Sunday, April 28, 2013

Partway through our time in Bali, while expressing our disappointment in its beaches, some Americans we met suggested we head to the Gili Islands, an hour and a half by speed boat from the east coast. After a quick Google search, we were sold and started planning our 4-day adventure.

An archipelago of three small islands, the Gilis are home to only 3500 permanent residents. One of the world's deepest ocean trenches lies far below the surface of the Lombok Strait, where the Gilis are, so it's a fascinating region: Sumatra, Java, and Bali were once connected to the Asian mainland, but the Gilis, Lombok and islands to the east were kept separate due to the water's depth. Therefore the fauna to the west of the trench are largely Indo-Malaysian, while the east is inhabited by Australasian species. The biomes are so vastly different because birds and animals will not cross water of a certain depth. Neat!

Tourists have only been visiting The Gilis, in large numbers, since 2008 though a few backpackers have been going since the 1980s. It's known for its party culture, beautiful beaches, and epic snorkelling and diving locations. Magic mushrooms are legal here, so draw people to the islands en masse as Indonesia's drug laws are extremely (ie. death penalty) strict.

The islands have no motorized transport, only horse and buggy (cidomos) or bicycles. While charming, I did have a few issues with the wellbeing of the horses - Their condition varied from prized and seemingly well-cared-for, to quite the opposite. The main tourist strip in Gili Trawangan is in similar condition. Our initial reaction upon landing on the, albeit beautiful, beach was, "Oh dear." Between the ear-piercing Eurobeats and endless strip of tacky clubs, we were worried we'd made a mistake coming here.

While there are many hotels on Gili T (as it's known, and the largest and most-visited of the three) there are also "homestays" which tend to be private rooms or small bungalows on a private property. They are typically less organized than a hotel with fewer amenities and limited infrastructure. But they are cheap. We booked one night at a homestay, and then planned to roam around and find something more suitable. 

It should be said, we do not consider ourselves to be fussy travellers -- We typically understand what we're in for at any given place. Jeff is a master at reading between the lines in tourist reviews, quickly discrediting the opinions of misguided travellers and tempering the overly-enthused. That said, we have come to learn that air conditioning and a functioning bathroom are essential to our survival. And so the homestay on this wild island would not suffice and for just $10 more we found a proper hotel on a quiet road, far from the congestion and craziness of hallucinating Australians.

But the best part of the Gili Islands has got to be the pair of brassy English girls we met there. Lucy and Rebecca were straight out of a British sitcom and we hit it off instantly. We hadn't really spent much time with strangers since leaving home, so their company was refreshing. We shared a few meals, spent way too much time (and money) at a hilarious Rasta bar, and vowed to see them again; I can't go the rest of my life without hearing Lucy's dramatic rendition of, well, any song, really. (It turns out we'd see Rebecca sooner than expected; she lives in Singapore and showed us a great time on our stop there.)

While our initial impression of the Gilis was pretty dire, we actually kind of loved it and would recommend a few days to anyone who happened by. It was a good reminder that every place we visit can offer what we're looking for - but only if we dig ourselves out of a mood and make it so.

(A few highlights, like snorkelling in the Lombok Strait, which contains some of the deepest ocean trenches in the world.)



1) Unlike Bali, the majority of the permanent population of the Gili Islands is Muslim. There are several mosques on the small islands.

2) It rained a few times on this leg of the trip and the streets flood almost instantly, filling the dirt roads with smelly, awful water. It's extremely unpleasant. You might consider water socks to traipse through this sort of mess, though it's unavoidable.

3) Don't purchase things like speedboat tickets in advance. Roadside tour operators will try to convince you to pre-buy transport and it's much cheaper to simply walk to the dock and haggle for a ticket. Again, we're travelling in low-season in this part of the world, so benefit from fewer tourists and greater availability over all. See also: hotel stays. You can literally walk in, request a room-viewing, decide on-spec if you want to stay and then negotiate a price. When it's not busy, all businesses are anxious to have your money. It's a buyer's market.

4) The Gilis have experienced a lot of controversy in recent years due to incidents of methanol poisoning. Because liquor is so expensive in this part of the world, a few bars have been caught topping-up their stock with the extremely poisonous substance. It is extremely dangerous and certainly something to consider when traveling to this part of the world. Visit reputable (though this can be hard to determine) bars, stick to beer, or purchase sealed bottles of booze at the various shops and enjoy cocktail hour in your hotel room.

5) Gili Air and Gili Meno are much quieter and more remote than Gili T. Prices may be a bit higher as there are fewer hotels to choose from. If we could re-do this portion, we'd probably stay on one of the other islands instead of the tourist-heavy Trawangan. 

LOCATION: Koh Samui, Krabi, Thailand
DATE AND TIME: Monday, April 29, 2013 10:00AM Thailand Standard Time/Monday, April 29, 2013 12:00AM EST

Location: Gili Trawangan, Indonesia
Accommodation: The Gili Palms Resort 
After one night in a janky homestay smack in the middle of the rowdiest part of the island, we wandered to the northern end where things calm down. We were able to find a great spot, tucked away, with a beautiful pool and great service. A large room with a neat outdoor bathroom and very good A/C was only $45 a night. Feel free to walk around to various hotels, ask to see the rooms, and negotiate a price. It's fairly easy, especially in the off-season.
Food: Food on the Gili's is fairly lacklustre, though we did have an excellent chicken curry on Gili Air at a place called Tami's Neverland
Tips: As you know from reading, we've not been participating in many "excursions", as those sorts of things cut deep into the budget. But it turns out snorkelling around the Gili's is cheap, a seat on a large boat with 40 others only $10USD. But along with Lucy, Rebecca and a sweet pair of Swedish girls, we were able to score a better deal. Jeff and Lucy wrangled a private boat for just the six of us, with a guide (who we called G-Money), for $16USD each. The ability to tailor-make our excursion (stay longer in certain areas, eat when we wanted, and take our time) was well-worth the additional few dollars each. If you're traveling in low season, this sort of finagling is highly recommended. This day will rank high on our Eat, Gay, Love list - Snorkelling in some of the finest water in the world, and then getting trapped by a storm on Gili Air, it was a real adventure.

A note on cross-sea transfers: There are several speed boat companies that cross from Bali to the Gilis. We bought our ticket going either way on the same day and were able to finagle a cheap price from the hawkers in the street. If you buy your tickets from a tour agency, you are bound to pay 30% more. 



  1. Seriously, Jason, you MUST put a book together when you get "home"/ back...I would buy it instantly.

  2. Thanks for all the info re Gili T -- - -

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