Gili Islands of Indonesia: Planning Your Trip

Gili Islands Indonesia
Gili Air is a great choice in the Gili Islands, Indonesia. Greg Rodgers

On the map and from the air, the Gili Islands look like three perfect droplets of water trailing off the northwestern coast of Lombok. This archipelago is a popular second destination for visitors in Bali and each island offers something different. The most striking part about the Gili Islands is not just that the islands are small, but they are entirely car and moped-free. On the islands, the only modes of transportation are horses, bicycles, and your own two feet.

The Gilis are still a good compromise between developed and rustic; electricity comes and goes at the whim of generators and you don't have to deal with too much concrete. They are considered one of the top destinations in Indonesia and are among the best islands in Southeast Asia. Backpackers are particularly partial to Gili Trawangan—one of Southeast Asia's top party spots—securing Lombok's spot along the Banana Pancake Trail, an unofficial trail with affordable and social destinations for India through the Philippines.

Home to an abundance of marine life, especially sea turtles, and white sand beaches, natural beauty abounds here, but so does the party scene. Whatever you're into, the Gilis have an island for that, whether you're looking for a boisterous night out or a good night's sleep in a tropical paradise. Here's what you can expect from each island and advice for how to get there, what to see, and where to eat.

Gili Trawangan

Affectionately shortened to "Gili T," Gili Trawangan is the largest and most visited of the Gili islands in Indonesia. The island has a reputation for being one of the most rambunctious party zones in Indonesia, but the white-sand beaches and affordable scuba diving are also good reasons to visit. Gili T is the epicenter of the islands' nightlife and one of the top party destinations in Indonesia. Without tourists, the island has a small population of just 800 residents, but that number quickly doubles and triples, and when backpackers flood in and patron the islands' bars and beach clubs. Despite its history as a backpacker zone, more upscale development has exploded on Gili T, which means that today there is more variety in accommodation. This has caused a shift in the types of travelers who visit the island, and the cost of staying on the beach, but budget-friendly options are still available in the rugged interior of the island, only a few minutes walking from the water.

Gili Air

Although its name sounds like an airline, Gili Air is actually the second-largest island of the Gili Islands and the one closest to the Lombok mainland. This island has a larger and more permanent population than Gili T, but it is much quieter and has less of a party scene. Here, you can still find stylish restaurants and bungalows mixed with budget-friendly accommodation. The beaches are not as wide or as nice as they are on Gili T, but they are also not as crowded. The whole island can be circled on foot in approximately 90 minutes, but if you don't want to walk in the sun, shady footpaths crisscross through the lush and shady interior. Despite being smaller than Gili T, Gili Air still has plenty to offer in terms of entertainment, bars, and restaurants. The island's dive shops visit the same dive sites you'd go to if you were staying on Gili T.

Gili Meno

Gili Meno is the smallest of all the islands and is sandwiched between Gili T and Gili Air. It's the quietest, most rustic, and the most isolated of the bunch. Of all the islands, Gili Meno has some of the best beaches and snorkeling spots but pleasantly resists overcrowding since accommodations are more basic and living expenses are higher because it is a bit harder to reach than the other islands. Electricity can be spotty and the island has just one ATM—for many travelers, this likely adds to the island's charm and appeal. There are fewer luxury accommodations and it is not the place to go looking for nightlife. Instead, you'll find visitors here quietly relaxing with a book or patronizing the dive shops that offer trips around the Gilis.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The weather is always hot on the islands, but it tends to rain less between June and November. However, to avoid the major tourist crowds, try to plan a trip between September and November so you can enjoy the least crowds before the rainy season starts.
  • Language: Sasak / English
  • Currency: Indonesian Rupiah
  • Getting Around: There are no cars or mopeds allowed on the Gili Islands, so the best way to get around is by bicycle, walking, or horseback. Boats are also available to ferry tourists between islands.
  • Travel Tip: Boat schedules change frequently, so ask your accommodation to check the latest information and always arrive early.

Things to Do

Regardless of which island that you choose to visit, all of the Gilis have beautiful beaches, great swimming, and offshore reefs teeming with life. There is a lot to do and the islands are small enough to traverse on foot so it's easy to see everything.

