Joro has a wishlist. Bali has always been on it. At the end of 2015, in a true end-of-the-year-resolutions-spirit, we created our 2016 goals. Visiting an exotic location was on both mine and Joro’s lists, so after numerous trips around Europe and the US, it was about time to make Asia happen. Somewhere around that time we also found this awesome photo story about Indonesia and the location was decided – Bali was way too touristic, so we were about to head to Lombok and the Gili Islands. Raya was going to come with us.
The journey to Lombok was least to say long. We flew from Sofia to Doha (5h 30min), then Doha-Denpasar (9h) and then Denpasar-Lombok, which was an incredibly long 20 minute flight. What we should have done was to book a direct flight to Lombok and spare us the hassle of dealing with the transit flight bellboys. What’s the big deal with those guys, you wonder? Oh well, these guys dressed up in clean white shirts and perfectly ironed green pants will wait for you at the intersection of the Denpasar international and domestic terminals and pounce on you like a vulture after long anticipation of its almost dreaded from the heat wave human pray. Before you have a chance to say no, they will squeeze your bags and hectically escort you to the other terminal as if they were going to miss their own connection, not you. All that for the sake of a generous tip from the European Tourist. After this little fiasco, I was glad we choose Lombok over Bali.
We landed around 8:30pm and for the first time I was greeted with a sign with my name on it. Or not exactly. We would have a cook in our house and I had previously told our hosts that we’re a sweet combo of a meat eater, vegetarian and vegan, so this is how they greeted us. Yes, this is how amazing our Airbnb hosts were, but I’ll tell you more about them later.
After the joyful welcome, we were about to experience our first cultural shock. Or fear attack more so. The drive from the airport to Mangsit (where our Airbnb was) was about an hour and a half along a relatively new highway. It was dark, so we couldn’t really see much, but we did very well see the tiny little street that our driver took at one point. Street, to be honest, is a bit of an overstatement. It was narrow, without pavement or street lights, and very dusty. Where the fuck was he taking us? “Is this the right direction?”, I ask him, choking with fear. “Yes, yes, sure!”, he says undisturbed one bit. “We’re almost there.”
Then we start seeing glittering animal eyes in the dark – goats, chicken, cows. Then he suddenly stops at what seems the end of the world, near a wooden shed lit by a gas lamp where 10+ little kids play in the dark and look at us with their mischievous eyes. “We’re here!”. Then I look at Raya and Joro’s pale western tourist faces and know what they are thinking: “We’re going to die here.”
We hastily walk out of the car, following the drivers instructions to walk up this way. Then two ginormous gates open and we’re suddenly in heaven. Made, Hannis and Wayan, with the widest and warmest smiles, welcome us at the doors with what will become the most amazing virgin cocktail of our trip. Still slightly light-headed from the whole experience, we say our goodbyes with the driver and our villa staff gives us a tour of the place. Then we eat the most delicious dinner that chef Wayan had cooked for us and crash. This was definitely going to be a great journey.
This trip is going to remain in our hearts for two reasons. First, the unspoiled beauty and wilderness of these amazing islands, and second, and more important – our villa, our amazing hosts Ian and Geoff, and Wayne, Made, and Hanis – the nicest and friendliest villa staff we could ask for.
Airbnb does a great job in describing the place and telling you more about Ian and Geoff. What it doesn’t tell you though, is the great story behind Villa Reyan and the strong human connection between Ian, Geoff, Made, Wayan and Hanis, who are much more than just the villa general manager, assistant cook and villa manager. It also doesn’t tell you about the huge hearts Ian and Geoff have. They are from Australia and have been visiting Lombok for a very, very long time. They’ve always stayed at one and the same hotel where they met Wayan and his wife Made more than 20 years ago. When Ian and Geoff met Wayan, he was doing the hotel laundry, but slowly and steadily during the years he worked his way up until eventually he became the master chef of the hotel. That’s how hard-working, humble and curious he is.
