A journey to the soul of the Gili islands

The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about the Gili islands is the relaxed holiday vibe ensured when sunbathing whilst being surrounded by nothing but water, sand and gorgeous island views colourfully painting the horizon. This dream come true kind of moment – a feeling most certainly shared by me – often doesn’t compel one to look for the underlying current cultivated by the heart and soul of the island. With no ginormous religious constructions and with people tending to our every western need it is difficult to perceive our dream destination as a culture, therefore I am grateful that my stay on Gili Trawangan happened to coincide with the Ramadan – a month of fastening during which Muslim people can’t eat nor drink until the sun sets – pushing my curiosity on a journey that introduced me to the heart of the people.

What you should know about Indonesia is that the country has a deep fondness for different believes and religions originating from being introduced to many different religions throughout the ages. Even though the country mainly practises Islam different religions seem to dominate different islands therefore Bali is considered a Hindu island that shows traces of Christianity and sets Islam as the most prominent religion of the Gili islands. Admittedly – as a female solo traveller – I tend to avoid Islamic countries as there are plenty of stories about how foreigners aren’t accepted for their own religion or non religion and end up dead, in prison or raped. We have all heard similar gruesome tales and whether or not they are based on bad luck or bad choices they scare me as they should. On that note I never felt unsafe or scared during my stay on the Gili islands – if not – I learned that Indonesian people are very kind, warm, helpful, respectful and accommodate to the culture of each own.

An experience – I will never forget – at one of the places I resided at is the perfect example of the judge free mentality animating the island. A seven-year-old was sitting about – due to school holidays – and as I offered her some crisps she shook her head on which her uncle friendly pointed out that she was taking part in the Ramadan. As we started talking he explained that the participation age normally is set at the age of ten but that she had decided for herself to participate and was succesful at it. Because I respected and admired this seven-year-old it pains me to admit that I foolishly tried to offer her the same crisps a second time. Ashamed that I already had forgotten and afraid to have offended them I immediately apologised, an apology considered unnecessary by the uncle. Having been demonstrated so much patience, understanding and openness from their side I learned that they accept religion as a personal thing that varies even among the islanders themselves and that when people make the decision to not practise, it is their own choice and should be respected.

Although there is an abundance of exotic holiday activities to choose from – such as scuba diving lessons, snorkeling, yoga classes, etc.. – Gili Trawangan is above all known for its party life and makes good on that name with plenty of different pubs to choose from of which some feature beer pong tables as their set decor drawing the crowds to the island. Naturally the Ramadan affects this social butterfly migration as early morning Imam prayers lengthily go on ensuring one to wake up, parties are cut short at 11pm and there seem to be way more amenities than tourists marking this period of time as the low season for the Gili islands.

The Gili islands are formed by three islands – Gili Trawangan – the largest and most popular – Gili Air and Gili meno – known for their relaxed, couples retreat, honeymoon vibe – and are easily accessible from Bali or Lombok with public ferries connecting the Gili islands and Lombok and private ferry companies in padang bai that align Bali with the Gili islands. Obviously the public ferries are cheaper to take however from Bali it can take ages to arrive at the Gili Islands therefore it is recommended to book with a private ferry company just keep in mind that on Bali the best deals are made with the companies in person.

From Padang Bai reaching Gili Trawangan by boat only takes a couple of hours and is – if you don’t get seasick – a great experience where – depending on the boat company – you get to go upstairs order beer and listen to music creating the perfect vacation mood. The arrival on Gili Trawangan is a bit crowded as multiple boats have the same course and between the local boats and the ferries there isn’t enough docking space. Once you’ve obtained your luggage – that gets dropped onto the sand – it is very easy to get to your hostel or hotel, because of the nominal size of the island everything is perfectly reachable by foot. For those who have a hotel or hostel on the other side of the island and don’t fancy dragging their luggage along there are donkey-pulled carts available as there is no space or need for scooters and cars on the islands. If walking isn’t your cup of tea you can rent a bicycle just be aware of the sandy roads that can turn into beach at any time.

Depending on your travel preferences the budget you need varies – it is logical that you pay more for a hotel or resort than for a bed in a hostel – it is however possible to stay on the Island for a large amount of time on a small budget. There are plenty of restaurants along the beach serving western as well as oriental food costing you a fortune. To save money on breakfast or lunch it is best to shop at supermarkets or eat at restaurants that are a bit further away from the beach it is also cheaper to eat in your hostel or hotel. For dinner I recommend the night market providing good quality oriental food for way less than the surrounding restaurants, there are also people selling banana leaf bags filled with rice dishes for even less sadly I ran out of time before I could try those.

Travelling to Gili Trawangan during Ramadan was a perfect balance that nurtured my cultural interests and social entertainment without feeling suffocated by the masses.

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