My inelegant dance moves barely pass muster on a Carnival Cruise dance floor, yet I’m grooving freely among the hip backpackers at a reggae bar on Trawangan island. I assumed a rapid succession of whiskey shots triggered the carefree spirit, but that’s only because I didn’t know the mushrooms I just ate were hallucinogenic. I wouldn’t realize that until several hours later.
Early that morning, I boarded a speedboat in Bali, Indonesia, and crossed the Lombok Strait to the infamous Gili Islands. Meno and Air are the more tranquil spots in the three-island archipelago, while Trawangan is the big brother with the wild party scene and dusty streets free from motorized land vehicles. Upon arrival, I checked into a cabana-style guesthouse with sinks funneling “island water” (in other words, brush your teeth with bottled water). My plans included a day of diving and a day of hiking, but I dedicated my first night to the bars. Walking down the main dirt street, I casually passed locals on bicycles and horse-drawn carriages until I reach a lively bar called Rudy’s. As I later learned, this was a hardcore party spot equally loved and hated by the backpacker blog mob.
I mounted a wooden stool at the open-air bar next to a twenty-something backpacker named Steve from Alberta, Canada. We chatted while drinking beer and whiskey when I noticed a sign that said magic mushrooms for sale.
“Hey, have you tried the magic mushrooms? Are they any good?” I asked. Steve was wearing an In The Tubing tank top from Vang Vieng, Laos, which meant there was a good chance he knew.
“Sure, I tried them before,” replied Steve, who was enjoying his final night of a weeklong stay. “They are not super strong. I was thinking of getting more. You in?”
“Sure, why not,” I said, thinking that magic mushrooms in Indonesia were anything but psychedelic. I could not have been more wrong.
It must seem strange that I did not associate magic mushrooms with real hallucinogens, but understand that Indonesia has some of the harshest drug laws on the planet. In 2005, an Australian woman named Schapelle Corby was sentenced to 20 years for smuggling 10 pounds of cannabis into Bali (corrupt baggage handlers might have been responsible), and she was actually lucky since death-by-firing-squad was a possibility. (She ultimately served nine years.) Likewise, eight individuals from different countries did get the firing squad earlier this year for smuggling in heroin. A simple cannabis joint can land a tourist four years in a third-world prison, and bringing personal amounts into Indonesia can net between five and 15 years. With this in mind, I could not imagine that a bar openly sold psychedelic mushrooms. I assumed the funky fungi were comparable to the ill-advised herbal ecstasy craze in the 1990s.
Steve, who seemed friendly with the staff, called over the bartender and asked for two bowls of mushrooms. Picking at the pieces with our hands, we ate piece after bitter piece with the occasional gravel-tasting bite. We finished the bowls and kept drinking. The effects came on slowly.
Three years previous, I dropped acid twice in a 30-day span. I bought laced sugar cubes with the intention of trying the drug just once, but after experiencing its effect on light, I immediately committed to an acid encore on July 4 timing the peak for the sky-filled fireworks. Though mushrooms and acid produce similar responses, I had never tried mushrooms before, so even if I knew they were psychedelic, I would not know exactly what to expect.
Steve and I ate mushrooms in a bowl, but most people opt for the magic mushroom shake to minimize the nasty taste. Each mushroomista makes them differently, but the shakes commonly include ice, fruit, soda and/or Red Bull, and their muddy-brown texture reflects how they often taste. These shakes are not legal, but they are seemingly tolerated on Gili Trawangan (and reportedly on Gili Air), and the island certainly lacked a noticeable police presence in 2010. Many people down shakes in the late afternoon and head to the waterfront bars for sunsets that are spectacular even without the visual enhancements. My lunar voyage, however, involved late-night partying.
While at Rudy’s, we connected with several Brits and a firefighter from Orange County, California, and we moved together as a group to different bars. Strangely, the small island is home to an Irish pub called the Tir Na Nog Bar that claims the best Wednesday night party, but on this particular evening, the action was at the Sama Sama Reggae Bar where a Rasta-style Indonesian band threw down one Jamaican jam after another. By the time we squeezed onto the open-air dance floor, the mushrooms had taken full effect, and the cognitive impairment had me thinking whiskey might rival weed as the perfect reggae accompaniment.
I danced, sweat, initiated child-like high-fives and butchered Bob Marley lyrics I swore I knew the words to, and though time seemed to move slowly, the hours zipped by. With short breaks, the band played several sets, and during the final few songs, I looked at the stage lights and had my Eureka moment. The different colored lights seemed to vibrate in tune with the musical vibrations, and I recalled my similar experience on acid.
“Steve! Were these real mushrooms?” I asked.
“Huh? Yeah. What did you think they were?” he replied before recapturing a reggae groove. We were both sweaty and dopey, but Trawangan seemed like one of the few places on earth where I felt comfortable tripping in public.
When the band stopped, the crowd dispersed, and everyone in our group started to say goodbye. I would see the Brits and the firefighter a month later at the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan Island in Thailand, but I did not cross paths again with the Canadian. The rest of the Gili trip focused on the white sand, turquoise water, diving with sea turtles, sipping mojitos and a hike to a hilltop vista on the southern end of the island. I tried mushrooms one more time in Vang Vieng, but the rest of my time in the Gili Islands was about the non-psychedelic aspects of Mother Nature.
I did learn, however, that Rudy’s was not the only vendor. Over the next week, I saw locals selling magic mushroom shakes on the side of the road like fresh strawberries, and various signs said “Your Return Trip to the Moon” and “Even Mario Can’t Handle These Mushrooms.” The chalkboard scribble at Rudy’s suddenly made so much more sense.
If you are planning a party trip to the Gili Islands, remember a few things. First, Indonesia is a predominately Muslim country, so avoid visiting during holy times like Ramadan, and always show respect to the local culture and customs. Second, mushrooms might be sold openly, but try to consume any fungi or shakes on the premises without making a big to-do. Pace your consumption knowing that the psychedelic effects do not occur immediately, and do not take mushrooms if you currently feel depressed, aggravated and/or anxious. Third, leave any valuables (especially credit cards, bank cards and passports) secured in your room, and ideally have a non-high person provide some buddy-sitting services.
Lastly, you can dance like a fool, but avoid singing along loudly to Marley if don’t actually know the lyrics. The next morning, I was more embarrassed by that than my gimpy Ewok dance moves.
Photo: Peter, CC-BY
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.