Note: this article was written a number of years ago when Gili Trawangan was still a hidden gem. But alas, that is not the case anymore. For info on what Gili Trawangan is now like – as of July 2010 – click here.
It is said that if you want to know what Bali was like 20 years ago then you should go to Lombok.
Much more laid back than its larger sister 45 km to the west, Lombok is a great antidote to the commercial excesses of Bali, where on some beaches at least, there now seem to be more hawkers than tourists and a moment’s peace is as rare as a reasonably priced can of coke.
Many travelers visiting Lombok for the first time head for the wonderful Gili islands – three coral ringed islands off the northwest coast of Lombok. Here you will find dazzling white sand beaches that kick the pants of those in Bali, with crystal clear aquamarine waters to boot.
The furthest of the islands from the mainland, Gili Trawangan, is also the largest of the three. Even so, it still takes less than three hours to walk around the whole island.
In a wise move, the authorities have taken the decision to ban cars and motorcycles from the islands, thus making for a much more relaxing stay. Instead there are cidomo – a sort of horse and carriage. Although quite inexpensive to get around in, make sure you bargain before you accept the ride else you may be overcharged. Bicycles are also available for rent at around Rp30,000 per day, but the going can get tough as the tracks around the island are very sandy in parts.
While Gili Trawangan has picked up the reputation of being something of a party island, you will be sorely disappointed if you come here expecting Goya style beach raves. In fact, despite a few low-key “parties” which are occasionally held by divers congregating at the Blue Marlin dive center, Gili Trawangan is so laid back it is virtually horizontal. And long may it remain that way.
There are plenty of inexpensive accommodations and eateries on Gili Trawangan, especially in the main strip toward the south of the island. Here you can find cozy bars and romantic candlelit restaurants, some of which have slightly raised dining areas where you can eat your meal at leisure as you stretch out your legs and rest on soft cushions. Besides the usual western fare, Indonesian dishes such as gado gado (vegetables covered in peanut sauce) and nasi goring (fried rice) are also on the menu. And for those who are unable to shut themselves off from the outside world, access to the World Wide Web is possible at the ubiquitous internet cafés that have now set up shop.
Most of the accommodations on the island are of the simple bamboo hut variety, but better quality places to stay are springing up all the time, complete with hot water, air conditioning and satellite TV. But be warned: if you have sensitive skin and do not relish the prospect of seawater showers (fresh water is a rare commodity here and has to be brought in from mainland Lombok), your only option may be to stay at the island’s upmarket resort hotel, Hotel Vila Ombak.
If it is solitude you are looking for, then head to the north of the island, where you are unlikely to be troubled by anyone. Days can pass by very quickly here as you relax in your hammock strung between two palm trees swaying in the gentle sea breeze…
The three Gili islands are still excellent for snorkeling despite the devastation wreaked by the El Nino weather phenomenon in 1998. Some 90% of the hard corals around the islands down to 20 meters suffered badly at the time from bleaching and are still recovering. While you can snorkel directly from the beach, a good deal is to join the daily snorkeling tour at the very reasonable rate of Rp35,000 per person. As the boat has a glass bottom, those unable to snorkel, such as young kids, can also have the opportunity to see a wide array of beautiful multicolored tropical fish and, if lucky, even the odd turtle. A tip here: bring your own snorkeling gear as the quality of the stuff available for hire leaves much to be desired.
When you need a break from the snorkeling, the sugary white beaches are a perfect place for relaxation and sunbathing. The few hawkers that ply their trade here are much less aggressive than in Bali, and when they realize you don’t want what they are selling they quickly get the message. If the blazing tropical sun becomes too much to bear, shelter can be found under the palm trees that conveniently line the beaches.
If the weather is good – which it usually is - beautiful red sunsets can be seen, with the sun setting in the west over Mount Agung, Bali. Either head for Gili Trawangan’s northern coast else climb the island’s 100-meter hill (going up here is the only time you are likely to venture into the island’s interior during your stay).
As for Gili Air and Gilo Meno, they are even quieter than Gili Trawangan. Accommodations and restaurants are basic, but then that's part of the charm. If you need more facilities, it’s more convenient to stay on Gili Trawangan and make day trips to these two islands.
Although the Gili islands are wonderful themselves, many travelers have, unfortunately, had bad experiences in getting there. Going by ferry from Bali (which leaves from the sleepy town of Padangbai) is not recommended unless you have a perverse penchant for pain and suffering. The rust-bucket ferry takes about four and a half hours to reach Lombok’s Lembar Harbour, and with the seas between the two islands often choppy, you’d better have your sick-bag close at hand if you are susceptible to seasickness. And knowing that one of the ferries plying this route sank in September last year doesn’t exactly put one at ease. From Lembar, it is still about an hour and a half drive to Bangsal, the small harbour from where you can take a small motorized boat (prahu) to the Gili islands.
Far better is to fly directly to Lombok’s Mataram Selaparang Airport, and then take a taxi to Bangsal. From where you are dropped off at Bangsal, you will either have to walk the last 200 meters or take a ride on a cidomo to reach the harbor. Although various lowlifes will approach you and try to persuade you that the only way to reach the Gili islands is to charter a boat at great expense, tickets for the public boats to the islands can actually be bought at the official ticket office which is right by the sea. It’s also best to wear shorts and sandals/slippers, because your feet are likely to get wet as you climb on to the small boat. And make sure you retain your wits about you before boarding: many tourists have been caught off guard by undesirable characters who have forcibly taken their luggage onto the boat and then demanded a ridiculously large sum of money. But despite these problems, the journey to the Gili islands is definitely worth it: once there you won’t want to go back!
As there are no banks on the Gili islands, make sure you take enough cash for your intended period of stay. Although there are a few moneychangers, they are unreliable and the rates very poor. But if you get into any difficulties, it is good to know that there are now some ATM machines at nearby Senggigi on the Lombok mainland.