I’m on board a ferry to Gili Trawangan listening to the crew leader explain the details of the fast boat. I always try to pay attention to the safety briefings. Partly from a suffocating need to be polite, and partly in case there is a secret that might help me survive if something goes horribly wrong. There is a perverted part of my mind that imagines being interviewed as the sole survivor of a boating disaster and saying “I don’t know why everyone else died. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t looking at my phone while the crew explained how to avoid dying”.
Of course, there is nothing new in this safety talk. There are life jackets and life rafts if we need them. It’s probably a good idea to grab one before launching yourself over the side. Try to avoid standing on anyone as you exit.
As soon as the safety talk is over, I head upstairs to the top deck of the fast ferry. Wedging myself behind a life raft I accept a breakfast beer from the crew. Ten in the morning is a perfectly acceptable time to start drinking, especially when you’re on your way to paradise. All over the world are people working in offices who would definitely prefer to be drinking beer in the sun. I’m doing it for them.
WHAT ARE THE GILI ISLANDS?
The Gili Islands are a cluster of three small islands off the coast of Lombok. Gili Trawangan, Gili Air, and Gili Meno. They are edged by white sand beaches and clear, warm water. Each island is a paradise, however each has its own unique character. There is something for everyone in the Gili Islands, unless you don’t like islands, the ocean, the sun, or lazing around on beaches making people jealous.
I spent most of my time on Gili Trawangan, however having spoken to people who stayed on the other islands I’ve added a few notes on them.
HOW DO YOU GET THERE?
The best way to get to the Gili Islands is by ferry, as your only other option is swimming. Swimming is a bad idea considering it is quite a long way through strong currents and jellyfish. Being stung repeatedly by jellyfish as you are swept away into the blue is a terrible alternative to drinking beer while reading a book in the sun.
There are a number of operators running at various times, and at various speeds between Bali, Lombok, Nuse Lembonyan, and the Gili Islands. If you’re looking to save as much money as you can, you should expect to spend eight hours on a slow-moving boat, chugging through the waves surrounded by boxes of food and patient locals. If you’d prefer to spend that time sitting on a beach, then you can catch a fast ferry and cut it down to around two and a half hours, but you’ll pay for the pleasure. Of course if the weather is bad, then the times will definitely change.
I booked all my ferries though Gili Bookings and didn’t have any issues. I travelled on both Blue Water Express and Gili Getaway and felt they were both excellent.
GILI TRAWANGAN – EAT, SLEEP, DIVE, REPEAT…
Gili Trawangan is the most popular island and it is easy to be caught up in the atmosphere from the moment you arrive. The island’s name in bright letters adorn the busy beach as the ferry pulls up. New arrivals step off into clear turquoise water and white coral sand. Those departing look back longingly, gingerly carrying backpacks on sun burnt shoulders. The main street is bustling with people wandering in the sun, or cycling around the streets chatting excitedly. Divers returning from morning excursions carrying gear from boats to nearby dive shops. Through it all is the clip-clopping of hooves and the jingle of tack as horse carts carry people towards other parts of the island.
This is the most popular island and is widely known as the “party island”, though partying isn’t the only thing to do on Gili T. The beaches are lined with restaurants, dive shops, stores, and resorts. It is an unusual mix of conservative Muslim locals and sunbathing, beach going tourists.
You can go for a morning dive, then lie on the beach all afternoon, before hitting the night markets for dinner. You can go out drinking until the early hours of the morning, then get woken a few hours later by the local mosques pumping the adzan over loudspeakers, poorly designed for such volume. While I have no problems with the call to prayer being played and the religious observance by the local Muslims, I do have a problem with terrible sound quality.
THE LOCALS AND THE CULTURE
The locals are used to tourists and the differences in culture, but it is important to remember the Gili Islands are predominantly Muslim. While on the beach people are welcome to strip down to swimwear, however people are encouraged to put on clothes before wandering through the streets or going for food.
There are two mosques on Gili Trawangan and the adzan plays five times a day, every day, based around the Muslin schedule, not the tourist’s. During the month of Ramadan, there are a number of changes on Gili T. The bars don’t tend to stay open as late, some of the local restaurants may not be open during the day, and there are generally fewer locals hanging around. Keep in mind, many of the locals will be fasting during the month of Ramadan as well.
Showing a small amount of understanding and respect will go a long way towards making friends of the people who live there.
PLACES TO STAY
Given the number of tourists it is no surprise there are also a lot of places to stay. They range from expensive private villas facing the beach, to sharing a tiny rooms with lots of mosquitoes. When choosing a location, keep in mind, I can walk the circumference of the island in an hour and a half. You’re not going to be inconvenienced too much if you’re away from the action a little, although be aware there aren’t a lot of street lights in the middle but there are a lot of potholes.
Generally speaking, I noticed most of the cheaper places were away from the beach on the eastern side, the resorts were on the west, and the more private villas were around the northern and southern ends. The dive shops, stores, and bars all tend to be on the east side as well.
If you are travelling during the busy months of December, January, July, August and September, you should pre-book your accommodation. Outside of those months it is easy enough to wander the streets and find somewhere cheap to stay.
There are no cars on the island. Motorised transport is banned. The closest to a taxi you will get are horse carts. Generally people walk or cycle. There are a lot of rental bikes on offer and almost every hostel or hotel will have some available.
Relax. You’re on island time. Take the time to walk or cycle around. Get a bit of exercise. You’ll be happy you did.
Cafes, restaurants, and street food. Gili Trawangan has a lot to choose from. It never ceases to amaze me how I visit a small island with almost no local produce, where literally everything has to be imported, and I can still get Mexican, or a fruit smoothie with ice, or even just a decent coffee. Yet it is all there on Gili T.
