Drift-snorkeling with giant turtles (Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia)

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October 18th 2009
Published: October 23rd 2009
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(Day 562 on the road)I have done my fair share of diving all over Southeast Asia in the last year or so, but nothing comes even close to how amazing the underwater life is here in the Gili Islands off Lombok's north coast. Apparently, the fishermen are paid by the local dive operators NOT to fish, and it more than shows in the marine life to be found just a few metres from the beach. Visibility is amazing with 20 to 30 metres, and thousands of tropical fish (many in big swarms) and some turtles are all over the place.

Arriving back in Indonesia through Bali's airport was a fairly straight-forward process - at least by Indonesian standards. It took me only one hour to get to the front of the queue at the four manned counters (out of 20 or so possible) and to pay my 25 US$ entrance fee. A few months ago in Jakarta it took over two hours, so I would call this a definite improvement. Outside the airport, my Indonesian friend Endah was waiting for me, who had taken a break from work for a few days so that we could explore the Gili Islands together. And how nice it feels to be picked up by a friendly face when you are mostly travelling alone and don’t normally receive such a reception anywhere!

As it was too late to move on for the day we were forced to spend the night in crazy Kuta (not my favourite place at all) but were off at six o'clock the next morning, arriving on Gili Trawangan twelve hours later after yet another long day of travelling.

The trip over from Bali had been unpleasant in the sense that we have had a few nasty encounters with lying and cheating touts, which dampened our spirits somewhat. One example: I told the driver of our shuttle van that I needed an ATM before we reached the port. No problem he said, but he would have to charge me about 50% more as he had to take a different route for that. I politely declined, not quite believing that during the next hour drive halfway across Lombok we would not pass a single cash machine. In the end, we passed countless ATMs on our normal route. As with so many of his profession, he was just a sneaky lier who tried to take advantage of tourists.

Incidents like this have happened to me so many times in Indonesia and other countries here in Southeast Asia that I have developed a natural distrust of the people working with foreign tourists, as in many cases they will either lie or omit the truth for their personal gain. The taxi drivers who keep telling you that the last bus for the day has already departed but that he would take you at very "special rate" is a widely encountered species.

Gili Trawangan is a truly beautiful island. As I said initially, the snorkeling is the best I have done anywhere, and the absence of all motorised traffic on the island means that all in all Gili Trawangan is a very relaxed place (save for the hassle from all the "tourist informations" as you walk along the main road by the beach). Endah and I spent a great day on the beach, mainly snorkeling in the crystal-clear water.

The current was very strong however, so we had to walk up against the current along the beach considerably and then drift down back where our towels were on the beach, which was a very different but pleasant snorkeling experience from what I have done so far. The strong current made it impossible to stay in one place too long, which was especially inconvenient when we finally spotted a turtle on our fourth outing. The current was also not easy on the turtle; at one point if literally flipped it over 180 degrees just as it was busy chewing off some corals. Poor creature, but a hilarious sight to watch for us.

Maybe the only negative thing about Gili Trawangan is the high costs of living here. Of all the places I have been to so far on my journey, prices here have increased the most from what was stated in my guidebook. Accommodation rates and other prices have easily increased by factor three, often more.

For years now, the three Island Islands of Trawangan, Meo and Air (“Gili” means island, so Gili Island is Island Island) have been heavily promoted as the next big tourism destination and as a retreat from overflowing Bali. The beauty of the place and the clear waters with its abundance of fish have done the rest. These days, it is a buzzing place with many funky bars and hotels, attracting backpackers but also holiday-makers from Europe and Australia, who have subsequently driven up the prices considerably.

There are still a fair number of backpackers around, but the people who are here on a two week vacation are numerous and easy to spot. They tend to wear white linen clothes (not very practical when travelling in Asia), make-up, perfume, rather fancy and expensive looking sandals, and they tend to tip in restaurants even if the food took 45 minutes to arrive.

