I had planned to land in Bali and make a straight dash for the small island of Gili Trawangan — after all, I was cutting it pretty close already in terms of time to do my Divemaster course. But then I got a message from my dear friend Neil, who I first met when he taught my Open Water diving course back in Thailand in 2009! His last few days in Indonesia would overlap with my first few, and so he told me to get my butt over to Nusa Lembongan — yet another small island surrounding Bali — where he had been hanging out for weeks. Turn down the chance to go diving with the guy who first taught me to breathe underwater? No way!
So I made a slight detour and caught a boat to Lembongan.
Nusa Lembongan turned out to be a beautiful introduction to Indonesia. This quiet island relies mostly on the economy of seaweed farming, though their tourism industry is growing thanks to the abundant manta rays and occasional mola molas sighted offshore. Here I found what I regard to be the most true luxuries in Southeast Asia — simple thatch roof bungalows directly on the beach, hospitable locals eager eager to help a lost traveler and expecting nothing in return, and a way of life relatively uninterrupted by the influx of foreigners.
My first afternoon on the island I got a bit lost in the maze of sandy paths and came upon a bare breasted woman lifting a woven basket filled with dried seaweed onto her head. She paused to adjust her batik sarong and I paused to reflect on the moment — the scene in front of me could have taken place a hundred years ago.
Our no-name bungalow cost 250,000 rupiah a night — around $25. The balcony angled out towards the ocean, and I slept with the upstairs doors flung open so that I could watch the sun rise over the horizon while I drifted in and out of sleep. While most travelers planning a Southeast Asia vacation fantasize about moments like this, they are actually quite rare. Most of the islands that I have been to in Thailand, for example, have busy beachfronts with music pounding late into the night and heavy foot traffic in the morning. In all the time I lived on Koh Tao, we never even considered staying near the water — the hills and villages were much more peaceful.
I had just three nights on Nusa Lembongan, and much of that was dedicated to diving. However, we did take a day to explore what was above land as well. Renting a beat up old motorcycle from the restaurant next to our bungalows, we set off the mangrove forest that makes up a large portion of Lembongan’s land mass.
Several hand painted signs advertised boat rides through the mangrove canals, and we both shrugged and thought, “why not?,” and soon we were soon on our way.
It was insanely, stiflingly hot and our guide was pretty clearly the silent type, but Neil’s running commentary had me in stitches the whole way. I wouldn’t say it’s a must do, but it was a fairly relaxing way to spend an hour — just keep your eyes peeled for lizards and other river reptiles.
Back on the road, we passed a dizzying number of intricate temples, shrines, and gates. This was my first peek at the unique Balinese blend of Hinduism and Animism, and I was hypnotized. I shrieked constantly at Neil to stop the bike so I could take yet another photo of an elaborate stone entrance-way or a small but colorful offering left on the street corner.
At one point Neil veered sharply off road and across a rocky plateau towards the ocean, and I wondered briefly if he had had a stroke. No, he assured me, he was just taking me to a secret spot he had found on his previous wanderings. And as I watched a rough wave crash into the cliffs and spray up to the height of a tall palm tree, I conceded that the detour was well worth it.
Our final stops for the day were to some of the island’s beautiful beaches, where we alternated between shrieking at the cold water (okay that was mainly me) and throwing back Bintangs while we watched others fight with the surf (okay that was mainly Neil).
Nusa Lembongan is a special place. When I left for Gili Trawangan, I was thrilled that I had taken the time to see an old friend, do some impressive diving and see an island that was so very different from the one I was heading to. Funny enough, my upcoming six week trip back to Indonesia will mirror this one almost exactly — I will start in Nusa Lembongan, spend the majority of my time in Gili, and wrap things up with a short spell on Bali. I can’t wait to be back in these waters.