Wayan and Made did not speak English at that time. Upon one of Ian and Geoff’s return to Lombok, they brought English language notebooks and tasked Wayan and Made to start learning the language. With learning the new language, a special bond of friendship and trust started to grow between the four. That, combined with Ian and Geoff’s love for Lombok, lead to them purchasing land near Mangsit and building this beautiful tropical oasis in which we had the luck to live for almost a week. Today Made and Wayne no longer work at the hotel, they manage the villa and take such a good care of its guests. The villa itself has never been intended to be for rent, however with the increasing maintenance cost, Ian and Geoff decided to open it up for guests. Everything they earn not only goes for the staff, but also to support the village and its inhabitants. For example, if there is no water in the village or somebody needs medical attention, they take care of it. They also have two kayaks which they’ve left at the beach to Danny and Bob to rent out. Of course, all the income remains for Danny and Bob.
So yes, staying at such a nice place and being taken care of by so kind and friendly people really does make a difference. And no, there’s no better place to stay on Lombok, than Villa Reyan. There’s no wifi, no TV, no AC – just the natural beauty and quiet of the place. We never bothered to eat outside while on the island. Made would shop fresh produce from the Ampenan traditional market every day and Wayan would wake us up with delicious breakfast. We spent the days exploring and returned to even more delicious dinner prepared by Chef Wayan. Breakfast was included for free for us, and we paid approximately 300 000 IDR (20 EUR) for substantial home-made dinner for three. Hanis was always there for us and helping us with any request we had – whether it was a boat, car or motorcycles rental, nothing was too much to ask.
My favorite story: on our first full day on the island we decide that we’ll go to Pandanan beach, which according to Google Maps is some 5-6km away. We ask Hanis for bikes, as we thought 5-6km is not too much to cycle and expecting him to bring us bicycles. You can imagine our surprise when he showed up with 3 motorcycles. So, I had never been on a motorcycle before, not to mention driving it; Raya did not even have her driving licence with her, and on top of it all – they drive on the wrong side of the road there. Hanis tells us that there are no bike rentals and the road is quite uphill, so even if there were, he wouldn’t recommend us to cycle. This is when we learn that the main means of transportation on the island is a motorcycle and literally everybody drives one. You would think that a motorcycle will fit just one person? Wrong, terribly wrong! We saw whole families with a ton of groceries loaded on that small thing. We saw people playing the guitar while co-riding with a friend. We saw people carrying a bench while driving. We saw 7-year-olds driving. So yes, we had no choice but drive those little things. After all, how hard could it be? We decided that me and Joro will drive and Raya will be Joro’s co-pilot.
Hanis did a little demonstration for us and asked me to do a test drive. After he saw my first attempt, he generously offered to come with us. Several times. I was positive that I can handle this and politely refused. When we got back home, Hanis told us that they have all prayed for us during the whole day because they were sure I was going to crash that thing and kill myself at least.
So, now that you know our staff and our little bike story, let me tell you how day 2 went. We head to Pandanan beach and make several quick stops for some breathtaking shots along the coast road. The sun is so strong, the road is burning hot, and Joro… Joro is barefoot. I remember telling him to buy flip flops from Bulgaria, but he was like: “Oh no, we’re traveling very light (we only did cabin luggage indeed), I don’t want any extra stuff that I can buy there.” Alright, boss. I don’t know what he was thinking, but Lombok definitely IS NOT a shopping destination. So, he gets his feet terribly burnt, but the lucky one he is, we find a street flip flops dealer and before things get too serious, he buys a pair of flip flops after a short bargaining session.
Today Indonesia is the world’s largest Islamic nation and the island’s inhabitants are 85% Sasak people. The other 10-15% are Balinese. They are related to the Balinese in language and race, but unlike the Hindu Balinese, the majority are Muslim and you can see a lot of mosques and minarets. So why I am telling you all this? Because among other things, this whole thing meant a lot of bargaining and negotiation for everything.
