On my recent visit to Indonesia, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of nights on the lovely island of Gili Trawangan. The Gili Islands are a cluster of three islands: Gili Trawangan, Gili Air, and Gili Meno. These pretty islands are tiny and fringed by white sand beaches. They have become incredibly popular with more and more people discovering this little bit of tropical paradise off the northwest coast of Lombok.
I was meeting a dear friend who was travelling from his home in Malaysia. I was looking forward to a couple of quiet days enjoying some beach time and soaking up the sun on my last few days of my trip. I was looking forward to getting out of the city of Ubud and back into nature but mainly, my goal was to hang out with my friend. He had a few days free in his busy schedule and needed some downtime but mainly, his goal was to hang out with me.
Getting There and Getting Around
It's easy to understand why the Gili Islands attract so many visitors. These idyllic islands are close to Lombok. It's only about 30 minutes by private speedboat from Lombok or up to two hours by the larger fast boat services from Pangabai on Bali. The boats from Bali stop at Lombok and all three Gili Islands. My friend had arranged a small boat transfer from Senggigi on Lombok to the main marina on Gili Trawangan. It was very efficient and comfortable enough for the short trip. It was a small 6-8 passenger basic open-cabin boat with benches around the exterior. We were the only passengers. Both of us had hand-luggage only so there was plenty of room.
Gili Air (pronounced Gil-ee Ay-eer)
Each island has its own unique atmosphere. Gili Air is a relaxed place to enjoy local life and chill. Gili Meno is the quietest with few facilities but makes for a perfect getaway from the world. Gili Trawangan is the largest and most popular with both a relaxing beach atmosphere and a thriving nightlife. Once you are settled on any of the islands, there are many boat tours available that will take you to the other islands, for snorkelling, diving, fishing, or just enjoying a great cruise on the azure blue water.
The islands allow no motorbikes or cars. There are horse-cart taxis for those arriving with luggage, beautiful beaches, terrific snorkelling and diving, and endless open-air restaurants and cafes. Horse carts are also used for deliveries and heavy loads.
Most visitors will walk, or rent a bicycle (about 50 000 IDR/day). We used the carts between the hotel and the dock and rented bicycles for the duration of our stay. I did see electric scooters as well but didn't investigate those.
In this blog, come meander with me along the bustling strip, where the island comes alive with bars, clubs, and local eateries. We will check out the beaches, swim in the warm waters, and cycle around the entire island... which sounds much more impressive than reality. For those who love a good sunrise, I will share where we enjoyed spectacular sunrises that are absolutely worth setting your alarm for. I'll also share what I learned about this fabulous island, including accommodation options and some practical tips.
History and Culture
The original residents of the Gili islands were the indigenous Sasak people of Lombok. The Sasaks relied on the sea for their food and livelihoods. The Gili islands were fishing villages. In the late 1900s, backpackers began to discover the islands, most notably Gili T, and the tourism industry developed. The earliest accommodations were guest houses and bungalows. Now there are hotels that fit every budget, from the more humble hostels located off the strip near the main harbour, the mid-range hotels on the strip or the more luxurious resorts lining Sunset Beach on the southern and western sides of the island.
The locals tend to live away from the beach in small communities in the forested areas. The locals are predominantly Muslim and you may hear the call to prayers throughout the day from the mosque. While the local community welcomes visitors and you'll feel comfortable at the beaches wearing your regular swim and hot-weather clothes, remember to dress more modestly if visiting religious sites or going into the villages.
Development of the island has been fairly rapid but there are efforts to preserve the natural environment and minimize negative impacts of tourism. Guesthouses and hotels support eco-friendly and sustainable initiatives. The only sunscreen sold and promoted is reef-friendly. There is a huge issue with plastic and efforts are being made to deal with this waste such as providing water coolers in hotels and restaurants rather than small bottles. Please bring a refillable water bottle and consider ways to avoid single-use plastics.
