Nusa Lembongan: Small Island, Big Allure

69 comments
Asia, Indonesia
Massive Waves at Nusa Lembongan

Massive Waves at Nusa Lembongan

Massive waves break onto a narrow niche on a limestone cliff, producing a dramatic swash with a merciless, thundering sound. A thin wisp of ocean spray dampens everything on the shore. Devil’s tears, aptly named for its daunting showcase of Mother Nature’s raw power on the eastern shore of Nusa Lembongan, is violently beautiful.

Not far from it, Dream Beach is a place to unwind while witnessing the relentless force of the Indian Ocean. I soak my body in a swimming pool overlooking the beach, a picturesque narrow strip of white sand with big tides. A man in his 20s wearing flashy red swimming trunks jumps excitedly onto the coming waves, acting as though he’s a superhero. A big grin is splashed across his face, spreading also on mine.

Nusa Lembongan is a completely different world from her bigger sister, Bali. Separated by a narrow strait less than 10 km wide, she is often preferred by visitors seeking refuge from the crowds of Bali’s more popular beaches. According to a survey conducted by Tripadvisor in early 2013, the island is listed second on a list of Asia’s best islands, trailing only Koh Tao in Thailand.

Alexander and I are visiting Nusa Lembongan after completing a project in East Java, and we are the only Indonesian visitors on the island. Curiously, on the ferry from Sanur in Bali, we meet a couple who had flown all the way from Catania, Italy to visit this part of the world, so far removed from their home.

The Dramatic Swash at Devil's Tears

The Dramatic Swash at Devil’s Tears

The Beachside Pool, Dream Beach

A Beachside Pool, Dream Beach

Mount Agung as seen from Jungut Batu

Mount Agung as seen from Jungut Batu

The Leafy Road of Nusa Lembongan

The Leafy Road of Nusa Lembongan

Hermit Crab

A Little Friend

Adorable Puppies on the Road

Adorable Puppies on the Road

There was a time when Balinese people considered Nusa Lembongan and the nearby islands of Nusa Penida and Nusa Ceningan as the source of black magic plaguing their island. The Balinese really had no reason to go there; instead they used the islands as the destination where undesirables were sent, including those who belonged to the lower castes.

Today the remnants of this horrible practice of discrimination are still evident in the local people – many bear family names from the lower caste in the Balinese Hindu society system.

Nusa Lembongan is a different place now. The people are anything but interested in black magic, and what they care about the most is how to make ends meet. The rhythm of daily activities moves so slowly: there’s no need to rush, no need to worry. Apart from being fishermen, the locals are well-grounded seaweed farmers working at green patches of seaweed fields in the shallow waters of Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan.

Life is so simple, even a gas station cannot be found on the island. Only rows of bottled gasoline are on sale by the street side. As we ride our motorcycle through the back roads, we spot some local women and children selling seashells as souvenirs, almost in every village.

“When I went here two years ago, things were very different. There were no such vendors,” Alexander recalls. Life must have become more challenging for them within the last two years.

The Shallow Water between Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan

The Shallow Water between Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan

A Tough Woman Navigating Her Way through Other Boats

A Tough Woman Navigating Her Way through Other Boats

Carrying Baskets of Seaweed

Hard Work

Emancipation at Work

Emancipation at Work

Drying Seaweed under the Sun

Drying Seaweed under the Sun

Bottles of Gasoline

Bottled Gasoline

Empty Boats at an Inlet

Empty Boats at an Inlet

As is in Bali, the people of Nusa Lembongan are devout Hindus, and Hindu temples are abundant. From Pura Dalem – an elegant, whitewashed temple between the villages of Lembongan and Jungut Batu – to a temple near the mangrove forest on the northern part of the island, resembling the ones in Bali, all are beautifully and intricately decorated. However one particular temple perched on top of a hill overlooking Lembongan is shrouded by a rather spooky ambiance. Tall grasses, abandoned houses and mean-looking relief carvings – even more intriguing than the ones found in other Hindu temples – only add to the inhospitable atmosphere surrounding the temple.

After climbing up the steep staircases, Alexander and I take some pictures of the temple, only for a few minutes when suddenly he comes to me. “Let’s leave this place,” he tells me, looking very concerned and uncomfortable.

We ask some locals about the strange nature of the temple, but none of them is able to provide a satisfying answer.