Pandanan beach is really beautiful. It’s a pretty long stretch of clean white sand and turquoise water where a fair amount of local people have chosen to set home and earn their living from fishing and feeding the hungry western tourist with fresh grilled fish. You will hardly find any tourists here. Which is exactly why Pandanan is going to remain one of my favorite beaches on Lombok.
We spent the day here actively practicing the art of doing nothing. Only Joro made himself useful by playing with the local kids who decided to pose for him during their afternoon ocean dip.
Hot and tired from the burning sun, we returned to the villa in a desperate need of beer. As you can probably guess, alcohol is not very common on the island and there’s just one beer brand – Bintang. Compared to how cheap everything else on the island is, alcohol is expensive and a relatively rare find. We found Bintang in Senggigi (which is the most developed area on the island – shops, restauranst, bars, etc) for 44 000 Indonesian Rupiah (IDR) which is around 3 EUR. If you ask a local to buy the beer for you, you’ll get it for 34 000.
Day 3 started fairly early. At 5am to be more precise. Our newest friend, the Crazy Rooster, decided to wake us up. He would do that every day, along with his other 34509358 rooster friends from the village and the morning prayer bells. But that was totally okay with us.
Also, that day Raya had birthday and Made and Wayan had made a traditional Indonesian rice cake for her. Joro and Raya had mixed feelings about the cake, but the good pig living in me was pretty happy with it. As to Raya, we still don’t know how old she is, it’s a well kept secret, but we think she’s 5.
Lombok, by the way, is a land of waterfalls and Mount Rinjani – the second highest volcano of Indonesia. The mountain requires a several day hiking trip, and sadly we didn’t have enough time for that. So to celebrate Raya’s birthday, we decided to settle with some waterfalls in the foot of the mountain near Senaru.
Lombok is also a pretty big island and that day we learned that the motorcycles we rented the previous day wouldn’t help for our trip to the Senaru waterfalls. Hanis advised we get a car with a driver, which normally costs between 130-180 EUR for two days. Then another round of crazy bargaining followed and we finally decided that we would rent a car and drive it ourselves for approximately 30 EUR per day. The obviously way more affordable price was one thing, but the other more important reason for which we chose to drive ourselves (well, Joro) is that we didn’t really feel comfortable with having a driver to wait for us for hours while we were exploring the area. That just didn’t feel natural, although we were assured that the locals are pretty comfortable and used to that.
Anyways, that day Hanis had a second day of prayers for us and for a good reason. We’re still debating whether the waterfalls or the driving experience itself was the highlight of our day. The road to the waterfalls was in the opposite direction from our Day 2 drive, and it turned out to be very busy. People in Lombok drive like crazy. It’s like bumping cars, no one uses their rear-view mirrors (when they have them), horning is non-stop and may mean everything in between “I’m overtaking” to “I’m just letting you know I’m right behind you, but have no further intentions”, and you generally constantly fear for your life. I’ll just say that I am pretty proud with Joro’s driving skills and respect him much more as a driver ever since.
The driving jokes aside, this roadtrip was pretty eye-opening for the beauty and abundance of the island. We drove on winding road through a breathtaking mountain landscape that took us to the Pusuk monkey forest, endless rice fields, and shockingly poor villages full of friendly and happy people.
The drive from Mangsit to Senaru is about 2 hours long and when you get there you’ll see a lot of signage for the waterfalls. There was a 10 000 IDR (0.7 EUR) fee and the ticket people tried to upsell us with a guide. You do not really need one – the path to the waterfalls is easy and well-marked. It does require crossing of the river twice, but the waters are clean and shallow so you really see where you’re going.
Try to get as close to the waterfall as possible, it’s a pretty amazing feeling. Also, there’s no fresher water than that.
