Spend a couple of days in your roadside bungalow on Nusa Lembongan and the motorbikes will work their way into your dreams. Don’t get me wrong: intrepid exploration through unfamiliar roads in Southeast Asia is best served on a moped, and there’s never been a day in my different adventures through this part of the world where I regretted renting a motorbike for a day.
But the noise! The noise! Honk to alert pedestrians that you’re behind them. Honk to alert other motorbikes that you’re passing them. Honk if you like motorbikes. Honk and rev that little moped engine. Get me out of there.
It really wasn’t that bad; Bronwyn and I experienced the real honking war-of-attrition experience when we lived outside of Tianjin in China. On those roads, a honk communicates almost everything. A honk easily substitutes every emotion you feel when weaving through the traffic of Chinese highways. And you feel a lot of them. (Bronwyn reminds me that India, with all of its bonkers traffic, is somehow even worse.)
We knew that the area around Lombok – the next major island to the east of Bali – was supposedly Bali’s tamer cousin. The Gili Islands that dot the northwest corner of Lombok are famous for a lot of things, but specifically the regional ordinance that outlawed the use of motor vehicles on these islands was a huge draw for us. We were especially thrilled to further learn that the place was simply gorgeous as well.
What can be said for our time in the Gili Islands? We avoided Gili Trawangan completely: the island is the most heavily travelled of the three, particularly by the boisterous (read: younger) party crowds that seem to be up for the all-day party scene. Ten years ago I had a chance to experience a little bit of that in Thailand on Koh Phangan and a little bit is more than enough for a lifetime.
No, our home for three days, then one week, then ten days, and eventually a whole fortnight was to be Gili Air. We were blissfully paralyzed by the easygoing nature of the island, the relaxed atmosphere of locals and visitors alike. We were charmed by how quiet everything felt, particularly in the northeast inland corner where we had a private air conditioned room. Our hosts at JW Homestay (named for husband and wife Jamal and Wiwi who run the place with their collective extended family) were committed to our comfort without ever being pushy: they made a habit of spoiling us with coffee and breakfast every morning and offering to organize any adventures we wanted to take.
Gili means “small island” in the local Sasak language, and Gili Air is named for the fact that it’s the only island of the three with a freshwater aquifer below its soil surface (air, confusingly or interestingly enough, is the Indonesian word for “water”). And we were locked to that island like no other place on this trip. The only other time on this trip we allowed ourselves an entire fortnight in one place was back when we were visiting Al and Natalia in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand. We were locked down, spending long afternoons at a restaurant next to our bungalow with its own saltwater pool. We made a habit of eating and swimming there, rain or shine, on a great many of our days.
We did have a lunch date on Gili Meno, the middle child of the archipelago, but only because our snorkelling adventure stopped over there. We were so into the laid back feel of Gili Air that it took us quite some time to even get ourselves organized into a snorkelling tour. We’re glad we did. While it doesn’t house quite as much diversity as you might find in the great barrier reef, the waters around the Gilis are full of sea turtles, and I got to spend some time swimming with them again.
For my friends living on Bowen Island in British Columbia, Canada, you’ll be pleased to know that the power outs you suffer through as a part of island living aren’t limited to your island alone: on average we’d experience an island-wide power outage once every two days. Sometimes the power would blip out just long enough for the room to heat back up from a lack of air conditioning. Another time involved a six-hour-long power out in the middle of the day. The nice thing about island living is the go-with-the-flow attitude you just have to adopt. We were first really worried about how we’d deal with the intense heat without fans or AC, but you find yourself heading to the nearby shore to take in some ocean breeze in the shade and it gives you a great excuse to order a somehow-cold Bintang from one of Gili Air’s (many) restaurants.
The island is really a small island and, with a bit of time on your hands, you can circle the island on foot or by bike, its rather jagged circumference clocking in at about 5 kilometres. We hired some bikes from our homestay on our second day in Gili Air and decided to set out to explore the whole island in one go, hoping to scope out the best spots to return to.
You’d think, with all of the thousands of cycle kilometres we’ve banked over the last six months of cycle touring, that we’d excel at riding around on bikes without any panniers. You’d be mostly right to think that, but you’d see the error in that assumption when you found us struggling to stay upright when the island’s path turns to deep sand without much warning. We noticed that a few of the people riding around on the island were ridin’ dirty with fat bikes, rocking with some hilarious/highly effective tires that were 10 cm wide. We realized our mistake too late as we looked down at our granny bikes and dismounted to push them through the sandier patches.
Cycling around the island was nonetheless a great way of seeing it, and it helped us discover the epic potential of Gili Air’s western beaches for sunsets unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
I eventually decided that I would run the island’s perimeter to atone for all the beer and laziness. I even convinced Bronwyn to join me. I saw some dudes running the island’s circuit at high noon – what were they thinking? The heat and humidity would cut down significantly just before sunset, and if you timed it just right you could enjoy the pre-dusk splendour: a dazzling display of hues that I might dangerously suggest are greater than Australia’s.
By the end of the 5K, I was still the same sweaty mess I always am when I run in the heat.
Bronwyn manages to make running look good, but I remain the poster boy for why proper hydration is important.
When I think back to the different journeys I’ve taken, the time on the small islands always ranks up there with the most enjoyable. Barbados, Malaysia’s Pulau Tioman, Thailand’s Koh Lanta, Koh Lipe, Koh Phangan (and all the other amazing Kohs), Mexico’s Isla Mujeres, Japan’s Shodoshima. Heck, I like small islands so much that I even moved to Bowen Island from Vancouver. Maybe it’s because my dad grew up on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, but there’s something awesome about detaching from the nearest continent and settling in to a life of relaxation, especially when you’re on holiday.
Gili Air – we’ve been thinking about you since we left. Thanks for the amazing days.
Enjoy a couple of slideshows of photos that didn’t make it into the post above! We took a lot of photos over the course of two weeks. If you want to see almost all of our photos, you can always follow us on Flickr!
Scenes from Gili Air (part one):
Scenes from Gili Air (part two):
Middle school teacher on hiatus/budding permaculturalist currently cycling the world. Sometimes he acts in plays and film. Mostly he travels and blogs about it. Christian is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com