As we navigate our way through the island, we spot an unusual sight in a land of Hindus. Dozens of tombs stud an area in the middle of nowhere, raising our curiosity of the supposedly cremated dead bodies. Alexander asks a lady at a grocery store at the other side of the island. It turns out that those who were buried are still waiting for their families to hold a cremation ceremony, which is very costly.

Despite being considered second class citizens in the past, Nusa Lembongan does not lack creative people. Made Byasa, an ascetic and farmer, began the construction of an underground limestone cave in 1961. Inspired by a chapter in the Hindu epic of Mahabarata, he built underground chambers using only a crowbar for 15 years. Named after the mythical cave built by the Pandawas (Pandavas) to protect themselves from the Korawas (Kauravas) in Mahabarata, Goa Gala (Gala Cave) has now become one of the most visited sites on the island.

Its chambers are mysterious and fascinating at the same time, just like Nusa Lembongan herself.

Pura Dalem, One of Nusa Lembongan's Main Temples

Pura Dalem, One of Nusa Lembongan’s Main Temples

Walking Uphill to the Abandoned Temple

Walking Uphill to the Abandoned Temple

The Temple with Mean-Looking Relief Carvings

The Temple with Mean-Looking Relief Carvings

Tombs with Umbrellas

Tombs with Umbrellas

The Entrance to Goa Gala

The Entrance to Goa Gala

Underground Artificial Cave

Underground Artificial Cave

Underground Chambers

Underground Chambers

The Way Out

The Way Out

Serene and Peaceful

Serene and Peaceful

Sunset Point

Sunset Point

Posted by

Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

69 thoughts on “Nusa Lembongan: Small Island, Big Allure”

  1. Excellent post. I loved Nusa Lembongan. We only went on a day trip from Bali. I wish we had stayed longer. It’s great to see how everybody just goes about there normal thing. It hasn’t been effected like Bali and the tourism dollar. I wrote about Nusa Lembongan just last week, have a read if you have time.

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    • Thanks Chris! I stayed there for 3 days which was enough to explore the whole island and the neighboring Nusa Ceningan (more on that on a separate post). I really hope the island won’t be changed as drastically as southern Bali. Will check on your post now! 🙂

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    • Thank you! Nusa Lembongan was unexpectedly beautiful! A very nice getaway from the more touristy scenes of southern Bali, indeed.

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  2. Nusa Lembongan looks like such a dreamy little place – I can see why it was voted Asia’s second-best island! The colours and scenes of everyday life are just mesmerising, Bama – how lucky that you get to live just two hours away by plane. I’m pretty sure the latest edition of Lonely Planet’s guide to Bali & Lombok has that same view towards Mt. Agung as its cover… 🙂

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    • It’s such a nice and peaceful island indeed, James! The scooter ride reminds me of our own at Lanyu, which was amazing. Ahh, I haven’t seen LP’s latest edition on Bali & Lombok, but I can see why they chose that picture. Soon enough you’ll be exploring more of what Indonesia has to offer! 🙂

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    • Thank you! Even I myself who have been living in the country has barely scratched the surface. On a moderate count it would probably take more than a year to explore the whole country and spend a reasonable amount of time in each place. Hopefully you’ll find yourself exploring Indonesia sooner than later! 🙂

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  3. Super pictures! Haha, especially the Absolut Vodka gassoline. Would love to see a hindu tempel one day. Sounds so … like nothing I’ve ever seen before 🙂

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    • Thanks Ellie! Those Absolut Vodka bottles are the ‘gas station’ on the island. I had never experienced filling up the tank from a bottle before. Quite a sight! 🙂 Some people find Balinese Hindu temples amazing, but some others think they’re quite scary because of the relief carvings. I hope you belong to the former. 🙂

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  4. I ve never beento Bali. I heard it is very crowded. Thanks to this post here, now I am aware of another beautiful place to visit other than Bali.

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    • If you don’t like crowd you’d better avoid southern Bali. However apart from Nusa Lembongan, you still can find tranquil places in the rest of the mainland Bali. Hopefully when you go to the island one day you’ll find a peaceful corner on the island for yourself. 🙂

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  5. A brilliant post and photo album. Was in Bali years ago and intend to go back in that direction in a year or two. In my quest to go to every country in the world I must go to East Timor and one of the ways to fly there is through Bali I believe. The region is all so beautiful…thanks for a new exploration site.

