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.