“We’re not in Kansas anymore…” Or rather the more touristy Indonesian Islands of Bali and the Gilis. We were suddenly in the land of roaming goats, colorful wedding processions and deserted beaches… and we loved it.
We were headed for Lombok, the more offbeat island to the east of Bali, which, I should confess, isn’t completely lost and untouched… however, it is compared to Bali. A few fellow travelers we spoke to who’d traveled the region for decades likened it Bali 40 years ago, and I can admit that, over the course of our week there, we did have some pretty unique local experiences. That is, once we’d survived getting away from the pier at Bangsal.
Landing on Lombok and the Unexpected Welcome Committee
Back on Gili Air, where we’d just been, we showed up at the port with our bags ready to head over to Lombok only to be informed that they didn’t know when the local ferry would make the crossing. Lombok was sitting right there across the bay, however (understandably), they usually waited until the boat was full until they set sail, a wait which sometimes took hours. Since there was the more expensive speedboat leaving a mere few minutes later, we jumped aboard so we could get to our planned destination while it was still daylight. Unlike our harrowing crossing over to the Gilis from Bali (from this post), this boat ride was fine and only took the advertised 10 minutes.
Docking on the other side, we should have known that something fishy was up when someone immediately picked up our bags and carried them off down the jetty. Sure enough, it wasn’t an employee of the boat company, but a private “porter,” who virtually held our bags hostage as we generalled a battle between two drivers over who’d give us a better rate to take us down south to Kuta (yes, Lombok had a Kuta too). As I’ve mentioned, my travel companion Rose is a tough bargainer and she’d done her research into what the price should be and, after some serious haggling, we got down to 300K (around 25 USD). Price set, we then had to fight off the circling porters who wanted insane prices for carrying our bags 20 meters.
Not the best first impression of the Lombok locals, yet, I’m happy to say that’s where the horribleness ended. We totally adored the people here, never had we had such a warm welcome, or at times, been the subject to cultural curiosity…
The first thing that greeted us when we reached Kuta were not its friendly residents, but some of their furry friends. Rounding the corner towards the beach, I didn’t know if I was more excited at the thought of seeing the beach … or getting out of our seatbelt-less rickety van. Before our eyes could set sights on the waves, they met the “welcoming committee” … of goats munching away at patches of grass amidst random trash at the edge of the rustic beach.
Kuta, The Offbeat Surfers’ Paradise
So why had we gone to Lombok leaving behind the heavenly Gilis? Rose had been doing much of our itinerary organizing, her interest in the island was piqued by a bubbly American girl we’d met on our snorkeling excursion who vivaciously recommended Lombok and, in particular, Kuta. The only thing it had in common with Bali’s Kuta was that it was a good surfers’ beach. While I was all for authentic, at that very moment I couldn’t help but long for the pristine sands and aquamarine waters of the Gilis. Had coming here been such a good idea?
Next surprise was in tracking down a place to stay. Since it was the shoulder season, we’d assume it would be easy to find a place on the spot. We’d asked our driver to take us to a nice homestay recommended in the Lonely Planet, but once we’d manage to find it at along a dead-end street, we were told that it was all booked up. They suggested a place around the corner, which turned out in a sad decaying state with piles of rubble “decorating” the courtyard and 20-year-old faded “hawaiian” sheets. While we’d tentatively accepted the room, we hadn’t paid yet, so we made a run for it, leaving our key in the door. From what we could gather another LP recommendation was nearly: the Surfers’ Inn. One could hardly call us surfer types, but that didn’t mean we didn’t like surfers (yum!), and the atmosphere at the Sufers’ Inn was waves above that of the previous place. A bargain at about 8 dollars each a night, plus it was right across from the beach, our first destination after checking in.
We were a tad disappointed crossing the scruffing law in our swimsuits ready to dive in. It was low tide, so we couldn’t even dip our toes in, therefore, we had no choice but to grab a table at one of the beach bars and whet our palates with a Bintang. Newbies, we were a quick target for the young girls selling bracelets, who seemed to have been taught key sales vocabulary in their English classes such as “open your heart … and your wallet.” They were cute, but rather persistent, buying a few seemed to be the best tactic to making them give up their barrage.
After finishing our beers, we took a wander through “town,” its dirt main drag lined principly with surf rental shops, a handful of tourist stands and clothing huts. We settled in at a local “warung” restaurant for some very cheap eats. Tummies sated, we headed back to the beach bar as it seemed like the most happening place there. We didn’t stay out too late, but were satisfied with our introduction to this quirky place.
In Search of Deserted Beaches
The next day Rose suggested we rent some scooters and check out the area, she’d read that there were some gorgeous beaches along the coast. We’d scooted around much busier Chiang Mai last year in Thailand so I was game, plus, at around 4 dollars a day, it was the cheapest way to get around. But most importantly, they equaled the freedom to adventure on our own.
