Gili Trawangan is one of the most remote and isolated atolls in the world.
If you want to die creatively, it’s vaguely situated near the two islands where you can get eaten by a komodo dragon.
In a 1924 New York Times interview, George Mallory was asked why he wanted to summit Mount Everest and he famously answered “because it’s there.” When people ask me why I seek out the most distant and lonely places to travel, I say “Because if nobody goes there, it must really be a place worth visiting.”
Specifically, more than its distant hipster obscurity, I wanted to visit Gili Trawangan because it has one of the most accessible, vibrant, and unique coral reefs in the world. From the shore, it is a ten foot walk on a shallow sandbar that abruptly tumbles into a narrow, mile-long, wonder-world trench of eight-foot wide stingless Rays (which, if you’re crass, you can ride), ancient 700 lb sea turtles (which may casually bump you into the reef inviting a coral-worm infection), kaleidoscope colored fish camouflaging among neon-bright shoals, and about ten million tiny violet attacking jellyfish to lightly sting you as you float twenty minutes down a riptide that forcefully transports you from one edge of the island to the other. The scrapes and bruises are well worth it. For a $1 children will be waiting where the riptide ceases with your belongings so you don’t have to hike the mile back to where you began your swim. There is even a return kiosk for your rented snorkeling gear.
I was also lured by rumors of $5 hour-long beach-side back massages, and two-for-one forty cent whiskey happy hour specials. With basic hammock inside a beach hut accommodation, Gili Trawangan is a remote Utopian paradise on a budget.
Getting there proved difficult.
Easy journeys rarely begin with “First, fly to Jakarta.”
I had allotted three weeks for this adventure. I had planned on taking a train for ten hours to Surabaya (which is a place people normally do not want to be), then switch to another train for a further ten hours, ultimately having crossed the Island of Java, to the port city of Ketapang (which is definitely a place people do not want to be).
In an effort to discourage lingering, a ferry operates 24 hours a day to help sleep-deprived foreigners make the thirty minute crossing to the port of Gilimanuk, in Bali. From there, the plan was to jump on any willing four-by-four or bus making the six hour journey toward the Balinese capital of Denpasar. I would have concluded my trip by taking a twenty minute Bluebird Taxi (never use any other company–they will rip you off–it will only be by a dollar but you will feel exploited and, like an ironic cartoon character, start screaming about “fairness” to a guy who lives off $3 a day) to postcard-famous Kuta Beach. Then, obviously still being in a condition to negotiate hotel prices in Balinese, I would find a wonderfully exotic and inexpensive room for a brief forty-hour slumber.
Yes, it was all a very sensible idea.
I became discouraged when I looked out the window as my flight into Jakarta made its final descent. It looked like the whole city was underwater, which it was, due to flash flooding.
I had wondered why my roundtrip plane ticket from Singapore had only cost $100.
After a very brief wait at customs (lesser tourists having apparently been deterred from visiting the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim country during a humanitarian crisis) I began my vacation outside the airport pickup area which overlooks the city.
I thought I had walked onto a George A. Romero set during filming. Through windy torrents of rain and thunderclaps, there was a hysterical cacophony of screaming, crying, and the unintelligible noises and sirens commonly associated with mass-human suffering. I stood silently, unable to process it.
“What would pragmatically be the most helpful thing I could do?” I asked myself.
I walked back to the ticket counter. “How much for a plane ticket to Bali?”
Very cheap it turned out–and so I just got out of everyone’s way and left.
Three hours later I was on Kuta Beach.
I was slurping an overproof $1 strawberry daiquiri in a no-cover nightclub involving swimming pools, multi-tiered suspended glass dance floors, a whole pig rotating on a spit, and naked lesbian contortionists juggling fire whilst lighting customers’ cigarettes. (Well, not exactly, but my situation was in stark contrast from suffocating under a mosquito net while floating down railroad tracks in a Malaria-infested jungle.)
