The Gili Islands – Indonesia’s Backpacker Paradise

Gili Islands sunset

Alex Saint explores the tropical wonderland of Indonesia’s Gili Islands.

A trio of paradise islands located off the northwest coast of Lombok, the Gilis were once legendary among backpackers exploring the next big step on the banana pancake trail. They gained notoriety as a laid-back lotus land where like-minded travellers could escape the tourist hordes and live the dream of full moon parties, sugar-spun sands and dazzling, aquamarine waters.

Gili Islands sea view with boat

Fast forward a couple of decades to the present day and the little Gilis have matured with a range of activities and amenities springing up to appeal to a wide range of holiday-makers. However, with an abundance of low cost places to stay, eat and drink still readily available, the Gilis have successfully retained their reputation as a key destination on the beach loving, budget traveller’s Indonesian itinerary.

Introducing the Gili Islands
The reason these tropical triplets hold such universal appeal is that each possesses its own distinct personality and ambience. All you need to do is figure out which most closely resembles your own personal paradise.

Gili Trawangan, affectionately nicknamed Gili T, is the largest and most developed of the islands. The main street is lined with beach bars, dive shops and accommodation options that look right out onto the ocean whilst the stunning, west side beaches are filled with bronzed bodies and comfortable spots to sip a sunset drink.

Gili Air is the middle-sized island, a low key and relaxed retreat, appealing to a more sophisticated crowd as well as honeymooners enjoying the blissful beaches. The smallest island is little Gili Meno, a rustic hideaway where you can live out your Robinson Crusoe or Girl Friday fantasies and get back to mother nature.

Beach view Gili Islands

What to do in the Gili Islands
All three islands are idyllic locations for lounging on the beach, swimming, snorkelling and diving. The Gili Islands are renowned for having some of the best dive sites in the world and shops such as Blue Marlin, Manta Dive and Dream Divers are amongst the many establishments offering courses for all abilities. Expect to swim with sea turtles, bumphead parrotfish, manta rays and reef sharks. Or simply hire snorkel equipment and explore the coral reef straight off the beach. Paddle-boarding, kayaking or taking a trip on a glass-bottomed boat are other wonderful ways to enjoy all that beautiful blue.

To explore the islands up on dry land, pack water and sunscreen and take a walk – all three can be circumnavigated in under an hour. Bicycles can also be hired and the preferred method of transport for the local people is to hop in a cidomo (horse and cart) and trot your way around town.

Visit the turtle sanctuaries on Gili T and Gili Meno and observe the snug hatcheries where the eggs are protected from predators as well as the bubbling nurseries where baby turtles splash and play, waiting to be released back into the sea. For more encounters with local wildlife, explore Gili Meno’s bird park where over three hundred, exotic birds fly free.

Later, as dusk falls, soak up the sensational sunset views on the west side of the islands where the silhouette of Bali’s mighty Mount Agung fades away as the sun streaks the sky with red, orange and pink. Or catch a movie at the island cinema where you can munch popcorn, relax on comfy cushions and kick back with a beer.

Gili Islands Town

Where to eat and drink
Foodies rejoice – the range of delectable dishes available on the Gilis will get those taste-buds tingling. From authentic, local meals served up in simple warungs to swanky, global cuisine, all tastes are catered for. Try the Night Market on Gili T just south of the jetty for a popular range of street food stalls with all the Indonesian favourites like nasi goreng and spicy satay. Tiny Gili Meno is home to Bibi’s Café, a firm, traveller favourite due to the good, old-fashioned pizza served up fresh from their wood-fired oven.

When it comes to nightlife, Gili T is where the party’s at. Rudy’s Bar is a long-established institution with a buzzing dance floor where locals and visitors alike love to mingle. Sama Sama is a firm favourite for those that prefer live music with a fantastic house band playing all the classics from reggae to rock.

Gili Air is markedly more laid-back but still has the ability to sink a few drinks. Legend is an atmospheric reggae bar towards the north of the island and home to the full and black moon parties the island occasionally hosts.

Gili Islands hindu statue

Where to stay
There are plenty of accommodation options on the islands including private budget rooms from 150,000Rp to air con bungalows at around 400,000Rp and luxurious villas with private pools that can cost up to $500USD. During peak times like July and August it is a good idea to book ahead for at least the first couple of nights.

The cheapest accommodation on Gili Trawangan is located in and around the village – head inland to explore and negotiate for the best price. Gili T&B Homestay is a welcoming family home with wifi, a tasty breakfast, air-con and a private terrace from 150,000Rp and a top choice on Gili Meno is Sunset Gecko, with rustic, A-frame bungalows a short skip away from the ocean.

Which Gili will you choose?
Will you be tempted by fun loving Gili T’s buzzing nightlife, reeled in by Gili Air’s laid-back charm or seduced by the peace and tranquillity of remote Gili Meno?

Of course, if you simply can’t decide, then jump aboard the island hopping service that runs daily. After all, why stick with one Gili when you can have three?

Images and words by Alex Saint