Today the Gili Islands are one of the biggest tourist destinations in Indonesia, attracting travellers from all over the world with their beautiful beaches and laid back Island vibes. However, the islands were once uninhabited and remained small untouched tropical havens, bursting with wildlife. This wasn’t as long ago as you may think. Unfortunately, published sources outlining the exact history of the Gilis are limited due to the Islands small size and population.
There was no permanent settlement on any of the islands until the 1970’s. However, it is said that fisherman from Sulawesi were the first to really discover the islands up to 200 years ago.
They were first attracted to Gili Air because of its natural fresh water wells and lush vegetation. Some settled on the island and started to grow fruit and vegetables. They traded some of their crops with Sasak people from Lombok, in exchange for rice and other products. Sharing is caring, and this was the start to the growth of the Gili population. Some of the Sulawesi and Lombok folk got married and the rest is history.
Gili Meno was the next Island to become inhabited, with it’s salt water lake offering a new means of making money by salt manufacturing.
Gili Trawangan was the least popular island during that time which is interesting, seeing as now it is by far the most popular island due to its size, party culture and proximity to top ranking dive sites.
During World War 2 Japanese forces used Gili Trawangan as a lookout post and prisoner of war camp. You can still find the remnants of one of the bunkers up on the hill in Gili T. There’s also the wreck of a sunken patrol boat in the south of Gili Air, a popular dive spot these days!
Wasita Kusama was the Governor of Lombok in the 1970’s and he started to establish coconut plantations and give land rights to private companies. Mataram prison was overcrowded at the time and so around 350 inmates were sent to help with the first harvests. Many of these prisoners remained on the Islands as permanent settlers. Now that’s not such a bad prison sentence, is it!
The Islands started to attract backpackers in the late 1980’s. Gili Air initially had the most infrastructure and therefore, it was the most tourist-friendly. It wasn’t long until this changed and Gili Trawangan became the most popular Island.
Indonesia has the largest Muslim population out of any other country in the world, although there are 6 official religions practiced throughout the country. The majority of the people living on the Gili Islands are Muslim as were their Sulawesi ancestors. The first mosque was built in Gili Air roughly 80 years ago and before that the local people would travel to Lombok to pray every Friday. The call to prayer sounds 5 times a day, so if you are a light sleeper it’s a good idea to book accommodation far away from the mosque as the first prayer is called at 4:30am each morning.
We think it’s important to research the history and culture of the place that you are visiting, this way you can be respectful when you’re visiting. You are a guest after all.
To find out more about the Etiquette in Gili click here.