Pig on a spit, Bali, Indonesia.
What happened that night will one day be subject to the scrutiny of a Senate confirmation hearing, but for now, I’ll just explain that after three days my fast-fading instincts toward self-preservation prodded me onward.
My impossibly cheap Bali accommodation.
The impossibly ornate interior of TJ’s, a Balinese Mexican restaurant.
The impossibly ornate exterior of TJ’s, a Balinese Mexican restaurant.
From Kuta Beach it is a several hour transit to the village of Ubud, where you can buy indigenous crafts and antiquities that your children will be disappointed to discover are fakes when they attempt to sell them on a History Channel pawn show. Most people will spend a night here so they can get up at 3AM and preposterously scramble the perilous edge of the magma-smoldering volcano Mount Batur near the village of Kintamani or get pickpocketed by a Macaque at the Ubud Monkey Village.
I instead continued to Padangbai which runs the 24 hour Bali-Lombok ferry service.
Padangbai, Bali, Indonesia
Whenever you hear a news report involving a ferry crowded with five hundred passengers and three crew sinking in the middle of nowhere, there is a fifty-fifty chance it happened here in the Lombok Strait. The Lombok Tourism Bureau even warns travelers about the vessels’ “poor condition” and suggests visitors not use them–which really says something since at the time the island lacked an operational airport and this was the only way to get there.
Perhaps visitors were supposed to pirate a local’s fishing boat?
If you didn’t drown on the way to the Lombok nightmare-port of Lembar, you were likely to be killed when you got there.
Today, they have sufficiently cleaned the place up that cruise ships occasionally dock there allowing passengers to experience new and shiny Polynesian fire shows, but when I went guidebooks cryptically advised to have onward transport waiting for you on the pier and proffered suicide as a reasonable alterative to spending the night. Crime in Somalia is noted as “high.” At the time, crime in Lembar was noted as “very high.”
I decided to extend my life expectancy by a day with an overnight in Padangbai. The shoreline village is out of a Daniel Defoe novel. A hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex is a two hour hike up mountainside paths. Dinner is fish and so fresh that you basically explain what you want and they send a local ten-year-old out into the sea to catch it for you. My hotel room was a thatched roof two story bungalow furnished elegantly with indigenous artifacts–$6 per night (including a banana pancake breakfast accompanied by two liters of steaming Balinese tea and a cartoonishly steep and narrow staircase I dubbed the “tort-maker”).
$6 a night for a two-story thatched roof bungalow at the Kembar Inn.
Stairway to Heaven: This is the perilous obstacle course separating a patron who has enjoyed the night from his bathroom below.
It is a two-hour hike uphill to a hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex.
Stairs from the temple complex plunge into the water.
Stone gargoyles guard the hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex.
The hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex
Dine on the freshest seafood possible.
There is one bar in Padangbai. It is Rastafarian themed and the employees seem to be devout practitioners even while at work. Every purchased drink (which were priced at something-like ten cents for a shot of liquor or a quarter for a local beer) was accompanied by a huge complementary cup of hooch that they lovingly distill from home.
It was a long night and I am not allowed back at the Kembar Inn.
That’s not really true, but they weren’t overjoyed with me.
Upon my late night return my key would not unlock my hut’s door and so I violently kept stabbing the lock with the key while cursing and banging on the door. The lights suddenly went on inside.
When I finally located my assigned bungalow, during my energetic sleep I utterly destroyed the bed’s mosquito net. Management, the mother of the family which owned the hotel, asked that I pay thirty cents in damages. Feeling bad, I also arranged my ferry travel and for immediate onward transport from Lembar through the hotel. The whole package set me back $4. (Sure you might be killed; but at these prices. . .)
I was looking forward to the ferry crossing in the way a teenage skateboarder secretly looks forward to cracking his skull–at least there will be adventuresome stories to tell.
The ride certainly seemed fine at a distance.
