Trailing the Treasure Island of Lombok
Lombok Island is a mere 25-minute flight east from the island of Bali or a 2-hour, direct flight from Singapore. But don't let the flight time fool you-flying to Lombok is like being transported to a different era.
Like Bali, it has a beautiful surfing beach named Kuta. But unlike Kuta in Bali, which is densely populated with hotels ranging from the local inns to the five-star hotels, the Kuta beach in Lombok is remote and ideal for honeymooners. There is only one five-star hotel there where most up-market tourists stay.
Near the beach are several Sasak villages where the native Sasak people live. Their ancestors migrated to the island from the ancient Hindu Majapahit Kingdom in East Java at the end of the 14th century. Though the majority of the Sasak today are Moslems, anthropologists have noted that their language, songs, and dances show a strong link with the Hindu and Buddhist cultures that once dominated the Indonesian archipelago.
The Sasak people are among one of the many underdeveloped groups in Indonesia. Not many adults can speak the national language, Bahasa Indonesia. The majority of them are wet-rice farmers, though in some villages, many work as pottery makers. I once visited a village near the beach. The village was so picturesque. There were some Sasak women sitting on the veranda of their traditional Sasak huts, preparing food for their family's lunch. I was trying to speak some Bahasa Indonesia to them, but they did not seem to understand. Finally, my guide translated my questions to them in the Sasak language.
Another time, I was visiting a pottery village in the western part of Lombok. The signs of abject poverty is quite obvious here. The children were running to and fro in torn and dirty clothes. They were following us, the tourists, merrily while we roamed around their village. "There are not many tourists visiting the villages nowadays," our guide told us.
He explained that the 9/11 tragedy in New York also had an impact on this small village of Lombok. There are a fewer number of tourists visiting Indonesia and Lombok since the catastrophe. The situation worsened with the Bali bombing that shocked the world in October 2002 and the SARS issue that hit Asia severely soon afterward.
The guide's explanation matches the World Bank's assessment of Indonesia that was issued after the Bali bombing. The assessment, produced before the SARS issue hit Asia, says that though the Bali bombing hit Bali the most, the impact also affects those villages that are also tourism dependant, like those in Lombok. The poverty rate was expected to increase to about 16.7 percent in 2003 from the 16 percent in 2000, rather than declining to the 15 percent that was projected before the bombing.
"The people in this village used to sell many of their terracotas to the retailers in Bali. Presently, only a small number of these terracotas can be sold," my guide told us. He also said that the price of the Sasak's terracotas sold in Bali can be ten times more than those sold directly in the Lombok's villages.
I'm not sure whether the guide was exaggerating, but it is easy to believe considering the current difficult situation. In my second visit to Lombok, in 1999, I bought a beautiful terracota candleholder at a cheap price in one of these pottery villages. A few days later, I flew back to Bali and found exactly the same stuff with similar design and colour sold by some art shops in Kuta beach Bali. The art shop's prices were around three times as much as the one I bought directly in the Lombok pottery village.
I like Lombok pottery because the brownish colour of their terracota is darker and gives the impression of being ancient more so than those usually produced in other parts of Indonesia.
Unlike its lush neighbour of Bali, the majority of the land in Lombok is much drier and rugged like the Australian outback. The 19th century naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, theorized that there lies a border that divides the Asian ecosphere with its flora and fauna, from the Australian zone which has different kinds of species. This imaginary boundary is located between Bali and Lombok and is called the Wallace Line. It probably explains the uniqueness and the high quality of clay materials used for making pottery in Lombok.
Wallace's theory also explains the fact that though the island is dry, its weather, especially in the Senggigi bay area, is much cooler than Bali. Senggigi is a four-kilometer strip of beach front, restaurants, and luxury resorts. Located about half an hour ride by car from the airport, it was first established and developed as a tourists area in 1986 by the Indonesian government. The majority of the four- and five-star hotels in the island are located here. Its fame comes mostly from the breathtaking view of its bay facing the Lombok strait, which is also paralleled by the lush hills that blow a cool breeze to the whole Senggigi area.
My favourite activity in Senggigi is cycling along its hilly landscape and watching the beautiful sunset gleaming faintly at the Lombok strait from the top of the hills. In the morning, cycling to the eastern part of Senggigi is usually an option that satisfies my hunger for natural beauty. With the azure sky as the backdrop, the misty Mount Agung, the highest and most sacred mountain in Bali, can be clearly seen from the distance.
During my latest trip to Lombok, I noticed a cluster of bamboo structures offshore in the water nearby Senggigi. At first, I first they were the sea-fish hatcheries, but later I learned that they were pearl farms that produce high-quality pearls.
"Lombok is renowned for its pearls. There are about 15 pearl companies here. Most of them are internationally-owned as it requires a lot of capital to build a pearl farm. Many consider the quality of the pearls here as one of the best in the world," explained my guide when I asked him about it. Inilah Lombok, a magazine published by the Lombok promotion body, says that there are two kinds of pearls sold on the island: salt-water pearls and fresh-water ones.
"Salt-water pearls are generally more expensive and of higher quality than freshwater pearls. They have a good luster and the shape is more round. The more perfectly round the pearl, the more expensive it is. Meanwhile, the fresh-water pearls are characterised by their 'imperfect' appearance, having a striated surface and asymmetrical natural shapes," according to the magazine.
I never knew about this beforehand. So it was quite a coincidence that some beach-hawkers offered me these pearls the same day I noticed the existence of those pearl farms. The hawkers were selling both the fresh-water and salt-water pearls for quite a fair price. However, since I do not understand much about pearls, I was not sure whether they were real or fake. Later, I learned that there are some pearl shops along the way to the airport. It is indeed a hidden treasure unknown to many people, even to Indonesians.
I believe there are many more 'hidden treasures' in Lombok. From a hotelier in Senggigi, I learned about the secluded Moyo island, a short, 20-minute flight east of Lombok. There is a highly up-market resort in the isle where internationally renowned celebrities like to spend time. The late Princess Diana once spent her holiday there for almost two weeks before the paparazzi finally found her.
Besides the internationally famous Moyo isle, there are other small isles near Lombok, such as the Gilis (Gili means 'small isle' in the Sasak language). The biggest one is Gili Trawangan where the only international-standard hotel resides. The other ones are Gili Air and Gili Meno where various cheap inns provide shelter mostly for the backpackers visiting the isles.
I was surprised to see the internet cafes in Gili Trawangan during my last visit there. The isle is not that secluded from the outer world anymore. The Gilis offshore are the perfect places for snorkeling and diving. Guy Buckles, in his book "The Dive Sites of Indonesia," mentions at least six diving sites around the Gilis, which range from average to first class as well as two snorkeling sites that range from good to highly recommended.
Just like on the mainland, Lombok, the number of tourists visiting these isles is also dropping significantly. To some extent, it gives a nice feeling, like you own the whole isle for yourself with only a few neighbours around, but I also realize that this situation is not advantageous for many of the locals whose livelihood depends on tourism.
I believe, it is a high time to visit and re-visit Lombok and search for its hidden 'treasures.'
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Published on 7/27/04