Due to the lack of fresh water on the Gili Islands, they remained uninhabited until quite recently. The first settlers were Bugis fishermen and sailors, renowned for their voyages around the archipelago, who used the islands as a stopping off point and established some coconut plantations.
It was only during the 1980’s that foreigners first started visiting the islands, attracted by the far away desert island adventure feel, beautiful beaches and marine life. At that time Bali was becoming increasingly touristy, and the more adventurous back-packer crowds ventured further afield to discover virgin tropical play-grounds.
As the nearest island to Lombok, it was Gili Air that first attracted day-trippers. Local residents began renting out rooms and then building bungalows, realizing that more money could be made from tourists than fishing. However, Gili Trawangan soon over-took as the island of choice, largely due to the better beaches and snorkeling locations on the island.
Gili Trawangan quickly developed the reputation as the party island, with no police, friendly locals, freely available soft drugs and magic mushrooms and a friendly “anything goes” tropical charm. Simple bungalows with sporadic, generator-supplied electricity soon sprang up like mushrooms, to cater to a crowd eager to get off the beaten track, and the islands became the best kept secret of a young, adventurous European crowd having way too much fun far away from home.
Back-Packers Set Up Camp
However, the islands’ appeal didn’t remain a secret for long, and soon some of the back-packers who originally visited the islands began to put down roots and open up better quality accommodations. The first dive centre was Blue Marlin (which remains one of the best dive centres today), established in 1997 by Englishman Simon Liddle, with just a few sets of equipment, and some enthusiastic locals. Now there are seven very well equipped dive centres, all of them foreign owned and managed, catering to hundreds of divers each day.
Back in the early-mid 1990’s, attempts were made by big-wigs from Jakarta to buy up the main island of Gili Trawangan and turn it into a high-end gold course & luxury resort. Thankfully such plans never came to fruition and the island was allowed to grow organically at a sleepy pace since then.
The Secret Gets Out
Difficulty of access from Bali kept the islands as an off-the-beaten-track destination until 2006, when the BlueWater Express Fast Boat service direct from Benoa harbour, Bali, began operating. Numbers climbed steadily throughout 2007 with larger boats and a new player, Gili Cat, supplying the route to and from Padang Bai in East Bali. Since then numerous copy cat boat services have jumped on the band-wagon, some of which maintain highly dubious safety standards. However, the result is that the islands are growing rapidly in popularity, which is a double edged sword: on the one hand competition among hotels drives higher standards at a better price, as well as increased variety, on the other, Trawangan gets over-crowded in the peak season and the environment is put under increased strain.
Local Culture and Sensibilities
The local population is a mixture of local Sasak people from Lombok, and families of the original Bugis settlers. Most are Muslim, and there are two mosques on Gili Trawangan. As in much of Indonesia, the Gilis harbour a relatively moderate and tolerant form of Islam, and the strange ways of tourists are generally well tolerated. Topless sunbathing is not appreciated, and if exploring inside the islands where the residents live, women should not expose too much flesh. Public displays of affection are taboo throughout Indonesia. If you can’t keep your hands / lips off someone else, get a room!
There are very few changes to the the islands during the holy fasting month of Rammadhan. Bars still stay open late, the booze keeps flowing, restaurants keep sizzling up delishiousness. Keep in mind, however, that a lot of people will be fasting from sunrise to sunset, and therefore may be a little more lethargic than usual. During the end-of-fasting celebration, known locally as Leberan, a lot of Gili residents go back to Lombok and further afield to visit families, so a number of places can be under-staffed during this time.
Rammadhan date are:
2010: Aug 11 – Sep 9
2011: Aug 1 – Aug 29
2012: Jul 20 – Aug 18
There are two primary schools on Gili Trawangan, but for further education kids have to go to neighbouring Lombok. There is a daily market around mid-day where fresh produce is brought in and haggled over, which can be a lively and colourful affair for visitors wishing to gain some insight into how the local people live.