The Ultimate Travel Guide to Indonesia's Gili Islands
The Gili Islands, between Bali and Lombok, are known for their laid-back beachy vibe | © Mila Supinskaya Glashchenko / Shutterstock
“The turtle capital of the world”, “party islands” and even the “Maldives of Southeast Asia” – these are just some of the honorary names travellers use to describe Indonesia’s Gili Islands. Here is Culture Trip’s ultimate travel guide to this exceptional slice of paradise.
The Gili Islands — Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno, and Gili Air — have many things in common: idyllic beaches, exotic marine species roaming the crystal clear water, and a laid-back beach vibe that makes you want to drink a cocktail out of a coconut. Each island has its own unique characteristics that give travellers a well-rounded experience, involving everything from partying on a boat to a mindful afternoon doing aqua yoga. This ultimate travel guide to the Gili Islands will reveal everything you need to know to get the best out of this amazing archipelago.
Know your Gili
In local Sasak language, Gili means “small islands”. There are other gilis around mainland Lombok, but the Gili Islands usually refer to these three sister islands: Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air.
Once a popular destination for partying backpackers, the Gili Islands are still a much-beloved part of the famed Banana Pancake Trail. Throughout the years however, a wide range of new experiences have entered the mixture previously saturated by budget homestays and cheap bars. Stretches of sand are now dotted with romantic luxury villas, while in other places you’ll find rugged jungly trails home to thriving wildlife.
The biggest and most developed of the Gili Islands, Gili Trawangan (or Gili T), is both a vibrant party island and laid-back tropical getaway, alluring an exciting mix of crowds to its shores. This island knows how to throw parties that rave on well until early morning, when the baton is passed on to dive instructors, market vendors and café owners.
Sandwiched between two other islands, Gili Meno is the smallest and least developed of the trio. This makes it a favourite destination for honeymooning, conservation and wildlife spotting, where you can trail along the white-sand beaches with hardly another soul in sight. Gili Meno also houses the turtle sanctuary that in turn has bestowed a thriving population of sea turtles to keep divers company.
Gili Meno, Lombok, Indonesia © duchy / Shutterstock | © duchy / Shutterstock
Decades before this small island emerged as a hip tourist destination, Gili Air used to be the main attraction of the Gilis, with impressive natural features described like legends in many a backpacker bar. Until now, a large population of locals still reside on this island, while Gili Trawangan is mostly bustling with foreign tourists. This is where you’ll find the most authentic villages and traditional huts, which also sell locally produced goods and crafts. Gili Air is also for the adventurous at heart, offering avant-garde attractions like subwinging, kitesurfing, aqua yoga, SUP yoga and more.
How to get there
Getting to the Gili Islands is easy from either Bali or Lombok. From Bali, travellers can catch a fast boat at Sanur Beach or Serangan Harbour. The trip takes less than one hour from either point and return tickets cost about $105 USD per person. A cheaper route would involve a ferry transfer to Lombok (costs about $5 USD per person) followed by a road trip to one of the harbours at the northwestern tip of the island.
There are three main departure points from Lombok: Teluk Kodek and Teluk Nare offer premium services like private speed boats, while Bangsal provides a much cheaper alternative with public traditional boats that charge less than $2 USD for one trip to the Gili of your choice.
What to pack
Don’t forget to pack the essentials for an island getaway: swimwear, light breathable clothes, flip-flops, sunscreen, sun hat and sunglasses. A simple sarong is your best friend ladies (and gents) and can do many tricks during your travels to Gili Islands: you can spread the fabric on the sand as a layer for sunbathing, then use it later to cover up when walking through local villages.
Make sure to pack personal medicine or shop for it in Bali, as there is not a single hospital in the Gili Islands; just a few small clinics. Some smaller, cheaper accommodations in the Gili Islands use salt water for sinks and showers, so feel free to bring dry shampoo or shop for brands you trust in Bali for skincare and other personal hygiene needs.
There is not one single motor vehicle in the entire Gili Islands – trust us, it’s a good thing. Most tourists rent their own bicycle to get around the small islands or simply hail a horse cart (or cidomo, as locals call it). It takes less than two hours to walk around Gili Trawangan, the biggest of the three Gilis.
Bicycling around Gili T © Nikki Vargas
Travelling between the three islands is also very convenient. There is a fixed schedule for public boats, charging less than $2 USD to get from one island to another. Chartered boats are also available for a more expensive fee.
Where to go
The Gili ocean swings have become a big craze on social media, and you don’t want to go home without a snap. It’s a remarkable experience too: toes-dipped, bodies swaying playfully, all the while overlooking the clear blue ocean. You may stumble upon several of these contraptions when circling the islands, but be sure to stop by Ombak Sunset Resort in Gili Trawangan for the original swings that started the trend. Other spots also include a gorgeous ocean hammock along with the swings.
Gili Meno Turtle Sanctuary
The renowned ‘turtle capital of the world’ owes much of its thriving sea turtle population to this conservation centre. Gili Meno turtle sanctuary works to help hatch turtle eggs in a safe environment and nurture newborns before releasing them into the ocean. Tourists are welcome to observe and learn about these adorable little creatures, and even get involved with their care.
Sama-Sama Reggae Bar Gili Trawangan
Bar, South American, American, European, Indonesian, $$$
Reggae and summertime vibes are a sublime combo you can expect from this bar in Gili Trawangan. Factor in some of their invigorating cocktails or beers and you’ve got yourself a truly remarkable island getaway. Needless to say, this bar is one of the island’s must-visits for travellers looking to taste Gili Trawangan’s notorious nightlife.
If you’re here for the party you might as well push the boat out – quite literally. Most Gili party boats set sail in the afternoon, giving partyheads ample time to kick back, mingle, or go ‘man overboard’ before the rave starts well into the night.
The name of this popular diving spot is pretty self-explanatory, but sharks are certainly not the only intriguing marine creatures to await divers in the deep. Colourful corals, ribbon eels and manta rays are among the denizens of this spot off the north coast of Gili Trawangan.
More seasoned divers can try their luck spotting glorious stingrays and barracudas at Deep Turbo. The sandy seafloor is home to thousands of garden eels, and divers can explore the little caves scattered around the area.
Trawangan Night Market
It’s not an island getaway without a seafood feast. Trawangan Night Market serves various fresh seafood dishes with a local touch. This beachside local food fest is an excellent spot to enjoy grilled fish with spicy local sambal or seafood satay, best washed down with Bintang beer or young coconut water.
Gili Meno Salt Lake
Located on the peaceful western side of Gili Meno, the salt lake is arguably one of the busiest areas on the entire island and not with tourists. The remarkable ecosystem in this spot includes anything from monitor lizards to glorious migratory birds. It’s certainly a pleasant change of scenery after days on the beach.
Things to note:
- Unlike anywhere else in Indonesia, drugs are readily available and sold like it’s no big deal, especially in Gili Trawangan. Be advised that consumption, possession and distribution of drugs are serious criminal offences in this country. Police raids are a rare occasion, but they do happen.
- There have been cases of methanol poisoning from locally-made alcohol beverages. To stay on the safe side, stick to the brands you already know when it comes to alcohol.
- Unlike the Hindu-majority Bali, the locals in Gilis and Lombok are predominantly Muslim. That means the most devout of them don’t drink alcohol, eat pork, nor appreciate when ladies sunbathe topless.
Keep all of this in mind, travel responsibly and enjoy the tropical paradise that is the Gili Islands.
These recommendations were updated on September 12, 2018 to keep your travel plans fresh.