The beaches are lined with restaurants and cafes. Not all of them are good. In fact some are exceptionally average. Once you have explored a little, heading off the main street will lead you to smaller and cheaper warungs with excellent local food. No matter what your budget is, you will have a lot of choice.
You should definitely visit the night markets at least once while you are there. They’re a collection of street vendors who set up every night and sell the same shit everyone else in the night markets is selling. However, both the food and the price are decent.
Jali Kitchen has some great local food at a good price as well. They’re worth checking out for any meal of the day. The staff are really friendly and helpful.
Kayu Cafe had the best coffee I could find on Gili Trawangan. If you like your coffee and can’t live without it, get in to see them and give them a try!
THE PARTY SCHEDULE
There is a bit of a schedule of party nights happening on Gili T.
- Monday: Blue Marlin
- Tuesday: Jiggy Bar
- Wednesday: Irish Bar
- Friday: New Rudy’s
- Saturday: Sama Sama…although Sama Sama throws a party every night.
- Sunday: Evolution
Then there are the full moon and dark moon parties as well, which happen…during the full moon and when there is no moon. No surprises.
And there are the Jiggy Boat Parties which happen every Wednesday and Saturday.
THE BEST PLACE TO SIT
I spend a lot of time exploring beautiful and amazing places so I can bring you the tips no one else bothers with. Often overlooked is the best place on the island to sit on the beach. Personally I believe it is here:
You might be asking why this spot in particular. Well because it has everything I need.
- The beach is beautiful.
- There are beach chairs for people who go to the beach but don’t like sand. Weird.
- There are people around, but it isn’t too crowded.
- Across the road is the Trawangan Dive Bar that serves cheap beers in coolers. The hardest part about getting another was convincing myself to stand up.
- There is food nice and close for lunch.
- There are stand-up paddle boards for hire.
- Close by you can hire a mask and snorkel, then swim to a small reef from the beach.
- Aquaddiction is just up the road for diving.
- And there are baby turtles in the sanctuary a short walk away. Baby turtles!
DIVING AND SNORKELLING
There are a lot of options on Gili Trawangan for diving. After speaking to a number of other divers, I opted for Aquaddiction and I wasn’t disappointed. I ended up going out one-on-one with my own dive guide which made the entire experience really awesome. However, while the diving around Gili T was nice, personally it didn’t compare with diving in Komodo.
If you’re not a diver, there are lots of places to snorkel. You can hire or purchase gear, and wander off the beach almost anywhere around the island. There are also snorkelling tour companies. Mostly they follow the same path over a few hours. They leave from Gili T, head to Turtle point, stop on Gili Meno for lunch, hit one more reef, then head home.
SHOP AROUND BEFORE BUYING
Along the beaches in the main areas are small stalls that look perfectly dodgy. Enterprising entrepreneurs will set a table and chair in the doorway of a closed store, and offer deals on tours or transport. Some of them may even be legitimate. The prices are generally very similar to each other, however occasionally you may get some that will drop the price. I opted to buy a snorkelling tour off a man who had a sign that looked semi-permanent. He handed me a receipt and told me to meet him the following morning at 9AM. I admit to being pleasantly surprised when he actually showed up.
With the tourists come the people hoping to make money off them, and so they should. During the day, as you relax on the beach or eat lunch in the restaurants, you will usually have hawkers trying to sell you everything from necklaces to bluetooth speakers and the usual array of sunglasses and sarongs. They are generally not very insistent as far as hawkers go. They’re trying to earn a living however if you’re not interested, they will leave you alone if you give them a polite “No thanks”.
As the sun disappears, a different sort of hawker appears. You will hear them quietly call out as you pass by along the road. “Mushroom? Weed?”. I’m not going to tell anyone what they should do with their bodies, but keep in mind Indonesia has some of the harshest drug laws in the world.
There are a number of ATMs on the island. However, as is normally the case when people take things for granted, they occasionally stop working or run out of money. It pays to have a bit of spare cash just in case that happens. Most of the larger hotels and dive shops take credit cards, however the smaller stores and restaurants may not.
I’d definitely consider getting a SIM before landing on Gili T. There is some WiFi around, but it is about as reliable as you’d expect on a small tropical island. Telekom appeared to have fairly decent coverage while I was there, though I only used it to upload photos of myself to Instagram and to tell my mother I was still alive.
The Blue Island Medical Clinic opened on Gili Trawangan in 2016. I have no more information other than what is available on their website. Keep in mind you should consider travel insurance before heading away!
GILI MENO – FOR YOUR HONEYMOON
Considering it is 600 metres or so from Gili T, it is surprisingly different. Compared to Gili Trawangan, there isn’t as much happening on Gili Meno, and a lot of people prefer it like this. If you’re looking for a quiet place to hang, then Gili Meno may be more your speed. There aren’t as many drunk backpackers, and there aren’t as many people trying to sell you mushrooms on the side of the road, but there are still bars, restaurants, dive shops, and resorts. It is the perfect place for a romantic few days away before launching yourself back into travelling.
GILI AIR – HIPPY RESERVE
Gili Air has more going on than Gili Meno, but not as much as Gili Trawangan. There are more lost souls wandering through looking for the local experience, explaining how they’re not like other tourists but still insisting on hot water, flush toilets, and eggs for breakfast. Every month there is a full moon party on the beach, with Psy Trance DJs getting people dancing and having fun.
Gili Air is a watered down version of Gili Trawangan, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It has all the great parts, but lacks those elements some people may find annoying. It is a lot more chilled out. I plan on spending more time there if I ever make it back to Indonesia!