I had read and heard so much hyperbole about the dangerousness of this mariner misadventure that I was siked to differentiate the reality from the hype. The waves were to be twenty feet high, the vessel as seaworthy as a dense stone, and it was told that bloody-toothed sharks would be at the ready for their fleshy American twenty-something chum.
As it turns out none of the gossip or admonishments were hyperbole–actually, the gloomy reports were rather euphemistic.
They hand each passenger a small plastic bag as they board.
“For when you vomit,” they explain with vexus calm.
As soon as we crossed the bay into the ocean our almost mini-cruise ship sized craft rocked back and forth at 75 degree angles causing even the toilet water to spill out onto the deck. In the below deck seating area, the windows smashed into the ocean at such precipitous angles that seafarers could see excited tropical fish pressed against the glass.
The fish were resplendent throughout the spectrum of rainbow colors. It was so enchanting that it would have enthralled the screaming passengers if they hadn’t been preoccupied by drafting wills, making amends with estranged relatives over mobile phones, and second guessing a life of confident atheism.
Twice we had dropped anchor because a lifeboat became untangled with the ship in the tumultuous sea. The first time required a twenty minute effort to rescue it and reattach it to our ship. The second time–I’m not joking–the lifeboat immediately sank.
We just stared blankly for a beat. Then, without comment, the crew drew up the anchor and we progressed with an unspoken pact to not think about what we had just witnessed.
After many more hours than planned, and to the apparent befuddlement of the Captain, we made it safely to the Zombie Apocalypse that was then-Lembar.
Despite being very late, I found my driver waiting asleep atop the roof of his van parked at the absolute point where the dilapidated pier turned into dirt. I therefore didn’t enter Lembar, but from a distance, it appeared to be in more need of humanitarian aid than certain refugee camps I had toured.
The driver was a cousin of the hotel matron. “Better luck with the misquote net here.” Gosh, word travels fast anywhere in the world rural. For the hours journey to Senggigi I stared out vacantly at a world of flooded paddy fields and the occasional lonely kiosk sized vegetable stand. As we approached the impossibly long shoreline of Senggigi the driver started recommending hotels at impossibly high prices–$15.
Lombok Rice Patty fields
I ended up getting a $6 room on the beach (though it turned out you had to walk a quarter mile down the road to actually access it) which I shared with thirty-five mosquitoes the size of tarantulas.
Here is perhaps the most important travel trip I can ever give you: bring mosquito repellant when visiting Indonesia.
The stores really don’t sell it; the hotel managers really don’t understand what you are complaining about; you will simply be moved to different rooms each with the same problem. By the time I returned to Singapore my body was so consumed with mosquito bites that, after enduring my partner’s attempts at applying odious ancient oriental balms, I finally had to check myself into the hospital.
“Why you no bring repellant to Indonesia, la” the Sumantran doctor inquired shrilly, “you so stupid?”
Bring your own repellant with you. If you fail to do so, your only reasonable alternative is to execute another tourist and take his.
While visiting the spartan town–there were maybe ten other foreigners–I quickly discovered that the local street vendors were decidedly more aggressive–threatening actually, than the mellow ones on Bali.
There is a material fact universally omitted from the guidebooks about Bali–the overambitious entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens.
A very rare picture of a near-empty main street Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia.
Every two feet the tourist will be confronted by business people hawking fake jewelry, novelty t-shirts evidencing your journey to Indonesia, and suspiciously low priced “Prada” bags and “Gucci” sunglasses. They are so zealous in beginning their careers in fraudulent retail that many have dispatched with the need to credibly own or rent a brick-and-mortar store, or even a clean blanket splayed on the pavement or sand, and will abruptly jump in front of you screaming as if they are blocking a bullet. If you assert disinterest by not making eye contact, about half of your assaulters will whisper into your ear: “heroin? cocaine? prostitute?”
