I am so happy today that I am able to escort a group from India,” said a visibly happy Latheef, the naturalist and guide at the Komodo Island for the last 6 years. An avid Shahrukh Khan fan, Latheef instantly established bonds with our group. His comment that not too many Indian travellers visit this unique island which is one of the UNESCO World Heritage site and New 7 Wonders of the World, stumped me. But it was not an isolated comment. Charles Choi, GM, Novotel Lombok Resort, an idyllic beach resort and the only branded hotel in Kuta (North) Lambok, also shared similar sentiments.
For Indian tourists, Indonesia more or less starts and ends with Bali. No doubt Bali is unique and the tourism infrastructure is high class. The Balinese culture is quite close to India and Indians can easily relate to varied aspects of life and culture in Bali.
“Bali doesn’t belong to Indonesians, it is highly touristy,” quipped Henry, our tour manager. However, despite over-arching tourist influence in the island, the Balinese society has preserved their rich culture and practices it with élan. From the moment one lands at the Denpasar International Airport, at every step one can feel, touch and savour their customs, traditions, and heritage.
Bali is truly a gallery of art, architecture and heritage. Adding to its charm are the scenic beauty, stunning beaches, rich flora and fauna, etc. After a lightning tour of the island in bits and pieces, I personally felt the place has so much variety to go around at leisure and understand for even a week. In spite of the unsparing conquest of modern architecture elsewhere, the island has been able to conserve its architectural heritage to its glory even today. Traditional Balinese architecture adheres to strict and sacred tenets of vastu, allowing many open space and consisting of a spacious courtyard with many small pavilions, ringed by wall to keep out evil spirits and decorated with guardian statues. Staunch believers in evil spirits, Balinese decorate every column, statue with black and white or golden and white hues which arouses curiosity in everyone’s mind.
Balinese temples are real repositories of life and culture of the people. There are 4 layers of temples in Balinese society, starting from a family temple to large public temples. Of the estimated 20,000 temples - ‘Pura’ as they are called - many beckon tourists in hordes for their stunning architectural value. Although the most popular temples in the island were out of bounds for us as per the itinerary, we had the opportunity to visit couple of them.
Pura Luhur Uluwatu was constructed by a Javanese Hindu guru in the 10th century on a cliff soaring 200 feet above a prime Bali surfing spot in the westernmost part of South Bali. Walking through the pathways along the cliff to the ‘head rock’ (uluwatu) where the temple is located is quite tough but thrilling experience. The rituals in Balinese temples involve a lot of animal sacrifices and we found devotees carrying animals wrapped in bags for disposal from the temple. Evenings are pretty busy on the long cliff, as people take positions to watch the setting sun on the western horizon. The open air theatre on one end of the cliff also gets busy in the with Balinese dance and music performances. Another typical Balinese temple is Goa Gajah or Elephant Cave’ temple in Central Bali near Ubud. Goa Gajah’s key attraction is the menacing entrance to the cave - the surrounding rock has been carved into a face, mouth agape. The interior of the cave features a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha and a worship area devoted to the Hindu god Shiva. The cave temple is believed to have built in 11th century by Hindu monk for meditation.
Bali is famous for its unique art and craft villages. Batubulan is one such village which encapsulates the rich and varied art, architecture and craft of Bali. Both sides of the road leading to the village dot with unique galleries and workshops selling stone carvings, sculptures, etc. The whole village looks like a museum of art and sculpture. It is in this village the traditional Barong dance-drama is performed in specially set theatres. There are other unique villages as well where local life, culture, art and craft can be experienced from close quarters. Jalang Raya Tegalallang close to Ubud and both sides of the long street is full of art and craft galleries and curio shops from where unique art works are exported all over the world.
Bali and Indonesia make those rare destinations where Indian travellers can shop to their brim and beyond. An otherwise reluctant shopper in foreign shores, I myself got hooked to shopping because of favourable exchange rate. Lombok
We reached Lombok a week after Mount Rinjani, erupted choking the air space resulting in cancellation of flights and shut down of the airport. The air was still hazy, but business was normal at the Lombok airport.
