Travel Indonesia: Discovering The Gili Islands
We hadn’t heard of the Gili Islands until a good friend of ours recommended them to us. As we were going to be in Indonesia for a few months during summer, we planned on fitting them in whilst on our trip to Lombok.
These 3 small islands, Gili Air, Gili Meno and Gili Trawangan, just off the North West coast aren’t the only Gili Islands in Lombok, but they are the most famous. Because they have a reputation for being party islands, they attract a lot of tourists from Bali. Luckily for us we found out that the only real party scene is on Gili T, leaving Gili Air and Gili Meno with a much more relaxed vibe!
We visited in August, which is their high season, so accommodation was a little more expensive than we first expected, but it was worth it! Don’t expect to find budget accommodation here unless you stay in hostel dorms. You should be able to find a double room from 540,000 IDR (approx. £30 / US$40) and this is classed as budget in the Gilis.
It’s easy to walk around these islands, but you won’t be able to hire a motorbike or grab a taxi as there are no motorised vehicles at all! The only modes of transport are walking, cycling or hiring a Cidomo (horse & cart) These Cidomos are iconic to the Gili Islands, although you will find some on Lombok itself as well.
So, we found somewhere with no pollution whatsoever; welcome to paradise!
Saying this, you will still notice the odd burning of plastic that you encounter in the rest of South East Asia!
The word ‘Gili’ simply means small island in Sasak, the language spoken in Lombok. If you want islands that are less touristy, but the same kind of paradise feel to them, head over to Lombok’s southwest coast, where you will find many more Gili Islands. Read our blog Lombok: A Road Less Travelled to find out about these other islands off the coast of Sekotong.
So, our initial plan was to stay 4 nights on Gili Air and the same amount on Gili Trawangan, but after being 2 hours on Gili T we knew it wasn’t for us, so we returned to Gili Air and extended our stay 3 more nights! Below you will see why we liked it so much.
Best time to visit The Gilis
Dry season in The Gilis is from April – October, same as in Bali.
The quietest time will be at the beginning of dry season, from April. However, we were told by a local that he would even recommend visiting during March as they class that as the end of wet season and prices will be even lower at that time.
High season is during July and August, so expect it to be busy and more expensive, but it does offer the best weather! We visited towards the end of August and although it was fairly busy, we thought it would have been worse.
If you want a mix of lower prices and less people, you would probably be better off going between April and June.
Wow is the best word to describe this island!
As we set off on a public boat from Bangsal Harbour in Lombok, we really didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for.
The harbour on Gili Air was mobbed with tourists that had just arrived or were just leaving. It was a little hectic to say the least; we had guys with horse & carts waving at us to give us a ride, but we just ignored them as had a plan to follow our Google Maps that would lead us to our hotel 10-15 mins away on foot.
As we walked up the main street, we found small cafes and restaurants, guys selling snorkelling trips and even a couple of clothes shops. We instantly thought “oh god, we are in tourist hell”, but luckily we were later to find out that other parts of the island weren’t as busy!
We stayed slightly inland at Turtle Garden, a charming hotel with wooden bungalows (which they call Joglo Bungalows) and a pool in the middle a beautiful garden! The rooms were great and they served us breakfast every morning, so what more could we have asked for? We made the right choice through agoda!
You can search availability on agoda.com through this link Turtle Garden on Gili Air (referral link that will give us a small commission if you decide to book through it)
Once we unpacked and set out to explore, we were pleasantly surprised by the rustic feel this island had. The rough dirt tracks that lead to a beach in every direction, the green trees everywhere, the eco buildings tucked away down shady lanes and even a field full of solar panels. It is truly a well looked after tropical island. They even have their own water supply, so no wonder it’s so green and the other islands are a lot more arid. We loved it!
We walked around the island every day rather than use a bicycle, so we got to take in the charming atmosphere and follow our google maps wherever we went.
