Bali and Lombok might as well be separate countries for how dissimilar they are. The island of Bali is touristy, international, modern, and predominately Hindu. The island of Lombok is old, traditional, and predominately Muslim.
Lombok being a more traditional and rural island doesnt attract nearly as many western tourists as Bali. Even though I knew Lombok wouldn’t be as comfortable a place to be in for travelers as Bali, I knew I wanted to visit it. After living in rural Japan and seeing how different it is from the large cities, I have become really passionate about not only seeing tourist places but also local people.
There are 2 places in Lombok that tourists stay when visiting, Senggigi and Kuta. Senggigi is more centrally located and is popular with older tourists looking for a cheaper resort and international families from other traditional muslim countries. Kuta is a surfing town popular with backpackers and Australian surfers. It has the more scenic beaches on the island, but the town is a less developed for tourism than Senggigi.
Our group knew we wanted to do waterfall hikes in Northern Lombok so we decided to stay in the more central Senggigi at a cheaper backpacker’s place rather than the southern town of Kuta.
The whole point of going to Lombok was to experience a different side of Indonesia from Bali. I knew what I was getting into. I, being an idiot, forgot to change my wardrobe when we left Bali, even though, I knew Lombok was traditional.
On the first few days in Senggigi, I would walk around town in a tank top and shorts.I was disgusted and indignant when people stared and cat called my friend and I from the street. Even though I was used to people staring at me from the years that I have lived in rural Japan, I just couldn’t understand why catcalling in Senggigi was so much more aggressive and uncomfortable than anything I had experienced in Asia before.
Then I went to the local beach behind our hotel for the first time.
The first thing I noticed was that every woman on the beach was wearing pants to their calves or a long skirt. That every sleeve was at least a 3 quarter sleeve and the only girls swimming were under the age of 10. I suddenly felt very uncomfortable in my conservative, by my standards, 2 piece swimsuit and dress coverup. I also noticed the garbage. This had to be one of the dirtiest beaches I had ever seen in Southeast Asia.
Alyssa and I both felt taking off our dresses and walking around in our swimsuits in front of the locals would be a really rude thing to do. We also didn’t particularly want to swim in the water surrounded by garbage being washed ashore. We walked up and down the beach looking for a spot that didn’t have many people where we could layout, catch some sun, and read our kindles.
In the end, we couldn’t find a spot that day where we felt comfortable taking off our coverups. Instead we sat at a beachside cafe drank some smoothies and read our books in our dresses.
After we finished our smoothies and got our fill of the beach, we walked back to our hotel. I told her it might be time to pull out our one piece bathing suits. That’s when she realized she had forgotten to bring one. How were we going to feel comfortable on the beaches here?
That night for dinner I wore my long black skirt and made sure to cover my shoulders. Low and behold, the catcalling ceased. I noticed every single one of the local women was dressed the same way I was. People respected us when we respected their culture and dressed accordingly. For the rest of our time in Senggigi we went to the beaches fully clothed and watched the children play in the water with the locals. Any time we wanted to go to the beach for swimming, we snuck onto resorts and used their private beaches filled with tourists. It was surprisingly easy to do, but I always felt bad when we did it.
When we were staying in Senggigi we took a couple day trips to different locations around Lombok. One of them was to see the beaches of the south near Kuta. We found the situation in Kuta to be very different than Senggigi.
In Kuta, the beaches were cleaner and more touristy friendly.
There were women everywhere in bikinis and we didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. It just seemed like the public beaches were more international because of the lack of resorts. You can definitely see that the industry in Kuta is still developing and has its own problems for tourists, but sunbathing on the beach wasn’t one of them.
I’m glad we stayed in Senggigi and had the opportunity to interact with the local people on their local beach. It seemed like the local people avoided the beaches in Kuta because they had been claimed with tourists so we if we had stayed in Kuta it probably would have felt more like Bali. We got to see more of what life was truly like there. When we wanted to watch the sunset or walk along the beach, we did it beside the local people of Senggigi. We heard their local mosque make the call to prayer 5 times a day. We saw them at play, at work, and even celebrating a wedding!
I’m thankful we had the opportunity to witness all of this but we probably would have felt more comfortable on the beaches in Kuta. I guess there are good and bad things to each situation. The grass is always greener, or in this case, the beach is always cleaner.
Whether you should stay in Kuta Lombok or Senggigi really depends on what you are wanting to get out of your trip to Lombok. How important is it for you to feel comfortable? How much of foreign cultural experience do you want to be challenged with? Each place and vacation styles has it’s good points and bad points.
Its funny how I wanted to visit Lombok because I wanted to experience the localness of a more rural and isolated location but when I encountered it I wasn’t ready for it. Senggigi isn’t the most hardcore place to stay in Indonesia by far. It’s still a tourist city, however it definitely is NOT Bali or even Thailand. I don’t think I was quite prepared for the stark difference of culture from Bali to Lombok.
Tom, a member of our group, absolutely loved Lombok. It was his favorite part of the trip. He even said that when he finished living in Japan he would love to come back and live in Lombok as an English teacher one day.
There was an awful lot to love. The local people obviously had a strong sense of community, the island is green and full of nature and life, and there is an energy to the place.
I think I got to see a wider and more complete picture of Indonesia because we spent 4-5 days in Lombok. The experience is going to make me more conscious of traveling responsibly and with more respect to the local culture.
Once I changed my wardrobe and expectations, I had a lovely time experiencing a very different way of life than anything I had ever seen before. I realized the local people respected me when I respected their culture. It wasn’t right of me to walk into their city and not think about how to properly respect their way of life as a visitor.
It wasn’t right of me to walk onto the beach and expect pristine manicured beaches fit for tourism. I never want to walk around entitled and ignorant of the culture and the people around me again. I’m quite embarrassed to have made such a large mistake but mistakes happen to everyone, even the most seasoned travelers.
I’ll be sure to not make this one again though.
3/09/2015 EDIT: I read the Japan Times daily. In their paper last week they had an article addressing the same issues I wrote about being a western tourist in Lombok. Read it here!