Things to know about the Gili Islands

Gili islands

Do your research

A nervousness filled my stomach from the moment we parted with 400,000R for a return boat from Padang Bai to the Gili Islands. Would the shuttle arrive to pick us up from the hotel? Will the boat leave on time? Would our bags arrive in one piece?

We bought our ticket from a vendor in Ubud Town but I made the mistake of doing my research afterwards and discovered the company we had booked with (Merenti Express / Wannen Bali) did not have the best reputation. Not a single review was positive and people said to AVOID their boats at all costs. There were horror stories of the boats being small and uncomfortable, the lack of safety onboard and people vomiting from the rough journey. A panic set in!

As a storm hit Ubud bringing rain through the night, my anxiety heightened. I hardly slept worrying about whether our boat would leave (or even arrive safely) and instantly regretted not researching the company beforehand.

boat on sea
This is NOT the boat!

The Journey

Arriving at Padang Bai from Ubud we were handed a boarding pass and directed to an area which can only be described as a large open shed crammed with confused and bewildered travellers. We all looked at one another shell shocked and unsure of what was happening. Some had passes like ours and others had brightly coloured stickers, but no-one really knew what time their boat was coming or going. It was a guessing game.

More than an hour later, a friendly lady selling snacks pointed us towards the front as a way of telling us our boat had arrived. Compared to others we had seen coming in and out of the dock, our boat was definitely the smallest and the team seemed the least organised. Our bags were chucked on top of one another and loosely covered with a plastic sheet, which would do very little to keep them dry. Inside we were tightly packed into rows of uncomfortable seats, with water dripping in above our heads.

The boat was tossed upwards and sidewards the whole way. Water crashed through the windows, through cracks in the roof and people were tossed about inside. While I took a sea sickness tablet and shut my eyes tightly praying for the journey to be over, other passengers sat with their heads between their knees to avoid being sick. It felt like the longest 45 minutes ever and a rollercoaster that just wouldn’t end.

Gili Trawangan was the first stop and our bags were dropped onto the beach as we jumped from the boat into shallow water. So expect to get wet bags and feet. The boat then went onto Gili Air, Gili Meno and Lombok.

Graffiti on wall as woman cycles past

Which island to visit

Each of the islands offers something different. Trawangan (or Gili T) is the biggest and most popular of the three because it is described as more of a party island. Air and Meno are quieter as no music is played after a certain time, and probably where you should head for a more relaxing getaway.

With only three days to visit the islands we opted to stay on Gili T and felt this would give us a good enough all-round experience. For a longer stay you can always take a day trip to the other islands.

Gili T is split in two – the East and West side.

On the east is the harbour where all the boats dock. It’s where the shops are, the hipster healthy eating cafes and most of the bars. It’s also where you will find water sports such as paddleboarding and snorkelling.

On the west is where the sun sets, where the swings in the sea are and is generally the quieter side of the island. Here is where you will find some of the fancier hotels (although there isn’t many) and the famous blue, blue sea you see in all the pictures. It was so serene on this side but got busier as it got closer to sunset.

There are also no cars or scooters on the island which was welcomed relief after the traffic madness of Ubud. The only form of transport on the island is your feet, bicycles or horse-drawn carriages but be prepared to jump out the way of an inexperienced tourist on a bike or the horses constantly clippering, cloppering down the paths. The horses are used a lot to transport tourists with luggage and goods for the shops, restaurants and buildings sites.

horse drawn carriages

What to do

As a watersports and diving haven, I planned to swim, snorkel and paddleboard. But after the traumatic boat journey, I couldn’t face getting onboard another. The sea is also full of rocks making it very painful to walk into or swim in. So I opted to stay on dry land most of the time instead.

This left little options of things to do on the island. We attempted a morning run but by 9am it was already 30C, and spent one morning at a vinyasa yoga session, which was a good way to stretch the legs and do something active before lying on the beach all day. Another day we walked up to the viewpoint, or Trawangan Hill.  We got lost among the side streets on the east side before stumbling across a steep flight of stairs. Following faint yellow arrows painted onto tree trunks, climbing more and more steps and traispsing over or under fallen trees on the path we eventually reached the top. The view was a little underwhelming with the sea hidden behind foliage from trees and bushes but I felt we had achieved something.

From there we found a short set of stairs that took us straight to a beach on the west side. We had definitely taken the long route round!

As the sun sets at around 6pm the days seemed short. Every evening we headed to either the Sunset Ombok or Pandawa hotels to sit on their colourful beanbags and take in the view. As a DJ set played in the background, we sipped a beer watching the sun go down, which was a blissful and romantic way to spend an evening.

fire on beach as sun sets behind

When to visit

As the Gili Islands are small, with limited accommodation, I can imagine it gets crowded in peak season. June was not a busy month so we had large parts of the beach to ourselves during the day and never struggled to grab a table at any bar or restaurant for dinner either.

You might not know but Gili T is a largely Muslim island. While it is not strict on what tourists wear, eat or drink, you will hear prayers blaring from the island’s three mosques first thing in the morning and late at night.

Our visit coincided with Ramadan so there were no beach parties and some of the bars and restaurants were closed as staff observed the festival. While restaurants that were open did not serve food until after sunset to help staff who were fasting. The prayers were also more frequent lasting from 3am until dawn, then from sunset to 11pm. At night it was quite soothing as they rang around the island, if a little surreal hearing them as you went in and out of bars. But being woken by the loud speakers early in the morning was not much fun.

Where to stay

We stayed at the Marygio Resort – a boutique hotel run by an Italian father and daughter. With just a few rooms overlooking a pool it was small but cute. We looked forward to breakfast each day which had a choice of banana or pineapple pancakes, a different cake every morning and eggs however you like them. This was my idea of bliss and we definitely pigged out!

view of hotel pool from above

The hotel was right on a path which connects to the other side of the island and took 10/15 minutes to walk. For the main strip it was far enough away to avoid the noise from bars at night but was close enough to walk. Nothing was ever far away.

Behind the main strip and inbetween the other side of the island is where the locals live. The side streets are dusty and sparse with many underdeveloped areas and much more modest homes. There are few hotels on these side streets, but there is a lot of land advertised for sale, hotels being built, and signs showing where new luxury and midrange resorts are planned for development. As tourists continue to flock to the island, more and more accommodation is going up and I can imagine it will look very different in a few years. But while all the construction will provide more places for people to stay, the island should probably look at other facilities first, like a better or more prominent harbour and improved boats.

Although Gili T was a relaxing and peaceful place to be, with stunning views of the clear, blue sea, the boat journey there is certainly not an experience I want to repeat in a hurry!

sitting in a hammock in the sea

2 thoughts on “Things to know about the Gili Islands

    1. So sorry I missed this message earlier. Hope it’s not too late but I can’t remember how much we paid. I remember it wasn’t too expensive, but the views are beautiful so worth it. Enjoy your trip if you go.

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