White sand, crystal-clear cyan-blue waters, no police on the islands and a carefree attitude and tolerance of the locals drew budget tourists in droves.
Recently, the islands also attract a different crowd, disco or party seekers who didn’t find their place at the Full-moon parties of Thailand and even upscale developments change the face of those gems in the Lombok straight.
Is it already too late to let your hair down here?
Lombok as Bali’s sister island, did already many things different. After all, it’s an island mainly dominated by Muslims and the Gili’s (Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air) are no exception.
How to get to the Gili’s
There are generally less people on Lombok then Bali and even fewer find their way to the Gili’s, although travel to the islands has improved a lot lately. There are now at least 5 different speedboat operators (Gilicat, GiliGiliFastBoat, Black Pearl, Mahi Mahi and others), who service Gili Trawangan a few times daily directly from Benoa Harbor on Bali or from Padang Bai in Bali’s East coast.
The prices came down a bit, some can be had as low as 750.000 Rupiah for a return ticket. This improves already a lot the cheap, but long ferry journey from Padang Bai, which goes 24 hours a day, but can take from 4-6 hours, just to get from Bali to Lombok alone. Add to that the trip from Senggigi or Mataram up the coast and another short boat ride and you can almost loose a whole day, just traveling to and from the Gili’s from Bali.
And of course there is always the option to fly in, for those who don’t like boats at all, have even less time to spend or just have more money and prefer to travel in style compared to us mere mortals.
What’s different here
You won’t find any dogs here (dogs are considered unclean animals in Islam and Muslims are not allowed to touch them), but plenty of cats and the 5-times-a-day call of the Muezzin to the several prayers dictated by the Koran.
There is no natural water on the islands, even a shower has usually salty water, although some upscale resorts use sweet water from a water boat, that comes up to 5 times daily and pumps fresh water into tanks on the island.
Accommodation prices vary from 80.000 Rupiah per night in a small shack up to 150 USD per night in Villa Ombok, Gili Trawangan’s undisputed luxury king with professionally trained staff and almost olympic-sized pool.
Food is generally more expensive than in cheap Senggigi or Bali, with Nasi Campur or Nasi Goreng starting at 25.000 Rupiah everywhere, a bottle of small Bintang starting from 25.000 Rupiah and with 5-20% Tax and Service Charges generally added to prices.
The good things about the Gili’s still remain: the white, powdery sand and the clear, blue water which is so inviting for snorkeling and all other water activities. The marine life is still somewhat intact and you can see muranes, turtles, fire fish and plenty of other creatures just by snorkeling in the shallow waters.
Okay, there are now 2 police men at least on Trawangan – but still you can do what the Gili’s became famous for, relatively unhassled. Smoke is offered to you everywhere and goes for as low as 20.000 per pop or even rolled to finish. Mushroom drinks are widely accepted as an alternative (almost like in Bali) and are offered from 20.000 to 75.000 per cocktail. I would definitely recommend against it, as you don’t know, what quality and how much is used – those drinks can lead you on a very bad trip if taken too much and there are (almost) no available ways of stopping them, once started.
The party life is vary varied, from discos near Villa Ombak or famous Horizontal at the other end (which has sometimes international DJ’s) to Reggaes Bars and cheaper dinking wholes in Trawangan Central, where you can sing along or meet other fellow travelers.
Food options range from Javanese fare, Padang and Seafood to home-made Italian cuisine, Indian to Mexican food options in Central.
There are also things, that could spoil the image of those pristine islands in the very near future. Mounting heaps of garbage are one of them, growing everywhere and it seems that most people don’t care. Plastic bags are blowing in the wind and starting to pollute the beaches and surrounding waters.
The Cat population (at least on Trawangan) seems to get out of hand currently. They are almost anywhere, begging for food and honestly – the smell of cat piss is literally everywhere, worst felt after a short rain shower.
Constant brownouts will make sure, that you will sweat through your cotton shirt more than once a day. Also during the nights, there is usually less hours electricity than it is. That means, if you paid for an A/C room and the electricity is off, there is nothing you can do – you will still sweat like doing a work out.
During New Year I preferred sleeping on one of the sun beds directly at the beach (as also most local visitors did to save the resort costs), with a fresh breeze and only few mosquitoes making for a light sleep.
So better ask when making a reservation or checking in, if your stay has a generator to kick in when electricity is gone. Otherwise your stay could be a very unpleasant one, if you are not used to tropical nights. Although sleeping at the beach is a good way to check out the sunrise at the Eastern side of Trawangan.
My recommendation of the Gili’s is a clear – Go, do it – now! The positive impressions still outweigh the negative ones, although things are changing fast. The real estate market over there is boiling hot right now. Lombok will probably even get an International Airport soon and things are clearly heating up.
Land lots, beach shacks and resorts are changing hands faster than you can keep up with it. Many businesses falter soon as well again, as it also generally seems to be a problem, to attract reliable staff to stay and work a longer period on the islands. Most of the better staff seems to be ‘imported’ from Bali these days.
There is an increasing trend towards more upscale resorts, holiday and package deals, with steeply rising prices as mentioned by many, who come already for years and years.
What are your experiences about the Gili Islands? Have you been there or planning to go? What would you recommend to first-time travelers to the Gili’s?
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