I sit here staring out towards the sea, and half of today's topic. The other half being just out of sight towards my left. The Indonesian islands of Lombok & Bali.
Having recently visited both it's a commonplace discussion between travellers (particularly on Lombok) as to the comparative pros and cons of each destination.
So how do they compare?
And which is better?
Internationally renowned, Bali is a traveller's paradise, packed with a heady mix of sand, surf & spiritualism. Yoga retreats, surfing, scuba diving, temples, verdant paddy fields and entertaining (if a little Mafioso) gangs of primates. Lombok on the other hand, until recently a sleepy backwater. More typically Indonesian in its conservative faith, and altogether relatively obscure and unexplored.
In truth this is a comparison that would have been rarely made just a few years ago. However, as tourism begins to boom in the latter its become highly prevalent due to their proximity and obvious similarities in a fair number of factors. Size wise they are fairly similar with Bali being marginally smaller than Devon and Lombok slightly larger than Somerset. Both with a population density a little lower than Suffolk. Location wise the comparison is most obvious. Sitting side by side, along the Indonesian archipelago, sandwiched between the Indian Ocean and warm Bali Sea. This gifts both with an abundance of marine life, kaleidoscopic coral and world-class surf breaks. Their locations also both sit on the fault line between the Australasian and Sunda tectonic plates, resulting in hilly interiors crowned with active volcanos (Angung in Bali and Rinjani in Lombok) and fantastic, if a little challenging, hikes (when not closed during active explosions!)
Development is the obvious factor that divides these destinations. Having experienced a major tourist boom going back as far as the 70s, Bali received just over 6.5m visitors in 2018. Over 65% of Indonesia's total visitor count. Tourism is a far newer phenomenon in Lombok. Even Air Asia only opened a direct flight between KL and Lombok as recently as 2012. As a result the tourism numbers are paltry in comparison, and even worse after a devastating earthquake in August 2018 which killed 563 and levelled many businesses and bridges in the North of the country. As a result, development on Bali is obviously leagues ahead of it's little eastern sister. At best this exhibits itself as an abundance of quality accommodation options, a varied and fun nightlife, and a bloody good Melbourne-style coffee in the morning. At its worst it's a worryingly late arrival to the airport due to over congested roads, over-priced Bintang beer and a plague of vacuous holiday makers taking high-heels to beach bars and queuing 2 hours for a snap at the latest, grotesquely unoriginal, Instagram hot-spot.
In comparison Lombok is much more relaxed. The crowd seems to be almost entirely surfers and backpackers. In much of the island the nightlife is almost unanimously of the reggae bopping, shoeless, beach-bar variety. This being 2019, there are still horribly unoriginal Insta must-haves but the queues are non-existent. The Wi-Fi is a bit shit though...
So, what separates them?
Despite the premise of this article (and unlike many blogs of this nature) I think it's silly to compare two places in the hope of delivering ultimate judgement.
That said, anyone who knows me (or has a remote ability to register tone of an article) can almost certainly guess my preference.
Despite this, I can guarantee that many reading this would probably disagree. I don't think you need half a brain to not be into yoga (though you probably need a lobotomy to enjoy a 2-hour queue for an Insta picture...)
Ultimately comparing 2 places like Lombok and Bali, as a foreigner, is always going to be falling into the same trap of viewing this from a tourist's perspective. Which has better surf? Which has better dive sites? Where are the best Insta spots...? The truth is in these matters both are excellent.
However in actuality these places, though neighbours, have fundamentally different cultures. Both equally deserving of exploration.
The most obvious difference is that of religion: Lombok follows a relatively liberal version of Islam (in-keeping with the rest of Indonesia) and Bali a local variant of Hinduism which is heavy on animism and ancestor worship. Lombok is dotted with green and gold mosques and Bali, intricately carved stone and wood temples.
This obviously has a few effects on the cuisine of both islands (we got there eventually...)
We can see these differences and similarities in a few of the dishes here.
1. Babi Guling - Bali
Arguably the "national" dish of Bali.
This is a real stunner (though distinctly Muslim unfriendly)
Just take in these words - Spit-roast, suckling-pig, glazed in coconut milk.
Tender shredded pork, perfect crackling and an assortment of additional porky-gems including spiced black pudding and grilled kebabs.
Sided with fluffy white rice and a fresh bean and beansprout salad.
It's a winner.
2. Ayam Taliwang - Lombok
Arguably the "national" dish of Lombok.
No pork. Just thrice cooked grilled Chicken smothered in a spicy chilli sambal.
Impossibly small chickens (organic by chance rather than design) are boiled with spices and aromatics, before being deep-fried to crispy perfection, dunked in chilli sauce and gilled for a delicious charred finish.
Served with smothered with chilli sauce, even more on the side and white rice to douse the inevitable fire.
Not for the faint-hearted but bloody tasty.
3. Bebek Goreng - Bali Another classic Balinese dish.
Popularised as the massively successful Bebek Bengil restaurant, which literally translates as Dirty Duck.
Marinated duck is steamed and then deep fried, resulting in the most ridiculously crispy duck you've ever eaten. Seriously, you could cut your gums on this stuff.
However underneath the crunchy exterior lies succulent, and seriously tasty, duck meat.
Sided with the classic bean salad, white rice and spicy sambal this is a serious plate of big flavours and even bigger textures.
4. Bebek Mercon & Nasi Puyong Another duck dish, this time from Lombok, because ducks are basically fish and all religions hate them (fact).
The main is a dry duck curry with tonnes of aromatics and chilli. As with many dishes here, cooking in stages by frying and then stewing.
Served with Nasi Puyong, a classic Indonesian (and Malay) delivery of white rice, paired with crispy onions (kreuk), fried soy beans (kedele), a spice stained hard-boiled egg (telur ragi genep) and an all-encompassing curry of veg and chicken called Lauk Balap (literally "racing food" i.e. fast-food).
As with many of these Indonesian and Malay nasi/rice dishes, though rice is 50% of the name, the value is added by the huge variety of flavours and textures which make every bite interesting (see. Nasi Campur, Nasi Kerabu, Nasi Kandar, Nasi Lemak).
So, which is better?
A bit similar.
A bit different.