Westward bound, we followed the rough roadside directions in own guidebook to the first of the beautifully described beaches: Mawun. Before arriving, we spotted it in the distance, stopping for a quick photo. As we gazed into the horizon, a series of small buses cruised past us, each one overflowing with boisterous teens. It was Saturday so maybe they were off on a school trip?
We zoomed down the valley through the lush forest. The beach was indeed pristine… and seemed practically empty. We grabbed our beach bags and found a nice little semi-shady pocket to lay down our sarongs, ready to relax alone in our own piece of paradise. Alone? Not quite…
Our first “visitor” was a sarong seller. We showed her our existing ones, but she took on the challenge to persuade us that we could use a second one, at least she wasn’t as insistent as the bracelet girls. Next came the young blue shirted 6-year-old fruit vendor, trying to peddle some pineapple. We’d just arrived, we needed time before requiring a refreshment. “Maybe later,” we attempted. He came back every 5 minutes to see if it was later yet.
But in the middle of his series of visits, we actually had about 20 other visitors. Those school buses were headed for the beach just like us, they were just parked in a different place and after we’d been there about 15 minutes, we were ambushed by a pack of 15-year-old girls. It was a tiny bit awkward as Rose and I were in our bikinis and they were fully dressed, some with head scarves. They didn’t seem to mind this whatsoever, or rather, this was certainly a factor which had attracted them to us in the first place. A few spoke decent English so carried on what we could of a conversation, took lots of selfies, in exchange were for some local candy, not as sweet as the cute girls, our new local friends. Unlike Bali, Lombok’s is mainly Muslim instead of Hindu, though we gathered from the population’s chilled attitude, love of beer and relaxed attire, they were relatively moderate.
Their teacher eventually rounded up his herd, a few more packs trying to take photos with us on their way past. After all this excitement, we certainly deserved our refreshments, and our chipper seller was back before in a jiffy once his attention competition had left, bestowing Rose with a cool coconut and I a tart pineapple. He was very adept at selfies.
Leaving the beach, we stopped for a quick bite at a little very local “warung” on the roadside,where nobody spoke English, gesturing to what looked like (and was) tofu, before pushing on to Mawi, the surfers’ beach. The promises of its write-up had us drooling on the page, though after getting about halfway down the terribly pothole-ridden dirt path, we were wondering if a) this was even the way to the beach b) if it was, would it be really worthwhile? Soon both questions were affirmatively answered.
It was one of the most beautiful beaches we’d ever seen, set it a small curved alcoved rounded off by some distant cliffs and islands. To make it even more heavenly, there was just a little cafe-stand, no beach vendors, no school groups (not that we didn’t find the girls charming). There were only about 20 people, half of them surfers out on the waves, the rest of us chilling one of the straw huts. This was the life.
After an hour and a bintang or so, we peeled ourselves off the mats of our peaceful hut and scooted on to the last of the recommended beaches. Our path took us through some beautiful scenery and and tiny villages peopled with jumping and waving kids screaming “halllloo!!!” as they spotted the two foreigners breezing past. Just as we were about to give up, thinking that we’d missed the turn, we reached the expansive crescent-moon bay of Selong Belanak. The most “developed” of the three beaches, it only had one laid back looking resort and a few casual beach restaurants on it. We walked its wide beach, took a dip and watched the boats drift out to sea.
Beach Parties and Bintang
It was almost a perfect day… almost. On our way back to Kuta, we stopped to take a photo of the setting sun casting a golden hue over the valley. I thought I hadn’t pulled off the road so I started to push my bike a foot or so forward, instead I revved it, crashing it into the one and only tree in the little pull off area. Typical of my clumsiness. I wasn’t even on the bike! It did enough damage to have to show it to bike rental place, but I tried not to let that put a damper on the lovely day we’d just had (but no more scooting around for me on this trip!). A Bintang would certainly help me forget my driving woes… we ended up back at the beach bar which was a little extra busy on this Saturday night.
Though as the night went on, it wasn’t us buying the Bintang, but a whole crowd of new friends, albeit, young local boys, but we weren’t complaining! We had a great vibe from the locals, they just curious about us, ok flirting with foreign girls was probably fun, but they weren’t after us buying them drinks or anything like that. We had some great conversations and learnt about life over in Lombok. Rose was eying up an adorable young guy who looked way too young (who’s counting?) and I seemed to have a bit of a cute admirer from another town. Was a little Je T’Aime, Me Neither naughtiness in store?
Waterfalls and Weddings
The next day, I would have probably been content with chilling on the beach at Kuta and maybe going up the hill for sunset, but Rose wanted to do some more exploring so we hired a driver for the day to see some sites a little further afield. We started off with one of the island’s famous waterfalls, Sendang Gile and Tiu Kelep. Considering the quietness of the beaches, we hadn’t really expected the site to be as popular as it was, in fact, not necessarily with the few tourists on the island, but with the Indonesians. Since it was a Sunday, the park was packed… many of those local visitors were more interested in us than the falls, mostly young women, we eventually had to start saying no to the posed photos so we could enjoy the waterfalls, the reason for us coming, in the end we’d certainly made our way into at least a dozen local facebook feeds.
