After traveling in Southeast Asia for six months – visiting six countries, exploring 35 cities, and inhabiting 46 hotel rooms – I was in need of a break. When I arrived in Indonesia, all I wanted was a beach to collapse on and coral-free water to swim in. So, based on a recommendation, I boarded a boat and headed to the tiny island of Gili Trawangan for a few days at the beach. To be honest, I had very low expectations for the Gili Islands. All those postcard-perfect images I’d gawked at online – those three silver-dollar-shaped islands and that kaleidoscope of blue water – were always overshadowed by Gili Trawangan’s “party island” reputation or the “you’re 20 years too late” rant I’d heard time and again. And I must admit, the 350,000 rupiah fast boat (the total of my daily budget) from Bali to the islands didn’t help my state of mind.
So how is it that my planned few days at the beach turned into two weeks? How did such a Gili skeptic turn into such a Gili fan?
Maybe it was the fact that I’d been on the road for so many months. Or maybe it was because this island really is just as drop dead gorgeous as all the photographs I’d seen (I mean, just look at that water!). Whatever it was, I came to find that this little circle of paradise offered a way of life that, for me, was just what the doctor ordered.
On a map of Indonesia, the Gili Islands look like nothing more than three tiny specks off of the northwest coast of Lombok. Gili Trawangan (also known as Gili T) is the largest of the bunch, measuring only three kilometers long. But it’s the island’s small size that contributes to its chilled-out vibe and offers a pleasant change from the hordes of tourists, relentless traffic jams, and aggressive touts that turn so many people off of Kuta, Bali.
Like most places in Indonesia, there are touts on Gili T, but a simple “No, thank you” always did the trick. And since there are no cars or motorbikes allowed on the Gili Islands (it’s actually the law!), the only traffic jams I encountered were caused by too many bicycles or horse carriages (the preferred mode of transportation) clogging up the narrow dirt pathways. The main beach was peppered with impeccably bronzed tourists, but there was always more than enough space on the sand for me and my sarong. Or if I felt like being alone, a secluded stretch of beach was never farther than a 10-minute stroll away.
“Party Island” just isn’t how I would describe Gili Trawangan. As a party place, it isn’t on par with the swanky clubs I’d seen in Boracay, Philippines, or the full moon parties of Koh Phangan, Thailand.
Yes, you can party hard on Gili T. I spent more than a few nights sipping Bintangs at one of the many beachside bars or sharing a bottle of arak (a Balinese rice spirit) with my boyfriend and the new friends we’d made. But in no way was this the party place I had been warned against on all of those online forums. Perhaps this is one of the perks of traveling during the low season (I visited the Gili Islands in February, during the height of the rainy season) but the scene I discovered was pretty mellow. And I liked it.
It’s easy to slip into the simple rhythm of Gili T. The mornings were spent lounging on the front porch of my bungalow, sipping Lombok coffee, and marveling at how loud, long, and beautiful the Muslim call to prayer is. Most afternoons, rain or shine, I could be found roasting on the beach or floating in the salty water in an effort to escape the brutal equatorial heat. The evenings were marked by lazy walks to the southwest corner of the island where everyone gathers, cold beer in hand, and stares in awe at the highlighter-pink skies as the sun sets behind Bali’s towering volcano, Gunung Agung.
Gili Trawangan might not be the untamed beauty it was 20 years ago. Yes, it’s filled with ATMs and luxury villas and bars bumping music each night. And, yes, it is super touristy. But there is only so much development that can happen on an island that can literally be circumnavigated in a little over an hour. This place may no longer be a hidden gem, but it is still a gem. So if you’re a Gili skeptic like I was, maybe think again. In my opinion, if you’re looking for a place to wile away the days, it’s well worth the journey from Bali. And if you’re a road-weary traveler like me, you just might find this touristy little Lombok island to be an unexpected and welcome respite.
Coconut Dream Bungalows: 225,000-400,000 rupiah
Fast boat to/from Gili Trawangan: 350,000/270,000 rupiah
Large bottle of water (1,500 ml): 6,000 rupiah (or get your bottles refilled for 3,000 rupiah at Le Petit Gili – located behind the night market)
What are your impressions of Gili Trawangan? Is it an island paradise or too much of a party place to be worth the hassle?