In my experience, “no, thank you” translates into Indonesian as roughly, “I’m terribly interested in hearing more about what you have on offer and I’m secretly hoping to pay far too much for it!”
Try “Tidak, Terima Kasih” (exactly translates into “No, thank you”); it is interpreted as “I live here. Go away.” And they usually do.
They are then immediately replaced by someone else who has been refused twenty times in the last twenty seconds, has bore witness to you refusing the exact same items at the exact same prices with the exact same pitches also twenty times, but with that uncanny Balinese optimism, is certain that twenty-one will be a very lucky number indeed.
They are doing this because they are very poor and it is objectively the only way to fill their families’ bellies with rice.
They reason that if a foreigner clearly has enough money to travel to a remote island, they therefore can spare a dollar for a bone-knife or a scrap of coined pyrite masquerading as gold from a “Dutch sunken treasure.” If there weren’t ten thousand of them it would be an emotionally compelling argument.
They (very understandably) fail to differentiate the $1,000-a-night guest in a secured and heavily fortified resort and the decidedly disheveled thirty-year-old backpacker from Surrey who slept in a hammock at his $4 beach thatched-roof hut accommodation and who would have holidayed in Ibiza if he had any actual money.
Reactions to street-vendor solicitation range the spectrum from kindness to frustration to homicidal rage simply because he’s the tenth dude who wants to know if you’ll look at his t-shirts.
Nevertheless, the Balinese, sufficiently relaxed as Buddhists in what is otherwise an entirely secular Muslim county (there is a separation between Mosque and state), are resigned to rejection and just happily harass the next potential customer.
They cannot control the rude attitudes of vacationers, but they can control their own.
In Lombok, they are not Buddhist.
Solicitors on Lombok have a unique approach to customer service–they do not require your purchase to be made voluntarily. The Lombok, not-exactly typical, but frequent enough, sales pitch is aimed at impregnating the targeted patron with duress.
“You Westerners are so damned lazy you can’t even be bothered to stand up while taking a dump. You all have to over-complicate it by requiring a porcelain bowl so you can perch upon it like Colonial overlords. Even that’s not enough, you are unwilling to simply sit on the porcelain, you insist upon a plastic lid, sandwiched under, yet another, plastic lid. Sometimes you even pad the lid with some cushion-like lining–allahu akbar! You’re asses must be so fragile!
Antoine de Saint-Exupery said “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” But what would we Muslims know about engineering–we only invented mathematics.
Don’t even get me started on the Japanese. Their toilet seats must have warmers and include a spouting water feature because they can’t even be bothered to wipe themselves.
Westerners create huge complexes of elaborate piping and wastes Allah knows how much water flushing your decadent excrement into your kleptocratic-governed cities to be cleansed by hugely polluting treatment facilities. Here’s a green tip for you–just dig a small hole and squat like every other living creature, have a bucket of water nearby and use your left hand–it’ll biodegrade in a year without contaminating your water supply.
Now are you going to buy this five dollar Rolex or what!?”
During the whole encounter he has been trying to stab you in the neck with the Indonesian kris he has also been trying to sell you, but is fortunately physically held back by five members of the local tourism board–“Now, Farouk, if you kill this young man it will reflect poorly on all of us.”
While the Balinese seem contented to cheerfully hock wares to ensure basic survival on an idyllic tropical beach to insensitive vacationing inebriants, the Lombok vendor manages to be worldly and irate as an islander who will begin his pleas for sustenance with “hey, dickhead.”
After a few ugly unsolicited confrontations at the beach and then with angry people approaching me while I ate dinner, I retired to the best (and only) lounge. The bartender was unspeakably polite as I asked, which were in hindsight, invasively disrespectful questions like “how do you live on a dollar a day?”
“Carefully,” he nodded while toweling dry a glass. “I have to decide whether to buy my family a protein or a vegetable to accompany our bowl or rice each night. When there is a big problem, like a storm comes and collapses our roof, we depend on our neighbors combining what little they have to our rescue. And when it happens to one of them, we must do the same.”
