Lombok has a population of just over 3.4 million. Almost 90% of the people are Sasak, about 10% are Balinese, and there are small numbers of Chinese, Javanese, Bugis and Arabs.
Originally hill people, the Sasaks are now spread all over Lombok and are generally much poorer than the Balinese minority. Virtually all Sasaks are Muslims, but many retain much less orthodox Wektu Telu beliefs and ancient animist rituals. Adat (indigenous and animist traditions) are still fundamental to their way of life, particularly customs relating to birth, circumcision, courtship and marriage.
Sasaks show a fascination with heroic trials of strength, physical prowess and one-on-one contests. Peresehan, sometimes misleadingly called ‘Sasak boxing’, is a fight between two men using long rattan staves and small rectangular shields made of cowhide.
Most of Lombok’s Chinese population lives in Ampenan or Cakranegara. The Chinese first came to Lombok with the Dutch as a cheap labour force, but after independence most stayed on and started businesses.
Lombok’s Balinese are concentrated in the west. Before the arrival of Islam in the 15th century, Balinese Hindu culture dominated Lombok. Their temples still stand, and today the Balinese remain a powerful minority.
Lombok has an indigenous music style. The Tandak Gerok dance, theatre and singing to music played on bamboo flutes and on two-stringed bowed lutes called rebab. It’s usually performed after harvesting or other hard physical labour, but it is also staged at traditional ceremonies. The Genggong involves seven musicians using a simple collection of instruments, including a bamboo flute and a rebab.
A number of traditional dances are performed during seasonal ceremonies and rites of passage. The popular Cupak Gerantang, which originated in Java, tells the story of Panji, a romantic hero. A version of the Panji story, the Kayak Sando, featuring masked dancers, is found only in central and eastern Lombok. The Gandrung is about love and courtship, usually performed by the young men and women of Narmada, Lenek and Praya. Men and young boys in central and eastern Lombok perform the Oncer war dance.
Out on the Gilis, the residents are primarily Bugis people from Sulawesi who settled on the tiny islands in the 1960s.
Lombok has its own unique dances, but they are not widely marketed. Performances are staged in some top-end hotels and in Lenek village, known for its dance traditions. If you're in Senggigi in July, you might catch dance and gendang beleq (big drum) performances. The gendang beleq, a dramatic war dance also called the Oncer, is performed by men and boys who play a variety of unusual musical instruments for adat (traditional customs) festivals in central and eastern Lombok.
The genggong, a performance seen on Lombok, uses a simple set of instruments, including a bamboo flute, a rebab (two-stringed bowed lute) and knockers. Seven musicians accompany their music with dance movements and stylised hand gestures.
Lombok is renowned for traditional weaving on backstrap looms, the techniques handed down from mother to daughter. Abstract flower and animal motifs such as buffalo, dragons, crocodiles and snakes sometimes decorate this exquisite cloth. Several villages specialise in weaving cloth, while others concentrate on fine baskets and mats woven from rotan (hardy, pliable vine) or grass. You can visit factories around Cakranegara and Mataram that produce weft ikat (patterned textiles) on old hand-and-foot-operated looms.
Sukarara and Pringgasela are centres for traditional ikat and songket weaving (silver- or gold-threaded cloth, handwoven using floating weft technique). Sarongs, Sasak belts and clothing edged with brightly coloured embroidery are sold in small shops.
Local Life & Religion
While Lombok's culture and language is often likened to that of Bali, this does neither island justice. True, Lombok's language, animist rituals and music and dance are reminiscent of the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms that once ruled Indonesia, and of its time under Balinese rule in the 18th century. But the majority of Lombok's Sasak tribes are Muslim – they have very distinct traditions, dress, food and architecture, and have fought hard to keep them. While the Sasak peasants in western Lombok lived in relative harmony under Balinese feudal control, the aristocracy in the east remained hostile and led the rebellion with the Dutch that finally ousted their Balinese lords in the late 1800s. To this day, the Sasaks take great joy in competing in heroic trials of strength, such as the stick-fighting matches held every August near Tetebatu.
Lombok remains poorer and less developed than Bali, and is generally more conservative. Its Sasak culture is not as prominently displayed as Bali's Hinduism, but you'll see evidence of it, not least of which in the proud mosques that stand in every town.
