In Lombok, they say that God created the island when he was smiling – and it’s not hard to imagine why.
A media trip earlier in the year to this lesser-known Indonesian enclave revealed some hidden wonders that, in my opinion, makes it a preferred destination.
Located just next to Bali along the Lesser Sunda chain of islands, Lombok has always been overshadowed by its more popular western neighbour when it comes to tourism. And that’s a pity, considering its range of attractions: Many are steeped in tradition and history but the island is also perfect for tourists who just want to relax on the sand and admire the breathtaking view of some of its pristine beaches.
Unlike Hindu-majority Bali, Lombok prides itself on promoting halal tourism. The Islamic influence is strongly evident in everything from its architecture and customs to the local delicacies, which are mostly halal. The island was awarded Best Halal Tourist Destination and Best Halal Honeymoon Destination at the World Halal Travel Awards in Abu Dhabi last year.
Despite its conservative culture, however, foreign tourists can freely sunbathe on the beach in skimpy swimwear and indulge in their favourite alcoholic beverages without so much as a glance from the locals.
Suddenly, a wedding!
Lombok caters to all kinds of tourists, depending on which part of the island you explore.
One of the first places we visit is Dusun Sade, the oldest village in the island’s south and home to the indigenous Sasak community. The houses here, typically known as Rumah Bale Tani, are built with low ceilings and doorways so that guests have to bow their heads as they enter, offering respect to their hosts.
Dusun Sade has about 700 residents; most of them are farmers while others peddle souvenirs and handicraft outside their homes to make a living.
At the entrance to the village, we are offered a taste of kuih cerorot – a coconut leaf cone with a sweet filling of rice flour and coconut.
It’s actually on the way back to our hotel that we have one of our most interesting moments: we meet a wedding procession making its stately way down the middle of the road!
Can you imagine such a procession happening amidst Kuala Lumpur or George Town’s crazy traffic? There would be plenty of angry reactions from drivers, but not here. Cars wait patiently in the ensuing traffic jam, while some (including our group) get out of their vehicles to join in the fun.
The Sasak people have several interesting marriage traditions and rituals: for one, it’s common for cousins to marry; and there’s the tradition of the groom “kidnapping” his bride-to-be two or three days prior to the nikah (solemnisation) so that both families can amicably negotiate a dowry amount. They also believe it is good fortune to wash their homes with buffalo dung mixed in water whenever a kenduri (feast) is organised.
Nyongkolan, as it is known, is another tradition, in which a large entourage serenades the newly wedded couple with song and entertains with dance while playing traditional instruments centred on two big drums, or gendang beleq.
Trio of tiny islands
The highlight of this trip is perhaps our visit to the Gili Islands off Lombok’s north-west coast. Appearing like three paw prints on the map, Gili Meno, Gili Air and Gili Trawangan are truly a traveller’s paradise.
The most famous of this trio is Gili Trawangan, which feels like another country altogether because there are more foreigners on the island than locals. According to our guide, children in Lombok actually travel all the way here to practise their English-speaking skills!
A unique feature of this tiny island is the cidomo (traditional horse cart). These carts transport tourists and goods around the island because the streets are too narrow for vehicles. The sound of horse hooves trotting along cobblestoned streets is rather calming to the ears, and I think it’s a great leisurely way to capture the island’s environs on camera.
Alternatively, you can rent a bicycle or motorcycle, which allows you to circle the entire island in less than an hour.
The atoll is also popular as a base for diving and snorkelling, and so we venture out several hundred metres into the sea for some snorkelling fun. It’s my first time, and while it is slightly disappointing not to see a large variety of sea creatures, the experience is going to be hard to forget.
Lombok’s beaches have remained well-preserved mainly because they’re not overpopulated. Some of the bays off the island’s southern tip offer scenic views of the surrounding hills, and are clean and quiet. The two we visit are Pantai Selong Belanak and Pantai Mawun, just 10 minutes apart.
The first is a popular destination for beginner surfers. Just 200,000 rupiah (RM60) get’s you a day’s worth of basic surfing lessons.
Here’s a tip. If you are journeying to Selong Belanak by car, be sure to ask your driver to stop at a hill spot 10 minutes before the beach for a breathtaking view of Lombok’s lush greenery 300m above sea level.
Meanwhile, Pantai Mawun is situated in a more secluded spot and is perfect for those seeking a quieter spot – only a handful of tourists come here. Sip on some fresh coconut water from the nearby stall and bask under the sun, read a book, or take some pictures. Whatever you choose to do, you’re guaranteed lots of peace and tranquillity.
A trip to Lombok wouldn’t be complete without a hike up the famous Mount Rinjani, an active volcano.
But since that adventure isn’t for everyone, a journey half as long to the most beautiful waterfalls on the island is a worthy substitute.
Located within the Rinjani National Geopark (a geopark is a Unesco-designated conservation area of geological importance) and along the main trail leading to the volcano, the Sendang Gile and Tiu Kelep waterfalls are hidden gems for nature lovers.
We begin our trek from the nearby Senaru village with a guide in tow and are at the first waterfall within half an hour. With a runoff from a height of 30m, Sendang Gile is ideal for some quick photos and feet dipping before venturing on to the next waterfall, which is an additional 30- to 40-minute trek away.
The trail to Tiu Kelep is a lot more challenging – we cross two very rocky streams on the way – so families with young children may want to give it a miss.
Once you reach the waterfall, take a moment to feast your eyes on the runoff that drops from an impressive 60m, then treat your tired body to a refreshing dip in the crystal-clear waters. Be warned, though, it is extremely cold.
Crafts on offer
Lombok is not just about sightseeing, I discover – there’s shopping involved too. If you’re a fan of traditional pottery craft and songket, the island is famous for it.
A wide selection of pottery can be found at the Desa Banyumulek village just 15 minutes from downtown Mataram, and at very affordable prices too. One of the popular items here is the kendi (water pot), which comes in various sizes.
Demonstrations are also carried out by local pottery artists, so you can see up close the painstaking effort and level of detail that goes into each item. Lombok’s pottery has a unique shine from firing and drying the pieces in stages, and then rubbing them with volcanic clay.
Later, we stop by Desa Sukarara a further 30 minutes east to see how handwoven fabric such as songket (the fabric for women) and tenun ikat (for men) is made. Handweaving is a craft dominated by the island’s womenfolk. This is because local custom requires all women to learn weaving before they can get married.
Lombok is nicknamed “the island of 1,000 mosques”, so it is perhaps fitting that we cap our trip by visiting its oldest and newest mosques.
Situated in a village called Bayan Beleq en route to Mount Rinjani is Masjid Kuno, which is believed to be over 1,000 years old. However, daily prayers are no longer held there, and it is instead used for religious celebrations.
And 80km south-west is the soon-to-be completed Islamic Centre in central Mataram, which will be the biggest mosque on the island, with minarets measuring 99m high to represent the 99 names of God.
Lombok is very serious about religion, yes, but at the end of our five-day stay, we realise that it is also serious about giving travellers a holistic experience.
This media trip was sponsored by the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia in Kuala Lumpur and the Ministry of Tourism Indonesia.