I yearend for him to ask me how the Western world could sleep at night. He didn’t, of course. He didn’t seem to begrudge the more fortunate for their luckier lot in life. Had he asked I would have probably replied with deep sadness: “comfortably.”
I had about $200 to last me for the next week and a half. I tipped him $20 on a $4 tab and left to sleep and have approximately three pints of my blood harvested by mosquitoes.
I woke up at 5AM feeling anemic.
A three mile walk down the village’s only road introduced me to Senggigi’s postcard stand-sized bamboo-built tourist office. In exchange for about $2, they sell tickets for the 7AM daily departure to Gili Trawangan. This final two hour push first pauses at Gili Air and Gili Meno, each offering their own unique tourist delights. But I wanted Gili Trawangan, the very last and very smallest of the remote islands of the remote itself Lombok.
This portion of the Lombok Strait is tackled with an eardrum-piercing oversized motor haphazardly attached to the back of a wooden canoe. The views compensate for this through their surreal, nearly tear-educing beauty. Cones of verdant granite stab up through the ocean hundreds of feet into the air. Our canoe expertly zigzagged through this oceanic mountain-forest for forty-five minutes before departing for the Lombok sea-proper.
Gili Air comes almost immediately into view and two of our six passengers hop off and disappear into its lush hospitable jungle. The same occurs at the most popular island, Gili Meno.
Finally, there is no pier at Gili Trawangan, and so the canoe just stops a hundred feet off shore, and the four remaining of us jump into the shallow water with our packs raised above our heads.
There are no roads on Gili Trawangan, just one partially paved outer ring and one dirt lane that transverses the island. The only form of transport are wooden carts pulled by donkeys. I eschewed such modern decadence and kept walking eastward until “town”–a collection of a dozen or so bars, shops, restaurants, and hotels spread over a thousand foot-strip–disappeared into a jungle filled with wild goats, and then back into an desolate beach.
The first hotel I came to on the largely undeveloped side of the island was apparently not open, or such is how I interpreted the greeting I received at the threshold–twin kindergarten-aged girls just chillingly laughed at me while giving me creepy steady stares. It was as if they were advertising a telepathic ability to warn me that I was to die that night.
I moved on next door where I plunked down $40 for two nights in my own palatial-furnished bungalow on the beach.
The shower only produced cold salt-water but such was easily forgivable as it was a part of my bungalow’s roofless “outdoor” bathroom-terrarium which came with a rock garden perimetered by lush bonsai trees and other greenery. There was a stone path from the glass sliding door that opened into it to the most agreeably situated toilet in the world.
The street vendor in Lombak would have had a heart attack.
There was no toilet paper but you can’t have everything.
After dropping my back-aching heavy pack I stomped outside for a $1 Nasi Goreng and Bir Bintang. The only other guest in the beach bungalows was a Dutch surfer who seemed more or less asleep with his suspiciously rouge-dilated eyes transfixed at the incoming tide.
“It was arduous getting here, but it sure seems worth it,” I thought aloud.
I started recounting my harrowing tale expecting to hear his own daring adventure in return. From his catatonic appearance, it seemed he was content to live on Gili Trawangan rather than brave it back to the mainland.
Instead he turned to me very slowly: “You do know that there is a cheap forty-five minute speedboat service direct from Bali?”
I swallowed a violent urge to punch the World in its face. Such desires wash over me from time to time.
“I’ll, I’ll, have to look into that for my return trip,” I mumbled stammering.
Fly directly to Bali. Spend some time there scuba diving, snorkeling, trekking, and allowing yourself to vaporize into the raging night-life.
There are now many direct transport services from Bali to Gili Trawangan, which can be researched here.
It is no longer the same idyllic footnote in the National Geographic that it once was, so go now before it becomes even more popular.