The beautiful Gili islands in the clutches of mass tourism
In February 2017, after more than 20 months, we revisited the Gili Islands again. In this past, we were in Gili Air and Gili Meno, and this time we decided to see all the three islands at once.
In many tourist publications, promotional materials and video trailers, the agencies will portray the Gili Islands as the most perfect place to spend your desired vacation. Who wouldn't want to take a look into the tropical island paradise on earth? Everywhere palm trees and coconut drinks, comfortable sunbeds on the endless, sparkling white sand beach overlooking the crystal clear turquoise sea (where the shadows of fishing boats penetrate through the clear waters, flocks of colorful fish and coral reefs to finally reflect themselves on the sandy seabed and the vessels seem to "levitate" above the water surface), beautiful loose airy hair ladies wearing white translucent dress watching the dramatic sunset from the swing hanging over the sea, beautiful bungalows of the village type "Sasak" (equipped with a huge white bed with fluffy white pillows, covered with dark red rose petals, protected by a mosquito net) surrounded by abundant juicy greenery, eye-catching Indonesian dishes and refreshing fruit summer mixed drinks. Last but not least, they all seem happy and enjoying life.
The Gili islands are mostly presented as exotic pearls set in the ocean just 20 minutes away from the NW coast of Lombok island, eventually, 60 to 90-minute speedboat cruise away from Bali Island.
Upon arrival to the islands, this dream advertising / Photoshop reality is unmistakably replaced by the real truth.
In 2015, we were leaving the Gili islands having somewhat mixed feelings. Otherwise beautiful islands are slowly being transformed as per the needs of mass tourism, which is negatively reflected in the changing mentality of local people, their relationship to the environment and the rapid rise of the general price level.
Admittedly we were interested in what direction the situation had developed over the last 20 months.
Our excursion started in the middle little Gili Meno. This island is often called as the romantic island. For its relaxed and peaceful atmosphere, encouraging loving couples to experience first class honeymoon here.
To our surprise, Gili Meno has not changed significantly. On the one hand, a lot of new buildings (mainly guest houses, huts, and bungalows) have been constructed in the central part of the island and in the formerly deserted SW section of the beach. Nevertheless, despite the ongoing constructions, it is still possible to find preserved nature on Gili Meno (green pastures, palm tree groves, and even a lake) or find a free quite spot on the beach (west and north of the island) suitable for undisturbed sunbathing or watching the romantic sunset over the neighboring brother island Trawangan.
As long as you don't mind all types of rubbish lying all around you on the beach everywhere you look. The former clean beach on the southwest side of the island has changed unrecognizably. Now, there is everywhere rubbish, shards, plastic, and construction waste. Looks like the locals are beyond busy building new bungalows, instead of occasionally making their efforts to keep their island clean. They sweep out in front of their own door, but what's a few yards away is none of their business. So here and there, during a stroll around the island, you will find heaps of loose litter, remains of building material or completely abandoned old objects.
However, the situation here is not as overwhelming as it is in the neighboring Gili Trawangan.
Over the past 20 months, most local accommodation owners have connected their businesses online, so now you can find nearly complete selection online (booking.com). The times when we ran around the island in the noon heat wearing heavy backpacks on our backs until we managed to arrange suitable accommodation for 200K IDR (now at the non-existent Sasak Bungalows) are long gone.
You can find some interesting offers online, especially off-season. Go around guesthouses without prior reservation no longer makes sense. Paradoxically when you come from the street, in most cases, the guest house owners will charge you a higher rate than it is online. In 2017 we stayed at the simple, yet comfortable and clean Kareba Bungalows (map, for amazing 100K IDR).
... Well, let me explain the word "comfortable." During the strong wind storms in Lombok, some fallen trees cut the power lines, and we found ourselves two days without electricity and water. We flushed the toilet with water we brought in the trash bin from the nearby well. Even so, island life may look like.
Accommodation rates start in Gili Meno at around 130K for a Home Stay and 200K for a bungalow type Sasak (breakfast and Wifi mostly included). If you want to get something better with a direct sea view, you gotta dig deeper into your pocket. For a modern apartment at Seri Resort, they charge 89 USD per night (1mil IDR including breakfast) and for a luxurious 2-story bamboo Sasak bungalow at Karma Reef, unreal 222 USD per night (2,6 mil IDR, including breakfast). Like it is in the rest of Gillis, the quality and comfort of existing and newly built apartments are not greatly increasing, on the contrary, the price is rising steeply every year. Lesser-known Gili islands (like Gili Gede) are equally oriented to a wealthy foreign clientele only.
Food and drink prices are slightly higher than the Indonesian average, but still within sympathetic range. If you want to eat well, go to Warung Putri (map). Portion sizes are above average, and the food is excellent. Buy basic goods and fruits in the store next to Warung Putri at local prices. For a drink on a porch overlooking the sea, head to Ya Ya Warung (map).
Gili Meno is not a favorite destination for party-like tourists, locals are very friendly and welcoming, the atmosphere is relaxing. The island is suitable for visitors looking for peace and relaxation.
