So you’d think that if a holiday destination was 1) hard to get to, and 2) relatively unheard of, it’ll be somewhat of an un-touristy paradise right? Well, our trip to Gili Islands over the new year proved how terribly wrong that theory is.
It started off innocently, with our big smiles as we picked Priya up from her stay in Lombok, and headed towards the jetty for our private speed boat to Gili Trawangan.
It is hard to get to Gili Islands from Singapore as there are no cheap direct flights. And although many Singaporeans haven’t heard of this cluster of islands off Lombok, half of the predominantly white backpacker community already have. So we were pretty let down when we hopped off the boat and found ourselves in a mini Phuket that didn’t have that tranquil beach holiday feel we were all craving for.
But it was nice that our villa, Ambary House, for the next 4 nights was a 5 minute walk inland, nice and quiet and away from the main street. Each of us forked out SGD277 for the whole stay.
Everything about it was great, except for that horrid bathroom. It has a slight drainage stench that never went away, and the bathroom floor was made up of spread out tiles, which annoyed the hell out of all of us because our feet kept going into the gaps that were filled with dirty water. UGH. This is not how you do a “resort feel”.
Looks nice right? Don’t be fooled! The flavours of this bowl of mee goreng seemed to be muted for foreign taste buds. It was pretty bland and lacked the punch that made the Indonesian cuisine so memorable. It was from this meal on that we decided against patronising any upmarket-looking restaurant and headed straight for the street food.
This is what I’m talking about! Murtubak drenched in oil and bursting with flavours. There’s really nothing like good old street food in South East Asia.
We walked all the way down the island’s main street, and it got quieter and more relaxed the further we headed away from the main jetty. We stumbled upon this nearly empty tiki tiki bar, and plonked ourselves onto the bean bags, ordered some beers, took in the sea breeze, gazed up at the night sky, and settled nicely into a beach holiday mood.
We turned in early every night during our time at Gili Trawangan despite being on the “party island”, because Priya and I had to be on time for our morning dives. We signed up for the five-dive advanced open water course (SGD530) at Manta Dive, which meant that we had to dive almost every day there.
Before we went on our very first dive, we passed by a local hawker, and since it was already proven that the street food on this island was way better than the restaurants here, we just had to get our breakfast from her. Our instincts were right — her longtong-like dish (SGD2.2) was gravied with a spicy curry, and the noodles were springy and chewy. It was messy and yummy, just how I like my street food.
The first dive was rather anti-climatic. I got nervous while descending because I haven’t dived in about 9 months, and was taking in fast, erratic breaths. Had to resurface and calm myself down before heading back underwater. It’s really all in the mind, and I got over it soon after I managed to control my breath.
We spotted a white tip shark, and a handful of turtles. My favourite one was this little turtle that was being tumbled around by the currents while trying to chomp on to some vegetation on the corals. The visibility, however, was absolute crap. It was terribly murky at some points, and I was so disappointed that I asked Priya if we should cancel the rest of the dives and save our money. But we decided to go through with it anyway because the island didn’t offer much else.
Our second dive of the day was the deep dive, so we went to depths of around 27m. At our deepest point, our dive master cracked open an egg, and it was cool to see how the yolk stayed whole due to the water pressure. The viz was even worse on this dive — there was so much floating sediments that it really looked like we were just diving in a long kang.
For dinner, we took a walk across the island (took us about 30 mins) to Casa Vintage, which was highly recommended by one of the divers in our group.
And the food was beautiful. We had beef stew, hummus, tomato soup, and smoothies that were made with fresh fruits and without artificial sugar added (a rarity since this island loves serving cordial). The winner at dinner, however, was the yellowtail fish stew (pictured with the corn) that Priya ordered. The stock was heaven, and I had major food envy.
The main street on Gili Trawangan was thronging with tourists coming in (probably from Bali) to celebrate new year’s eve. It felt like Orchard Road on a Saturday, and it got claustrophobic.
Priya and I were grateful that we were heading out to sea again for another dive. This morning, we were met with strong currents, and experienced some sort of drift dive. It was very disorientating as I wasn’t used to not being able to control my speed and direction underwater. We were being swept sideways, and had to look out for both our dive master in front of us, and corals that loomed up unexpectedly on our right. But we were in luck, as we saw a huge school of jackfish, and another school of batfish.
