The Gilis (tourist mecca)

Some of our Canadian readers may recall a TV ad for Molson Canadian that ran last spring, during the Stanley Cup playoffs.  In it, a couple of guys painstakingly traveled with a fridge full of beer to surprise their friend, Morgan, whom they “hadn’t seen since he moved to the Gili islands in Indonesia”.  If you haven’t seen it, have a look here:
Well, we also went to the Gili islands, but did not meet the famous Morgan, nor did we play hockey on the beach.  But we were carrying 4 large backpacks, one of which is probably as heavy as a fridge. Gili actually means island in the Lombok dialect, so it’s a bit redundant calling them the “Gili Islands”, but they are well-known by that name.  Although the Gilis were more or less uninhabited until the 1970s, they certainly are a place where you could find yourself extending your stay indefinitely.  We met several people who gave some version of, “I planned to stay for three days and ended up staying two weeks!”  Although the commercial suggested that it was an epic journey to get to these islands, it really wasn’t too bad, and only took about an hour by “fast boat” from Padang Bai on Bali. 

The Gilis are a mecca for backpackers, honeymooners and divers.  Speaking of mecca, the local population is predominately Muslim so there are mosques on each island.  Our guest house was quite close to the largest one, and the 5am call to prayer felt like it was being broadcast into our room!  With the help of some ear plugs, we got to the point that it didn’t really bother us, though.

There are 3 Gilis off the northwest coast of Lombok:  Gili Air, Gili Meno, and Gili Trawangan.  They are tiny islands, surrounded by beach and reef; each with its own personality.  The climate, food, and pace of life on the Gilis are so pleasant that you find yourself just not wanting to leave!  There are no motorized vehicles on any of them, but plenty of bicycles, horse-drawn wagons, dive shops, and beach-front restaurants.

Public transportation on the Gilis. We found we could walk wherever we needed to go, so Kaia was the only one who rode in a horse-carriage (with her scuba instructor when they had to transport tanks and other equipment).
Dinner on the beach

We started on Gili Air (“air” means “water” — go figure!), which is pretty laid back, but still has a lot to offer.  One of the first things we realized was that, despite its name, Gili Air does NOT have good water (we purified some tap water but found in totally unpalatable — way too salty!), so, for the first time on our trip, and with guilty consciences, we had to rely on buying bottled water.

Our first morning on Gili Air, we hired a boat to take us to 3 snorkeling sites, to Gili Meno for lunch, and then drop us off at Gili Trawangan or “Gili T”, as it is known among travelers (who struggle with the multiple syllables in the Indonesian place names).  Gili T has the most tourist infrastructure…and the most tourists!  We heard there was great snorkeling right off the beach and that we’d be able to find cheap accommodation.  Both were correct.  But there are also lots of boats and the place is quite busy, even though this is the low season.

Kaia's snorkeling pose
Diving down in the "big old blue"(there was a sea turtle below us!)
There was a special kind of blue staghorn coral near the Gilis. Some coral has been destroyed by a type of fishing that involves the use of explosives, but education and conservation efforts have had some positive results.
This stretch of beach wasn't too busy, but you can see there were many boats.

One of our goals on Gili T was for Cam and Kaia to complete their scuba certifications.  We found a good dive shop (staffed by French dive instructors) that was very flexible about offering exactly what they needed.  Cam had to complete 2 more dives, and Kaia needed a pool refresher as well as her 4 dives.  Things were going well: Cam overcame his problems equalizing and Kaia completed her pool session and first dive.  Jake and I went for a scuba dive at the same time.

Here is Jake following the divemaster along the slope. The leaf-like coral is called fire coral, which gives a terrible sting if touched.
We found Dory!
...and we saw Crush having his shell cleaned by a fish (or perhaps waxed?)

Unfortunately, that night, Kaia came down with a fever and was not well enough to dive the next day.  Or the next.  This was when we realized the true value of the location of our accommodation — not the proximity of the mosque, but the fact that our room was located directly above a medical clinic!  The doctor had concerns that Kaia could have dengue fever, so he suggested a blood test.  As luck would have it, he was heading back to the main island (Lombok) the next morning, having completed his 1-week shift at the clinic.  So, at about 6:30am, he knocked on our door, took Kaia’s blood sample, packed it in ice in a cooler, and headed off for the ferry.  A few hours later, he called us with the result:  negative!  And the doctor who took over from him brought us the paperwork.  Most convenient health care I’ve ever experienced!  It did cost about $90, which we can hopefully recoup from insurance.

Cam and his dive instructor, Cyril, after he completed his certification.

A few doors down from our guesthouse, was the “Sweet and Spicy” Indonesian cooking school.  They offered daily classes, followed by a shared meal.  Since we’ve really been enjoying Indonesian food, Cam decided to sign up.  He had a great time learning how to make tempe, dipping sauces, gado-gado, mie goreng (fried noodles with vegetables) and a coconut dessert. 

Kaia was feeling well enough for an outing, so she and I went to check on how the lesson was going. We got to sample some of Cam's creations.
I joined Cam and his classmates for the feast. It was a great dinner!

We had many nice meals on Gili T, and especially liked the “night market” that was set up in the central square each evening.  There, you could choose fresh fish and they would barbecue it right in front of you. 

What will it be? red snapper? squid? lobster?
There were endless options of fish skewers, and side dishes.
Outdoor shared tables at the night market. Here we are chatting with Flip, a Belgian dive instructor who plies his trade as he lives and travels around the world.

There is quite a happening nightlife on Gili T, which we didn’t partake in too much, except for listening to the live band that played across the street from our room. 

Some other local activities: yoga and freediving (you know, deep diving without the scuba tank!) For yoga, one is encouraged to inhale and exhale deeply and regularly. In freediving, only exhaling is recommended!

We rented bicycles one afternoon (2 singles and a tandem) and rode around the island, stopping to watch the sunset on the other side.  Cam and Jake had a great snorkeling outing during which they were competing to see who could spot the most sea turtles.  Jake: 3, Dad: 2.

They are so graceful as they "fly" underwater.

With so many tourists, there is obviously a lot of environmental pressure on the Gili Islands.  We caught up with some people volunteering with the “Gili Eco Trust”, ( ) a group that has been working on several issues:

-unsustainable fishing practices
-reef destruction
-waste management and recycling (yikes — all those water bottles!!)
-animal welfare (referring to the horses that pull the wagons)

When we saw the volunteers, they were working on a “biorock” which is a type of artificial reef; a metal frame on which corals are encouraged to grow because they run a small electrical charge through it (this causes minerals from the sea water to attach to it, which in turn, helps the coral to take hold).  They have been installed at several locations around the island and are helping the reef regenerate.

There is also a turtle hatchery on the island, where they keep the hatchlings for about 8 months before releasing them into the ocean, improving their chances at survival.

Baby sea turtles at the hatchery. We really had to hold ourselves back from just reaching in and picking up one of these cute little guys!

So our days on the Gilis were a much needed “down time”, allowing us to relax, get sick and recuperate comfortably, and have some fun as well.  In the end, we found that leaving the Gilis actually was quite difficult:  our boat was 2 hours delayed with no explanation, forcing us to spend an extra night in Kuta before leaving for our next adventure:  Flores Island and Komodo Park!


One thought on “The Gilis (tourist mecca)”

  1. Indonesia! My favourite place on the planet! I have actually been to these locales! Did you see any carpets of baby jellyfish in the Gillis? Try not to surface into them. The free diver may say “jellyfish no problem!” but their stingers say otherwise 🙂 Fabulous country. Doesn’t look like it has changed too much in 19 years. That’s a great thing. Hope Kaia feels better.


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