The Gili Islands Guide: Find Indonesia’s Worst Kept Secret
Sure, Bali gets a lot of attention and is an instantly recognizable name, but have you heard of the Gilis? The three small islands off the coast of Lombok are certainly not on everyone’s radar, but once you land on Bali, it seems to be the word on everyone’s lips. Steadily gaining popularity since the 70s, these three small islands off the northwestern tip of Lombok have become the new go-to destination for those venturing beyond Bali for the first time. Curious? Then check out this Gili Islands guide for a rundown on practical matters like how to get there, where to stay, and what to expect.
Getting to the Gilis
You can reach the Gilis via fastboat or regular ferry from various harbors on Bali. So, depending on where you are, a minivan will pick you up (included in the price) and drop you off at the closest harbor. For instance, from Kuta, your fast boat will depart from Padang Bai, while destinations further north might connect better to Amed. You can purchase tickets for one-way or return trip (open end) at any tourist kiosk around Bali. The prices vary, but one thing holds true: always negotiate. Advertised prices range from 750,000 to 1,200,000 per person for a return ticket, but we paid 425,000 Rupiah for a return ticket both times around (including in July, which is high-ish season) – after asking around and negotiating the best prices. Nothing is set in stone; you just have to be savvy enough to have some info up your sleeve. You’re welcome.
There are several companies to choose from with differing price and comfort levels. Nevertheless, delays are common, so DO NOT BOOK YOUR BOAT BACK TO BALI ON THE SAME DAY AS YOUR FLIGHT. Don’t be that guy. Also, you will likely travel with different boat companies on the same ticket if you don’t ask specifically. And let me tell you – there are wild differences. We’ve experienced Marina Srikandi, which was alright, Semaya One (avoid this one – very tight seats, leaky windows), and Wahana (best of the three, thanks to well organized and comfy pre-departure customer care). But no matter if you choose the ‘best’ boat company, you’re looking at a different standard altogether – waiting time, noisy boats, splash mountaint-like experience on the sun roof (although this is thanks to choppy waters – but seriously, don’t sit on the sun roof).
Once you get there, you will enjoy a car and scooter-free atmosphere. What no Gili Islands guide should miss out on mentioning is that only bicycles and horses are allowed on all three Gilis in order to mitigate air pollution. Therefore all three islands are a lot more chill than Bali, and the loudest sounds here will be the mosque calls.
Gili Trawangan: Commercialized Rasta Culture and Magic Mushrooms
From the three Gilis, Trawangan, or Gili T, is the biggest and the westernmost of the islands. It also absorbs the majority of tourists and it is the rowdiest of the three.
The main strip on the east side of Gili T offers a multitude of restaurants, bars and food kiosks, as well as hotels, hostels and dive shops. Monday nights are the party nights, with several bars hosting reggae parties, and you will even find a pregame bar – which actually closes relatively early and lets people move on to their next party destination.
Gili Trawangan Accomodation Guide
In short, there is something for every budget. However, if you have a smaller budget don’t book your room in advance. Instead, check for availability, prices and standard once you get off the boat. Usually the price given on site will be much lower, once the online booking margins are taken out of the equation and you negotiate a bit, plus you’ll get to see the room you’ll be sleeping in before you commit.
The best budget-friendly accommodation is located away from the harbor, going inward. You will most likely have to forego having a pool, but many homestays actually have a decent standard. We stayed at Mita Homestay, run by a local family and not present online, like many local-run homestays. We rented one of their four rooms for 150.000 Rupiah/night (about 10 Euro), had a room with a fan, freshwater (but not hot) shower, good breakfast, towels and room cleaning every 3 days. Hot water is in general a bit of a luxury on the Gilis, unless you are in a 5-star resort.
Things to Do on Gili T
Many people flock to this island to the carefree vibe, laid back beach parties, and a lax attitude to magic mushrooms. At the same time, it’s nowhere near as hectic as Bali – most club-like establishments shut down at around 1 or 2, leaving revelers to move on to a late night eatery. If you’re not partying, you can rent snorkeling gear and go swim with turtles. Pick any of the beaches on the eastern or norhteastern shore, and you’ll be sure to spot at least one.