Exploring the Strip: Vibrant Nightlife and Local Cuisine
There is only one main street on Gili T and it winds all the way around the island, occasionally interrupted by a beach club or sand. The main bars, night market, and restaurants are found on the main strip around the marina. There are beach clubs and resorts along Sunset Point on the south part of the island and Sunset Beach on the west.
The Nightlife on Gili Trawangan
Neither of us are big on nightlife, so I have no first-hand knowledge to share. There are many bars along the strip representing any and all types of drinking establishments. Some have games; some have live music, others pump recorded music; there are Irish pubs and dance clubs; all have happy hours. As soon as the sun starts to set, the bars and restaurants turn on their lights and music.
We were a little concerned that the music would go on all night but where we were located at the northern end of the strip, the lights and music were turned down by 21:00 and off by 23:00. The larger clubs closer to the marina were open later but we were not affected by the noise.
Food on Gili Trawangan
The food on Gili T is diverse. Indonesian dishes are widely available, along with local specialties and international cuisine. Enjoy fresh seafood fresh off the boats that day. Definitely check out the night market. Eat at one of the beach restaurants and watch the moon rise.
Beach House BBQ
The night market is served by many different vendors with fish, shellfish, vegetables, and noodles on display. Choose a vendor then select the items you want barbequed. We shared an amazing dinner of whole snapper, giant prawns, mussels, rice and vegetables.
Most of the restaurants are located on the beach with views straight out to the water. Some have shaded seating at tables placed under trees or umbrellas. Some are little more than small huts where you sit cross-legged on cushions. Most are open by 6am and serve all day. There are also many food stalls that sell fruit, juices, grilled corn, or crepes.
My absolute favourite breakfast was the "Pink Bowl" full of dragon fruit, raspberries, banana, yogurt, oats, and chia seeds. This thick smoothie-in-a-bowl was delicious and quite filling without being heavy.
The Beach Life
We stayed at La Bella Hotel, a charming 3-star hotel on the northern end of the strip. The rooms were spacious, had a comfortable bed, plenty of cupboard space, lots of power outlets, a really nice toilet/shower area and a comfortable balcony with a water view. The rooms also included a coffee-making station, a large water cooler, a mini-fridge, and a safe. There was also a pool but I never went looking for it since the beach was literally across the street.
Staying on Gili Trawangan is all about island life. Things move at island speed, so it is a great place to slow down, relax, and just let the day unfold. Take a boat trip, go snorkelling or diving, hang out on the beach, swim in the pool or the Bali Sea. Learn to scuba dive from one of the many diving schools on the island. Try out some water activities such as paddle boarding, or kayaking. Enjoy a coffee while watching the sunrise. Sit on your balcony and observe as the island switches from daytime activities to nighttime activities.
Divers will find themselves in the middle of some of the best diving in Indonesia. There are multiple dive sites that teem with marine life and coral formations. There is a sea turtle feeding area where divers can watch turtles glide by, and colourful tropical fish dance in unison. There are also a couple of shipwrecks to explore. Night snorkelling adventures are also available, led by experienced guides with powerful underwater lights. At certain times of the year, bioluminescent plankton glows in the water.
Sunrise on Gili Trawangan Beach
We were told that the sunrise was worth seeing. Sunrise is not something either one of us makes a point to see very often. We idly discussed the possibility that we might be awake for it and, if we were, we could certainly enjoy it from our balconies while sipping the coffee we could make in our rooms. Our hotel had a fabulous view across to Gili Meno and behind it, we could see the mountains of Lombok so we knew we had a prime view.
The first morning, I woke up with my alarm, put on the coffee and pulled back the curtain as a dim light appeared on the horizon. I sipped the coffee and took a few photos. I noticed the sign for the beach restaurant across the street had a sunrise special of coffee and cake for 50 000 IDR and realized that the power lines would be in all my photos, so I threw on some clothes and figured I would go and watch from the beach. As I was leaving my room, my friend was just coming out of his room with the same plan.