Next we drove on to the Lingsar temple, built in 1714, it’s important to both the Hindu and Islamic faiths of the island. Quite a large complex, we quietly visited its corners, getting our temple fix, and even making some more friends like this mother who proudly introduced us to her baby girl. The temple grounds where also used for casual parties and there were several groups of picnickers making the most of their day off.
We drove through various towns soaking up more of the island’s ambience making our way to our last destination, a Sasak village. The Sasaks are the ethnic people of the Lombok and they have many of their own unique customs, some of which we were about to witness first hand as we drove right into a wedding procession! How lucky were we. We slowed down to admire the elaborately and colorfully dressed bride and groom, and their family procession, annotated by our driver, a fellow Sasak.
On this cultural high we turned back onto the main road to carry on on our route only to find yet another wedding! This one was a little less elaborate than the first, though it was still a special event to witness. Accompanying the bride were two westerners, we couldn’t help but wonder how they’d obtained this great honor. The festive vibes lingered with us down the road until we reached the “traditional” village.
Traditional in architecture, but it did feel a little done up for tourists. We had to take a tour led by a resident who gave us some insight into the regional building techniques, handicrafts, customs and the traditional life of the village. We were then bartered over by various shop keepers to peruse their wares. The island is known for its weaving and we were taught how to tell a handmade weaving apart from a machine made one. Rose brought her own bargaining powers to the table and managed to wheel and deal her way out of there with several hangings.
The Ultimate Lost Island: Gili Gede
We had 4 more days left of our trip, three of which we were planning to use on Lombok. Rose wanted to keep exploring and deftly convinced me to go to an even more obscure island. I normally would have been completely in favor of this, however, I absolutely needed some internet to do some work and had high doubts that a tiny side island would be the best place for this. It sounded pretty cool so I let my arm be twisted and made do.
The Surfers’ Inn arranged a reasonably priced transfer to the port of to this new series of “gilis.” We were headed to Gili Gede, considered one of the “secret” gilis nestled in the crook of the southwest corner of Lombok in Sekotong Bay. The only way to get there was by private water taxi from a small dock on the main island, so it was there that our driver left us. Of the 12 islands, Gede is the largest, consisting of a few villages and a handful of small hotels. We had our driver ring up the coolest sounding one listed in the Lonely Planet, the Madak Belo Guest House, (UPDATE: sadly the Madak is now closed) run by the French hippy-spirited Henri. His small rustic B&B has a main lodge with a couple of rooms, surrounded by some stand-alone bungalows. Timing was perfect, he’d just returned from holiday and today was his first day back and there was a room available for us.
We got settled in, ordered some tasty local dishes for lunch and made friends with a sweet Singaporean, Pathma, who come there to get away from it all. Well, she’d come to the right place. There were no roads on the island, reduced electricity, no tourist touts: the ultimate chill local vibe. We had a nice chat with Henri about local life, his staff of islanders, the sustainability of his lodge (everything was locally sourced), a convincing discourse that definitely gave us no regrets on deciding to come here. Afterwards we invited Pathma to walk to the village with us. Along the beach we meandered to the sounds of birds and the occasional boat putting lazily by at sea.
As we approached the village, we were once again first greeted by some munching goats. Further ahead we received a warm welcome verbal welcome by a group of women sitting by the beach, one who spoke English very well. She introduced us to her baby we had a chat about where we were from amidst the giggles of the gathering children. As our stroll continued we were enthusiastically greeted by some tiny tikes out for a swim, upon noticing us they towards us shouting photo, photo, photo! Shy they were not. Adorable? 100%. Obviously the villages were used to having some curious B&B guests stop by. The kids lapped up the attention and loved seeing the results of their posing.
The locals adored Pathma whom they thought was even more exotic than us. India? They would shout. No, no, Singapore, a little cultural exchange for both sides. On our way back we made friends with a 17-year-old girl with good English. She told us she wanted to carry on studying English to work in the hotel industry. Bright and vivacious, she’ll certainly achieve her dreams, and possibly even close to home; on the opposite side of town a larger resort was being built. It appeared that Gili Gede would soon start losing its secrecy.
The next day we chartered a boat to go snorkeling with Pathma and a cute French-German couple who was also staying at the B&B. It was lovely being out at sea on the crystal waters, we even saw what looked to be a pirate ship, leaving us with intrigue. We snorkeled off of two nearby islands, their reefs being 90% unspoilt. We took our time, swimming along through schools of fish and above vibrant blue, green, pink and violet coral. On one of the islands, we crawled ashore to explore. In the woods we found the remnants of what we gathered to be the foundations for a resort which was never finished, a small hindu altar left behind as an eerie reminder of human presence. Though I wasn’t sad that the resort remained unfinished, allowing the area to retain its authenticity a little bit longer.
“It’s paradise here, why would I ever want to leave,” words of wisdom from Henri which would stick with us, nagging at our minds and hearts to return. I’ll take the deserted beach… with its goats.