If you’re going to Indonesia on your travels, you need to go to the Gili Islands. The group of three islands – Gili Meno, Gili Air and Gili Trawangan – are around 35km from Bali and 14km from Sengigi in Lombok.
They’re islands, so they have blue waters, white sands, palm trees, sun loungers and beach side huts. If that’s not enough info to get you over there they also have awesome scuba diving and snorkelling, and Gili T, as its affectionately known, also has some of the best partying in the country. I know, I spent a week there.
Backpackers love the Gili Islands, more specifically the aforementioned Gili T. The island is 3 km long and 2 km widebut has over 30 clubs, pubs and restaurants, and even a few treehouse bars too. It’s great value island living, so it’s no wonder thousands of travellers visit every year.
Old-timers will bring out the old “Oh it’s not what it used to be”, but surely nowhere is? So, best to get out there before progress takes over any more of that beautiful beach. Those big hotels are going up fast.
I’m crazy passionate about the Gili Islands. It was the definite highlight of my few weeks in Indonesia. I want you to visit too, so I’ve put together this backpacker’s guide to the Gili Islands so you can have as much fun, and accumulate as many awesome memories, as I did.
How to get there
I took the boat from Serangan harbourin Bali to Gili T. I was staying in Ubud and paid 100k for a transfer to the port and then the boat over. For some reason this was a lot less than all the other prices I’d been quoted. It could’ve had something to do with the fact I had to wait at the port for two hours for the next boat, rather than arriving on time for the crossing. This was fine, I got a sandwich and hung out and before I knew it, it was time to go. The crossing took 30 minutes. The boat was cool, it was a beautiful journey and we pulled up right at the colourful Gili Trawangan sign, which was all very exciting.
It was pretty crazy getting off the boat with people trying to ‘help’ so it’s a good idea to know exactly where you’re going and even to get someone from your pre-booked accommodation to meet you at the port and help you with your bag. This is what I did.
Where to stay
I strongly recommend you stay at La Boheme Hostel. I’ve stayed at a lot of hostels in my life and this was without a doubt up there in my top 5. I paid 150,000 per night for what was luckily for me, the best bed in the dorm, tucked at the back of the room in the dark like a Japanese capsule hotel. The walls were stone so it was a quiet oasis from the fun of the common room and I had some of the best sleeps of my whole 4 month Asia trip here, as well as met some of my favourite people.
As soon as I arrived at La Boheme I met two people – Chloe and Brad – who I ended up spending the whole week with, as well as meeting others along the way. The hostel was so friendly, and had 24-hour free pancakes too. They organised trips for us, like snorkelling, had a nightly hostel activity for everyone to join in on to make friends, and had bikes you could rent out for the day too.
You can definitely get cheaper accommodation than La Boheme, and with a private room, just by asking around at the homestays nearby, but I was so happy at La Boheme I just kept paying for another night.
The Gili Trawangan Hostel on The Front is also another fun place to stay that’s worth a look.
Explaining the 3 Gili Islands
Gili Trawangan, as I say, is the main destination island for backpackers and party lovers. The island is quite divided, just by atmosphere and price, not by anything physical. The north tends to be more for honeymooners, and ‘grown ups’ – there are some incredible properties up there – while the south and middle is for the crazy budget lovers who like to have a good time.
Gili Meno is a paradise island just a 30 minute boat ride away from Gili T. You can get the public boat every day in the morning for 10k and go over there to spend the day. The hotels here are a lot more expensive and are more for people with money looking to get away from it all. There are stunning cabanas on the beach and you can order all your food and drink to your seat without ever even having to get up or move. This is the best island for surfing, and you can try stand up paddle boarding too.
I visited Gili Meno for the day. I lay in a hammock, helped a man litter pick, wandered round the whole island in an hour, ate an ice cream and then got the public boat back again. There’s not that much to do here but the beauty of the islands makes it definitely worth a look.
