigarette; locals are as apt to chuck any spare trash overboard as they are to smile and take a picture of you with their Blackberry.
Even so, we prefer the slow boat. Fastboats? They’re a magnet for tourists-types who eschew everything local and crave the islands for themselves. Fastboats reek disdain, and they pile in the passengers and blast off across a choppy channel at speeds highly inadvisable for anyone who’s not shooting a documentary about extreme sports or death-wishers. Plus they’re expensive. Plus they… well, they bleach out the local flavor in favor of a bland, country-club on the bouncing seas, sort of experience.
In the end, though, it boils down to this: just call it a speedboat and I won’t hate you so much.
But for now, we chill out in the sunshine and the breeze, in the guitar-strums nobody asked for, in the cigarette fragrance of the ferry. To our left, a Bob Marley look-alike is chatting up an American couple who’d obviously love to nap—”What’s he selling?” we all ask ourselves. “A ride? Weed? A guide to Kuta?” All that is tuned out easily enough: we wish for hammocks, but still manage to enjoy the ride—overweight buffet-munchers in the Gulf of Mexico pay hundreds for a view like this, we tell each other. “Hey,” says Andy suddenly, “hand me that bag of seeds.” I smile—all that talk of cruise-ship buffets has brought out our humble snack-sack. First up—sunflower seeds, a Romanian staple of snack-time. Luiza even comes back from her sun-bathing for a few handfuls.
Chapter 3: The Coast Road
Once ashore, we have to wake up a little: dodge a few porters with their quick hands and glowing cigarettes, follow the other backpackers to the bus, step aboard, and get comfy again. As long as you’re not expecting AC, you’ll be great.
We’re traveling north, and the roads speak Lombok already: The moment you merge into traffic, you know this is something calmer than your hectic days in Balithe dusty towns and the waving rice beyond, the tiny mosques alongside highways fine enough for Swiss standards, the traffic flowing cleanly past lazy herds of bronze-colored cattle and a smattering of chickens, the lines of kiddos in prayer-caps and mini-hijabs crossing the streets, and acres and acres of coconut palms . It’s drier here, and a touch hotter, and a lot simpler. Lombok has yet to import the tour-driven mentality of her sister next door, and all its cars and nightclubs and hard sells on trips and tickets and prices are still feeble. Even as we bypass the city, traffic is unknown, and a warm, sweaty sleep descends on my eyelids. In Bali, you’d have to book a resort for this kind of seclusion and quiet. For Lombok, a couple-buck bus ride is enough
I heart Lombok: it’s an island fit for ten thousand hammocks and thrice as many chilled coconuts, for hazy days in beach scenes you’ve always seen in pictures and always thought were photo-shopped—or invented entirely by a tour-guide funded artist. Lombok’s charm lies in its sunshine—golden light warm enough to coddle, but not sharp enough to scorch. Well, at least that’s what it seems for the first hour. Don’t ask your back and shoulders their opinion if you want to keep yours.
Our bus continues its monotonous chug up the coast road. By now there’s no doubt: Lombok is magnetic. It’s pull emanates from deep within, something more than the golden beaches and serene seascapes capped by the wash of waist-high waves frisking playfully to shore. It’s the ambience, if I can slip a pretentious word in here. It’s the calm. It’s the way that even the grungy porters cease to implore and I don’t mind being overchanged for a cold Coke. It’s a driver who grins contentedly to himself instead of trying to show off how much English he knows and push for a bigger tip.
It’s the cows. Each is colored bronze as a Greek spear-tip and lazy as a dozen cats. They loaf their wide horns in and out of coconut palms on a beach that, the next island over, would be worth millions in real estate development and carved apart into tiny condos and overpriced hostels. In Lombok, though, cows graze in paradise.
Even a supposed tourist-trap such as Sengiggi seems to barely offer annoyance.
It’s a simple mile or two or widened road and resorts who had hoped for a boom, but that never amounted to more than a surge. You’ll find restaurants and massages here, and enough accommodation to suit a range of tastes, but you won’t be overwhelmed. The beaches here stretch wide to either side, and the sand is fine enough to leave you alone among acres of surf, secluded from the other tourists.
A handful of luxury resorts are interspersed with cheap-room places and karaoke joints. Too many motorbikes zip back and forth along the strip, and yes, your beach time just might be punctuated by a local hawking batik shawls or hand-carved spoons or masks or jars or pearls. But all that is easy enough to live with—just look instead across the waves to Bali’s Gunung Agung simmering in the afternoon heat.
But all that comes a bit later. For now, the bus has arrived, and it’s time to find our lodging.
Chapter 4: Motorbikes and Grilled Fish
I can’t imagine Lombok without a trusty, rusty little motorbike. The going rate runs about four or five bucks a day, and renting is surprisingly simple: hand over cash, get a key. No papers. No hassle. No stress. Just go.
So it’s a tradition, really, for Andy and me to cruise north from Sengiggi’s streets and into the two-lane tunnels of palm trees snaking away from town and switch-backing up the nearest bluff. Then, in an instant, the trees clear and Lombok slaps you across the face with a panorama of tropic bliss: a half-mile golden crescent beaming at you from under the palms, a rich turquoise sea flowing up its shore. The whole scene smiles and waits for the inevitable postcard photos.
Cottony clouds punctuate a crystal sky, and you hardly realize how hard you’ve been staring until your wife shrieks in terror because you’re driving that trusty, rusty little motorbike of yours straight off the cliff. Or something like that.
The beauty of a motorbike, trusty, rusty, and little as it may be, is freedom: north of the Sengiggi resorts, a chain of pristine beaches has been left to ripen in the gorgeous sun. Hotels downsize to guesthouses, then to fishermen’s shacks, then to cattle grazing, and then to merely palms. And still more beaches stretch on.