On the Gilis, the local people practice a very moderate form of Islam.
On Lombok, adat (tradition, customs and manners) underpins all aspects of daily life, especially regarding courtship, marriage and circumcision. Friday afternoon is the official time for worship, and government offices and many businesses close. Many, but not all, women wear headscarves, very few wear the veil, and large numbers work in tourism. Middle-class Muslim girls are often able to choose their own partners. Circumcision of Sasak boys normally occurs between the ages of six and 11 and calls for much celebration following a parade through their village.
The significant Balinese population on Lombok means you can often glimpse a Hindu ceremony while there; the minority Wektu Telu, Chinese and Buginese communities add to the diversity.
Believed to have originated in Bayan, north Lombok, Wektu Telu is an indigenous religion unique to Lombok. Now followed by a minority of Sasaks, it was the majority religion in northern Lombok until as recently as 1965, when Indonesia's incoming president Suharto decreed that all Indonesians must follow an official religion. Indigenous beliefs such as Wektu Telu were not recognised. Many followers thus state their official religion as Muslim, while practising Wektu traditions and rituals. Bayan remains a stronghold of Wektu Telu; you can spot believers by their sapu puteq (white headbands) and white flowing robes.
Wektu means 'result' in Sasak and telu means 'three', and it probably signifies the complex mix of Balinese Hinduism, Islam and animism that the religion is. The tenet is that all important aspects of life are underpinned by a trinity. Like orthodox Muslims, they believe in Allah and that Muhammad is Allah's prophet; however, they pray only three times a day and honour just three days of fasting for Ramadan. Followers of Wektu Telu bury their dead with their heads facing Mecca and all public buildings have a prayer corner facing Mecca, but they do not make pilgrimages there. Similar to Balinese Hinduism, they believe the spiritual world is firmly linked to the natural; Gunung Rinjani is the most revered site.
Traditional laws and practices govern Lombok's architecture. Construction must begin on a propitious day, always with an odd-numbered date, and the building's frame must be completed on that day. It would be bad luck to leave any of the important structural work until the following day.
A traditional Sasak village layout is a walled enclosure. There are three types of buildings: the beruga (open-sided pavilion), the bale tani (family house) and the lumbung (rice barn). The beruga and bale tani are both rectangular, with low walls and a steeply pitched thatched roof; of course, the beruga is much larger. A bale tani is made of bamboo on a base of compacted mud. It usually has no windows and the arrangement of rooms is very standardised. There is a serambi (open veranda) at the front and two rooms on two different levels inside – one for cooking and entertaining guests, the other for sleeping and storage. There are some picturesque traditional Sasak villages in Rembitan and Sade, near Kuta.
On Lombok, environmental disaster in the gold rush town of Sekotong is ongoing. Gold mining using mercury in huge open-cast pits is causing enormous damage to once-pristine areas. Development in the south, especially around the beaches in the Kuta region, is accelerating with often enormous and unchecked environmental effects.
Coastal erosion is a problem here, just as it is on Bali. The Gilis are naturally concerned. On the plus side, the reefs around the Gilis are on the road to recovery as tourism has spurred intense preservation efforts.
Hiking & Trekking
You could wander Lombok and the Gilis for a month and still not see all the islands have to offer, but their small size means that you can nibble off a bit at a time, especially as day hikes are easily managed, and guides can help you surmount Gunung Rinjani. In terms of what to pack, you'll need good boots and layers for the volcano trek and solid hiking sandals for walks.
Where to Hike
Gunung Rinjani draws trekkers from around the world. Besides being Indonesia's second-tallest volcano, it holds cultural and spiritual significance for the various people of the region. And then there's its stunning beauty: a 6km-wide cobalt blue lake nestled beneath the rim of the vast caldera.
Expert advice is crucial on the mountain – people die on its slopes every year. You can organise explorations of Gunung Rinjani at Sembalun Valley, Senaru and Tetebatu.
Like the island itself, Lombok has walks and hikes that are often remote, challenging or both.