One of our favourite places to go during the day was Island View Bar & Bungalow on the west side of the island overlooking Gili Meno, which also had the best Indonesian food, comfortable sun-beds and bamboo gazebos to hang out in. The beach and water there was perfect for swimming, as there were hardly any rocks (unlike some of the other beaches on Gili Air)
Look at this amazing sunset behind Gili Meno!
After Island View we set off further north to follow the road around the island and bumped into a guy playing the guitar at Mirage bar. Trust Matt, who travels with his guitar, to spot him! We soon made friends with him and others there, so it became a bit of a habitual place to visit during Sunset.
Mirage Bar is an open air beach bar in the northeast side of the island, offering bamboo gazebos to sit on or beanbags on the sand. They have a pool table as well, so you can spend some valuable time being entertained in some way! They also serve the best ‘Fried Tempe and Peanut sauce’ on the island (Tempe is similar to Tofu, made from Soybean)
During our time on Gili Air we also enjoyed the open air cinema at Hotel Ombak Paradise on the south side of the island, as you follow the road from the harbour. During the film, you can enjoy Popcorn and a beer or just their BBQ food. Unfortunately for us, the first night we went they were showing the film ‘The Beach’. Probably not the best movie to watch before you go snorkelling the next day!!
We found a snorkelling trip via a restaurant just opposite Turtle Garden, offering to take us around all 3 islands from 9am-3pm, including lunch on Gili Meno for 100,000 IDR (approx. £5.50 / US$7.30) This price is apparently the standard for the public boat, which we shared with a group of people who were mostly Italian or Spanish; being bilingual, that was fun for me!
It wasn’t the best snorkelling, we have to say, due to the amount of boats being in the same area, but it did make for a nice day out meeting people and seeing lots of beautiful fish! The southwest of Gili Air probably had the nicer coral, but you can see that it has been damaged! We got to see a couple of Turtles just off the shore of Gili T, but other people snorkelling were getting a little too close for comfort.
For a better snorkelling experience head over to Lombok’s Gili Nanggu, which you can find out about through our Lombok post!
Diving is also pretty big on the Gili Islands due to the diverse coral and fish that can be found surrounding these islands. So, if you love to Scuba-dive or want to learn there are plenty of diving schools on Gili Air and Gili T.
Some even with humour!!
So, apart from loafing on the sun-lounger, enjoying drinks in beach bars, snorkelling and watching a movie or two, we also had some lovely meals on Gili Air; a great recommendation from a friend was to try Ruby’s Cafe, which is owned by an English guy and his Indonesian wife Ruby, who is also the Chef! We enjoyed a couple of meals there during our stay on the island as the food was to die for! So don’t miss this restaurant when you go!
Another cool thing we did was to get up one morning at 5.30am to walk to the east side of the island to watch the sunrise. Unfortunately nothing was open for that much needed cup of coffee, but it was well worth it!
Nice places to hang out on the beach
- Island View Bar & Bungalow
- Mirage Bar
- Scallywags Beach Club
- Legend Bar
- Mowies Gili Air Bar & Bungalows
- Island View Bar & Bungalow
- Ruby’s Cafe
- Lemongrass Warung
- Coffee & Thyme (opposite the harbour; best coffee and juices on the island!)
Budget to Mid-Range:
- Turtle Garden
- Turtle Beach Hotel
- Island View Bar & Bungalow
- Scallywags (a range of hotel options at varying prices)
- Hotel Ombak Paradise
- Mowies Bar & Bungalow
Please note that we refer to ‘Budget’ as in the lower price for accommodation on Gili Air. We only recommend places we stayed at or heard were good through friends.
Check out prices on agoda.com to compare the above hotels.
If going in July & August (peak season) make sure you book your accommodation in advance, or at least check availability if you want to island hop, so that you can do this on the go. If you are more adventurous, book your first few nights online to ensure you have a place and explore options direct on the other islands when there.