Worst of all, they accept all prices thrown at them without bargaining, even if the prices are simply ridiculous. My feeling is that they don't realise when they are being ripped off as they have no sense for the real prices of things in Indonesia. To be fair, getting to know the real prices in a country in any country in Asia takes a while, a few days at least. And if you have little contact with the local population as your time is limited and many things like transport and accommodation are pre-arranged, it will be very difficult indeed to judge what is a fair price and what is not. Plus, the people here on their yearly summer vacation couldn't typically care less if their mango shake costs even more than back home in Europe, even if (unknowingly) they pay ten times the real local price for it.

But as much as that is understandable, it destroys the fragile balance of demand and supply and drives up prices like anything. The locals on Gili Trawangan have long ago stopped charging even remotely reasonable rates for foreigners. The result is that to rent a simple bike for two hours costs more on Gili Trawangan than to rent a motorbike for a whole day anywhere else in Indonesia. Crazy. My feeling is that the backpacker scene will soon move on to another place, leaving the place to more wealthy vacationers, fancy hotels and developers.

But back to my story: The next morning, it was already time for Endah to head back to Jakarta, and soon I was sitting alone on the beach, pondering my next move in a state of slight but increasing irritation. Being back in Indonesia meant having to deal again with the constant hassle of everyday life here, where personal space is virtually unheard off as people are constantly approaching you with their wares. I think some people are better than others at dealing with it or rather accepting it as a fact of life when travelling in certain countries. I am OK with it for a long time, but feel that I have reached the point where enough is enough. It tends to power me out, and right now I have the feeling that it is time to leave Indonesia behind and head for an “easier” destination.

My rough plan up to now had been to travel east across Lombok, Komodo and Flores all the way to East Timor, before heading to Australia. But after having a look at the distances (very long) and the "road" conditions (very bad), plus my feeling of being powered out, I spontaneously decided to skip the rest of Indonesia. In the evening, I booked a flight to Darwin, Australia. I have the feeling that it is the right time to leave Asia behind after a year and a half in the region.

I regretted this decision five minutes after making the booking. I had heard so many good things about Flores and East Timor, and I really wanted to see the Komodo dragons! Had I made the right decision? But the answer came the next day.

I took an island hopping trip around the three Gili Islands on the much hyped and expensive 'glass bottom boat". It turned out to be a home-made affair where they had inserted a murky glass plate into a fisher boat. It was leaking water constantly and the visibility was near zero. They had one guy on boat whose only job was to get the water out of the boat with a sponge. For lunch they dropped us at a small restaurant Gili Air (either the one that paid the highest commission or belonging to the brother of the boat owner). From the second we set foot ashore to the second we left 90 minutes later we were pestered non-stop by a very persistent swarm of hawkers. I hated every minute of it, and felt very sure I had made the right decision of booking the flight to Australia. As beautiful as eastern Indonesia might be, for me it would not be worth the hassle. How I am longing for a country where I will just be left in peace!

I spent a few more days on the island before heading back to Bali. Feeling good that I paid about half price from most other travelers by cutting out just one middlemen (the ticket agent on Gili Trawangan), my high spirits soon evaporated when the ferry to Padangbai in Bali was delayed and we had to wait at the port. For the next two hours, me and the 40 other foreigners were hassled nonstop by yet another army of sales person (batik, fruits, t-shirts, souvenirs, knifes, peanuts, fried rice, noodles, bananas, water, and a hundred other things).

For a while it was a semi-relaxed atmosphere, but as people were apparently not keen on buying as much as the touts wanted them too they got increasingly frustrated and more aggressive. They doubled their efforts and soon became a real pest, with the result that the tourists got more and more irritated and frustrated. Understandable really, when the same guy selling water keeps coming back to you every five minutes, even if you have told him “no” for about 15 times already. One guy stood in front of me for a few minutes holding the water he was selling into my face. I told him "no thank you", "I don't want", "no", "thank you", "please go away" for the entire time, maybe eight times in total. After two minutes I got quite angry with him and asked him if he was deaf or dumb. That finally worked and he never bothered me again. But surely it should not have to come to this?

After finally boarding the ferry together with maybe 50 hawkers (why do they allow them on the ferry in the first place?) the atmosphere got even more tense. They were so persistent and annoying that many tourists ended up in heated arguments with them. Many tried to remain polite ("Please go away, I just want my peace"), but an equal number told them in no uncertain manner what they thought about them. The sad highlight of the day was when one of the touts made an impressive exit from the ferry shouting "F*** you all" at the top of his lungs.