  • Snorkeling and Diving: As beautiful as the Gili Islands are, they are even more beautiful underwater and the abundance of dive and snorkel shops can attest to that. Dive sites like Shark and Manta Point are great for seeing marine life, but one of the most famous dive sites can be found just offshore at the BASK eco-lodge, where there is a hauntingly beautiful underwater sculpture by artist Jason deCaires Taylor.
  • Horseback Riding: Because there are no motor vehicles allowed anywhere on the island, visitors will do well to get around by horse. Locals use horses to move goods and tourists around the islands and visitors are welcome to visit Sunset Stables and get a horseback ride in.
  • Surfing: The surf breaks around the Gilis are strong, so a little experience will help keep you safe. The easiest surf spot to access is on the southwest coast of Gili T, but the breaks on Gili Air will require much longer paddles out to the best reef breaks.
  • Yoga: You'll find many yoga centers and sanctuaries appealing to Gili Island visitors. On Gili T, Sunset Beach Yoga has one of the best views from their treehouse studio while the studio at Kenza Village on Gili Air is also highly rated and close to the beach.
  • Sea Turtle Sanctuaries: Many tourists come to the Gilis in hopes of seeing the two species of sea turtles found in the Gili Islands: the Green and Hawksbill. If you want to visit a sea turtle sanctuary, there is one on Gili Meno where you can get a look at the turtle nursery.
  • Boat Tours: Many tour operators offer private snorkeling and dive trips around the Gili Islands. One fun sunset cruise on offer is the BBQ boat, which includes time to snorkel and a freshly grilled dinner prepared on board.

Where to Eat and Drink

Like other islands in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, the food on the Gili Islands is delicious and affordable. The most popular dining spot is the Night Market on Gili T, where local vendors sell an array of rice and curry dishes with meat and veggie options. The nightly market is located next to the public jetty in the town center. Typical Indonesian soups like soto and bakso are also worth trying. In addition to local Indonesian fare, you'll also find vegan cafes, fancy brunch spots, and international cuisine from pizza to Indian.

When going out for a drink or two in Indonesia, you may come across arak, a locally-made spirit that is a cheap choice in many bars and restaurants. Like moonshine, it can contain a high quantity of methanol when brewed incorrectly, which can cause severe illness, so visitors are advised to stick to beer.

Where to Stay

Whether you're just looking for a party or a sense of liveliness, Gili T is the main island to see and likely one you'll have to pass through anyway to get to Gili Air or Gili Meno. It offers the most variety of accommodations and things to do, plus a high convenience factor. If you had a less boisterous vacation in mind, but still want to have your choice of restaurants and bars, Gili Air is a great way to have it both ways. However, if a rustic tropical island was what you envisioned for yourself, then the small and isolated Gili Meno is a peaceful paradise where you can let yourself recharge.

Young backpackers will find the party of their lives on Gili T, while families might prefer the quietude of Gili Air, and couples can find themselves a romantic getaway in a rustic bungalow on Gili Meno. The islands are small, but as usual, beachfront accommodation tends to be more expensive. However, it's easy to walk or bike to the beach from wherever you end up staying so the only factors are how much you want to pay or how close to the nightlife you prefer to be.

Getting There

Perhaps the biggest advantage of moving east from Bali to the islands in Lombok is that the three Gili Islands offer three unique experiences. You can choose one or hop between all three via daily speedboats. You might think you need to go to Lombok to get to the Gili Islands, but the easiest way is through Bali. If you happen to be in Lombok already, you can take the public boat, which that runs twice a day from Bangsal Harbor.

From Bali, you can take a boat from either Amed or Padang Bai ports. There is a slow boat option for travelers who are looking for the cheapest ticket possible, but this trip involves switching boats in Lombok and waiting for another boat. Meanwhile, the fast boat that goes directly to Gili T does so in about 2 hours and costs approximately $20 for a one-way ticket.

To travel between islands, you can find daily ferries that leave from the main terminal of each island. You can expect to pay less than $5 to travel each way by ferry, but if you need to leave at a certain time private boats are also available for charter.

Culture and Customs

Unlike Bali, the main religion on Lombok and the Gili Islands is Islam and the islands are home to the Bugis and Sasak people who came from Sulawesi and Lombok. Indonesia has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world and all three of the Gili Islands have a mosque, so be sure to keep your ears open for the call to prayer. Generally, because the Gili Islands have been westernized because of tourism development, you can expect to find a blend of cultures and accepting attitudes.

While tourists are welcome to sunbathe on the beaches in their swimsuits, they should also respect the locals by covering up when not on the beach. It doesn't have to be full coverage, but a pair of shorts or a sarong makes a difference. Although locals are accustomed to tourists' cultural fumbles, know that pointing with your left hand or your feet is considered rude and shoes should always be removed before entering a house.

Money Saving Tips

  • Local Indonesian food is tasty and cheap with meals often costing less than $5, so try to work it into your regular meals to cut down the cost of food.
  • Look for hotels and hostels that offer free breakfast and coffee or complimentary bike rentals to cut down on your daily expenses.
  • There are many places around the islands where you can refill your water for free, so be sure to carry around your reusable bottle with you to avoid purchasing plastic bottles.
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