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    • Thank you Marjorie! I’ve been to Bali four times and despite the mass tourism I always found new interesting things on the island in each visit. Speaking of East Timor, I myself am planning to go real soon. Hopefully you’ll have a fabulous time there!

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  6. Wonderful! I’ve just found your blog. I’m going to Bali in October for 2.5 months to volunteer at a learning centre for disabled and underprivileged children. I’ll be 7 KM outside of Ubud. I’ve just started my blog to chronicle my journey, so it was lovely to find your blog and this post.

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    • Thanks Alexandra! It’s really lovely to know another person with such a big heart willing to go all the way to Bali to help local communities. I went to a TEDx event in Ubud a few months ago and met some incredibly inspiring people. One of them has a rehabilitation center for the victims of child trafficking and she’s also based in Ubud. Hopefully you have a great time in Bali!

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      • Thank you so much for your words of support and encouragement. I’m just starting this travel blog, but will have many pictures and posts as the days progress. I’m glad I found your blog. 🙂

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      • Keep up the good spirit Alexandra! I just realized that you’re from Vancouver, a city I’ve been wanting to visit. I’m glad I could give a little more encouragement for your good cause. At least that’s what I can do now.

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      • You must visit Vancouver. It’s stunning.. Well, except when it’s raining. Although even when it’s raining, it has a certain majestic beauty. Vancouver, and more broadly the rest of British Columbia is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. I recommend visiting in the summer or autumn, or winter if you’re into skiing or snowboarding.

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      • When my aunt returned from her trip to Vancouver years ago, she told me how beautiful the city was, even back then. She picked a fallen maple tree leaf and took it home as a memento. 🙂 I have no plan to visit BC in the near future, but who knows! Life can bring us unexpected opportunities. 🙂

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      • If anything, or if my dad is to be believed, Vancouver was more beautiful before it became the big metropolitan city it became following Expo ’86. However, it’s still very beautiful and the rest of the province still has that majestic, untouched by modern standards quality to it. I feel truly blessed to live in such a gorgeous and natural place.. I just wish it rained a bit less in the winter and autumn. 🙂 I really like your blog, so I hope you don’t mind me follow you!

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      • Ahh the way you described the city adds up my curiosity. 🙂 Oh no of course I don’t mind. In fact I feel honored. Thanks for following my blog Alexandra!

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  7. Halim Santoso says:

    Its first time I hear Goa Gala’s name. Nice information, Bama.
    Wish I can go there next week while I’m in Bali 🙂

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    • You’re welcome Halim! It’s not a big place but quite unique since it’s man-made and has a lot of chambers. When you go to Nusa Lembongan, it won’t hurt to spend a little time at Goa Gala. 🙂

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  8. HI Bama,
    Nasa Lembonga sound beautiful and raw. The beaches are spectacular. Love you photos of the waves and the locals going about their daily activities. Sad to hear though about that the caste discrimination still exists at this day and age. Thanks for introducing me to another Indonesian hidden gem.

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    • Thanks Marisol! It’s such an amazing island just a short boat-ride away from Bali. When I visited Devil’s Tears, I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears because the waves were so massive and dramatic. About the caste discrimination, it’s no longer an issue as it was, fortunately. However a lot of people on the island are still struggling to fulfill their basic needs, sadly.

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  9. Wow.. did Alexander tell you what he actually felt or saw during your visit to the abandoned temple? What did you feel exactly at that time?

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    • Well, he’s quite sensitive to such ‘thing’ and he said to me that he heard this voice which told him to go. While for me, I didn’t feel anything. 🙂

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      • lucky for us 😉

        I have one brother and one close friend who have this ‘special ability’, and every time we go together someplace, there must be a moment where they glance at each other, give each other signal, and at that very moment I know that they notice ‘something unseen’ around 😉

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      • Lol. I know that look. There was a time in college when on a Sunday morning a few friends and I went to run at the college sport center. Then one of them looked at something behind me, looking terrified. Another friend said that there’s a ‘creature’ standing behind me. When I turned my head, I saw nothing. I call it a bless for not being able to see them. 🙂

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  10. Your excellent photos really show off this spectacular island. I can see why people want to visit! I like the way you depict and describe the people’s lives. I wonder what they do with the seaweed? And why they put umbrellas over the tombs. The underground chambers look like a place where it would be easy to get lost! And I love that little crab.

