Don’t Go for a Run on the Island of Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

Instead, go to Gili Trawangan to party.

To sip $1 bottles of beer with your ass comfortably welded into the ivory sand on one of the Indonesian island’s beaches, drinking enough to enhance an already idyllic sunset.

Sunset on Gili Trawangan, IndonesiaGo for its night market, where you can sample the local cuisine — now only slightly adjusted for the visiting clientele, with backpacker-friendly “buffet” sizes and donuts for dessert to follow.

Night market in Gili T, Indonesia
You could go for the beach yoga, set amongst views of Bali’s Mount Batur, those evolving shades of dusk and this goat perched on a random beach desk.

Goat, post-yoga, sunset, Gili T, Indonesia
While you’re there, I recommend a sampling of the streetcart corn, which you’ll be inclined to buy at least two ears of, because it’s both delicious and the vendor is an ace at sales.

Streetcart corn on Gili T
Others will recommend you go for the diving, to scuba with the hawksbill turtles and black tip reef sharks that congregate around the island, but I’d say, save your dive money for the reefs and marine life surrounding Nusa Lembongan. There you’ll dive alongside manta rays with wingspans stretching up to three meters; beneath dolphins playing, you’ll see so many variations of neons in bursting coral you’ll find yourself holding your breath in awe and on the verge of getting the bends.

(You see on Gili T, there’s a distinct lack of such coral. It’s been dissolved because of dynamite fishing.)

But whatever you do, don’t go for a run on Gili Trawangan. Leave your tennis shoes at home. Maintain a state of physical inactivity. Follow Gili T status quo: expend less, consume more.

One day, I went for a run on Gili T. Intending to run the perimeter of the island, which I was told was “do-able,” I decided to cut it short when fatigue set in. (I was not certain what the distance of the perimeter was and I didn’t want to take any chances of it being greater than two miles).

I found the first path diverging into the island’s interior, took it, and soon after was glad I did.

Parallel palms on Gili T, IndonesiaI saw perfectly symmetrical rows of towering palm trees, tropical green flora that looks radioactive carpeting the ground, and the narrowest path of rich, coffee-colored soil curving between. If you like to run through postcard-perfect island scenery, or if you like shortcuts, you might’ve loved this.

I dodged cow manure, Slim-Jim sized centipedes and the occasional local, who’d give me a questioning look and slight smile, likely wondering why I’d detached myself from the beach to break a sweat inland. I’d give him my best “if you want to eat two ears of overly buttered corn a day, you gotta work on the fitness” look. He’d nod knowingly.

Every fifty yards the path would fork; I’d look at the sun’s position against the symmetry of the palm trees, continue to pretend I was navigationally inclined and knew what this meant, and head in what I hoped was a shortcut back to my guesthouse. (One must not run for longer than is required; that is, the time it takes to burn off roughly two sticks of butter.)

I did indeed find my way back to my guesthouse, via a shortcut, through the center of the island. I also found this:

Landfill in the middle of Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

A giant landfill. In the middle of the island. Cattle are brought in to feed on what’s left and what’s edible. Thousands of flies swarm all around, their buzzing so loud I can hear it even from a distance. Locals, heavily clothed to protect themselves from an unforgiving sun on a shadeless stage of shit, pick and sort through what can be collected and profited from.

(Later, I’ll see they live next door, trash littering the backyard that doubles as a sanitation trench.)

Here, most of the island’s garbage just sits and waits.

I wonder for how long.

Garbage dump in the middle of Gili T, Indonesia

“For how long? What do you think is going to happen to it?” I ask Michael, a Dutch expat who visited the island a year ago with his girlfriend and stuck around to open a yoga studio.

“I don’t know,” he says with a shrug. “The government doesn’t care. Garbage is too expensive to ship off the island and the locals can’t afford to do anything with it.”

So there it sits, the waste from hundreds of local inhabits, thousands of yearly visitors (and growing) and the businesses and bars they frequent.

We could reason that at least tourism supports the local economy.

“Charmless concrete boxes are cramped together as closely as possible with no sense of local architectural style or sensitivity to the environment,” wrote Lyon and Wheeler (in Tourism in Southeast Asia, 1997: 406, 1. Yet island inhabitants now have a far greater standard of living and make more yearly. Is it really better though?

“So much better here!” sa Andi, a 20-something local Indonesian. I asked him what he thinks about Gili T and the foreigners it attracts, me and gap-year backpackers and generally every tourist seeking their own personal escape or high or both.

Andi is wearing a backwards hat embellished with marijuana leaves and the Jamaican flag, and he’s on a bicycle, showing me to his friend’s guesthouse where he says he can get me a deal on a room. He’s from the larger, neighboring Islamic island of Lombok. He came to Gili T for work and doesn’t plan on going back.

“I like the tourists,” he says. It’s how he’s picked up conversational English and a repertoire of Rastafarian anthems on guitar.

“And I make better money here.”

The growing plateau of waste in the middle of the island stays with me and I make it dinner table talk.

Over a meal of lamb burgers (there are no lamb raised in the vicinity), fine cheeses and wine (distinctly labeled as imported), and french fries, I tell my friend Simon about the landfill.

Simon, a well-traveled Brit who flew here for a one-week holiday, blames the conveniences that come with modernization.

“It’s not an apple core, or a banana leaf, or a coconut, where locals could throw it over there shoulder and trust it would decompose,” Simon says. “I don’t think they realize styrofoam lasts forever.”

The next day, I go for a run again, to find the landfill in the middle of the island.  I should have forgot about it, like all those other travelers who saturate the perimeter of the 6 square mile island. Who stay for a week, who leave their tennis shoe imprints of failed runs and mounds of corn ears and glass bottles from late-night indulging, who seek beach yoga for serenity of self but later eat imported meats and cheeses, who then disappear, satisfied with the experience.

I went to associate myself with the mess. And I left, wondering if I — if we — are really worth this mess we leave behind.



  1. In answer to your last question; no, we are not worth it. We, as a collective have destroyed many pristine places. Base camp on Everest pops to mind. With regard to Gili T though it has been 20 years since I was last there. Then it was strictly a backpacker place with a few concrete rooms. The island was accessible only by first boarding the ferry in Padang Bai then heading to Lombok. There you go by minivan to the top of Lombok and catch a motorized canoe to Gili T. I explored the island many times through the early 90’s and the garbage pile was present even back then although likely nowhere the size it is today. You are correct that back then most garbage took care of itself and decomposed naturally. The plastic bottles were the biggest threat. Gili T is a place I look back on fondly but since your article is not the first I have read about the “progress” of the island I think I will keep it as a memory. Thanks for a really engaging piece. All the best.

  2. Irish Stud · · Reply

    I have to agree the beach looks so inviting especially being a tourist attraction and then to be presented with that and the reason being there is no financial gain. Great respect for the environment. Wouldn’t like to be the cows either trying sort through that.

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