The walk through the rainforest is really humid but pleasant. You do not need any special hiking shoes, flip flops will do the work, you just have to be careful when crossing the river as the current is strong and may steal them. Which is exactly what happened to Joro, but through a brave and fearless tiptoeing through the water, he saved his brand new Lombok flip flops.
We drove back home in the dark, as the days were quite short with the sunset as early as 6pm. It was a pretty scary experience and we were relieved to arrive safe and sound back home where Wayan had prepared yet another awesome dinner. Joro did a 4-hour-driving-stress-relieve-therapy at the pool. If you ask him, this pool had the most magical water in the world, which is why he spent all evenings in it, and at one point was considering sleeping there.
On day 4 we decided to head South to the magnificent remote beaches and surfing heaven. Now that we had survived one day of madness driving, we loaded ourselves in Suzi and were ready for another round of Lombok driving experience. Our journey passed by Mataram, which is the capital city of West Nusa Tenggara province and the island’s largest city. We learned that if you’re not happy about something and want to complain to the government, you go to Mataram and protest. And block the streets, so that the poor tourists can’t easily go to South Lombok for surfing lessons.
The south coast is a maze of inlets and headlands with beautiful secluded white sand beaches. Some locations are quite difficult to access, but nothing was impossible for our Suzi.
The first beach we stopped at was Mawun beach. It’s a horse shoe shaped bay with two hills in the west and east side. The beach is really beautiful, although a bit windy. We went there on Sunday, which is the only vacation day for the locals and we soon learned that everyone goes to the beach on Sunday and fights for shades. We expected a rather secluded place, but Lombok is slowly getting more interesting to tourists and the beaches are no longer this isolated and quiet.
The more entrepreneurial young spirit takes full advantage of the thirsty and hungry tourists and offer you a fresh coconut drink, or a pineapple to munch over. Of course, everything has its price, even a selfie with the poor Western Tourist!
Mawun got a little bit too crowded for our liking and we moved on to Selong Belanak Beach which was highly recommended by our Gili Trawangan villa host (more for her later).
It is a really marvelous beach – a moon shaped coastline, half of which is home to a dozen of fishermen families, numerous fishing boats resting on the calm waters and the softest sand I’ve ever seen. It was like salt. Or more like flour.
Selong Belanak is also a very popular surf lessons destination, particularly good for total beginners. Raya, being the most adventurous of us and with kite surf background, decided to try it out and spent the rest of the day with Mambo – her private surf teacher. The cost for a private lesson there was around 250 000 IDR (17 EUR), but when we returned on the next day Raya managed to negotiate a second lesson for 150 000 IDR (10 EUR). Btw, there was a 10 000 IDR (0.7 EUR) entrance fee for both beaches.
Here is probably a good time to mention that the only food available for vegetarians on the Lombok beaches is corn – grilled corn. If you’re carnivore, you can buy some chicken or fresh fish from the beach warungs too. Thank god, Bintang was available too.
On our way back we passed through what I believe is the poorest part of the island. We didn’t take any pictures, so you have to take my word for it, but it really was quite shocking – people living literary in the middle of the jungle, in bamboo huts, without electricity and any connection to the civilization whatsoever. Still, they do have weddings. Quite massive ones. And seem happy.
We really enjoyed South Lombok and that day decided to go back to Selong Belanak. We were also curious to see the traditional market, so we asked our dearest Made to take us to Ampenan where she did the daily shopping for our breakfast and dinners. The plan for the day was ready – first stop Ampenan traditional market, second stop – Selong Belanak.
To say that we were surprised when we arrived at the market would be the politically correct way to put it. None of us had been at a market in Asia up until that point, and none of us was ready for what we saw (and smelled). I think the locals weren’t ready for us either, as they often looked at us in astonishment.
There was literally everything – fruit, veggies, seafood, seeds, meat, diary, blood, dirt, spider web, poo, pee, smell and hot. We now realized why even Wayne’s salads were thermally processed.
