For several days now, I've been stuck in Mataram, the capital city of the Indonesian province of West Nusa Tenggara. Located on the island of Lombok, Mataram has a population of over 400,000. It is a local center for industry and education, and sees very few tourists compared to other areas of Lombok. I'm here awaiting my visa extension, which has taken about four days to process.
At first, the prospect of waiting around a city for nearly a week was depressing. There are relatively few things to see around Mataram, and I felt my time could be better spent checking out some beautiful beaches or stunning volcanic scenery. I must reveal, however, that these past several days have been just what I needed. Let's take a look at why this is, and what my experience in Indonesia has been like thus far. To do this, we will rewind back three weeks, to October 18, 2019.
I flew into the island of Bali, not knowing what to expect. Conventional wisdom said it would be crowded with tourists, clamoring for spots on many of the beaches. My plan was to spend just a week or two in Bali, then make my way east to some of the other islands. Between my stays in Kuta, Ubud, and Padangbai, most of my fears were confirmed.
Droves of sightseers had taken over Bali, mostly short-term holidaymakers from Asia, Australia, and Europe. Amidst the local culture and regional poverty had sprung up numerous five-star resorts, Western restaurants, and tourist offices at every corner. I've never been to Cancun, but I'd imagine Kuta attracts a very similar crowd as that Mexican city. Ubud, another highly popular Bali destination (much of that due to its inclusion in the book/movie Eat, Pray, Love) has way more tourists than local people. For a city famous for its culture, Ubud sure has a hell of a lot of shops and restaurants catering to other cultures from around the world.
A common argument I have heard is "Well, the mass tourism is a good thing, because it helps the economy." There is a well-reasoned response to that:
Although tourism makes up 80% of Bali's economy, something like 85% of that money is in the hands of non-Balinese investors. In fact, believe it or not, there is now even a Trump hotel in Bali. Vice News did a great article explaining how many local people have been hurt by rising costs due to tourism, and the massive amounts of water being consumed by resorts and hotels (leading to shortages). Yes, I'm sure many residents have profited and are doing great due to the tourism sector; however, it is not all peaches and cream.
So yeah, Bali was a bit disappointing, but that's not to say there was nothing to love. Much of the local culture and cuisine is still there, though one needs to wander away from the tourist strip in order to experience it. One thing that really struck me in a positive way was the architecture (Balinese buildings are gorgeous and have a very distinct look to them). I've also heard that certain areas in the north of the island are still relatively free of tourists; perhaps I shall have to return and check some of those places out.
After recovering from a nasty bout of Bali Belly, it was time to leave the island and head to Lombok. No sooner had I reached my destination then I took a ferry to check out some of the nearby Gili Islands, an archipelago located off the northwest coast of Lombok. It consists of Gili Trawangan (by far the most touristed and "party vibe" of the three), Gili Air, and Gili Meno. Of the Gili Islands, I visited Trawangan (commonly referred to as just "Gili T") and Meno.
The Gilis were wonderful for snorkeling, and with no motorized vehicles to be found on the islands, were quite relaxing. Trawangan had far too much partying (not my cup of tea), but Meno was tranquil and quiet. Gili Meno is thus far one of the highlights of my Indonesia trip: not too many tourists, beautiful beaches and water, and a laid back local vibe. On my first day there, I sustained the worst sunburn of my life, which I have been nursing most of my time here in Mataram.
Which brings us back to Lombok's capital city. This is truly the first time in Indonesia where I'm without fellow tourists. I've spent the last few days trying regional cuisine, watching movies, working out at the nearby gym, and soaking in the atmosphere of the city. I have even made an Indonesian friend! While Mataram isn't an especially beautiful or interesting city, it feels for once that I am truly in Indonesia. Sure, meeting other tourists is an integral part of traveling to any country. However, sometimes it is nice to take a break and get to know an area the way local people do.
I feel refreshed and ready to continue my journey through Indonesia. Bring it on!
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write movies and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.