I remember gasping when my salt-washed long boat pulled into the jetty of the Gili Islands. I'd whizzed across the ocean from Senggigi on the far shores of Lombok, fresh from a week of mountain trekking, town hopping, and surfing on the remote swells. This place was the paradise I'd been searching for; a place ringed by cotton-white sands; a place peppered with lanky palms; and somewhere which had more ramshackle bamboo bars than you could shake a cold Bintang beer at. It was perfect. It was a great spot for a session of lazy days and long nights before making the trek back across the sea to Bali.
The lazy days – every day on Gili T
There are flying fish hopping in and out of the water. The water itself is streaming, more like a river than a sea, past the glowing shoreline. It's a curios sight, one that I'd probably be gasping at a whole load more had I not been on the paradisiacal archipelago of the Gilis for more than a week already. I've kind of gotten used to this sort of tropical spectacle: The glistening, turquoise-blue sea; the stooping palm trees; the coconut shacks; the bobbing catamarans; the silhouettes of divers under the water; the flying fish…well, flying.
I'm due to leave these islands in a couple of days and make my way back to the relative civilization of Bali across the strait. Needless to say, that's going to be a chore. The days here have been the most relaxing and chilled of my whole trip through Southeast Asia. And the nights. Well…the nights have been something altogether different. More on that later though.
Right now, all I can think of is not moving, and where my next cold Bintang will come from. It's not like there are a shortage of places to supply it. The whole east coast of Gili Trawangan – the island of choice for most backpackers and beach lazers in this part of Indo – is brimming with reggae bars and ramshackle beer joints. There are also a couple of chichi places thrown in, but I tend to avoid them in favor of something a tad more rustic and tropical. (It's an island, after all).
It seems like ages but I actually only awoke a couple of hours ago. Last night's haze was still there then and I was thankful that I only had to move a couple of meters from the door to my little beachside cabana to the soft sands of Gili T's main beach. There are different sections to the long and powdery sand there. Some have bobbing longboats and purring catamarans that have just drifted in with another boatload of fresh-faced travelers from Lombok in the east. Other areas are dotted with warung (traditional Indonesian taverns) that but right up to the edge of the sloshing, see-through Indian Ocean.
I'm lucky to be on one of the long stretches at the more northern end of the beach, where the sands are wider, the bars are fewer, the crowds are smaller, and the pitter patter of sea turtles on the shore is the noise you get during the nighttime. I easily find somewhere to recline every morning, and love watching as boats laden with divers doing their PADI courses drift out across the light swells in search of the fabled wrecks and coral gardens and mind-boggling underwater creations of the Bali Sea. I think to myself sometimes that I should have joined them, but then I crack a cold Bintang and the thought is gone.
As the sun arches overhead and the mercury levels crank up, I flit in and out of the cool shore waters. It's a great way to sizzle off the heat. I often don the snorkel, too, and paddle out to the so-called Wall. That's where the soft sands that line the beach underwater suddenly drop away and the Indian Ocean proper takes over. From above the water you see it as a change from light blue to dark blue. Below, it's the moment the otherworldly sea sponges, paddling sea turtles, alien-like coral sprouts, and all manner of other strange marine creatures start to make their home.
Lunch time. I flap the sugar-like sand from my towel and wrap up my gear. My favorite lunch spot it just a short walk down the coastal road. It's the only real road on all of Gili T. No cars, obviously. Just horses and carts and SCUBA goers and strolling travelers looking for the next top sunbathing spot. It's got a sort of country vibe to it, as those mares rattle with their rickety wooden wagons over the uneven surface. I've also got to know quite a few of the local shop owners here. They smile wide and shout my name as I pass. I know they do it to everyone, but at least it distinguishes me from the long boaters who've just pulled up at the jetty – the newbies of the Gilis.
My meal is a tempeh skewer doused in peanut satay. It's peppery and strong-flavored with overtones of chili and spice and cumin and lemon. I can't get enough of this stuff. The waiter even laughed when I ordered it again – it's like the fifth time this week. As I eat, I watch the fishing skiffs bobbing at the end of their ropes. They tug this way and that with the currents of the ocean, which can be quite strong here as the water moves from the northern part of the Bali Sea to the southern part of the Bali Sea.