You can also rent a bike (from 40.000 IDR) and ride around the island. However, this is more a chore than enjoyment – the ‘roads’ are bumpy and the frequent sandy patches are a pain in the ass to ride through. If you do, whether on bike or foot, make it to the nortwestern tip of the island, you’ll have a gorgeous view of the sunset over bali.
Diving, is also popular on Gili T – it’s somewhat similar to Koh Tao in that loads of people like to get open water certified. While not as cheap as Thailand’s most notorious dive destination, you’ll enjoy clear water with 30m visibility on pretty much any given day, in a protected environment – diving is prohibited. If you’re like us, however, you’ll opt for chilling in a beachfront cafe gazebo and go for a dip and snorkle every now and then.
On Gili T you will find everything from grilled corn on the cob kiosks to fancy resort restaurants offering nightly barbecue deals. But what is the one thing Gili T has that the other gilis don’t? A night market – by far our favorite dinner place. You can sample different Indonesian dishes, have a grilled red snapper or a tuna steak, or enjoy some Indonesian pancakes. The big stand in front of the Green Cafe also has amazing Indonesian dessert treats for only 5.000 a pop!
Where to go from here? Hop on a boat (do cover your important items – you might get wet on the way), leaving daily at 9.30 and and 4 pm (25.000 IDR) and check out the next island, which is…
Gili Meno: So Close, but Feels Sooooo Far Away…
For the both of us, Meno was the favorite of the three Gilis, and we returned here another time. . Being little and in the middle, it often gets overlooked by the Gili T crowds, which is a good thing. There is only one bar on the island (Sasak Café on the westside), and only a handful of restaurants and shops. The rest is village, bungalows, sand, sea, cows, chickens, horses and cats. A beach bum’s dream come true.
Gili Meno Travel Guide: Slow Your Roll
CHILL OUT. Enjoy the silence. Share a beach with fewer than 5 people. Snorkel. Stumble upon a bird chirping competition (this is something we’ve seen in the village – people hang their bird cages on a line and yell at the birds to make them chirp; the winner is the loudest chirper). Spend a lazy afternoon at Yaya’s.
Seriously, this place is perfect for switching off and recharging completely. The beaches are NEVER crowded, the snorkeling is superb, and the local warungs serve tasty food and delicious fruit shakes. If you do go snorkeling, though, bring some reef shoes, as you’ll likely have to walk over some broken coral on your way out. Check out the spots on the west side of Meno, mainly in front of the Good Heart bungalows/Dream Divers, as well as in front of the abandoned resort.
And in the evening, you can spend some time watching the sunset from Sasak cafe, the islands only ‘bar’. There’s always live music as well, so combine that with the bean bags on the beach and a cool sea breeze, and you’ve got yourself a winning combination.
Gili Meno Accomodation: From Simple to High End
Most common accommodation on Meno are bungalows, which you will find in a simpler, bamboo version with only a fan and mosquito net, or as clasic brick ones, often with A/C. The prices are slightly higher than on Gili T – since there are fewer tourists and therefore less competition.
Even without booking online, you can also find a decent bungalows with freshwater showers and fan for about 200,000 – 350,000, depending on the season and your negotiation skills. A simple breakfast is always included. We stayed at Suri Bungalows, and opted for a room with fan for 200.000, including very tasty breakfast (average room; came with a free scorpion and a giant spider on our last night, but what can you do). The second time on Gili Meno, we went for Pondok Anjani, a family-run bungalows guesthouse. Simple, but clean, friendly and also with delicious breakfast included.
Food on Gili Meno
We found our favorite spot so far – Yaya’s Warung on the east side of Meno. There you can chill in one of the beach gazebos while spending very little money on very good Indonesian food made by Yaya. This Warung also fits perfectly into the overall atmosphere on Meno, which is ‘CHILL OUT, DUDE’. There are chickens around, if you use the loo, it will be the family bathroom, and the people who run the place are super friendly. On a lazy afternoon, the sons/waiters will pick on a guitar and give you a little show, or come round for a chat in broken English. The only drawback is that it gets quite busy at dinnertime, and, as there’s only one gas cooker keeping the home kitchen goin, you’ll be advised that the waiting time is extra long.