As the sun began to rise, the colours intensified and cast a warm glow painting the landscape in shades of gold and pink. The waves gently lapped on the beach as we watched the sky transform moment by moment. The sun peeked from behind Lombok and Gili Meno like a radiant fireball and lit a pathway through the water directly to where we were seated comfortably on beach chairs sipping coffee and taking many photos.
As the sun continued to rise, the locals were beginning their daily work: sweeping sidewalks, cleaning the beach, loading boats, and opening eateries for breakfast. The sun rays promised another hot day and I enjoyed a good morning swim. It was a wonderful way to start the day. The following day, we both got up even earlier and were treated to an even more spectacular sunrise.
Cycling Around Gili Trawangan
It's easy to cycle all around the island. Most of the route is paved with a few sandy sections that forced us to push the bikes for short distances. There are also many dirt paths away from the beaches where there are small communities of local homes and small farms. We decided to head south and go around the island counter-clockwise.
The really busy section of the ride is right in front of the marina where the boats arrive/depart and the horsecart "parking" is located. Other than that, the rest of the ride is trouble-free. Sunset Point and Sunset Beach are lined with beach clubs and resorts. The beaches all have beach chairs and umbrellas; some have trees offering shade.
Near the end of the route, you will encounter a souvenir market and will have to follow some dirt routes to go around a resort and get back to the beach. After asking some questions, we were told we could take the "long route" or the "short cut". He chose the short cut and I went the long route that went into a couple of small communities before returning to the beach road.
I really enjoyed the ride and seeing the island from all sides. I think I might choose to stay around Sunset Point next time, giving me access to both the sunrise on the east and the sunset on the west. It's close enough to the strip for easy access to all the services but far enough away to avoid the crowds. The beaches on the west side were much less crowded and any music played at the beach clubs was at a fairly low volume.
What Else Do You Need to Know?
There are no banks on Gili Trawangan. Hotels, restaurants, tour companies, and bars will accept credit card payment, usually with a 3% surcharge. There are a few ATMs on the island but they often run out of cash by late afternoon, have fairly large transaction fees, and do not dispense more than 2 000 000 IDR. It's probably wise to get a good chunk of cash from an ATM on Bali or Lombok before arriving.
Upon arriving in the Gili islands from Bali, you will pay a harbour tax. If you arrive from Lombok, you do not need to pay this tax. The tax collection booth is at the beginning of the jetty next to the road.
If you are using a fast boat service, be aware that the pier where you line-up and board the boats gets very crowded. Take as little as possible, preferably in a backpack or tote bag. I saw many people struggling with multiple rolling suitcases. They had difficulty with the uneven surface and finding room to move through the crowds. It is chaotic and seems totally disorganized but somehow it all works quite efficiently.
You won't need much: lightweight and breathable shorts, t-shirts, maybe a sundress, swimwear, sunscreen & hat, beach shoes, refillable water bottle, and a lightweight wrap for evening. Snorkelling and diving gear can be rented on the island at reasonable prices. Indonesia uses type C and F electrical outlets (same as Europe). Our hotel had international and USB outlets but this will not be the case in every accommodation. If you are planning on snorkelling, you might want to bring along a first aid kit as I saw many people with their knees and feet scraped from the coral. There are several medical centers located along the beach, if needed.
Gili Trawangan is a great place to enjoy a slow and relaxing few days or to have a full marine adventure including snorkelling and diving. The three days spent on this island have been full of unforgettable moments. The island's breathtaking landscapes and azure waters, the hospitality of the locals, and time spent with a good friend replenished and touched my soul.
Gili Trawangan has reminded me of the beauty that lies in simplicity, the joy of connecting with nature and spending time with a good friend. It has taught me to slow down, to savour the moment, and to appreciate the dance of life. Until next time, Gili Trawangan, terima kasih for the memories
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