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    • Thanks a lot Marilyn! I was surprised when I found out that it’s voted the second best small island in Asia. But it really deserves that. The locals sell those seaweed to various industries, including food and beverage companies. You can easily find seaweed drink sold in supermarkets in big cities across Indonesia. I wonder how many of them originated from Nusa Lembongan. When we asked a local woman about the umbrella, she said they put it to protect the tomb (or the dead body) from the heat of the sun. Those underground chambers are such a nice detour from the beaches. It felt quite eerie down there but it was much more ‘comfortable’ compared to the guerilla tunnels in Vietnam.

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  11. Fascinating! Nusa Lembongan seems to have something for everyone… beaches, temple ruins and secret caves!! The Goa Gala photos remind me of the underground cities of Turkey. Your photos are as marvelous as always.

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    • Exactly! The temples are as exquisite as the ones in mainland Bali, and the beaches, I must say some of them are even more spectacular than the ones in Bali. Oh wow, I would love to visit those underground cities. It must be really fascinating to explore what lies beneath the soil where life flourished once. Thanks Madhu!

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  12. Looks like your friend sensed something really spooky in that abandoned temple. Some people do have that special gift of “seeing” – I’m curious now if you felt something different?
    While I’ve seen cremation in India, I didn’t realize how costly it is for families in that village you passed through. Must be even harder for them to have to put loved ones in a tomb only to cremate them later on.

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    • He did! Actually if he hadn’t told me, I would have thought nothing about that place because it looked like merely a deserted place. It’s so sad to know that some of the locals couldn’t afford the cost for cremating a deceased member of the family. However if you go to Bali you can see how lavish cremation ceremony can be, especially for the member of the upper caste of the society.

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      • It was amazing. Not as popular as other destinations but the vibe was very relaxed and the scenery was excellent. I’ll definitely visit again when I’m in that part of the world again.

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    • Thanks a lot Vikki! And you put it with a simple but a very true word to describe the world: Beautiful. I have no plan yet to visit Alaska but will surely check your blog to get some information. Btw you seem like having a very wonderful family! 🙂

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  13. alexander says:

    We didin’t say goodbye to our little friend at the Dream Beach and those two puppies. 🙂
    The Devil’s Tears is fantastic, isn’t it?
    By the way, we got a membership for that beachside pool, since we went there for 3 days in a row 🙂 and a free pass to visit that abandoned temple.
    Nice pictures and article Mase, as always!

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    • Thank you Bapake! Well, our little friend decided to do something else while we were awash by the waves. 🙂

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  14. meidianakusuma says:

    they used vodka bottle for reselling gasoline ? hahahahahah btw kak, kesini nya naik ferry biasa aja? berapa tarifnya? taunya kesini bisa sekalian pake trip bali hai cruise doangan sih 😛

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  15. Share info aja untuk menjawab pertanyaan meidianakusuma. Dari Sanur (di ujung Jalan Hang Tuah, dekat Grand Bali Beach) ada dua pilihan. Perahu kayu tradisional, muatannya sekitar 30an orang, biasanya kebanyakan penumpangnya penduduk lokal Nusa Lembongan dan Nusa Penida, itu ongkosnya 60 ribu berangkat, 80 ribu balik. Entah kenapa ongkos balik lebih mahal. Mendaratnya di Jungut Batu (Long Beach). Waktu tempuhnya lebih lama. Lebih cepat dan lebih pede (standar keselamatan lebih bagus, ada life vest setidaknya), pake fast boat. Berangkat dari tempat yang sama. Ongkosnya sekitar 150 ribuan. Ada beberapa operator, ada yang harganya beda2 dikit. Ada yang mendarat di Jungut Batu, ada juga yang di Mushroom Bay. Ada beberapa hotel yang juga mengoperasikan fast boat untuk umum, biasanya dipaketin dengan akomodasi harganya bisa sedikit lebih murah. Mudah2an membantu.

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  16. Too bad I skip visiting Nusa Lembongan, when I visited Bali last month 😦 . The island looks more quiet, and relax … 🙂

    Anyway, always great photos from you, and love the sunset photo with Mt. Agung 😉

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    • Thanks Tim! The next time you go to Bali, when you happen to be around Sanur it won’t hurt to take that short boat ride to get to Nusa Lembongan. It’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of southern Bali.

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  17. Was only the search for our next summer adventure, and need to confess you have an eye for authentic pics . Thanks for sharing this island with the rest of the world. Keep posting…

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