The Charm of Gili Trawangan

Low tide bicycle

Gili Trawangan was once a hidden treasure that only backpackers knew about. A small island off of Lombak, there was a time where Internet bookings didn’t exist and half of the island was uninhibited. This has quickly changed, and in recent years development has escalated at an unfortunate pace. The evidence was apparent, but the renowned party island still has its unique charm.

Horse and buggy

Standing in the middle of the main street with luggage in tow after exiting our fast-boat from Bali, it was a surprising quick dash to the make-shift sidewalk to dodge a cidomo, the brightly colored horse and carriages that double as both people movers and local transport. A nice escape from bustling Melbourne, there are no cars on Gili T, so getting around consists of your two feet, a cidomo or a bike hire from the many vendors up and down the main drag. Come prepared knowing that most bikes are sea-rusted and it’s hit or miss to get a good one. Luckily Eileen, Louise and I found the Triplets, 3 pink and green matching bikes that were not only quality but made us look really fashionable in unison.

Black Penny Double Villa

Accommodation on the island can vary from boutique hotels for around $200 a night to a fan-only room down one of the back streets for about $15 a night. Like most places in Southeast Asia, it can be cheaper to not book ahead and haggle your way to a pillow, but we landed on Black Penny Villas in which we pre-booked via to be safe since it was over the Easter holidays. Our two bedroom villa, private plunge pool included, was in a great location halfway between sunset and the boat terminal. It was decent enough; despite some questionable Trip Advisor reviews however if I had my pick and was willing to shell out a bit more cash, I would stay at The Beach House or Scallywags Resort, two cute boutique hotels just next door. The most entertaining part was what happened to Eileen on our first night. She wrote, “Had a mishap last night when I couldn’t turn the lights out and the guy from the hotel had to help me. Was way more complicated by the fact that I was locked in my room like Rapunzel.” This was due to the fact that she turned in early being jetlagged but there is only one key for the room, and therefore we locked her in before having a night cap at the Irish bar across the street. When someone came in response to her phoning reception for help, she couldn’t open the door to let them in.

Fish pedicure

Our afternoons consisted of relaxing over spa treatments for incredibly cheap prices, yet ranged in quality and included pedicures, massages, body scrubs and ear candling (or at least that last one was just me) all to the tune of soothing music. I was tempted to get one of the fish pedicures where you put your feet in a small aquarium and let them nibble off your dead bits but was concerned about hygiene so opted out.

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Every night around 6 pm we would ride the Triplets to the west side of the island for a spectacular sunset. Bingtang in hand, we’d overlook the foggy backdrop of Bali’s famed Gunung Agung in the distance while pink, orange, and blue hues would magically change tones until the sky went black. Most places would also have fire pits and local entertainers doing impressive fire tricks and I was grateful that Louise showed me how to slow my shutter speed so I could capture some awesome action shots. Then came another challenge, riding in the pitch black dark, iPhone in hand to light the way as we peddled back to the bustling restaurant strip.

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Dinner each nice was also a treat. It’s not uncommon for quality restaurants like The Beach House and Scallywags, amongst a few others, to have fresh seafood on display. The drill is you pick your seafood from an ice chest of lobster, prawns, fish, and more. They weigh it and once you give your nod of approval they immediately throw it on the grill. While you wait for it to cook there is a free salad bar. Lobsters averaged about $50, so the three of us shared one. Another night I had pepes, fish grilled in banana leaf. When we weren’t dining on seafood there were a range of options including the local staple nasi goreng (fried rice) to Thai and tons of western food. In fact, the most surprising element of my whole trip was how abundant western food was. I’m used to dining in countries where it’s okay to try the local stuff, in fact it’s encouraged, but this time around there was a lot of playing it safe.

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One of the most interesting days on Gili T was jumping onto the Triplets and discovering the whole island. We rode around feeling like we were the stars of Eat, Pray, Love. We first stopped off on the east side and sat under thatched roof huts drinking lime fizz while sun baking. We BYOS (bring your own snorkel) so it was very convenient to be able to laze around and then hop into the crystal clear water for a quick underwater exploration. Funnily though, when we asked for a snack from the large proprietor who was an enthusiastic fan of Bruno Mars, we received the reply, “the kitchen is closed. The chef is still asleep.” That’s island time for you. We were getting hungry for lunch though so hopped back onto the Triplets and took them for a ride in search of the remote, colorful beach hangout/restaurant/accommodation, The Exile. Riding down the dead center of the island, carefully maneuvering the bikes to avoid large rocks and unexpected holes in the dirt path, we witnessed where the locals stay when they’re not servicing the hordes of tourists. Horses and cattle grazed behind coconut trees, children raced their bikes, and workers hammered away further transforming the island to accommodate for more tourists.

In the evenings the various restaurants would turn into island clubs, with live music, reggae or remix popular international artists set to the tune of a relaxed beat. Like a wolf pack, the nine of us (us girls accompanied by a few of Louise’s volunteer friends) all hopped onto our bikes, rode through the dark streets after watching the sunset and eating $5 curries at a small Thai restaurant tucked away off of the main strip. We then settled on a night out dancing at Suma Suma where we drank Bintangs until the early morning, soaked ourselves in sweat, and listened to a local cover band do a heart wrenching rendition of Stand By Me and then hand the stage over to an Indonesian Rastafarian who imitated Bob Marley. What was most surprising was the amount of locals interspersed with the tourists, singing at the top of their lungs – many of which looked well under 18.