Gili Air is the third island along, if you’re looking at coming from Bali. Again, this is another beautiful island. In my six days I only managed to visit here once, for lunch on a snorkelling trip. Unfortunately I didn’t get a good look around but from what I heard you can go reef diving and walk round the island in just 90 minutes.
You can easily see both on a day each from Gili T, using the on schedule public boat.
What to do in the Gilis
Scuba: The Gilis are famous for scuba diving, partying and the beautiful beaches. There’s not actually that much more to do here, which is part of the charm. Scuba shops line the Gili T ‘Front’, as the locals call it. All of the shops have an agreement where they charge the same ($35 in 2015) so as to stop each other undercutting. This means you can go on reputation rather than worrying about price.
Shop: There are quite a few shops on Gili T, many offering the same old elephant emblazoned trousers and ‘I heart GT’ tops, but there are also quite a few with more unique products. I could’ve spent a lot of money in these shops, just to warn you. If you need a new bikini / beach dress / pair of flip flops on your travels, hold out until you’ve explored the shops of Gili T. Trust me.
Snorkelling: I went on a snorkelling tour, which although I wouldn’t recommend for the actual snorkelling, I’d definitely suggest for a day at sea and to see the other islands from the water. This was only 150k.
Boat parties: There are day boat parties advertised everywhere on Gili T, but don’t pay for it, hang out near the Blue Marlin Dive Centre at night and you can normally find a rep to give you a band to get you on for free. I never quite made it to this but anyone I spoke to from the hostel who did had a great time.
Cycle: Renting a bike to explore the island was definitely one of the most fun things I did in the Gilis. Splash a bit extra and pay for one that’s 50k rather than 30 so you’ve got brakes. You’ll thank me when it comes to cycling down The Front where all the people, and horses, are.
Walk: There are no cars on the Gilis, people get around by horse and cart, and if you’re a backpacker everywhere is walkable.
Yoga: One of the coolest things I did on Gili T was yoga over at the Yoga Place, opposite La Boheme. For 60k (discounted if you stay at La Boheme) we had 90 minutes of tough but peaceful yoga looking out over the island. This was followed up by a salad in their restaurant – definitely a goer for any backpacker looking for a bit of zen.
Party: Every night there’ll be the bar to go to. Somewhere the whole island will have got wind that that’s the party tonight. Keep your eyes and ears out for any news. Otherwise there are plenty of other choices, and you might want to root for the underdog as wherever that bar is that night is sure to be absolutely packed, and just a little crazy.
Cinema: If you want to take a night off check out the nightly cinema at Villa Ombak. You’ll have a beanbag for a seat, drinks on order direct to your spot, the Gili T beach as a backdrop and a huge screen showing two cool films back to back every night.
Shrooms: Many bars serve magic mushroom shakes, but that’s up to you!
Food on the Gili Islands
The daily night market on Gili T should be central to all your foody needs. They serve a whole range of seafood, veggie food, meat cooked on the spot and amazing salads. You can buy each dish individually or there are a few stalls where you can pick and mix the dishes for around 10,000 per choice.
And oh my days you need to see the desserts – my new group of friends and I bought a few and shared, just so we could taste them all.
La Petit Grill on the The Front served incredible burgers, especially for anyone who was hungover. It was a cool spot for a restaurant and you could look over everyone feasting on the night market. On my final evening I went up to the Exile Bar on the northern most point and had fish and chips while watching the beautiful sun set.
One of the best and most nutritious meals I had on Gili T was at the hipster healthy Kaya Café. I had a delicious halloumi and quinoa salad with a smoothie – perfect for lessening the guilt of all the huge Bintangs I was drinking. There were so many delicious sounding things on the menu, but I only discovered it on the final day. Probably best for my bank balance to be honest.
All the food on Gili T is so fresh, you’d be mad not to make the most of it.
My top 5 Gili Island recommendations
1. Take a day to visit Gili T
2. Stay at La Boheme Hostel
3. Eat at the night market
4. Grab your friends and hang out in a treehouse at Kuta Bar
5. Play Frisbee with a few cocktails at the Surf Bar at sunset.