Situated towards the east of Bali, Lombok can be accessed easily by both air and by boat from Bali. While it takes 40 minutes by flight, there are ferry boats and speed boat services operating from Padang and Amed harbours to the Gilis (Small islands) in Lombok. These Gilis are popular for their blue corals, which otherwise can be seen and experienced in Caribbean islands only.
We were picked up from airport by our tour guide Eddy, who didn’t spare any efforts to acclimatise us with the history, culture and heritage of the island. Lombok, although of equal size of Bali, is quite different in many ways. Lombok is predominantly a Muslim province and the original inhabitants of the island, Sasaks, follow Islam. While Bali is an island of 1,000 temples, Lombok has equal or more number of mosques.
Lombok has got to preeminence recently on the tourism map when the destination won 2coveted awards at World Halal Travel Awards in UAE. Lombok has won top awards as the Best Halal Tourism destination as well as Best Halal Honeymoon Destination.
Unlike Bali, Lombok island is less crowded, and tourists are confined to few beach areas in Kuta and Senggigi . Our quick wind tour of the island started with a sumptuous lunch at one of the best beach resorts, Sampiak Villa Resorts at Selong Belanak Bay on the southern part of the island. The white sandy beaches and the clean blue water gave us a preview of the things in store for us in the island. The beach was buzzing with swimmers and water sport enthusiasts even at the peak afternoon sun. The property spread in 2 acres with villas spread on the hills and in the plains is a popular getaway for honeymooners.
Our overnight was at one of the high-end, and the only branded hotel at Kuta Lombok, the Novotel. Situated at one end of the Seger beach, Novotel with its 102 rooms and villas is a blend of local Sasak architecture and décor with modern functionalities. The hotel has lot to offer in terms of activities for families, groups, etc. including a private beach with shacks doting along to relax. The evenings at the resort become lively with the hotel associates performing various cultural programmes where guests are also invited to take part. For adventure and nature lovers a trek to the top of the two hillocks on far end of the hotel on the edge of the beach could give a glimpse of the sun rise and sun set as well a bird’s eye view of the Kuta beach.
It is on the foot of these hills, the famous Putri Mandalika festival is celebrated in February, where people throng the beach to catch the rare and colourful worms , which as per local mythology is the reincarnation of Princess Mandalika.
Senggigi is a popular tourist area of Lambok which is known for long sandy beaches and water activities. The area is also popular for restaurants and shopping, largely local art and craft items and traditional clothes.
With Indonesia’s second largest volcanic mountain in its lap, Lombok has everything that an avid explorer looks for – culture, nature, beaches, and mountains.
Major highlight of the about a week-long tour of the 3Indonesian islands of Bali, Lombok and Labuan Bajo was our close encounter with giant lizard called Komodo which is only to be seen in this universe in a small area in Indonesian islands of Komodo and Rinca. Sparing the tiring 8 hrs of rickety boat journey, which also ended up as an experience in itself, the sighting of this endangered animal was close and therefore satisfying. We were fed with all sorts of stories about the animal’s sublime powers to smell, track and kill the prey even before landing in the island, which scared at least a few members of the group.
Komodo island and 25 sqkm area around it was declared a protected national park by the government in 1980, and it is a World Heritage site as well since 1991. Commonly known as ‘Komodo Dragons’, due to its appearance and aggressive behavior, the Komodo Lizard, is the largest living species of lizard, growing to an average length of 2 to 3 meters.
Although we were lucky to sight few giant Komodos without much tracking, most of them were dormant under shades because of strong sun. Best time of the day to see a dragon in action is early morning, Latheef, the ranger briefed. Dragons are highly venomous lizards which can smell blood to a distance of 7 km. There is an estimated population of around 5,500 Komodo dragons in the protected area of Komodo, Rinca and Padar island.
The long boat journey to Komodo can be made up with some water activities at scenic islands on the way. The pink beach close to Komodo Island is rich in corals and is a fascinating diving and snorkeling destination. Kanawa is another small island which has nice beach and budget accommodation facilities.
Although infrastructure is yet to catch up with some other popular island destinations in the South East Asia, the virgin and unspoilt nature of these islands is what makes them stand apart to their counterparts.