The Gili Islands in Indonesia are three tiny islands off the northwest coast of Lombok, Bali’s neighbor to the east. “The Gili Islands are how Bali used to be 20 years ago” and other things tourists say are some of the reasons I was one of many people flocking to these teeny idyllic islands. I had seen instagram pics of the gorgeous sunsets, the uncrowded beaches, the carefree people on swings in the water, and I was super excited to finally be visiting. After going, I decided to share what you should know about the Gili islands in order to spare you the distressing experience that I had.
Sadly my parade was rained on…or should I say, stomped on…almost the minute I got off the ferry on Gili Trawangan. When I saw that horse carriage (locally called a Cidomo) was the only means of transportation other than bicycle, my heart dropped. I’ve never been a fan of horse carriages. I find them cruel and unnecessary, especially in busy large cities. Furthermore, I grew up around horses and know that standing around in an urban environment with heavy equipment attached and eyes partly covered is anything but fun to them. Turns out, those lucky American horses live a life of luxury compared to the poor Gili Horses.
Before I knew what was happening, my luggage and my partner’s were thrown on a cart along with two other women and their luggage PLUS the driver. I thought that seemed like way too much for a pony to pull. Especially considering the blazing hot sun. The carts are poorly designed with little care to balance the cart, making the task of pulling even more arduous for the horse.
By the end of the first day in Gili Trawangan, my partner and I decided that we would not use a horse cart again. We rented bikes and on our last day, walked with our luggage 40 minutes to the ferry. Yes. That is how badly I did NOT want to support the horse carriage industry.
I did some research and closely observed the horse carts. They aren’t horses, they are ponies, based on their small size. They carry carts full of heavy Bintang Beer crates and construction material in between carting lazy tourists. I never once saw a driver give fresh water to a horse. Furthermore, they typically give them salt water (this causes kidney failure btw)! I witnessed merciless whipping to force horses to go faster, sometimes through sand. I saw a tiny horse buckling from the weight of obese tourists plus other items in the cart. It could barely stand up let alone trot quickly.
Many horses have red bleeding sores from the tight harness. They are constantly gnawing on their bits and shaking their heads, clearly miserable. In addition, the harnesses are often not removed and they must sleep that way, if they get much sleep at all. They typically work until they drop, sometimes 18 hours per day, then they are killed and new horses found. Apparently the horses are stolen from neighboring islands. After just one day, I literally felt my stomach sink everytime I heard the “clop clop clop” of hooves coming behind me on the street.
To make matters worse, there is a well-known horse Mafia. This is big money. You can read more about the mafia here. The prices are outrageous and tourists pay because they think they have no choice. THERE IS ALWAYS A CHOICE PEOPLE. Walk, ride a bike or how about boycott the Gilis until the hotels and tourist industry provide more options? Write to your hotel of choice and tell them you want transportation other than a horse. There are bicycle carts and wheelbarrows and other non-motorized wheeled devices in existence; therefore there are other ways luggage can be transported. I suspect locals are too afraid of the mafia to start any kind of alternate business. I heard stories of people trying to make a change and being physically harmed for their efforts. For change to happen, there has to be money loss as in lost tourism dollars to hotels and other businesses. That’s often the only impetus for change.
I stayed on Gili Trawangan but also visited Gili Air and saw the same damn thing. There were other reasons I didn’t love the Gilis including beaches that look pretty but suck to swim in, lots of noise and construction, hazardous boating practices, and what I consider turtle harassment (that’s another story for anther day!), but it all pales in comparison to this number one reason I wouldn’t go back. There are other beautiful islands in the world, where this crap isn’t happening. Go there instead folks. Don’t use your tourist dollars in a way that supports this horrible industry.
I will not be returning to the Gili Islands until I see changes. This post was actually difficult for me to write because it causes much dismay thinking about what I saw. If you need more evidence, information, or videos, go to the Gili Carriage Horse Support Network Facebook page. If you have visited the Gilis and were equally upset by this, or if you are planning to go and want this practice to change, write to the hotels, write to the tourism boards or tour companies. The more that they hear tourists are concerned and willing to go elsewhere, the better chance of making change.
I did some research into the administration of Indonesia and discovered how the islands were split into different governing bodies. The Gili Islands fall under the North Lombok Regency. Unfortunately the Office of the Regent administration email I found was returned to me. If anyone can help out with contacts, I’d be grateful. I wrote a letter to the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and got a response saying they would pass on my concerns to the local Lombok government. Of course, I have no way to follow up on that. More letters need to be written.
I cannot simply witness horrible things and just say, “oh well, that’s sad”. All of you people out there who say you want to travel and change the world, I implore you; Do something! Write the letters. Be part of the solution. If we don’t do it, who will?
I spent hours trying to find the best people to contact in order to voice concerns. Other than hotels on the islands, I had trouble finding working links! This is what I came up with for those of you who want to do something to help. To make it easier for you to be active, I have included a downloadable letter template that you can add to and personalize when sending emails.
Admin at the Lombok Board of Tourism: firstname.lastname@example.org
Link to Indonesia Board of Tourism contact page: http://www.kemenpar.go.id/
Here are some tourism industry email addresses:
Emails for a few of the top hotels in Gili Trawangan:
Hotel Ombak Sunset email@example.com
Pondok Santi Asst Manager Madison Bouillir firstname.lastname@example.org
Scallywags Resort Estelle@scallywagsresort.com
Ko Ko Mo Resort Manger Mr. Lukman Hakim email@example.com
Le Pirate Beach Club firstname.lastname@example.org
Update as of June 26th: Both the Scallywags Resort and the Pondok Santi replied to my email and they both agreed with my sentiments. However they informed me that although they use the cidomo as little as possible, they find it unavoidable in some situations. Scallywags are actually using Cidomos only once or twice a week for wood orders that they can’t carry. They have trolleys for the luggage that they push and all their team use bikes to bring laundry, drinks for minibar, etc. Apparently all horse carts are owned by people from the island. It is “their domain”. No hotels have authorization to have a horse they would take care of if the owner is not originally from the island.
I am working with a some animal welfare organizations to come up with a better strategy going forward. If you would like to be included in these efforts once a strategy is formulated, please let me know either with an email via my contact page or in the comments below.
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