The food at Sasak Cafe was also good – with prices around 35,000-60,000, their Indonesian dishes were tasty and very nicely-presented, plus we got our food at the same time, which is not something you can always expect. Rust, the big restaurant near the pier, has decent pizza, all things considered, and there was a small family eatery up the road from the Clinic, where we enjoyed fresh fish or the classic nasi goreng on several occasions. Beware of the hungry cats, though – they are everywhere.
After a couple of days we hopped on a boat again and ended up on…
Gili Air Travel Guide: Top Notch Diving
Gili Air is accessible from Meno, Gili T and Lombok, since it is super close. Accommodation and atmosphere-wise, it lies somewhere in the middle between Gili T and Gili Meno, but of course there is a wealth of options for bigger budgets as well.
Gili Air Tips for Homestays and Hotels
Follow the same drill as with the other islands – go towards the village, and find a homestay. We stayed at Yoland Guest House, where we rented an air-conditioned bungalow with freshwater shower, very comfy bed and pillows and breakfast for a sweet 200.000 IDR (as we found out later, this was actually a great deal, and the only reason we got that price is because the owner’s sister undercut him with her homestay deal). On our second visit, however, we noticed that the prices have increased significantly, and there was no way to go to even 400K at Yolan, due to the profusion of online bookings. A blessing for the owner, a curse fot the thrifty traveler.
At the same time, Toro Toro bungalows just next have us a fair price of 300K per night for a bungalow with fan, and a comfy bed. We switched from a bungalow deeper in the garden to one closer to the ‘road’ since the open air bathroom attracted a lot of cockroaches. After the move, we went from 5 in the bathroom at any time, to just one. By the way, this is common in many homestays, because the traditional sasak-style bungalows have bathrooms without a roof. The bathrooms are otherwise fine – sometimes even really nice, with dreamy granite sinks and fancy flooring – it’s just that you can’t be super squeamish about insects here and there. They are part of the ecosystem. Beds usually have a mosquito net, so you’ll likely be fine.
Where to Eat on Gili Air
We pretty much went to the same Warung every night – Warung Bambu, in the village. The menu is not very big, but you will find some tasty and budget-friendly options (a chicken martabak will set you back 15.000 IDR). Another good place is the Lemongrass Warung, on the same street as Bambu. Their dishes go for about 25 to 35K, but they are slightly different than at Bamboo because – as the name suggests, a lot of them are made with lemongrass (yum).
Warung Munchies is also a good place to kick back and watch the waves between Lombok and Air. Their service is sometimes comically slow, but you will forgive that once you try some of their wallet-friendly snacks and fresh fruit juices. And if you’re in search of good icecream, as we were on our second visit, go to Pondok Anjani, where you can get homemade icecream and the friendliest service. The ‘restaurant’ is literally in a family front yard, and the atmosphere is lovely.
What to Do on Gili Air
Since we were all snorkeled out from the previous two islands, we went ahead and booked an open water dive course with Gili Air Divers, one of the many dive schools along the east side of Air. (All the schools in the Gilis have a price agreement for 4.200.000 IDR per course, and if you sign up via email you should receive a 10% discount.)
The course was fun! We got to dive with turtles, a baby reef shark, a baby eagle ray, some lion fish, etc… and the staff at Gili Air Divers was very nice and flexible (which was good for Flo because he came in with a cold, so we were able to already do most of our theory while waiting for him to get better). Our second visit to Gili Air Divers was even better – we dived with some local guides, saw a GIANT lionfish that even impressed our guide, and, of course, perfected our underwater skills.
Apart from that – there is of course snorkeling, (sometimes) kite surfing, stand-up paddle, sea kayaking, and, again, EATING ALL THE FOOD.
Gili Islands Guide Wrap-Up
So there you have it – the wonderful Gilis. Low on freshwater, dusty as f***, and with frequent power outages – but damn beautiful and relaxed. I hope that this Gili Islands guide has helped you determine which of the three might be worth a visit – though I would persnally recommend Meno and Air, and skipping Trawangan, due to their more laid back nature and a lower turnover of party-happy tourists. But, as they say, whatever floats your boat. To check out additional destinations around Indonesia, check out my dedicated introductory page and other travel spots.