Next stop: Ubud (Bali, Indonesia).

To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com. And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


23rd October 2009

hahahaa...funny things read ur blog now.seems ur really uncomfortable with the hilarious hawkers in indonesia.not only u actually,but me as indonesian also feel shame abt it.well,just relax,dont bother him as tht what i always do when i facing many hawkers in a tourist area. just try to understand that they r trying to make money and try to offering as that what a seller must do. just b an ignorant person if u really dont like hawkers and not tend to buy their product.just go straight dont look at them and dont hear wht they told u! lol. it's about wht we discussed on a ferry,remember? Gili Trawangan is amazing,but seems tht time when we visit there not many tourist cuz they said its quite as Gili trawangan is famous as a "party" Gili,and the other two is more peacefull.but seeing from ur pics,seems tht many hawkers in Gili Air rather than trawangan,um?? ahh.....the island will be too silent without hawkers Ben,just enjoy it all in all :))
23rd October 2009

HaHa! Love that picture of the tout. Such a typical scene. I can't stand the touts though! Check this out. http://www.travelblog.org/Forum/Threads/21024-1.html
24th October 2009

It's amazing how tiring it can be to deal with hawkers, isn't it? I spent three months in Indo many years ago traveling overland/water from Sumatra all the way to West Timor. Yes, you are missing out on some amazing sights, but I know how burned out I was from the experience, and that was after only a total of 6 months on the road! I still remember how great it felt to arrive into Darwin from Kupang, being able to relax and just blend into the crowd again. BTW, the one thing that worked for me with obnoxious hawkers was to name a ridiculous price for whatever they were selling. It seemed that telling the water guy that you would buy his bottle for 100 Rupiah would work better than telling him you weren't interested at all. I think they figure out you're only interested in wasting their time and messing with them and will go off and bother someone else. But you're right - if that's what it's come to, it may just be best to get out of the game...
24th October 2009

Hi Really enjoying the blog. Im just wondering what kind of budget do you look to live on to keep on the road for so long? Keep up the good work. Kind regards, Alan
25th October 2009

walter: similar experience
Unfortunatly we have made similar experience on Lombok and at Pura Besakih on Bali. Hawkers got very aggresive, we even thought they would soon start to hit us. We were very scared. But on the other hand our trip some years ago from Jakarta to Bali was one of our most favourid trips we ever have made. With the exception of Lombok we would not hesitate to come back. Kind regards walter
9th January 2010

Hi There Ben, Love The Pixx U Took @ Gili Trawangan. Me Goin There In April. Where u Now ... Hope U Stayin Good For The Whole Journey .. Where u Area ...
11th June 2010

Regarding Gili Air
Sorry that your visit to Gili Air proved to be regretable. My wife and I spent 17 days there and like you we were astounded at the number and tenacity of the touts. We later learned that the majority of these folks were from Lombok and took the morning boat over and left around 5 PM. The Imam who runs Gili Air has a very low tolerance for Lombokians who bother his tourist so a word to your hotel owner or waiter usually is enough to get things set right. The touts from Lombok are only allowed on Gili because the Imam gives them individual permission. If they get out of line they are banned from the island. After the first day we were never hassled again. More on our stay at: http://www.travelblog.org/Asia/Indonesia/Lombok/Gili-Air/blog-340787.html
29th July 2010

HI Ben...first time visited your blog, and ended up reading and exploring for the last hour or so. I'm Indonesian living in the US. I totally agree with your friend Enda's comment below. Even I hate all the hawkers. My worst experience was in Borobudur, I went with a group of five friends from the state, and one "bule" (foreigner), and that's enough to make the hawkers the more aggressive. Our driver, a local, ended up protecting us from the hawkers, and when he can't shield us no more, he told us to run for our lives...hahahaha.... I ran so hard, broke my sandal, fell down, and next thing they came approaching me selling new sandals while I was still on the ground...LOL. So, I share the same misery... not exclusively to foreigners at all. But it is what it is. They are trying to make a living, I suppose. Just take in the beauty, and ignore the rest. Happy travel, wherever you are!! =)

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