Gili Trawangan- Young Backpacker Heaven

The last 5 days of this trip have been spent reading, relaxing, biking and observing the species of 20-something backpackers on the small island of Gili Trawangan. Located right off the coast of Lombok, Gili T is one of 3 Gili Islands, along with Gili Air and Gili Meno, that have become tourist hotspots in Indonesia. While Nusa Lembongan had its’ share of tourists, it is clearly not a part of the Main Backpacker Trail. Gili T, on the other hand, appears to be smack dab in the center of any good backpacker’s Southeast Asia tour. 

Gili Trawangan is the largest of the three islands, though it is still really small. If I were to return to the Gilis, I would definitely be opting to stay at either Meno or Air. Gili T is still a beautiful place- pristine beaches (a nice lack of trash- not always the case on beaches in Asia), no motorized vehicles, and easy to get around. There are enough restaurants that you could be here for a few months and never eat at the same place twice. The food is delicious (and relatively cheap), and the weather is perfect. It also has more young backpackers than I would like to be around for any extended period of time. The amount of bracelets, necklaces and tattoos per capita would shatter records in most parts of the world. If a Jack Sparrow look-a-like contest broke out, there would be a long line of potential contestants, each with a legitimate claim at the title. 

Besides the braceletted-tattood-longhaired-or-dreadlocked backpackers, Gili T is populated with scuba diving enthusiasts, families, couples, and locals (mostly from the nearby island of Lombok). The backpackers are here to party and soak up the sun, the scuba divers are here to (you guessed it) scuba, the couples and families lounge on the beach and eat food, and the locals do all of the work. 

As I mentioned, there is no motorized transport on the island. The options for getting around are walking, bicycling, or horse drawn cart. After I disembarked from my boat ride from Lembongan, I opted for a horse cart ride to my hotel. I feel bad for the horses, as I am sure they are treated like shit and are overworked. Someone told me their life expectancy is only 5 years, which is crazy low for a horse. The bouncy ride in the back of a horse cart was worth my $3.50, especially since I didn’t know exactly where I was going, but I did feel bad contributing to the daily punishment the horse gets. One of the challenges when reaching any new destination is finding where the fuck my accommodations are, and being taken directly to the front door removes the chance of me getting lost while carrying 40 lbs of stuff. 

Local transport. 

Gili T has one main “road” along the beach which has the majority of shops, restaurants, and hotels for the island. One day I rented a bike and did a few laps around the entire island. At a leisurely pace (and with several stops for photos), circumnavigating the island takes about an hour. The island is sparsely populated, yet every inch of it seems to be spoken for. There are palm tree farms, houses, hotels, abandoned hotels, or in progress hotels across every area of the island. I didn’t see any untouched/ unspoiled land, except the beaches, at any point in my island tour. 

Main Street

The beaches here really are spectacular. White sand leads out to crystal clear blue water. It is impressively free from trash, a feat that must be accomplished by hard work from the locals. My guess is that the tourist crowd is not part of any clean up efforts. While the beaches are easy on the eyes, walking out into the water for a swim can be a bit of a challenge. The sand quickly turns into broken coral and rocks, so walking out is far from comfortable. I attempted to go for an ocean swim and only made it out to above my knees before giving up and just splashing water over my head to cool off. The coral was unkind. It wasn’t the kind of coral that will tear your skin up and have you running to the local clinic for bandages, but walking on it was still difficult and painful. 

Besides the amazing beaches surrounding the island, the highlights have been the food and the locals. There is a nightly food market by the pier with a variety of carts offering all sorts of incredibly tasty and fresh meals. My favorite option are the carts with sate meat on a stick. You can pick from a variety of seafood, chicken, or beef sate sticks to go with a helping of rice and veggies. Tonight, for example, I picked out a tuna sate, 5 small chickens, and 2 beef sticks. They cooked it up fresh while I waited, and I got to sit down and enjoy some piping hot meat sticks and tasty veggies. Total cost- $5.50. There are also plenty of options for fresh fish, calimari, shrimp, noodles and more. The restaurants I have tried all offer really good food as well. The only downside at the restaurants (not the night market) seems to be the wait for food- it often takes about an hour from ordering to eating. 

