The Gili Islands are three idyllic islands where the sand is still powdery white, the water a clear sparkling turquoise, and the sunsets over Mt Agung in the distant west simply spectacular.
During our month-long travel in Indonesia we had originally planned to stay in Java until the start of Ramadan and then move on to Bali to spend the rest of our time exploring the north of the island - and of course to scuba dive. (You will find all our posts on Indonesia here).
However, when we ended up in Tulamben we realised that the Gili's were tantalisingly close and even though it was during Ramadan we would be crazy not to hop across there to get a feel for the place. Oh boy, are we glad we did!
All three of the islands are unique in their own right and depending on your mood you’ll easily find something to suit your needs. Gili Trawangan is the largest of the three islands and attracts the majority of visitors. It used to be known as a hippy party paradise for backpackers but nowadays it’s a great destination for families of all ages and you will find accommodation to suit all tastes.
It’s easy enough to get to the Gili’s from Bali with the fastest and most efficient way being an express boat service from either Padang Bai or Ahmed. The service we arranged included a pick-up from our guesthouse in Tulamben, transfer to Ahmed and the 45-minute boat ride to Gili Trawangan for IDR 350 000 (USD 24) one way per person.
For the traveller who has more time than money, there is a public ferry from Padang Bai to Lombok which departs every hour on the hour, but it’s painfully slow. The upside of the 5-hour crossing though is that it costs a measly IDR 40 000 per person. From Lembar ferry terminal in Lombok, you’ll have to get private transport to Bangsal harbour which, ironically may end up being the most expensive part of the journey and only makes sense if you can share the cost with other travellers. From Bangsal harbour you then have to make use of another slow public ferry to the Gilis which, with waiting in between, will make the total trip to around 8 hours. If it’s worth the hassle to you, then go for it.
Ahmed proved to be a rather pretty departure point with its breath-taking views of Mount Agung and a charming village vibe. Unless you’re in a hurry it might be well worth the detour rather than departing from Padang Bai. We'll definitely make a point to spend more time there next time we visit Bali!
Now, if the thought of visiting a cluster of islands known to be frequented by backpackers freaks you out, don’t be too concerned! You can honestly prepare yourself for a paradise destination that we can (still) afford no matter your budget. We found Gili Trawangan to be a great blend of relaxation and activity with a dynamic mix of international travellers of all ages - whether travelling as couples, in groups, with families or solo. The islands cater to a complete spectrum of luxury and castaway travellers all the way to social groups and first-time wanderers.
The Gili Islands are far from a backpacker haunt in the way you might think of say Koh Pha Ngan – which is packed with swarms of 20-something travellers looking for good times.
We found the Gili’s island vibe closer to a trendy-Bohemian-meets-Rastafarian island attitude. Sure, it can get busy but it’s super easy to find a quiet spot somewhere along the coast to relax - if that’s what you feel like. The beaches are stunning and there’s a vast selection of eateries scattered around suitable for every budget. The night market near the village centre is a must-visit for sampling some local offerings.
We spent the next 5 days between Gili-T and Gili Air exploring the islands on foot and bicycle, snorkelling in the crystal-clear water and enjoying lazy sunsets at a chill beach bar. As we visited during Ramadan there was a different vibe but most tourist services are unaffected - although you might have to be a bit more patient as generally everything slows down a bit. Which is understandable as most of the local people fast during the day and especially considering the heat it's tough-going to perform optimally. You might also find that the usual big parties are more tempered (or cancelled) during Ramadan but there is still plenty of vibey spots if that's what you're after. Just keep in mind that it's a predominantly Muslim community and be respectful of the local customs especially during this time. It might be wise to choose your accommodation a bit further away from the mosque during Ramadan as the call to prayer and the readings can go on for some hours and sometimes even throughout the night.
With over twenty-five dive sites surrounding all three islands, there are opportunities to dive any of the Gilis regardless of where you base yourself.
The Gili Islands are proclaimed as the turtle capital of Asia and the most breath-taking encounter you’ll have is swimming with families of sea turtles in the warm ocean. You will find them at almost any time of the year, especially around the Gili Meno Wall. If you came to scuba dive you should take your time to shop around for a dive outfit based on their reputation and reviews as the pricing is regulated (fixed) across all operators. One can argue this stifles competition but it also means operators should be able to offer a consistent service quality without compromising on safety.
This video was made before we started vlogging but shows a bit of both Gili T and Gili Air and some of the diving we did while there.
If you are interested - this is what we ended up spending for our short 5 day stay in the Gili's for the 2 of us. The accommodation was mid-range with air-conditioning and breakfast included.
There are a lot of cheap hotels and guesthouses on the islands, with prices starting at about IDR 150 000 during the low season. For a double room with a private bathroom and air-con, expect to pay around IDR 300 000 during low season. Our accommodation with sea view and private pool was a bit more pricey.
Most meals are between IDR 30 000 and IDR 75 000 without drinks and a beer will cost around IDR 30 000. For the cheapest food, shop at the local markets.
Diving is around IDR 500 000 for a guided fun dive with gear but can cost less if you buy a bundle.
TRAVEL TIPS: Get the fast boat. It can take a whole day to travel from Bali otherwise and your saving might just be less than you think. The sea also gets choppy January to February and you want to spend as little time in a boat as possible!
Travel light. When you arrive the boats do not necessarily stop at a jetty and your luggage will be passed down to the beach. You might have to drag your bags along the beach all the way to your accommodation.
Know where you’re staying and book in advance. Especially budget and mid-range options fill up fast during high season so unless you're happy to blow your budget you should find something in advance.
Beware of cheap drinks. It's not uncommon for bars to use 'arak' (potent home-brewed alcohol) as a cheap mixer in cocktails.
Use bottled water. Freshwater on the Gilis is scarce so take care to save where you can. The running water might be mixed into a saltwater system so make sure to rinse yourself with fresh water after a shower and only use bottled water to brush your teeth with.
Pack a first aid kit. At the very least some antibiotics to treat inevitable ear infection (from scuba or snorkelling) and disinfectant for minor cuts.