Though I spent almost 6 weeks there, I can’t say that I loved Indonesia. (Keeping in mind that I only visited four of the reported 18,307 island that make up the archipelago.)
Things started off poorly, and I was stuck in the airport for several hours upon landing. Not the fault of anyone, but still it colored the experience. It only got worse with two nights in Kuta/Legain–“a more wretched hive of scum and villainy” you will not find. I even love backpacker ghettos–have defended Khao San and Thamel and Pham Ngu Lao and Pahar Ganj to many backpackers. But we’re talking 12 year girls offering their bodies, men selling not just hash and viagra but coke and crystal, whores on motorbikes grabbing at your body and begging you to come back to their rooms and, well, you get the idea.
So before long I was in Ubud, the cultural centre of Bali famous as an arts and crafts hub. I had high hopes here, and I did end up spending 3 weeks here. But it was over-expensive, full of dishonest people, touts and ripoff artists and just far less pleasant than similar cities like Luang Prabang or Chiang Mai.
On the other hand, there were a lot of great veggie restaurants, the rice fields made for pleasant ambles, and the scattered temples beyond beautiful.
After Ubud I visited Amed, which was by far my favorite place in Indonesia. It’s on the verge of becoming overdeveloped (hotels are being built everywhere) but it remains quiet and full of charm. There are great black sand beaches and really fantastic snorkelling, beautiful coastline just made to drive a moto around, and above it all looms Mt. Agung, a striking volcano. Amed is a great little town and if I go back to Indonesia I’ll spend more time here for sure.
The next stop was for a visa extension in Mataram, the capital of Lombok and city of half-a-million people but you’d never guess it was half that. It feels like a small town, with very few foreign tourists, and highlighted by a mall full of knock-off electronics and people smoking everywhere. It felt safe, to me, but I was warned both by the dude selling sweet potatoes and a clerk at 7-11 to “be careful” at night, so perhaps there is a dark side. There isn’t much to do here (apart from renewing your visa) but nearby is the jewel of Lombok tourism.
Senggigi is considered the tourist hub of all Lombok, and it’s a good base to climb Mount Rinjani. (Which I did not climb, as it was quite expensive, and none of the people I talked to thought it was worth it.) It was off-season when I was there, but it was really quiet and quite small and uneventful. It’s also the gateway to the infamous Gili islands.
Of the tree islands, I chose Gili T kind of for no reason. It is pretty, and there are loads of conveniences like Irish bars and you can walk around the entire island in an hour. It well deserves its fame. But it’s far smaller and less pretty than, say, Ko Phagnan or Langkawi. And … again, it’s quite expensive and fairly low-level hedonistic.
The food was mostly fantastic, with lots of vegan options almost everywhere. If it is possible to die from eating too much tempeh I would not be here to write this now. Big meals were possible for a few dollars, and things like peanut sauce and spinach and green beans were available everywhere.
In short, although there is a lot to like about Bali and Lombok and the Gillis, they are undeservedly more expensive and more touristic than similar areas in SE Asia. I don’t think I’ll be back anytime soon, but for those traveling as couples or friends (on a more generous budget than mine) a great time is still possible.