Back to Gili T – Does Re-visiting A Place Ruin Your Memories?

June 22, 2015

The prospect of going back to Gili Trawangan filled me with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Excitement, because I had so many great memories of this place. And trepidation… well… because I had so many great memories of this place. 

I had already been to this island in Indonesia back in 2013. On my recent Southeast Asia tour I nearly avoided going back altogether, fearing that it could spoil my memories. When backpackers fall in love with a place they so often say “oh, I’m definitely coming back here someday” — but is that something you should actually do? Should you go back to places that, for whatever reason, have a special place in your heart?

There are no cars on the island; only horse carts are allowed.

I think I’m not overly sentimental, though I still have a strong attachment to Gili Trawangan. I first went there in 2013, five months into my first backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. It was magical. For the first time on that journey I decided to just stop and stay put for a while. Being on the gilis gave me time to reflect on months of amazing experiences. I found myself in a place and time with no goals, no obligations, no regrets and no particular need to do anything. And I honestly didn’t do much. I laid in hammocks, snorkelled or scuba dived a bit, and partied at night — a cycle that repeated for nearly a month, until a looming visa expiration finally forced me to continue my journey on to Borneo.

I have since been to tropical islands far more beautiful than the Gilis. Ones that are decidedly less commercialised and ones that can be legitimately described as serene or idyllic. Objectively, Gili Trawangan, the largest and busiest of the gili islands, maybe isn’t that amazing. Nevertheless it’s where, over two years ago, I achieved some kind of state of peak happiness, and for that it will always put a smile on my face.

So here I am, back in Indonesia. So far, on this new journey, I have been going only to places that I have never been before. But now the gilis are so obviously on my route that it would be strange to skip them. And so I figured I should pay them a visit. What could possibly go wrong?

Gili T: not a difficult place to find a roof over your head.

On Bali, the night before my boat ride to the islands, another traveller told me he’d met someone with the exact same situation: they’d been to the gilis a couple of years ago, went back just now, and found it to be completely and utterly changed and “shit now”. My heart sank. Maybe this was all just a bad idea.

As I got off the boat the next day and reacquainted myself with the island, I had the most uncanny out-of-body experience. It was unlike anything I had experienced before. Everything felt so familiar yet so… off, somehow. I felt like being in a dream where everything matches reality exactly… except for all the weird dissonant little details that don’t match at all.

Who put these new fancy boutique shops here? Why is there now a pretentious restaurant named EGOISTE (ugh!) on ‘my’ island. Where is everything I know and love? What is this eerie mirror version of what I remember so fondly?

Being here again was way more of a head-trip than I anticipated. I was so enveloped by unheimlichkeit that I desperately sought an Inception object — some way to know that this is still the real Gili T. After a bit of searching (I actually walked past it twice) I found the hostel where I had previously spent much of my time. I went inside, went up the stairs to the common room, and was relieved at what I saw. Yes, it was still there… a pithy travel quote I had written on the wall back then. It was still right next to someone else’s drawing of, for some reason, a stick figure sucking off another stick figure on a beach. Good.

Just seeing my little scribble made things suddenly click for me. The 2013 version of Gili Trawangan — one I had surely glorified and mythologized at this point — and the 2015 Gili Trawangan now both came into focus. Honestly, not that much had changed. Soon I found the little book store again where I had bought so many books before. The same man selling corn on a cob on the street was still there. Some new resorts and fancy new restaurants may have sprung up around the place, but I now realised that many of the little details still checked out. Hearing the prayers coming from the mosque gave me a little jolt of nostalgia.

While I went through several more cycles of “I hate it” and “I love it” that afternoon, eventually my emotions stopped oscillating and landed somewhere in the middle. The place has changed, and I have changed, but everything is fine. The initial disorientation went away, and I felt good about being here again.

Hostel “La Boheme”

Probably the key to going back to places that hold many strong memories is to come back with the intention of making brand new memories, instead of chasing old ones. I’m happy I stayed on the very opposite side of the island, as simply being closer to some things and further away from others shifted the whole experience. I‘m also glad I found La Boheme, a brand new hostel that gave my time on Gili T a whole new twist. It’s exactly my kind of place: cute bohemian beach hut vibe, cozy common areas, a quiet roof garden where you can retreat with a good book, and (last but not least) a 24 hour pancake-making station. It’s possibly one of the best hostels I have stayed in and one that made me stay longer than planned. While my circumstances were completely different this time, I easily slipped back into that relaxed island mindset.

But while I hugely enjoyed Gili Trawangan the second time around, it was a more muted experience. This is undoubtedly due to the lack of surprise, the lack of going to a place unknown. It’s a bit like watching The Usual Suspects again — this can be enjoyable, sure, but you already know who the real Keyser Söze is. You go in it with clear expectations.

Last time I spent nearly a month on Gili T. This time, I knew that even if I wanted to stay that long, doing so would surely chew out all the flavour. While I had a fun and relaxing time for about a week, I then went off to the much quieter and more beautiful Gili Air. Soon after that, I got on a boat for a four day sailing trip to the Komodo Islands… which was a place I hadn’t gone before, and a place that would reward me with some wholly new experiences.

Coming back here? It was weird and emotionally confusing at first. But in the end, I don’t regret it.


  1. Ben Reply May 29, 2018 at 8:51 pm

    Oh Marek. You nailed it again mate, I wasn’t sure if somebody shared this sensation or it was just me!

