Are you looking to escape to a (nearly) deserted tropical island?
I was. And when I found Gili Trawangan, I didn’t need to look any further.
Gili T, as it’s known to most, is a small island off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia. This tiny bit of perfect is a potentially life threatening 1.5 hour fast boat ride from Bali, but if you don’t sink, it’s worth the trip.
Lombok is Muslim so mornings start early, with the call to prayer and the chorus of chickens who feel they have to respond. If you can’t fall back to sleep, walk five minutes to the beach for a sunrise swim. At 7:00am it’s already 27 degrees and the water is warm enough to stay in all day. There’s a little café a few hundred metres down the beach that makes a decent Americano for the walk home.
The island has lots of accommodation options, mostly bungalows with open air restaurants and laundry service. I picked a bungalow surrounded by banana palms and flowering trees, decorated in simple Indonesian style with wicker and white linens. There was a front porch with pillows and a hammock, and a private outdoor rainwater shower. This foreign-owned operation was staffed by three mellow Indonesian surfers who made me eggs and toast each morning and handled my travel arrangements.
Daytime activities vary, based on the biggest decision to be made all day: go on a boat or stay on the island? Gili T is a popular dive destination and there’s great snorkeling as well, either right from the beach or further offshore. I did a snorkel trip one day to Gili Meno and Gili Air, the other two islands in this small archipelago. In five hours we stopped at three dive sites to see fish, turtles and coral. Visibility was the best I’ve had in South East Asia – at least 15 metres at each location.
If you choose to stay on the island, it’s a lot of lounging around in the sun, drinking Bintang and smoking shisha. Most of the beachside restaurant/bars have bean bag chairs and chaise lounges under umbrellas on the sand. The sporty travellers half-heartedly kick a ball around on the beach, stand up paddleboard, or one-handed swim so they don’t have to put down their drinks.
If you need a break from the sun you can hit one of the spas overlooking the beach. Services include aloe vera massages to take the edge off a sunburn, or moderate and intense hangover remedy treatments – a combination of liver tonics, aromatherapy, a steam, and hot and cold hydrotherapy.
No one goes to Gili T to shop, but the island does have a few interesting boutiques. I killed some time in Casa Vintage, filled with fun vintage clothes, bags and jewelry that the foreign owner buys abroad and sends to Lombok.
Around 6pm, everyone struggles to get vertical and walks or cycles about a kilometre to the western shore of the island to watch the sun set behind Bali. Gili T sunsets are long and drawn out, like watching a photograph develop, and it pays off to stay right to the end when the first few stars show up but the horizon is still pink.
Those who are too tired to walk back from sunset hitch a ride in small horse-drawn carts called cidomos. There is no motorized transportation on the Gilis so the cidomos move people and beer and construction materials around the island. The bright yellow carts all have bells to warn pedestrians after dark, and a few have air horns that the drivers use like it’s rush hour in Mumbai. You just know what these guys would be like behind the wheel of a real car.
Most restaurants serve a mix of Indonesian and Western food. There’s lots of Italian, some Mexican and several fresh seafood BBQs in the evening. The Ko Ko Moh Resort and Pearl Beach Lounge at the southern end of the restaurant strip offer food and accommodation that is a step up from the very acceptable middle of the road options everywhere else. You can even have dinner at a makeshift beach cinema that screens traveller circuit classics like The Beach and The Hangover trilogy.
My evenings ended with made-on-island gelato, but given Gili T’s reputation as an everything goes party place, I think the night goes on a lot longer for others. The bars take turns hosting parties that run until sunrise and the word is that you can buy any substance you’d like. One morning on my way to the sunrise swim I did see three people sleeping on the beach so there may be some truth to the rumours.