The locals, most of whom are from the nearby main island of Lombok, were all really nice and friendly. In every region of Indonesia, the locals have been some of the happiest and friendliest people of any country I have been to. One day while I was watching a sunset on the west coast of Gili T, a local man came and sat next to me and started chatting. The standard questions always come first- “Where are you from,” and “No have girlfriend?” There is constant interest in the fact that I am traveling by myself and that I don’t have a girlfriend or wife. After the initial questions were done, he hung around and we had a semi-real conversation. He told me about his family on Lombok, and that he has lived on Gili T for 20 years. We also talked a bit about religion. He, like the majority of Indonesians from Lombok (and most of the country) are Muslim. Right now is Ramadan, which means that Muslims spend the month fasting during the day. While the conversation was always very nice and friendly (never argumentative), he did find it hard to comprehend that I didn’t believe in any sort of God. Before we went our separate ways, he did ask me what it was like to “be with an American girl,” and that he likes blondes with big butts. This gave me a nice, hearty laugh. 

I also spent a few hours chatting with another local, Andy, who runs one of the many travel agent kiosks on the island. His english is good enough for us to have a real conversation. Almost all of the locals are really friendly, but most only know handful of English words. Andy and I covered all sorts of topics, and it was great to get insight from someone who is from the area. He had an endless amount of questions about how much things cost in America, and was constantly amazed at how expensive most things are. Andy couldn’t quite understand the concept of people in America moving out of their parents house at 18 and rarely moving back. It was fun comparing and contrasting differences between our two home nations, and getting to know someone from this part of the world more than at a surface level. Andy, like Sunset-Man-Who-Likes-Big-American-Butts, is also fasting during the day for Ramadan, sleeps at the travel agent kiosk, and makes pretty good money for a local. 

Earlier this week, while living on this small island, the Indonesian vote for president happened. I had been hearing about it the entire time I have been traveling though the country, and was a little bummed that I was somewhere without actual voting. My hope was to see what it was like to be around a large election in a foreign country. There was no voting on Gili T, meaning any locals who wanted to vote needed to take a boat to Lombok. Not surprisingly, apathy reigned larger than the desire to vote- most Indonesians I talked to didn’t bother to go to Lombok and cast a vote. There were two candidates running, and all over Indonesia were thousands of posters, banners, billboards and signs promoting one of the two candidates. I happened to remember Jokowi and his running mate JK (pronounced J-Kah), which were “Number 2” on the ballot. Because I actually knew one of the candidates (from seeing all of the signage), I pretended I liked Jokowi and asked the locals if they were voting for him. They all enjoyed this and said “Jokowi!” to me many times. Most Indonesians I spoke to did like Jokowi (who is supposedly the “people’s candidate”). Although Jokowi claimed victory, the other candidate challenged the results so a counting of votes is expected to take weeks. A not surprising development for a country where everything takes a long time. Jokowi- J Kah, number 2! 

While it has a few too many young and drunk backpackers to make it a perfect vacation spot, I can see why Gili Trawangan is such a popular location for all sorts of travelers. There are all sorts of late night party options, all sorts of food options (including many western foods like pizza and pasta), no traffic, beautiful beaches and cheap lodging. I would be curious to see the other Gili Islands to compare. It has been another enjoyable stop on the trip, and it was a real pleasure getting to know some friendly locals. 

Tomorrow morning I will head back to Bali- this time to Ubud (made famous in the book Eat, Pray, Love). I had a big internal debate over the course of a day, deciding whether to go to Lombok for a bit or going back to Bali for the remainder of my time in Indonesia. There are no bad decisions, but I do get stressed out regarding which location to go. Which one is better? Which one has better accommodations? Which one has the easier route to get there? Eventually, after obsessive internet research and input from both locals and friends, the decision was made- back to Bali. 

It is also weird to think I “only” have a month left of this trip. Normally, in my corporate working days, a month trip would be MASSIVE. Now, as a part of this 4 month adventure, it doesn’t even seem THAT long. ONLY a month left. I have 2 more weeks in Bali, and then off to Australia for the final leg of the Ring of Fire World Tour.