After eating the sun is getting low. I make for my favorite sunset spot on the island. It's perched on the southwestern edge of the land, around a 15-minute walk from where I'm sitting. It looks like plenty of other people have had the same idea, because as I stroll the stream of folk going in the same direction picks up. As I go, I pass the ramshackle night market of Gili T, a place where I've devoured Indo's tasty BBQ and haggled for little shell necklaces with the locals. I pass dive bars and even Irish pubs – yep, they're everywhere – and see a real medley of different guesthouses, from the budget to the downright luxury.
Then I'm there again, looking out over the glowing waters of the Bali Sea. The sun is dipping low. Reggae – as ever – echoes from the speakers. The seats and the dangling yogi chairs are filled with every nationality you can imagine. It's a babel of languages; Norwegian here, German there, Polish, Spanish, Aussie. People mingling and mixing and watching, wide-eyed as the sun drops against the outline of Bali's hulking Gunung Agung volcano across the sea. It hazes like a planet mid-eclipse in the distance, shimmering in rust-red and gold.
Unlike the beach scene and the ocean, this awesome tropical spectacle is one I don't think I'll ever get used to.
The long nights
The sun's gone now. It's dark but the candles are lit. Someone's strumming reggae in the corner of the bar and the beers are still flowing. People are swapping stories of their day on the ocean, their day diving between the multicolored coral gardens, their day seeking out empty coves on nearby Gili Meno, their beachcombing sessions on Gili Air, their days lazing – just like me – on the powdery sands, their days learning to cook Indonesian gado gado, or simply tasting some other exotic delight they've had their eye on all week.
This is how the nights begin on Gili T. They start slow and casual, filled with classic backpacker chat and chin wagging. Then they start rolling. I've grown to love them, especially because this island is small enough to create a sense of real community, but big enough to always ensure there's a steady stream of new faces coming across the Bali Sea from Lombok and the Isle of the Gods. I think for a moment perhaps I could live here. But then I think that the Gilis wouldn't be the same escape if their treasures were always there awaiting; if they weren't tantalizingly fleeting and transient and ethereal, just like the sunset I've just watched.
Then the party moves back to the main section of the roadway. It's where legendary clubs like Blue Marlin (also a SCUBA outfitters) and Jiggy Bar make their home. My destination is little Sama-Sama Reggae Bar though. It's always echoing with the steel drums and off beats of The Wailers and the like. The cocktails are cheap, the crowd is chilled, and the setting – just meters from the lapping shoreline – is perfect.
As the hours wear on, I realize I'm in the midst of another long night on Gili Trawangan. They really do live up to the island's reputation for wild hedonism and happy-go-lucky vibes. I hop from Sama Sama to an Irish bar where groups of North American's are glowering up at the TV screens watching NFL. In another corner, there are people playing drinking games. In another there are others sampling local cocktail mixes – the arak is not recommended. I already know a lot of the faces. That's what happens when you party all week and laze all week on the main beaches of Gili T – the whole island becomes a sort of homey neighborhood.
Later, the party continues on in another bar on the main seafront of Trawangan. I'm dancing now and thinking the sun must be soon returning. There's still a cracking crowd of people crafting bucket cocktails and reclining on the bamboo cabanas that pepper the edge of the shoreline. Then the sun does come and people start to retire. The music dies down, the glow of the day hits the horizon in the east, and the slosh of the ocean replaces the twang of reggae tunes. It's time to hit the sack after another long night on Gili T.
Gili Trawangan – and the quieter sister island of Gili Air – is just a taster of what you can experience on our bucket-list-busting Blissful Bali, Indonesia Island Explorer, Bali NYE, and Bali Discovery trips. If tales of their lazy days and long nights have got your wanderlust a-going, then we'd love to have you on board. Be sure to sign up for places this coming year…
"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."
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