LOMBOK ISLAND, INDONESIA

Living in Bali’s Shadow, but Maybe Not for Long

Eric Weiner

Lombok Island has lovely beaches and a looming volcano, but it retains an endearing frumpiness, and that is its charm.

http://travel.nytimes.com/2008/09/21/travel/21next.html?pagewanted=2&em

Published: September 21, 2008

IT was a few days into my journey across Lombok when a strange, yet oddly pleasant, mental miasma descended upon me. My guide, Bahar, and I couldn’t figure out what day of the week it was. Bahar suspected it was Thursday; I thought it was Wednesday. And so, for a while, we remained lost in time.

Such temporal confusion is typical on Lombok, where the roads are rough and the tourists few. This enchanted Indonesian island is, after all, a place that seems to be perpetually arriving, yet has never quite arrived. Proximity to Bali is Lombok’s blessing, and its curse. Many residents bristle at the idea of basking in Bali’s reflected glory and point out that while only 25 miles separate the two islands, they are in fact worlds apart.

A British naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace noted as much more than a century ago, when he observed that the flora and fauna found on Lombok are remarkably different from those of Bali. Lombok, Wallace concluded, demarcates the Asian and the Australian ecozones. Culturally, Lombok is typically more Indonesian than Bali, if anything can be said to be typical in a nation of more than 17,000 islands and some 700 languages and dialects. Unlike mostly Hindu Bali, Lombok is 86 percent Muslim. It’s an island of Sukarno hats, mosques (many built with Saudi funds) and hardscrabble farmers. Indeed, overzealous tourism officials notwithstanding, Lombok is not “an unspoiled Bali,” or “Bali’s sister island.” Lombok is not Bali at all, and that is precisely its charm.

Of course, that doesn’t stop it from trying to raise its profile. Work has begun on a new international airport, with a runway long enough to accommodate 747s. A Dubai-based developer plans to erect luxury hotels, golf courses and a marina along Lombok’s beautiful, and largely untouched, southern coast.

I began my explorations at Senggigi Beach, the site of Lombok’s first hotels, built in the mid-1980s, and the closest thing to a resort town on Lombok. Senggigi’s main strip consists of crafts shops, featuring weavings and wood carvings, as well as a string of restaurants and bars. I found myself at a place called, inexplicably, the Office. It’s an open-air design, with pool tables and a projection TV showing black-and-white films. One guidebook describes the Office as a place “popular with middle-aged expats,” mostly fromAustralia and Europe.

When the Australian owner of the bar, Howard Singleton, first read that description, he fumed. “But then I realized that it’s basically true,” he said.

Mr. Singleton, perennially sunburned with gray hair and an impressive beer belly, first came to Lombok 12 years ago. Since then, he has ridden the ebbs and flows of Lombok’s tourism business. Mr. Singleton grimly rattles off the long list of calamities that have conspired against Lombok’s ascendance: the SARS outbreak, the Asian financial crisis, the two Bali bombings, the Asian tsunami, avian influenza and, most of all, the riots that erupted on Lombok itself in 2000. Muslim mobs attacked Chinese-owned businesses in a spasm of violence that left dozens dead. In an instant, Lombok’s fledgling tourism boom went bust.

The events of 2000 are now “ancient history,” Mr. Singleton said, adding that business at the Office is up 20 percent compared with last year. Another promising sign: after eight years, the State Department recently lifted its travel warning for Indonesia.

From where I sat at the Office, drinking a Bintang beer, the only threat I faced was from the hawkers who circle mercilessly, offering “Rolex” watches, sunglasses, T-shirts, a massage, a manicure and the services of tour guides.

Still, there’s plenty of peace of mind to be found on Lombok. I spent a few nights at Qunci Villas, a minimalist, oh-so-Zen boutique resort that heralds the possible Bali-fication of Lombok. In the evenings, I nibbled on shrimp bruschetta while sipping a mojito and listening to electronica, which wafts through the air, fresh and inviting.

Each morning, I awoke to a chorus of roosters and the muezzin’s call to prayer. On Lombok, though, as in most parts of Indonesia, people wear their Islam lightly. Lombok, for instance, is home to the Wetu Telu. It’s a Muslim sect of 30,000 that mixes traditional Islamic practices with smatterings of Hinduism and animism.

On a clear, warm morning, I set out to see more of Lombok, with my guide Bahar. We head for Mount Rinjani, the towering 12,000-foot volcano that watches over Lombok. The smooth roads of Senggigi soon give way to potholes the size of craters. “Rupiah road,” declares Bahar, a play on the Indonesian currency, famous for the large number of zeros it contains.

