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Are you still looking for that perfect paradise island with beautiful beaches, turquoise water, and world-class snorkeling? Gili Islands in Indonesia are touristy enough to offer nice accommodation and laid-back beach bars, yet without massive crowds. You won’t find any motorized vehicles, just horse-carriages, and pure relaxation.
Gili Islands dot the pristine Bali Sea just outside the shore of Lombok. The 35-kilometer boat trip from Bali will take around 1,5 hours with the quickest speedboat. Gili Trawangan is the main tourist draw being also biggest in the measure, but having still only 1000 inhabitants. All boats from Bali, if not chartered, will dock on Gili Trawangan from where you can take a long-tail boat to the others. Combine two or three Gili Islands to make sure your vacation isn’t lacking anything except more time in this mellow paradise.
Escape the Madness of Bali to the Gilis
Despite the collective paradise illusion, the island of Bali is polluted with scooters, all-inclusive hotels, and omnipresent drug business. If considering a truly relaxing beach break from the madness Bali, you have practically two choices: neighboring Nusa Lembongan or the Gili Islands. The former is easily accessible from Bali in less than half an hour, which brings in the herds and day-trippers.
Gili Islands can still be labeled as serene paradise: no cars, scooters or any other motorized vehicles, only horse carriages and roads made of sand. Perfectly turquoise water, inviting acid-world of kaleidoscopic coral reefs, and fantastic views of Rinjani volcano on the neighboring island of Lombok – do you really need more excuses? Although Gili Trawangan has been on a backpacker trail for decades, when compared to Bali, even Trawangan remains on the road less traveled.
Which Island to Choose: Gili Trawangan, Air, or Meno?
If you love islands and have enough time, choose all Gilis! We picked the extremes: the party island Gili Trawangan and the quietest one, Meno. Gili Air is something in-between: a popular choice for families, honeymooners or couples yearning for real restaurants.
All three islands offer the same high standard of snorkeling and diving. Because the Gilis are located close to each other, snorkeling and diving trips can include the same spots. In my opinion, Meno has the best beaches, there’s also less boat traffic, which makes snorkeling more pleasant.
Trawangan provides nowadays all kinds of accommodation, even luxury villas. On Gili Meno, there aren’t many places to choose from, but the scene is changing slowly as Gili Trawangan doesn’t have any free land left. But luckily Gili Air is the next one to fill up.
While Gili Meno is the most “primitive” of all three, it’s also the most expensive one for tourists. Prepare to pay more for accommodation and gain less comfort for your dollars. Besides beaching it, the waves at the sunset point of Trawangan are suitable for surfing. We went horseback riding, rented bicycles and just wandered around – I’ll write a separate story of our idle days in paradise including some snorkeling tips.
If you choose to stay on one island only, be sure to hop to others. Local boats connecting all three operate in the mornings and afternoons.
Getting to the Gili Islands: Speedboat From Bali to Gili Trawangan
As speedboat traffic between Bali and the Gili Islands has increased tremendously, safety standards have gone down. So it might be wiser to choose a reputable company than to save a few bucks.
After shopping around, we chose Gili Cat and were quite pleased with it (list price for return tickets was about 1 000 000 IDR, but remember to bargain). Our journey took around 2,5 hours.
Padang Bai harbor in Bali is quite a mess, to be frank. Bare with frenzied street sellers, and look after your belongings. Just don’t take that fancy suitcase with you, because wheeled bags are not very practical on sand roads, and would look rather funny in island scene. Boats anchor offshore in Gili Trawangan, so prepare to wade in the shallow water for a few meters.
A more expensive option is to fly from Denpasar (Bali) to Lombok, catch a taxi to the harbor and take a boat to Gili Trawangan. It might sound quick, but it might as well take more time than a speedboat depending on where you start your trip and how well plane’s schedule matches with local boats. Local boat from Bali to Gili Trawangan serves as a slow budget option, but due to safety reasons, not a very recommendable one.
Few words of warning: weed and magic mushrooms are openly available everywhere on Gili Trawangan. We found those “instant ticket to moon” signs rather funny, but keep in mind that any drink or food having an attribute “magic” will contain hallucinogens.
Booze-fueled parties are concentrated on Gili Trawangan’s main drag, the other two islands and remote parts of Gili Trawangan feel calm, although you might hear the distant humming of reggae everywhere. The noisiest party nights on Gili Trawangan are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, when Irish bar Tir Na Nog, Rudy’s Pub and Blue Marlin take it in turns – luckily they are all located closely together on the main drag, so further afield it will be more peaceful.
While Balinese are Hindus, Gili Islands are Muslim societies. However, booze is common even with locals, and women can use bikinis without offending anyone. Maybe it’d be respectful not to walk around half naked, but no one seems to comply with that, at least not on Gili Trawangan. The first call of the prayer will be before 5 AM, I remember it echoing all over the islets.
None of the Gili Islands have cops. Village heads keep order and investigate crimes. Don’t forget a flashlight, if you want to walk around in the evenings. It might not be a good idea to cross any of the islands after dark, though, at least not alone, because robberies might happen. Lonely women do attract unwanted attention after dark.
Mosquitoes can be a problem, especially during the rainy season (November to April). Those bastards might carry dengue fever or malaria, so it’s better to cover up with clothes (not very practical, as it’s scorching and humid) or use repellent. There’s only a slim malaria risk nowadays, so consult your doctor, whether to take malaria medication (side-effects might be nasty). We took it back then, but if ever returning, I wouldn’t take the trouble. Since our hotels had air-con and fans, we didn’t have to use mosquito nets while sleeping. We visited Gili Islands in March but weren’t harassed by mossies at all.
Accommodation, food, and drinks are a bit overpriced since it takes fuel and effort to transport goodies from the mainland. Fresh water is shipped over from Lombok. Hence most of the budget accommodations have salt water showers. In general, food is simple and quite bland. All Gili Islands have a few very small mini markets, and all prices have an island addition, so bring everything you need apart from snacks and water. Nowadays Trawangan has even an ATM, but it runs out of cash quite often.
Bizarre Facts About Gili Islands
There are no police but village heads who have banned motorized vehicles, gambling and pool tables.
No dogs, only inner breed stray cats with mutilated tails or more commonly no tails at all.
Beer index: local Bintang (0,5 liter) in restaurants 30 000–35 000 IDR (2,50–3 USD).
It takes less than two hours to cycle leisurely around any of the Gili Islands (and a little bit longer to walk). I recommend frequent stops, as hurrying is an over-rated concept on Gili Islands.
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