The raw and the cooked
Lombok is less well-known than its neighbour, Bali. Yet this is less the land that time forgot, than the island the tourists missed...
The tang of mint tea was still alive in my mouth. The well-rehearsed hands of a strong-armed Balinese masseuse showed no mercy in rubbing away all the discomfort and numbness of the long flight necessary to get me to this Indonesian island in the Flores Sea.
Lombok, the guidebooks promised me, would be like Bali had been 15 years ago. For 200 years, after all, Lombok had been a colony of Bali. Shore temples, hill temples and a Water Palace, as well as a sizeable population of Balinese found along the west coast, are a legacy of that time.
Indeed, there are many things Balinese in Lombok - masseuses, for example. However, I soon discovered Lombok to be very different from its more famous neighbour. Comparative lack of tourists is the most striking difference: it must have been a lot longer than 15 years since so few foreigners visited Bali.
Most people on Lombok are Sasaks, descendants of early migrants from a part of Asia near present day Myanmar (Burma). Sasak culture, although somewhat compromised by conversions to Islam, periods of Balinese and Dutch colonialism, and more recently the centralised rule of Djakarta, still gives Lombok a unique feel. Traditional rituals of marriage and death, unlike the public spectacles of Bali, are all largely private affairs.
Visitors are more likely to come across Sasak culture in the arts and crafts of souvenir shops, or Sasak food in the cafes of Lombok's capital Matram (the word "lombok" means chilli in Bahasa Indonesian). Occasionally there is a performance of Sasak music and dance in town. Unfortunately our visit took place during Ramadan so there was none.
The majority of Sasaks today are simply occupied in the daily toil of subsistence farming and fishing. Oxen are still used to cultivate rice and vegetables on the slopes of the mighty Gunung Rinjani volcano. Fishermen setting out to sea in their elegant, brightly painted outrigger prahus boats and naked children tending to animals or playing in the water of fast flowing streams, are still the most common sights in Lombok.
For several days driving around the north and east of the island, my wife and I saw little else and certainly never anyone like us. Lombok is lush and tropical, with fields of vivid green divided by rows of swaying palm trees, miles of deserted white sand beaches and plenty of timeless rural charm.
At Bayan we left the coast road and turned towards Gunung Rinjani and drove up towards the volcano's active cone soaring high above us, lost in mists. The road soon runs out. Although some trekkers continue to the summit and the spectacular crater lake, we satisfied ourselves with a half-hour stroll. This took us along a river bank and into a forest clearing where the Sendang Gila waterfall cascades out of the jungle, cooling the tropical air, like a scene from a Balinese miniature.
People we encountered were always very friendly and welcoming, if a little shy. The only slightly uncomfortable experience was visiting a traditional village in the hills which was obviously used to foreigners walking around, as trekkers must pass by on their way up the mountain.
A small boy emerged from a thatched wooden house with a visitors' book and a donation box. I did not mind giving a donation - the village was obviously not wealthy. But as soon as money entered the equation we began to ask ourselves what we were doing there, what business of ours was it to peer into the lives of the people who lived there. In fact, the inhabitants took absolutely no notice of us, unlike their dogs. It was as though the donation had bought us a right to look around unmolested yet remain unwelcome.
There is no chance of any such ambiguity on the Gili islands off Lombok's north west coast. These three small coral-fringed islands are the part of Lombok most used to tourists. Backpackers come and stay for weeks on the Gilis in thatched beach huts and bamboo bungalows for weeks at a time, attracted by the cheap accommodation, white sand beaches, clear water, superb coral reefs and colourful marine life.
All this can be enjoyed on day trips using boats hired on the mainland. We spent a day diving from a boat off the north shore of Gili Meno, seeing sea turtles, thousands of multicoloured fish and coral as good as I have seen anywhere.
After a disappointing lunch in one of the beach cafes on Meno, smallest and quietest of the islands, we were able to walk the whole island in a couple of hours, falling into the ocean for more underwater spectaculars when we got too hot.
For good Sasak food we drove into Matram to find a recommended restaurant called Dua Em. Sitting on the floor at a low table on a bamboo veranda overlooking a courtyard full of tropical vegetation was a seductive start to our meal: I enjoyed a clear kelor soup of a water-spinach leaf called kangkung which was clean and peppery.
The main course of chicken fried with banana pith, coconut juice, garlic and a very hot chilli sauce called bumbu was also excellent (except for the accompanying side dish of pea aubergines in a pungent pelecing sauce - scarily fishy and rather rancid). The flip side of almost no tourism is almost no facilities. We never saw anything close to a restaurant out on the road. We had to buy petrol for our jeep out of jerrycans on the side of the road, in the absence of petrol stations.
There is a strip of tourist development along the west coast of Lombok, facing Bali, at Senggigi, comprising an unattractive collection of concrete shops and cafes on one side of the road, and hotels on the other side stretching down to the sea. Further up the road, on its own quieter beach, we found more attractive accommodation at Nusa Bunga. There is plenty of budget accommodation on the Gilis, popular with backpackers, and also some in the hill villages.
The only other tourist development is on the southern beach of Kuta. This fine sweep of sand surrounded by rugged hills is dominated by a new Novotel which caters for family holidays (at Christmas all the staff dressed up as characters from The Flintstones).
At the opposite side of the island, on its own secluded white sand and coral-reef beach, next to a Balinese shore temple, is a newly opened Oberoi hotel. From the minimalist sun-filled private gardens around the hotel's villas to the cushion-filled comfort of the shaded pavilions around the pool, there are endless opportunities for stylish hedonism.
Beyond the open-plan reception area, curved tiers of green water descend like terraced rice paddies down towards the sea. The middle tier is a huge green-tiled swimming-pool. At night the whole scene is beautifully lit, palm trees and ferns reflected in the mirror-surface of the pools. Such cutting-edge luxury on such a raw unspoilt island is an exciting combination.
It all comes at a price, but that jet-lag-busting massage at the Oberoi's Spa is worth every rupee.
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