We stop for pictures and to slather more sunscreen on, and there, sure enough, is a half-finished hotel sitting atop a cliff. The kind lady napping inside a nearby hut wakes long enough to chop the top off a coconut and rattle off a half-understood story of a German couple who came and bought this land and started construction but never managed to finish the project. It’s the cheapest coconut we’ve found in Indonesia, and one of the best.
“You should buy some land,” she tells us.
“No thanks,” we say. “But thanks for the coconut.”
And we’re off again—this time past the black-sand volcanic beach, past the string of warung shacks lining the left bank of the highway, and up the tallest spike of cliff around. From here, we behold the finest view of Lombok we imagine: a towering mountain at our back, a gorgeous teal and turquoise sea to our face, and three dots of white-sand madness spotting the ocean off to our right: that’s the Gilis, our next stop.
I start snapping some landscapes shots and Andy chats up the owners—it’s getting to be the lunch-ish time of day, and it looks like this shack’s got snacks.
“How’s this?” Andy calls, holding a monster fish fit for three kings to feast over. “Think it’s enough?”
I say it’s more than enough, and to get that sucker on the grill.
“You better go back and get Luiza,” Andy shouts over her shoulder. “Grilled fish will be ready by the time you get back.” She’s smiling wider than a dolphin on a sugar rush, and I know better than to wait when grilled fish is at stake.
So I’m off again, rounding a dozen kilometer-long bends of beaches, climbing the sharp spur of cliff between each, and zipping back around another half-loop all over again. The sea-breeze slides in fresh and clear, the sunlight sparkles on the pavement between the palm leaves, and yes, yes, the bronze-colored cows are still munching contentedly away at the beachside tufts of grass, keeping them mowed to a golf-course sheen.
If you can’t tell by now: I heart Lombok.
Luiza does too on the trusty, rusty little backseat, across those same lonely roads curving parallel to so many lovely beaches, through the sunshine and the shade, until we eventually reach the rocky height where we find our panorama, where Andy is flaunting her Indonesian with the family who’s putting the finishing touches on our enormous fish with all the fixings. We sit on a threadbare shawl over a bamboo floor in a thatched hut, surrounded everywhere by the toothsome grins of Lombok in the sun. The fish is plentiful, the salsa pleasantly volcanic, and our free hands, dripping salsa and lime juice, shoo away the slow, straggling flies.
By the time the meal ends, we’re out a mere five bucks each, and groaning contentedly to ourselves like so many kittens stretched out in the sun. We sip the last of our drinks and watch a troop of monkeys come crawling over the cliff to gnaw coconut rinds.
“You know,” the husband of our chef tells me, “you ought to buy some land here on the beach. You get it cheap now.”
“No thanks,” I say; then, looking around again, “But how much is it?”
Chapter 5: Dusk
The biggest problem of having so many beaches at your disposal is choosing one to spend your time at: gold beaches, black beaches, smooth beaches, rocky beaches, beaches with resorts and beaches for the locals, fishing beaches and abandoned beaches and of course, beaches for grazing the bronze cattle of the sun.
We find ourselves spending that evening alone on a black sand beach. I stretch into the waves, a lone swimmer on a kilometer-wide stretch of sand that, just an island away, would be awash in imported booze and heavy bass and neon lights. But here, I drift alone and watch the orange sun sink quietly behind the horizon. To my left, away down the strand, three men stand in the surf and patiently cast fishing lines into the waters. Again and again, they cast, as the waves wash in, they toss invisible lines into the crystal sea.
Ashore, Andy and Luiza doodle in the sand and check out the day’s purchase: pearls bought at the price of plastic trinkets in other lands.
It’s a moment of stillness and of peace, a moment when you stop and consider that, no matter how much you could have planned it, you never could have brought yourself here to such a moment of repose and beauty—you never could have imagined these details. You don’t deserve it.
Still the sun trickles across the endless waves, and still I float in the Lombok surf. The cows are huddling down for sleep; the girls packing to leave, and a village boy comes out to tell stories we don’t understand, something about the beach being haunted. In the dark and the quiet, with the three silent figures of the fishermen fading into the coming night, it’s not hard to believe. But it’s hard to imagine a ghost here doing anything more than slowly floating along the strand, silently perusing the still-empty beach, maybe looking to buy some land.
Lombok ain’t perfect, make no mistake. As peaceful as its beaches are, as cheap as its food and as gorgeous its views, it’s still got its shortcomings.
For one, the beaches aren’t exactly made for snorkelers: Waves are a bit tall, coral a bit bleached, and most offer more sand and rock than thriving wildlife. If it’s snorkeling you’re after, better go up to Gili.
And the waves here, on the northwest coast, aren’t exactly meant for surfing: they’re frisky but without the bite. You might be able to practice some basics on a windy day, but if it’s real rides you’re after, head to South Lombok.
What you have here, then, is a perfect in-between, a strange middle child of the tropics—a strip of gorgeous sands between Gili’s coral and Kuta Lombok’s wild sprays of surf.
All are overshadowed by Bali’s giant footprint nextdoor.
Maybe though, that’s why Sengiggi’s tourist surge never sustained its momentum, why it fizzled into a steady stream of sleepy, restful beaches, days of silent grazing along some of the finest coasts this planet offers anyone. And why it boasts cheap real estate.
The crowds run off to the fame of Bali next door, or up to the underwater gardens and parks of Gili above, or down south to the wild ride of the cresting surf. And that’s fine by me. I heart Lombok, from its slow boat to its trusty, rusty, little motorbikes to its evenings untouched on haunted beaches, and I know the next time I need a sun-shower fit for pictures and naps and plenty of coconuts in the tropic breeze, it’s not too far away.
It comes calling even now.