It does help having a local with you at the market. Made helped us negotiate some good prices for delicious bananas (0.6 EUR per kilo anyone?) and some local fruit and we were ready to head to the beach.
After the smelly morning, we returned to Selong Belanak to a much better weather than the day before, Raya got back to surfing and me and Joro got back to the blissful art of doing nothing.
The evening was extra special for us. Ian (our awesome Australian host, remember?) was visiting Lombok for some paperwork. I had exchanged a lot of emails with him and knew that he would be a terrific company live, so when we found out he was there, we immediately asked Made and Wayne to “invite” him over. And I am so glad he did come to the villa, despite the pouring rain and the long day he had dealing with boring bureaucratic stuff. Our meeting live once again proved what we already felt was Ian like – a mindful man with a big heart and adventurous spirit. Ian, if you are reading this, it was wonderful meeting you and thanks for sharing that bottle of wine with us. We all hope you, Geoff and the whole giga family is doing well!
Day 6 started with a bemo – a converted passenger-carrying minivans, the main means of short and medium distance transport on Lombok. And a little bit of sadness. It was our last day in the villa and saying our goodbyes to Made, Wayne and Hanis was hard. Five days on Lombok were clearly not enough, but we’d already made arrangements for the Gili Islands, so we had to leave.
Wayne escorted us to the beach where Ian, Danny and Bob and our private boat were waiting for us. Sampai jumpa nanti, dear friends!
Тhe Gilis are situated just off the coast of Lombok and a 40 minute slow boat ride. They are made up of three small islands: Gili Air, Gili Meno, and Gili Trawangan. Over the years, these little islands have become a huge destination for backpackers and budget travelers and used to be the perfect island escape. Unfortunately, they are not as tranquil and cheap anymore, but are still a wonderful destination to relax and soak up the sun once you escape the touristy Eastern part! Which is exactly what we did for three days straight.
Unlike on Lombok, there’s no motorized transportation on the Gilis. The only options are bikes and horse carts, called cidomo. However, the island is really tiny (3 km long and 2 km wide), and a round bike tour takes less than 30 minutes with all the pushing in the sand and selfie stops. Trusting one of the locals who said our villa is just 10 minutes walking distance, we decided to walk to there. That soon proved to be a terrible idea, because it was broiling hot, we had to carry our bags and pass through the busiest and most touristy area of Gili T. We finally found our new home, which was also super awesome, close enough to where the action was, but tucked away enough to escape the noise.
Hot and sweaty, we quickly dropped our bags, rented some bikes and went off to explore the island. We ate lunch at Karma Kayak, which is a pretty good spot and we highly recommend it.
If you’re into diving and snorkeling, the Gilis are your place. All three islands have scuba diving training centers and you can literally buy snorkeling gear at every corner. You can also take a private boat snorkel trip to see the abundant tropical fish, turtles, and various wildlife of the waters. We didn’t take a snorkeling boat, mostly because of my special relationship with fish.
I have to admit that we were a tad bit disappointed that there weren’t many swimmable beaches, as 99.9% of the island is surrounded by attractive coral formations, which although beautiful, hurt your feet. But we can’t and shouldn’t complain – the magical sunsets, the tea-warm water, the amazing marine life and the whole remote island experience itself makes it up!
We started the day with a substantial breakfast courtesy of our amazing Airbnb hosts, and a clear goal in mind – find a swimmable beach! Before that though, we met Alina – the owner of our villa. It seems we got very lucky with this trip as it met us with some extraordinary hosts. First Ian, and now Alina. Alina is from Ireland, but grew up in the Netherlands. 20 years ago, the mad hippie backpacker she was, she came to visit Gili T. and never left. She found her love on the island, gave birth to an amazing daughter and they all have been happily living on Lombok ever since. She has restored and modernized three wooden villas on Gili T. and now rents them out. That is rather extraordinary itself having in mind that everything, even drinking water, is transported from Lombok on a daily basis. Which makes it both a time-consuming and expensive endeavour. For example, a cart of sand costs 35 000 IDR (2.4 EUR) on Lombok, but gets to 1.5 mil IDR (103 EUR) to get it on the island. Imagine that!