At one point we had to swim against the current, and when I accidentally kicked one foot into the other, a fin came off and I lost sight of it within two seconds. Sadly, we had to abandon the dive. But thankfully there was a spare fin in my size on the boat, and we re-dropped at another calmer spot with better visibility. And it was turtle heaven! We saw as many as eight.
For lunch, we met up with the rest and headed to Piluq, which was the top rated restaurant on Tripadvisor. I expected something very touristy, but surprisingly, this little vegetarian place was hidden from view, and was extremely laidback. It’s made up only of a few sheds and a hole-in-wall kitchen, and the food was divine.
The sesame noodles, tortilla salsa, and piluq pasta, mousaka, and “rise and shine” drink (avocado, coffee, chocolate) were winners. It was lovely to just lie in the shed in a food-induced coma after the meal and bask in the languid afternoon, away from the never-ending stream of people along the beach.
On our next dive, we saw our very first wild cuttlefish! It was huge, healthy, but rather shy. It was fascinating to observe how they change colours so quickly. It’s really an amazing feeling to be able to see creatures up close in their natural habitat. Also managed a peek at a reticent octopus hiding in the rocks.
Dinner at Scallywags was expensive, and very average. The live lobster really racked up the bill, and we were all very disappointed as tasted far from fresh. So once again, another restaurant has proved that it can’t hold a candle to the cheap and good street hawker. But at least the restaurant had cute kittens for us to feed our lousy dinner to.
We were desperate to escape the crowd on Trawangan, so we booked a private boat over to the neighbouring island, Gili Air. It cost us SGD16 each for the return trip. This idyllic island is much quieter, and had the soothing island holiday vibe. We ended up at Manta Dive’s spot on the beach, and decided to settle in. The beach was all right, but not fantastic. So we took to Google in search for the best spot on this island, and guess what — we were already at the “best beach”. Yet another let downs for this trip. Maybe I was expecting too much.
As we headed out into the sea to snorkel, we realised that the sea bed was full of hard corals. Our feet were at their mercy, and it wasn’t much fun wading out. Even taking pictures in the sea was treacherous — we got knocked over by the waves, tumbled like clumsy fools while trying to avoid getting scratched by the corals in the shallow waters. It was hilarious.
Back at Trawangan, we went shark spotting on our last dive trip. I was so impressed at how the local guide knew every nook and cranny that the sharks hide out at! The biggest one we saw was about 1.5m, but it was quite a distance away.
At night, we finally decided to stay up beyond 10:30pm, and headed out for some “nightlife”. It was shit. We were very surprised that this island doesn’t do any of those typical happy chill beach parties. Instead, it’s full of dodgy as fuck clubs filled with questionable locals and dirty backpackers. It was a really gross crowd and while the music is just one level above utter rubbish, I really wasn’t feeling it. Everyone looked like they were trying to have fun rather than having a good time.
So glad that the diving was amazing. I think non-divers can really skip Gili Trawangan and its sad notion of a beach destination.
It’s the last day of the holiday, and we were going to spend a night at Lombok. It was a very long drive through the island from the ferry terminal to our villa, and much of what we saw through the windows was, for a lack of a better word, crap. I mean I love rural landscapes, but Lombok was devoid of any charm, and looked like it was abandoned halfway through a grand plan to modernise the island.
Luckily, Kies Villa was an oasis located in the middle of a ramshackle neighbourhood. The pool, bedrooms, bathrooms, and dining area were a dream, and we were so excited to just stay in and be anti-social.
But before that, we needed lunch, and the local staff recommended Warung Bule. It was located at another shabby area by the seafront, and took 45 minutes to prepare our food although there was only one other big table besides us. The Bakmi Goreng and tuna niçoise salad were really good though!
After lunch, we took a private car to Selong Belanak, and the views as we took the windy, hilly roads towards the beach was pretty stunning. The beach was meh, so Weiming and I decided to spice things up by learning to surf.
We managed to balance on the board quite quickly, and it’s really thrilling to ride the waves. But you had to work really hard for that short high. We had to keep on swimming out to wait for waves, and duck under the bigger waves to avoid getting smashed by it. But you still get tumbled around by the force — kinda like being in a giant washing machine. We were at it for about two hours, and because of the language barrier, the instructors couldn’t teach us much except telling us to “paddle, paDDLE, PADDLE, STAND!” to guide us to ride the waves at the right time.
I loved how active this entire trip was, and while it was one of the more unimpressive beach holidays, there were many firsts — cuttlefish, drift diving, and octopus were high points that I’ll never forget.