Air Terjun Sindang Gila
One of many waterfalls on Rinjani's northern slopes
Superb for trekking; climb the 3726m summit then drop into a crater with a sacred lake and hot springs
Garlic-scented hikes on the slopes of Rinjani
Rice field walks that lead to pounding waterfalls
Lombok is an incredible place to get outside and play. In its waters there's world-class diving and some of the world's best surfing. On land, there's the famous volcano trek on Gunung Rinjani.
Surfing kick-started tourism in the region in the 1960s and it's never looked back.
Where to Surf
Lombok has some superb surfing and the dearth of tourists means that breaks are generally uncrowded.
This giant bay 7km east of Kuta boasts four surf breaks, so there's always some wave action no matter what the weather or tide. Bumbang is extremely dependable: best on an incoming tide, this right-hander over a flat reef is good for all levels and can be surfed year-round. Gili Golong excels at mid- to high tide between October and April. Don-Don needs a bigger swell to break but can be great at any time of year. Finally Kid's Point (or Pelawangan) only breaks with big swells, but when it does it's barrels all the way. You need to hitch a boat ride to each wave.
About 18km west of Kuta, the stunning bay of Mawi has a fine barrelling left with a late take-off and a final tube. It's best in the dry season, from May to October, with easterly offshore winds and a southwest swell. There are sharp rocks and coral underwater, and the rip tide is very fierce – take great care.
Located in an extremely remote part of Lombok, Tanjung Desert is a legendary if elusive wave that has been voted the 'best wave in the world' by Tracks magazine. Only suitable for very experienced surfers, it's a fickle beast, in a region known for long, flat spells.
On its day, this left-handed tube can offer a 300m ride, growing in size from take-off to close-out (which is over razor-sharp coral). Tanjung Desert only really performs when there's a serious ground swell – May to September offers the best chance. Wear a helmet and boots at low tide.
This remote bay in southeastern Lombok has two user-friendly breaks. Outside Ekas is a long, hollow wall that breaks left below a cliff face and is ideal for more experienced surfers. Inside Ekas is suitable for surfers of all abilities, breaking long inside the bay. Peak swells are from April to November, but it's pretty consistent and surfable year-round.
The Ekas Peninsula is also a hub for kite and wind surfing.
Much better known as a diving mecca, Trawangan also boasts a surf spot off the island's southern tip. It's a quick right-hander that breaks in two sections, one offering a steeper profile, over rounded coral. It is best surfed December to March or on a windless high season day.
Equipment: Pack or Rent?
A small board is usually adequate for the smaller breaks, but a few extra centimetres over your usual board length won't go astray. For the bigger waves – 2.5m and upwards – you'll need a 'gun'. For a surfer of average height and build, a board around the 2m mark is perfect.
If you try to bring more than two or three boards into the country, you may have problems with customs officials, who might think you're going to try to sell them.
Other recommended equipment you might bring:
- Solid luggage for airline travel
- Board-strap for carrying
- Tough shoes for walking down rocky cliffs
- Your favourite wax if you're picky
- Wetsuit (a spring suit or shorty will be fine) and reef booties
- Wetsuit vest, rash vest or other protective cover from the sun, reefs and rocks
- Surfing helmet for rugged conditions (and riding a motorbike)
Diving & Snorkelling
With its warm water, extensive coral reefs and abundant marine life, Lombok and the Gilis offer excellent diving and snorkelling adventures. Reliable dive schools and operators, most found on the Gilis or in Kuta, can train complete beginners or arrange challenging trips that will satisfy the most experienced divers.
Snorkelling gear is available near all the most accessible spots but it's definitely worthwhile bringing your own and checking out some of the less-visited parts of the coast. The Gilis also have a professional freediving school if you want to take snorkelling to the next level.
Equipment: Pack or Rent
If you are not picky, you'll find all the equipment you need in the Gilis and Lombok (the quality, size and age of the equipment can vary). If you bring your own, you can usually get a discount on your dive. Some small, easy-to-carry things to bring from home include protective gloves, spare straps, silicone lubricant and extra globes/bulbs for your torch/flashlight. Other equipment to consider bringing:
Mask, snorkel and fins Many people bring these as they are not too big to pack and you can be sure they will fit you. Snorkelling gear rents from just 40,000Rp per day, but is often shabby.
