“Ever seen a young girl growing old, trying to make herself a bride?”
Fifty years ago, the Gili archipelago was an untouched, virgin paradise. Viewed from the right perspective, the islands are still photogenic. But you’d better get that camera angle precise because, like Rod Stewart, that once youthful beauty is jaded and tired.
The view of Gili Air as the ferry from Bali approached the jetty was in the ‘omg’ category; the azure sea, the creamy sand, the green coconut palms. It’s instantly obvious why the Gili islands are so popular, unfortunately it is that very popularity that is the problem. Gili’s Bohemian free spirits like to chill and hang out, but they generate a lot of garbage.
The trip from the ferry to your accommodation is along the sandy lanes which criss-cross the island. There’s plenty of rooms to suit every budget, both on the shores and inland. We were pretty central, at Taman Senang, a small group of about 8 villas with a shared pool. This gave us a ten-minute walk to one side of the island and a 15-minute walk to the other. A very peaceful spot, apart from the absurdly noisy mosque where the call to prayer was frequently dragged out to last twenty minutes; pretty annoying at 5.00 am. On the other hand, if you stay by the beaches, you would be listening to music from the bars till they shut at 2.00 am. It’s mostly 1970s reggae, but if you really like Bob Marley then maybe you’re OK. Bob starts up again about 10.00 in the morning so you won’t be ‘waiting in vain’ (…pause for laughter).
Strolling round the island is lovely. Coconut palms abound, cattle rest, tethered in the sunshine. The indigenous people live on wooden platforms framed by walls of palm rattan under roofs of corrugated tin or thatch, while children play and hens and cockerels scrabble round the yards. This very third world scene contrasts sharply with the tourism trade that is plied alongside it. We slept in air-conditioned bliss by our private swimming pool, only yards from people who didn’t have sanitation or running water.
That said, the locals benefit financially from the setup and their entrepreneurial spirit is clearly evidenced. There’s building activity all over the place. Some of it is quite modern and tasteful; though sometimes reminiscent of Centre Parcs. Some of it is charmingly amateurish. For example, the very popular, and very good, Ruby’s Café looks like a child’s den made of things found on a rubbish tip.
Alongside the constant building, there is, currently, constant demolition going on. The Indonesian Military and National Police have decided that too many bars have been built too close to the sea. Therefore, any buildings that have encroached onto the sand have been forcibly knocked down. Hopefully, this will eventually lead to a more open sea front. All it has left for now, however, is large and frequent patches of concrete rubble and shattered timber; right along the seafront. And it’s ugly!
Whilst I’m having a good moan, I might as well bring up the litter problem. Nobody has responsibility for cleaning the beaches. Storm damage one can forgive, for a while, but plastic bags and bottles, broken glass on the beach is unacceptable. There is a tipping point where Bohemian paradise becomes Bo-Ho shithole. Gili Air is close to that, and from reading TripAdvisor reviews, so is Gili Trawangan.
The litter is evident in the sea and spoils the snorkelling. The visibility in the water was not great (partly because of rainy season) but also because of the crap floating in it. And be careful booking a snorkelling trip. If they go out to a proper reef; fine. But what a lot of the trips do is, take your money, sail out 30 metres from the shore, throw some fish food in the water and invite you to jump in. Pathetic. I simply swam out from the beach and joined them. There was once coral here, not any more. That could be down to the tsunami, others have blamed boat anchors and dynamite fishing. What coral that exists is well on the way to be ground down into sand.
Well. That’s a lot of negatives and you’d think from what I’ve said so far that I didn’t like the place, which isn’t the case. So, here’s the upside.
Gili Air is still beautiful, there are gorgeous views across the water and around the island. The western side is popular for sunset views looking out to Bali and its volcano on the horizon. Sitting there, clutching a two for the price of one cocktail, is truly lovely. The haphazard nature of the island’s development has created a higgledy piggledy feel where all the weird little bars have their own character. There’s an atmosphere of gentle chaos, creativity and genuine individuality. You could wander around and find a quirky bar or restaurant that just suits your tastes.
I was offered drugs by an emaciated young man, which I thought was quite splendid. That has not happened to me since I was twenty, and it made me feel young. In his defence, he did ask me to sing ‘An Englishman in New York’ to him and I did oblige. He probably assumed I was on something (but I just like to sing!). Hopefully he will invest his profits on a visit to the orthodontist.
Ruby’s Café (assuming ir’s still open post covid) does great local food, there’s Classico Italiano which does superb pizzas. As with the accommodation, there’s a wide range of styles to suit every taste and prices to suit every budget. I had burger and chips at a café called Mata Hari, just off the beach. Home-made beef patty and hand cut chips for £2.50, simple enough, but they got it spot on. There’s too many restaurants and cafes to mention, we could have stayed a for a month and eaten in a different place every breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The Gili islands stand for something very important. They offer the desert island dream at a price where you don’t have to be stinking rich to enjoy it. It’s how the other half holiday at a price we can afford. If these beaches were in the Maldives, or Mauritius, you’d be shelling out Kuoni prices to lie on them. Yes, they’d be tidier, cleaner, and more sanitised, but such development would rob the Gili Air of its anarchic soul.
For Gili’s future, the building and demolition frenzy needs to stop, and corporate developers need to stay away. The challenge for the Indonesian authorities is to deal with the litter problem, organise the island a little more, but retain its hippy vibe. That’s what makes it unique and worth visiting.
Should you go?
Gili Air may have a let herself go a bit, but she’s still worth walking down the aisle.
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