    I had the same issue with Chiang Mai earlier this year; it has always been my go-to place and I was really looking forward to going back with first timers last January. I have always thought of it as my place; somewhere I will just end up. It was my third time (2005, 2014, 2018) and I had the same pendulous swing between nostalgia and disdain for the respective memories and commercialised differences… and it was all salvaged by a great hostel worker in a lovely little start up hostel called ‘Hostel by BED’. Funny how one simple thing can change it all.

    I liken the whole experience to a video game:
    You will eventually complete the game, and no matter how many side quests and alternative endings there are, it will never be quite the same as completing it that first time. The solution? Buy another game 🙂

    • Marek Reply May 30, 2018 at 11:55 am

      Haha I’m totally on board with the video game analogy. I can imagine Chiang Mai having changed quite a bit over those years!

  2. Laura Reply January 9, 2017 at 6:05 am

    Funny, I had the absolute opposite experience just recently. I went to Gili T for the first time last early November, and fell in love with it and spent the next several months raving about it to everyone. My initial trip was exactly a week before erupting Mt Rinjani serendipitously brought me back for another three nights; but nonetheless I had thought that first seven nights had been long enough. So, I booked long in advance for a week over the just-gone Christmas and New Year break. This time, it was far too short. I felt the same deep emotion and attachment waiting for the departing boat as I had last time. I knew I could move there indefinitely if it weren’t for my pesky job and life in Australia, and I’ve planned two more trips this year. It’s much like Thailand: I’ve been five times and the last three times were to the same islands (Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Phi Phi), but each time I’ve fallen more in love with it. I’m now planning two more trips to Gili T this year and of course, Thailand again.

    • Marek Reply January 9, 2017 at 5:31 pm

      So nice to hear it was love at first and at second sight for you! 🙂 I definitely loved Gili T the second time around, but I think the changes were just a bit jarring at first. I hope to go back someday!

  3. Xavier Polvoski Reply May 5, 2016 at 10:49 am

    Recently I had a rest on the Bali. So on the third day I though I wanna go on Gili. To see those islands,
    try to dive and have a good time of course. I called to guys from easygili and then they came and transfered
    me to Gili on a speed boat. The road on boat took just a 2 hours. And then I was on this good islands. Cost –
    225k. There was some problems with internet connection, but it is little things. Diving was really cool and
    beach vacation, yeah. So I can say that you can safely try it.

  4. jonny Reply February 27, 2016 at 12:08 am

    This is really interesting Marek. I had a similar experience a few years back. I worked in Alcúdia, Mallorca in 2010 for a summer and had an awesome time. I was there for three months and grew to love the place and the people. Of course, at the end of the summer, we all went home and on with our lives, and I was left with a profound sense of nostalgia. So I returned in 2012 to the same place and…well…it just wasn’t right. I had a great week, but to be honest it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. Because of the small differences like those that you mentioned on Gili – new restaurants opening up etc. Plus, although I recognised a few of the locals, none of my friends were there. In short, I realised that I had nostalgia for Alcúdia in Summer 2010, which is something that I’ll never ever get back! So I’ll just be happy with my photos and memories and leave it at that. 🙂

    Just out of interest, I’m heading to Bali in March 2016 and have about 3 weeks to play with, and I was hoping to go to both Java and the Gilis as well. Do you think this is a bit adventurous? If I had to choose between the two, I was leaning more to going to Java, because I think the temples are more what I’m looking for on this trip. What do you think?

    • Marek Reply February 27, 2016 at 11:50 am

      It’s interesting how places and experiences are always fused together. 🙂

      I think Java is fantastic. If there’s one thing I’d caution about it though is that Java is very heavily populated compared to Bali and Lombok, and I found it quite a bit more stressful at times. The temples are wonderful but what the usual photos don’t show are the throngs of loud children on school trips also at the sites. It’s a similar story with some of the volcano hikes there – lots of crowds, especially on weekends. I loved seeing Java but was also happy I still had a bunch of weeks on my trip left for Bali, Lombok and Flores. That said I didn’t really go out to that many smaller villages or islands around Java, so that may have coloured my experiences.

  5. Sarah Reply June 25, 2015 at 8:33 am

    I’m heading back to the Gili’s this year after visiting in 2013 as well. However, I think I’ll be staying put on Gili Air. Gili T was a bit too much for me even then after coming from the quieter slice of paradise. I’ve re-done a lot of places in SE Asia on my travels. Seeing Angkor Wat twice provided me with two totally different emotions… So I appreciate how you feel about going back again.

    • Marek Indietraveller Reply June 30, 2015 at 2:38 pm

      Gili Air is in many ways the nicer island. Thanks for sharing, and enjoy your time there. 🙂

  6. Sam Reply June 23, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    ‘Chew out the flavour’ – what a great expression and great reflection on somewhere I loved but would totally reconsider revisiting! I did so with Yangshuo, South China – one of my all time favourite places – and went through all the notions you mentioned above. It’s not that we shouldn’t revisit places, it’s just in my eyes the world’s got too many and we don’t have enough time! Great read though.

    • Marek Indietraveller Reply June 23, 2015 at 1:25 pm

      That’s so true, I think the greater appeal is always in going to completely new places. 🙂 Interesting you had this same thing with Yangshuo!

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