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Gili Islands: An imperfect island retreat

Gili Islands


It emerged from the ocean’s depths.
 Gliding slowly through the water, it moved with a sleepy grace that defied its bulk.

A sea turtle.

Gili Trawangan sea life

I was in awe. The fish on the reef were colourful and varied, but each would’ve fitted in the palm of my hand. This turtle could’ve swallowed them whole. My heart raced as I fumbled my camera, desperate not to lose the turtle in the coral maze.

My fears were unjustified — the turtle wanted company. It moved so near that I could’ve touched it. Instead, I admired how the sunlight crafted new patterns on its shell.

Sea turtle swimming underwater

It swung its flippers as if beckoning me to follow. I kicked my fins, but it was in vain. The turtle effortlessly accelerated away. All I could do was watch as it faded against the indigo marking the reef’s edge.

Sea turtle swimming underwater

I surfaced, and looked up at the arcing coconut trees. It’s not everyday you see a turtle while snorkeling ten metres from the beach. But this was the Gili Islands.

Gili Trawangan

The Gili Islands is a trio visible from Lombok’s northwest coast (Gili Trawangan, Gili Air and Gili Meno). About two hours from Kuta, the islands are accessible but not overcrowded.

Gili Trawangan is the largest and most popular. Its appeal lies in its world-class diving and snorkeling sites. It was here that I found the turtle. If you want to see tropical fish, you simply hire a snorkel and paddle out from the golden beaches. It’s amazing.

View of Lombok from Gili Trawangan

Boat moored on tropical island

Life moves at a slow pace on the Gili Islands — quite literally. Motorised transport is illegal, so bicycle or horse & cart is the way around. Fortunately, the islands are tiny, circumnavigable in only an hour. And it’s blissful not hearing a motorbike’s racket.

Horse and cart on Gili Islands

Indonesian woman walking cows on dirt road

Gili Trawangan’s other draw is the spectacular sunset. Its unobstructed view of Bali lets you witness the sun falling behind pyramid-like Mt Agung. The sea turns to bronze as the dying sun sets the sky alight.

View of Mt Agung from Gili Trawangan

Gili Trawangan sunset

But Gili Trawangan is no tropical paradise. The island is overdeveloped, with bars, resorts and restaurants fouling its eastern side. Its reputation for partying means that thumping bass rules the airwaves. The dead coral lining the inner shore is also impossible to ignore. And although motorbikes are banned, a speeding horse & cart poses a major hazard on the island’s narrow roads.

Tired horse pulling kart

Fortunately, a short boat-ride can change all of that.

Gili Air

Gili Air may be near Gili Trawangan, but its atmosphere is totally different. It’s like moving from a big city to a village. The island is very quiet, with just a handful of shops near the ferry landing.

Ferry on Gili Air

Indonesian folk masks

Venturing inland is necessary to reach the best beaches on the north coast. The walk through the island’s centre is scorchingly hot. Intermittent shade is provided by derelict palm plantations. For company I had just my friend and a handful of bored cows.

Old coconut plantation

The sea from Gili Air

The beach was similarly deserted. Gili Trawangan’s main strip is full of traffic, and I couldn’t snorkel without having to dodge a dive-boat. But not on Gili Air. The empty bay was still and the water totally clear. I hadn’t seen seawater this perfect since visiting Bocas del Toro many years ago.

Feet in clear sea water

The beach on Gili Air

Sunsets were not as spectacular as Gili Trawangan’s, but night-time brought a better experience. Since there were no street-lights, the dark and dusty lanes acquired a medieval feel. This was aided by the horse & carts, audible thanks to their jingling bells. Silhouetted palm trees reminded me that I was on a tropical island.

Couple watching sunset on GIli Air

I regretted the fact that I had to leave. Gili Air is the place to go if you want an idyllic island retreat.

A Gili Islands life lesson

He sat beside me on the ferry from Gili Air back to Lombok. A short man, his tattered shirt flapped about on his skinny frame. In his bony grip he held a bag of sarongs. My heart sank. It would be a long ride if he tried to sell me one.

“I only sell to you if you truly want something,” he declared. So the mind games had begun. Trapped between sacks of rice and squawking chickens, there was no escape. I shook my head and looked past him as Lombok’s Mt Rinjani loomed.

View of Mt Rinjani from ferry

“That’s OK my friend,” he said, before turning away. I was surprised. Street-sellers in Asia were nothing but persistent. As if reading my thoughts, he announced, “I only sell to make you happy. Sometimes, I even sell at cost-price. Too many people rip off tourists. It’s bad karma and bad business.”

The cynic in me viewed this as a blatant trick, but when I looked him in the eye, my mood softened. He was genuine. I asked for his name. “Rin,” he told me. “It sounds like you don’t care too much about money,” I inquired.

“I make enough money,” he smiled. “If I make more money, I would want more stuff. That would make me unhappy. Everything is perfect right now. My grandfather always said to look at the ground and not the sky. Oh, and trust your heart. That keeps me happy.”

What a contrast to modern Western values. Perhaps Rin had no option, but the rat-race wouldn’t wear him out. He needed a new set of clothes, but that didn’t stop him from wearing a big grin as we said goodbye on Lombok’s shore.

After relaxing in the Gili Islands’ decadent-paradise, this man had humbled me. As the air-conditioned car drove me to Kuta, we passed Rin walking down the highway. He sweated heavily under the load of the heavy bag, but I knew his thoughts were focused firmly at his feet.

Do you want to go to the Gili Islands? What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from a local while traveling? Leave a comment below 

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