Going to Gili: Visiting Indonesia’s Increasingly Popular Gili Islands

Gili Air, Gili Trawangan (Gili T), Gili Meno – three different islands in the same place off the north-west coast of Lombok Indonesia. These islands are bustling, and I mean bustling, with backpackers. Speaking to some locals revealed that the country is currently not allowed to promote tourism to them as they are being utterly destroyed thanks to the influx of visitors (similar to what happened in Boracay, Philippines). Worst of all, local happiness and quality of life has reportedly diminished on the islands as a result of their popularity. Which is bound to happen when tiny island villages, two of which don’t even have cars, are invaded by hordes of foreigners. I learned this months after visiting, and kind of wish I hadn’t. So after that cheery report, let’s talk about the Gilis! The basic gist is:

  • GIli T is a party island (read: mass amounts of drunk people in inappropriate clothing)
  • Gili Air is more laid back but still has things to do (read: beach bars and dining)
  • Gili Meno is very quiet so you can enjoy the nature (read: there is nothing to do)

Gili Air (This Means Water Island)

We excitedly booked Gili Air, as it was described as less crowded next to the party paradise of Gili T. We thought it was a great fit for us, but were sorely disappointed. Although beautiful it felt moderately sketchy; not reminiscent of the beach paradise we expected. Swimming by day was hard as the tide went way out. Mornings the beach looked desolate, the inter-tidal zone spanning for ages. Locals go out early mornings on to the sharp, whitening coral of the dying reef to collect shells or mussels or whatever else, and fish such as starfish and coral can be seen. Fun fact: Indonesia is a top exporter of fish for use in aquariums. To collect fish they often spray the reef with cyanide that stuns the fish to immobilize them for collection. The fish later recover, but the reef — it does not.

By day, the beaches are beautiful with blue water and green mountains of Indonesia’s massive Lombok beckoning from the background. A few swings present themselves, and of course beachside bar bungalows and restaurants line the coast, beckoning you in.

You can walk the entire island in about an hour, which is cool. Or you can rent bikes and make your way around even faster. Accommodations are ok, overpriced for what they are, and food and sunscreen are moderately obscene. Thinking there would be no food options or unaffordable ones, we acquired a “bounty” of fruits/vegetables/snacks in the city and dragged the 10-pound bag onto the island with us. This turned out to be a great idea (not), as bugs invaded the bounty, half of it went rotten, and there were in fact ample convenience stores with prices about the same as the city…

Gili Trawangan

Displeased, we cut our Gili Air visit short and headed over to Gili T for a few nights. We thought we’d dislike this “party island,” but as usual we were wrong. Our arrival it did feel more crowded and crazier, but after a bit of acclimating it became clear we liked Gili T! The island is bigger, although walkable (closer to 2 hours to do the circumference, depending on your pace). It boasts both cute but populated beachfront bars and chilled young coconuts (Always so young). As well as some remote and unpopulated beaches on the other side. Being a small island, it’s possible to catch both sunrise and AMAZING sunsets; and a bike is a great way to get around.

Sunscreen was slightly cheaper, and food was almost reasonable for an island. There’s some situation here in which everyone does “magic mushrooms,” and there are photos and slogans about said mushrooms on the walls, so if you are a drug lover, be advised. I cannot speak from experience, but this graffiti can…

We didn’t make it to Gili Meno sadly, as our plans to kayak across the ocean a distance that did not appear that far but likely was wildly far, overtaken by laziness and a desire to drink additional young coconuts (ok, also beer) beachside rather than endure extreme arm pain. After city days of walking 15+ miles per day, we needed a break.

And so, instead, we rented shiny new snorkel gear in fresh yellow and set out into the coral to see the fishes. We were astonished at such amazing snorkeling right off the shore! There are of course maple spots for waterfront food and drinking, if you’re into that kind of thing. Also, a few surf shops in case your bikini is stained, and you decide to throw it out in favor of a new one.

Getting OFF The Gilis

Getting off the island to Lombok was interesting. And by interesting I do mean they scam you into buying a ticket for 10X the price at the dock. But if you try to buy it at the dock, they will not let you. There is some gentleman’s agreement among the boat drivers, obviously. You pay for a “fast boat” which is in fact not a fast boat but a random, dilapidated slow boat carrying locals and their goods to/from the island daily. It does not come at the time schedule, and there is no room to sit but on the floor in water, packed in. Again, no issue with this in general except for the swindle associated with it!

We arrived in Lombok on a gross beach, black sands, fumes and aggressive horse cart drivers approaching. We went with one man, not a good idea, and got into his cart thinking it was part of our egregious transit fare. It was not part of our egregious transit fare. He started explaining what was included and what we had to pay for, to which I argued as we had been warned not to agree to this. Sarah was about to give in when I dismounted from the horse cart and found another man who was our actual driver guy and walked us about 200 feet down the road (Where the swindle cart claimed was too far to walk) to the restaurant slash waiting point for our bus to the center of Lombok by the airport. This place had no bathroom, but a dirty stall in someone’s home, which we used.

Finally, the luxury bus came and surprise! It was a dilapidated van. We piled in with the others, a quick “1 hour” ride taking close to 3. Upon arrival at the airport we phoned our hotel (nowhere else to stay in the middle of Lombok) and prepared for the most exciting New Year’s Eve ever in the hotel room in a rice field in the sketchy middle of nowhere. I think we were in bed by 8. We did make one excursion outside, down the side of the road, again only foreigners in sight ever, to get some food. We went to a local spot, asked for our favorite (and by favorite I do mean the only dish we know) Nasi Goreng and chowed down. Expecting to get sick we did not, and even washed it down with a chendol (or two…). People kept asking where we came from, honking and stopping their motos to look at us because you know we are so exciting! We also made a trek to the mini mart, all along the side of this unfriendly highway, also during harassment, to get some snacks for the night. Snacks which we failed to eat as we went to bed at 8pm.

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