A relatively clean piece of beach
The main promenade at the pier
Decaying remains of a former bamboo complex
"Luxury" Karma Reef bungalows for 222 USD per night
Gili Air is significantly more touristically developed than its brother Gili Meno. Especially, if you just came from the peaceful Gili Meno you can tell the difference - a number of tourist-oriented overpriced restaurants, shops, exchanges, diving centers and "travel agencies" are distracting you on every corner. Immediately you get the feeling that everything here is spinning around the fact how to get as much money as possible from the tourists. The whole island is literally enclosed by beach shacks and restaurants overlooking the sea in the first row, lined up with cottages and bungalows across the footpath in the second row. Whether beach bars are made of bamboo or concrete, the prices for drinks and food are well exaggerated. For a standard mixed drink, you will pay 40K and more (3.3 USD), for Bintang 35-40K beer. For the cheap Indonesian classics cuisine, you will pay two or three times more compared to the regular prices (chicken satay 50-60K, Nasi Goreng 30-40K and chicken Lalapan 50K). From all the sides, various vendors and local thugs constantly lure you into buying "convenient" transport, "unique experience" diving trip or they just want to convince you to enter some "amazing" dirty restaurants and bars.
If you are looking for a sunbathing beach spot or a piece of greenery, you have to look harder than in Gili Meno. There is a scarcity of such places (Gili Air imports grass for horses from the mainland). On the W and NW side of the island, you will still find a few empty mini beaches. There is no calm here because tireless street vendors of mushroom, sarongs, fruits and coconut milk won't let you be in peace.
Besides sipping cocktails in bars and snorkeling with a band of equally excited tourists, Gili Air doesn't offer anything else to do. The Gili Islands are presented as the perfect destination for snorkeling and diving. You'd better pay a bit more for Scuba Diving and go on the boat a few miles away from the shores, as you will not see anything interesting when snorkeling near the beach. In the past, coral reefs have been destroyed by intense fishing through the dynamite, and are now being hardly put back into the original state by the local authorities (introducing electric current to corals).
Accommodation rates in Gili Air start at 150K. I recommend the spacious and clean Andin Bungalow in a quiet part of the island (175K, welcome drink, Wifi, breakfast included, map).
Gili Air is much more developed, more commercial, more touristy, more expensive and dirtier than Gili Meno. Local residents are less friendly and more profit oriented.
Igloo can also be found here
Without garbage it would be a perfect beach
Probably someone is running a business from the beach
Probably a new bus stand on the beach
You don't see many fishermen these days
Newly emerging resorts
Remnants of undeveloped area
One of the smaller beach bars
On the way home
Relatively a clean piece of beach
Also called the "Party Island" or in slang the "Gili T." I would personally call it an island of commerce, tourism, and dirt.
If Gili Air and Meno were too overpriced and touristy to your taste, then you will freak out in Gili Trawangan.
If you are looking for cheap accommodation (120K), then most likely you end up in the inner part of the island near the pier. This area reminds me somewhat of India. There is rubbish lying in the "streets," everything is dirty and stinking (rotting-like smell). We stayed at Ombak Homestay (120K), near Jl. Ikan Kodok. This bright green painted room was relatively clean, but after a few hours, it began to smell like damp (when freshly sprayed freshener perfume worn off). In this zone, you definitely won't find peace and tranquility. Many foreign and Indonesian tourists are coming to Trawangan just to get drunk. In the late night hours, the drunken ones are coming back to the hotel shouting like crazy. If it's nor yelling tourists, then the locals start banging with a hammer to a wall on the construction site next door, or they continue building an extra story above your ceiling (as happened in our case).
The majority of local youth thugs have adapted to the rude and cocky style of Australian and other western foreign tourists, and they constantly shout something on you. All conversations point to the same topics - party, sex, mushroom, and booze. Sometimes during the day, they sing "No mushrooms, no fun."
They will offer you a 50K overpriced rusty bike because no one walks on the island (we were the only ones who walked around the island all the way - 7 km). Many tourists rent "Ojek" for their rides around the island - a cart pulled by a tormented horse. Be prepared to see besides heaps of restaurants and bungalows heaps of rubbish along the paths and beaches as well.
In bars and restaurants, prices are even higher than in Gili Air and Meno. You will pay for a mixed drink absurd 80K (6.6 USD) and for the cheapest Indonesian food 40 - 50K (3.3 USD instead of 1.3 USD). For the most expensive street stall dish in Asia, head to the Night Market (map). Grilled snacks look irresistible, but cunning vendors abuse the fact that most of the foreign visitors come to eat well drugged with mushrooms or alcohol, and set the prices noticeably high. Most delicacies are served on a skewer, and you might easily lose control of how much you actually have eaten. It is not a problem to pay up to 100K for a few pieces of grilled meat and vegetables.
Besides the hill of Bukit Trawangan (with thousands of mosquitoes crawling through the forest), you will not find much greenery on the island. Finding a beach suitable for swimming and sunbathing is also an art because all of them are either covered with half-empty bars or polluted with waste. After we finally found a free spot on the Sunset Beach and started watching the sunset enthusiastically, our view was concealed by the infamous tourists taking pictures from the back of a horse galloping in the water during the sunset. These tourists didn't even arrive on the horse, but only used it for a few "fancy" photos on the spot instead, for which they paid bold (200K). The - from the Gili Trawangan advertising materials - well-known swings hanging over the water surface can be seen everywhere. They serve once again only for the purpose of taking tourist pictures ideally at sunset.
After a long search, we discovered a nice and cheap Intan Restaurant (map) serving tasty food.
For me personally, it's tough to find any pros on the example of the Gilis. Even so, I believe it is still possible to spend a nice vacation there, especially on Gili Meno Island. If you are looking for a party, new friends and a one-night stand, then Gili T is your right choice. The unstoppable construction of new bungalows, the increasing pollution and the crowds of tourists flowing to Gilis gradually but inevitably change these beautiful islands into a touristy septic tank.
Would I go back to Gilis?
No thank you! For a few bucks, I'd instead seek the deserted clean beaches, beautiful countryside with rice fields, impressive cliffs and ideal surfing conditions in Kuta in Lombok.
More about that coming up in the next article.
All Inclusive Home Stay