Alina gave us some good advice and we headed to the beach in front of Horizontal hotel which is a nice little sandy-bottom spot. As it’s pretty much the only one though, it can get quite crowded, so after we took our daily dose of non-coral beach, we set off to another spot for some snorkeling.
If I have to name one thing that really makes Gili T (all the Gilis I guess) special, are the sunsets. We were all blown away by their beauty and I have yet to experience more stunning views than the Gili T. sunset ones. You quietly sip your beer and in a blink of an eye, not just the horizon but everything around you gets purple. These are no-filter pics, it’s really surreal and magical. There are plenty of sunset bars along the sunset part of the island, just pick one and enjoy the views.
After the sunset, we ate dinner at a restaurant not worth of a recommendation, and then found what would become our all-time-favorite spot on the island – Casa Vintage. We only ate deserts that night there, but we would return on the next day to eat amazing dinner and try out some of the super cool vintage clothes and art.
Day 8 was the laziest day of this trip – we pretty much spent the whole day on the beach, swimming, snorkeling and reading a ton. For one moment we considered some island hopping, but were so immersed in the remote island laziness that we decided we’ll do it next time when we come back.
We watched the sunset at Casa Vintage, ate huge and yummy dinner and almost fell asleep around the fire.
The most memorable story from this day is Raya’s flat tire experience. On our way to the villa she got a flat tire and the breaks messed up so bad that she couldn’t even push the bike. And at that moment one totally random local guy rushed to help her immediately. What really struck me was the fact that he didn’t even ask if we wanted his help – he was so willing to help and so sure he can fix it that he just took the bike, did some magic and fixed the breaks. When he was done, he just smiled and left. He didn’t speak English, but even so we could tell how genuine was his desire to help. Gili T. has good people.
Our journey was coming to an end and it was time for us to start the long trip back home. It was even longer than our inbound journey. If you still haven’t noticed, planning your transportation on and around the islands is pretty important. It may vary from private drivers, car and motorcycle rentals, private boats, speed boats and bike rentals. We pretty much used all of those during the different parts of the trip and I dare say 1/3 of our budget was spent on that only.
For our trip back home, we took the public boat (15 000 IDR, 1 EUR) from Gili T. to Lombok, where a driver was waiting for us. We had plenty of time, so we used it to make some final stops along the coastal road before he took us to the Lombok airport for the 20 minute flight to Denpasar. We had another 7 hour layover in Denpasar, so instead of waiting at the airport, we decided to explore the infamous Jimbaran bay, also known as the “Beverly Hills of Bali” or “Millionaire’s Row” – it was just 10 minutes away from the airport. We were told that there are tons of grilled seafood restaurants on the beach, so we thought it would make the perfect dinner spot.
Little did we know about the traffic jams in Bali though. Not only we were stuck for more than an hour in a taxi, but we couldn’t even make it with the taxi to there. We got so frustrated from the waiting at one point, that decided to walk to the place. We were already quite hungry, famished even and when we finally made it, we were shocked by what was expecting us. Loud music, a ton of tourists, crazy waiters calling you to join their restaurant from every corner, and gigantic waves! Coming from the tranquility of Lombok and Gili T., this seemed a bit too much for us to handle. Still, we were pretty hungry and had to settle with whatever the evening had to offer. I don’t really remember what exactly happened that night, so I’ll leave you to my notes that say: Raya puking, Tina fire breathing.
Despite the little shaky final Jimbaran story, Lombok and Gili T. were an amazing experience and we are glad that we chose them over Bali. While every year millions of tourists are attracted to Bali, many places on Lombok are still untouched – with no mass tourism, isolated dream beaches, friendly people and fantastic nature, we are definitely going back! We have a whole mountain to hike and good friends to visit.