We stopped for food. Lombok means “chili,” and the cuisine definitely had a kick. I opted for the more humane sarobi, a dish of rice flour, palm sugar, coconut milk, chili and tapioca — all rolled into a banana leaf. It’s delicious and sets me back 1,000 rupiah, or 10 cents, at 9,577 rupiahs to the dollar.

After much bouncing and shaking, we reached our destination. The town of Tetebatu is nestled in the foothills of Mount Rinjani, sacred to the people of both Lombok and Bali. The views from the summit are spectacular. Or so I hear. I passed on the arduous two-day trek and instead explored the verdant rice fields in the foothills. Tetebatu is the perfect place to sample (carefully) Lombok’s cuisine and enjoy air that is a few blessed degrees cooler than along the coast.

That’s where I was heading, en route to a trio of tiny islands, floating punctuation marks in the Indian Ocean. One of these, Gili Trawangan, has earned a reputation as a requisite pit stop on the backpacker circuit. Once famous for its anything-goes full-moon parties, Gili T, as it is known, is now veering toward being more tame and up market.

I arrived by boat and immediately decamped at the Beach House, an eclectic bar and hotel that, while lovely, has no beach. Gili T takes Lombok’s laid-back vibe and turns it down a few more notches. There are no cars or motorized vehicles, only bicycles and cidomos, the donkey-driven “taxis” prevalent throughout Lombok. (Local wags call it “the Lombok Ferrari.”) Without the din of traffic to contend with, Gili T offers visitors an audio buffet: the call to prayer mingles with the clinking of beer glasses and the sing-song of hawkers and giggling children on their way home from school.

The most common sound heard on Gili T, though, is one simple phrase: “Kenapa tidak” — why not? Want to sleep until noon? Kenapa tidak? Want to order one of those magic mushrooms on the menu? Kenapa tidak? (They’re legal here.) Or, like me, you can pass on the craziness and just enjoy the wonderful snorkeling. Kenapa tidak?

Tami Ortenau, a graphic designer from Los Angeles, came to Gili T on a lark, a side trip from Bali. When I met her, she’d already extended her stay twice. “I could spend a month here,” she said, clearly smitten.

To be honest, though, Lombok’s undeniable appeal remains something of a mystery. Yes, the beaches are lovely, but there are lovely beaches elsewhere. Yes, Mount Rinjani is spectacular, but other volcanoes are more spectacular. Maybe it’s that Lombok, unlike Bali, retains an endearing frumpiness. Lombok may be paradise but it is an ordinary paradise, if such a thing is possible. Indeed, even those banking on Lombok’s rise hope it doesn’t happen too quickly or recklessly. “In 30 years, you won’t like Lombok,” said Scott Coffey, an American hotelier who owns Qunci Villas. Perhaps, but for now Lombok seems just right.

VISITOR INFORMATION

The high-speed ferry from Bali to Lombok takes about two hours. Gili Cat (62-361-271-680) and Mahi Mahi (62-361-753-241) are two well-known ferry companies. They charge $65 a person each way.

WHERE TO STAY

Qunci Villas (Jalan Raya Mangsit Senggigi; 62-370-693-800; www.quncivillas.com) Dubbed Lombok’s hippest hotel and for good reason. The theme is minimalist serenity. The 20 rooms go for $70 to 90, private villas for $300 and up.

Sheraton Senggigi Beach Resort (62-370-693-333; www.sheraton.com). One of the first major hotel chains to plant a flag on Lombok. The Sheraton is relatively low-key, and with an ideal beachfront location. Rooms start at $178 per night, with bargains to be had in the off season.

The Beach House (Gili Trawangan 62-370-642-352; www.beachhousegilit.com). A funky, mish-mash of a hotel that somehow manages to work. Rooms range from un-air-conditioned boxes to lavish bungalows with private plunge pools, and are priced accordingly.

WHERE TO EAT

Qunci Restaurant (62-370-693-800; http://www.quncivillas.com). The chef manages to cook both Indonesian staples Western fare equally well. The shrimp bruschetta is my favorite. There are also excellent mojitos and great sunset views. A meal for two, without wine, runs about $35.

Astari With unbeatable views, this extremely mellow tea house on Lombok’s near the town of Kuta on the south coast also serves light and healthy mains, mainly vegetarian. Try the spinach pies. Two can eat at Astari for $25.

Scallywags (62-370-631-945; Asian fusion cuisine served beachfront on Gili Trawagan. It boasts the island’s “first and only wireless internet connection,” which may or may not be a selling point. Expect to spend $30 for two, without drinks.

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