Tanks and weight belt Usually included with the cost of a dive.
Thin, full-length wetsuit For protection against stinging animals and possible coral abrasions. Bring your own if you are worried about size.
Regulators and BCVs Most dive shops have decent ones. (BCVs are also known as BCDs or buoyancy control devices.)
Major dive operators in tourist areas can arrange trips to the main dive sites all around the islands. Distances can be long, so it's better to sleep relatively close to your diving destination.
For a local trip, count on US$60 to US$100 per person for two dives, which includes all equipment. Note that it is becoming common to price in euros.
Wherever there is decent local diving on Lombok and the Gilis there are dive shops. Usually you can count on some reefs in fair condition being reachable by boat. Recommended sites with shops include:
- Gili Air
- Gili Meno
- Gili Trawangan
- Kuta (Lombok)
- Southwestern Peninsula
Choosing a Dive Operator
In general, diving in Lombok and the Gilis is safe, with a good standard of staff training and equipment maintenance. The closest recompression chamber to any dive site will be at Rumah Sakit Harapan Keluarga in Mataram. Here are a few things to consider when selecting a well-set-up and safety-conscious dive shop.
- Are its staff fully trained and qualified? Ask to see certificates or certification cards – no reputable shop will be offended by this request. Guides must reach 'full instructor' level to teach. To guide certified divers on a reef dive, guides must hold at least 'rescue diver' or preferably 'dive master' qualifications.
- Is there safety equipment on the boat? At a minimum, a dive boat should carry oxygen and a first-aid kit. A radio or mobile phone is also important.
- Is the boat's equipment OK and its air clean? This is often the hardest thing for a new diver to judge. To test this, smell the air: open a tank valve a small way and breathe in. Smelling dry or slightly rubbery air is OK. If it smells of oil or car exhaust, that tells you the operator doesn't filter the air correctly.
- When the equipment is put together, are there any big air leaks? All dive centres get some small leaks in equipment sometimes; however, if you get a big hiss of air coming out of any piece of equipment, ask to have it replaced.
- Is the organisation conservation-oriented? Good dive shops explain that you should not touch coral or take shells from the reef, and they work with local fishing people to ensure that certain areas are protected. Some even clean beaches.
Bear in mind the following tips when diving and help preserve the ecology and beauty of reefs:
- Never use anchors on reefs, and take care not to run boats aground on coral.
- Avoid touching or standing on living marine organisms or dragging equipment across the reef.
- Be careful with your fins. Even without contact, the surge from fin strokes near the reef can damage delicate organisms. Don't kick up clouds of sand, which can smother organisms.
- Practise and maintain proper buoyancy control. Major damage can occur from reef collisions.
- Do not collect or buy coral or shells, or loot marine archaeological sites (mainly shipwrecks).
- Ensure that you take home all your rubbish and any other litter you may find as well. Plastics are a serious threat to marine life.
- Do not feed the fish.
- Minimise your involvement with marine animals. Never ride on the backs of turtles.
Learn to Dive
If you're not a qualified diver and you want to try scuba diving in Lombok or the Gilis, you have several options, with packages that include lessons and cheap accommodation in a pretty place.
Perfect for novices to see if diving is for you
Open Water Diver certification
The international PADI standard, recognised everywhere
Best Diving & Snorkelling Sites
The following are Lombok and the Gilis' most spectacular diving and snorkelling locations, drawing people from near and far.
All types of diving and snorkelling in beautiful waters
Who should go?
Divers and snorkellers of all skills and ages, although some sites may require advanced skills
Healthy reefs teeming with marine life
Who should go?
Divers and snorkellers with good swimming skills
Lombok is good for touring by bicycle. In the populated areas, the roads are flat and well paved, and the traffic across the island is less chaotic than on Bali.
East of Mataram are several attractions that would make a good day trip: south to Banyumulek via Gunung Pengsong and then back to Mataram, for example. Some coastal roads have hills and curves like a roller coaster. Try going north from Senggigi to Pemenang along the spectacular paved road, and then (if you feel energetic) return via the steep climb over the Pusuk Pass. The Gilis are good for riding only as a means to get around.