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The only way to close out this first part of our trip was to indulge in a final attempt of pure relaxation and the number one spot for it is Pearl Beach Lounge. If you spend a minimum of 100,000 R (approx. $10) you can use their beach loungers, free Wi-Fi and pool for the day. It’s such an amazing deal considering the coconut shrimp, calamari and duck pad thai are to die for. We spent one day roasting on the beach, only to discover the pool has a waterfall and swim up bar. After uncovering that, it was all Bintangs poolside and water aerobics under the crash of the waterfall. Our last evening we treated ourselves to fine dining at one of the nicest places on the whole island, Ko-ko-mo. We indulged in fresh seared tuna and crab raviolis then finished it off with the fallen chocolate dessert. The way that  Eileen described our dessert could also be our farewell to Gili T. “L & E devoured it at equally rapid paces. Both loved it, both sad it’s over.”

Bintang Can

A first touch of Indonesia

It’s very rare to be on a flight where you can almost guarantee the majority of the people on it are also going on vacation. But when you are, oh what a buzz it is. You can hear the excitement in voice tones, witness the change in character by the clothes people wear, the Bermuda shorts are on and the suit and tie are left at home. You can feel the energy in the air and at that point it hits you, vacation is here! This is at least what I felt on my Garuda Indonesia flight bound for Denpasar on Bali just a few weeks back.  Well, at least for the first hour or so. The novelty wore off over the near 6 hour flight.

I hadn’t really set myself any expectations before I left. Of course I read my Lonely Planet guidebook from front to back cover, but that was months ago while I was planning. I settled on a rough itinerary…one night visiting my friend and ex-colleague, now international volunteer, Louise at her host accommodation in Sanur on Bali, four nights mixing relaxation with a bit of party on Gili Trawangan off of Lombak, three nights getting a cultural buzz in Ubud, and finishing it off with boutique shopping and sipping cocktails in  Seminyak. Yup, as usual I had a plan but once I was on the plane itself is when it finally hit me that I hadn’t yet identified my must do/buy/eat list. Most importantly I didn’t even know what the most delicious local food was that I would just have to try.

Once I landed I discovered Bangi Kopitiam, the only café in the Denpasar airport. It was crowded but still a relief from all the hawkers who approach you for a taxi fare. I killed about 3 hours waiting for my friend Eileen to land from New York, passing the time familiarizing myself with the local beer Bintang, trying Mie Goreng aka Indonesian fried noodles and observing the locals. I was surprised to see the female servers wearing fuzzy bunny ears with hot pink sequins in the middle, embracing western Easter holiday traditions despite Bali being one of the largest Hindu regions of the world.

That evening we experienced expat life in Sanur, a coastal area in southeast Bali, as part of a going away party for a volunteer who needed to return back to Australia because she caught typhoid. It hit home that 3rd world diseases do exist and can be obtained by just about anyone. So, we said both hello and goodbye at Man Shed, a funky hangout with car and motorcycle memorabilia where both locals and expats frequent. It had a really cool vibe to it and I was so excited to be out and about with a cold Bintang in my hand, for less than $3 mind you! Afterwards, The Fire Station served up one of the best fried soft-shell crab and pork belly meals that I’ve had outside of Australia, for Australian prices though. That night I learned from the friend an important part of Bali culture. She told me, “sweeping is the biggest pastime on this island. That, and doing nothing.” I realized it was true when I woke up very early the next morning before catching our boat to Gili T to the sound of sweeping outside of Louise’s bedroom window, and roosters clucking in the early morning.

I sat in the front seat of the Gili Cat minibus after our 7:30 am pickup. My seatbelt didn’t work properly, apparently they normally don’t, but traffic is horrendous and so is the driving so I made the driver make it work. There is always a motorbike to be aware of, or multiple. I was dead tired so sat in silence and tuned in to the conversations happening in the back of the bus, but my mind was focused on what was happening on the outside of my dirty window. It took us over an hour to reach Padang Bai, the small port where budget boats set off for Lombak and its surrounding islands. The scenery rapidly changed from inter-city traffic, to lush green rice patties and finally the sea.

Gili Cat at least made things easy. They are Australian owned, so trusted over some of the cheaper, yet less reliable outfits. For an extra cost, it cost us 800,000 R or close to $80 AUD, they pick you up nearly anywhere on Bali, express boat to Lombak or the Gili Islands, and provide return transfer to most central areas on Bali. The check-in process was painless, and they have a neighbouring café that serves pretty good breakfast, I recommend the poached eggs, while you wait and a toilet to use before getting on the boat. The negative is that the boat had no upper deck, which meant we were all underneath, sweltering in the heat with barely a breeze guzzling down the free water they gave us, trying not think of the unthinkable while out in the open sea. The boat ride was about an hour and half, but as we approached Lombak to let some passengers off, then arrived on Gili Trawangan, I had never been so happy to see land.

Eileen and I kept a diary of our adventure in our notebook called “Wanderlust” – stay tuned for some excerpts from the trip and more about Gili T, Ubud and Seminyak coming your way!