We only spent a tiny amount of time on Meno, as part of our snorkelling trip lunch, but it does have an even more chilled out vibe due to the lack of buildings and being smaller in size. It’s known as the honeymoon island for a reason!
We got the hourly fast boat from Gili Air to Gili T, which only took 15 mins!
As soon as we arrived, we felt the difference in atmosphere and instantly disliked it. I think what did it for me was the constant loud dance music coming out of every bar near the harbour and a handful of muscle bound male tourists walking around in florescent Speedos! Unfortunately, Gili T didn’t have a chance with us, not after the chilled out vibe we had experienced on Gili Air (when did I get so old?!)
We had a contact, through a friend, that owned the Yellow Coconut Homestay which we were able to book by text through What’s app. This homestay was basic but comfortable and the owner was really nice. We had our own little front porch, where the resident cat would keep us company!
Due to the amount of tourism this island receives, the construction going on and the rubbish tips set aside on some of the roads, it has a much more arid and spoilt feel to it.
Gili T is bigger than Gili Air, so it makes sense to hire a bicycle. We say this now from experience, as we chose to walk around the island instead, which really took its toll on our legs.
Although Gili T is more geared towards a younger crowd that likes to party, it does have some chilled out spots on the west side of the island, such as Casa Vintage; a bohemian style bar on the beach, which we really enjoyed. The west side of the island gets the majority of the daily sunshine, so it’s a good spot to sunbathe!
Prices and what to expect on the Gilis
Accommodation: You can find dorms that will sell beds from 300,000 IDR (approx. £19 / US$25), but if you are like us and like to stay in a double room with Air con, then prices start from 550,000 IDR upwards! (approx. £30 / US$40)
Food: This very much depends on where you eat, but we enjoyed some lovely meals from 35,000 – 60,000 IDR on Gili Air (approx. £2 – £3 / US$3 – $4) but found Gili T much pricier at 70,000 – 90,000 IDR (approx. £4 – £5 / US$5 – $6) Even the lunch on Meno seemed more expensive than on Gili Air. This may not sound a lot when compared to our own countries, but for Indonesia and the rest of South East Asia it’s overpriced.
Transport: Boats from island to island depend on whether you get the Public or Fast Boat. The Fast Boat was 100,000 IDR (£5.50 / US$7.30) but much more convenient and worth it. Boats to and from Lombok were either 12,000 IDR for the Public Boat (£0.66 / US$0.88) or 100,000 IDR for the Fast Boat. The Cidomos (Horse & Cart) were 150,000 IDR (approx. £8 / US$11) for a standard journey oneway, but you can haggle depending on the scenario, especially if they try to charge more than this amount. It’s cheaper to cycle or walk!
How to Get to the Gili Islands
Either get a Fast Boat from Padang Bai, Serangan Harbour or Sanur. These can cost around 750,000 IDR (approx. £41 / US$55) and can take up to 2.5 hours. Don’t get a small boat as this could be more dangerous in open waters. Please note that prices will vary depending on the boat company, so the above is just to give you an indication (some of these companies include Blue Water Express, Gili Getaway or Scoot and can be booked via Gilibookings.com)
Do bear in mind that the water that stretches between Bali and Lombok is one of the deepest and not the safest, due to high waves at certain times in the year. The safety regulation on these boats really isn’t up to scratch either, so we would rather deter you from taking this route.
However, if this is the easiest mode of transport for you, then we would advise to read reviews, inspect the boat if you can and check the amount of people that will board before you decide which boat to take.
You can fly cheaply (less than a boat ticket) from Bali’s Denpasar Airport to Lombok’s International Airport, which only takes 25min. You then could take a Bluebird metered taxi up to either Lembar Harbour (Southwest Lombok) or Bangsal Harbour (Northwest Lombok) A flight cost us around 325,000 IDR (approx. £18 / US$24) with Lion Air (part of Malindo Air, Indonesia’s low cost airline, which is our favourite now!)
From Lombok’s Bangsal Harbour
Most online searches of how to get to the Gilis from Lombok will tell you that Bangsal is dodgy, run by mafias and that you should watch out for scams. Well, this is all true but it shouldn’t put you off! It’s a convenient harbour and you can easily get to the Gilis with a small public boat or a fast boat within 15-30 mins.
If staying on Lombok, check with your hotel first as they can organise all of this for you, including a car to the harbour and the boat ticket in one go, which can be really convenient. We did this and it really helped us save money on transport!
TOP TIPS FOR BANGSAL HARBOUR
Thinking of getting an Uber to and from Bangsal – think again!
Bangsal’s mafia monopolises all transport, including taxis, so they really don’t like Uber or Grab for taking away their livelihoods. So be warned, you could get some unwanted grief. Hopefully these tips below will help!
On your way to Bangsal Harbour:
1. Take transport from your hotel, like mentioned above
2. Book an Uber or Grab but get dropped off down the road before entering the harbour
3. Take a Bluebird metered taxi to the harbour
On your return to Bangsal Harbour:
1. Arrange a taxi from the boat ticket office on one of the Gili islands
2. Negotiate with a taxi driver at Bangsal harbour when you arrive back
Make sure to check the Uber app to get an idea of the pricing and aim for this price or thereabouts; stick to your guns, as even though they won’t budge at first, if you walk away, they will most likely cave in – if they see weakness, then forget it! They wanted 600,000 IDR (approx. £33 / US$44) from Bangsal to Kuta in the South, when it should have been 300,000 IDR (approx. £16 / US$22) We drove a hard bargain and they accepted the lower price!
3. Walk up the road out of the harbour and get your Uber or Grab when you are out of sight!
Boat Tickets from Bangsal Harbour
If you already have your boat ticket
If you have your boat ticket already provided by your accommodation when you arrive at Bangsal, you will be dropped off at a restaurant in the harbour, where you wait to be picked up by a guy that represents the boat company you have purchased a ticket from (public or private fast boat) The name will be on your ticket!
He will then direct you to the ticket office just down the road from this restaurant (keep the receipt that has been given to you by your hotel and do not give this to anyone else, as it’s proof of purchase)
Make sure if anyone does approach you that they represent the company name on your receipt.
If you don’t have a boat ticket yet
When you arrive at Bangsal, ignore anyone trying to offer you transport, no matter how amazing the deal sounds (remember this is scam central)
Walk down the road, past the restaurants and head slightly to your right where you will see the small ticket office near the beach. If you want a public or fast boat, just announce your choice and you will be directed to the right ticket booth. All prices are on a board so you can see clearly the difference.
Once you have your tickets, you can wait for the boat on the beach!
Single vs return tickets
Our hotel only offered us single tickets, as it’s easy to get a boat back from the Gilis. It makes sense to buy your return ticket on the way back (1-2 days before) rather than be tied into a certain time in case any delays or cancellations happen. We took a public boat there, but returned on a fast boat.
On your return from the Gilis, our advice is to be at the port 20 mins before the departure time.
Please note, it’s a bit chaotic when lots of people are waiting for different boats (some go to Bali, to other Gili islands or back to Lombok) so when they announce which boat is which, make sure you fight your way through the crowds to the front, not to miss your boat! You may have to shout for people to move, but it’s got to be done!
Prices for single tickets (as of 2017)
The public boat, as mentioned previously, costs 12,000 IDR (£0.66 / US$0.88); it is safe and usually the mode of transport locals take to and from the islands; the boats have a cover over the benches, but you can get splashed about a bit. It’s not bad at all!
If you’d rather take a fast boat, these cost 100,000 IDR (approx. £5.50 / US$7.30); they have seats inside the boat with complete cover over you, so you don’t get wet at all and get there in half the time – usually 15-20 mins!
We hope we have inspired you to plan a trip to the Gili Islands one day soon! If you have any questions, please feel free to comment and we will try to point you in the right direction!
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