Of the north east coast of Lombok are 3 small islands, known as the Gili Islands. Backpacker favourites for over 30 years, the Gilis have recently gone upmarket and you are more likely to see honeymooners with suitcases with wheels heading to private pool villas. Despite this, the islands retain their original charm and laid back vibe.
Recently the islands have fallen on hard times. Following a devasting earthquake on Lombok in 2018, tourism numbers dropped significantly. Things were just returning to normal when in early 2020, Indonesia closed itself to tourists due to the Covid pandemic. Now, almost 3 years later, the island is slowly getting back on its feet. Many businesses, however, were forced to close and hospitality staff were laid off and returned home to Lombok to seek other employment.
Which island to choose?
Gili Trawangan (known colloquially as Gili T) is a party island and the most popular of the three. Practically every night, there is a party. If you are young and looking for action, you’ll be in heaven.
Gili Meno is rustical and very quiet. Go there if you want peace and quiet.
Gili Air (pronounced ayer, the indonesian word for water) is a somewhere in the middle – super chilled, but also with some party action. I stayed on Gili Air for new year’s eve 2018/19 and at the time of writing am back for another round, I loved it so much.
How to get there?
Fast ferries run twice daily from Padang Bai and Sanur in Bali. The journey takes about 2.5 hours. You can arrange private transport to Padang Bai or use the pickup service from popular destinations in Bali, like Canguu, Ubud, Sanur, etc. There is a lot of debate about service, comfort, safety and so on, but the prices and standard are pretty the same across the board. It pays to book in advance during high season and even having a ticket does not guarantee a spot onboard. Note, at Padang Bai, there is a small harbour tax, which is not included in the boat ticket price. A recent change in the rules means that some boats stop off at Sengiggi on Lombok on the way there or back, adding an additional 20-30 minutes to the journey. Alternatively, if already on Lombok, you can take the local ferry from Bangsal.
Where to stay?
There are basically 2 options: luxury villas or “homestays”. Villas are a higher standard and have pool, sometimes private (for honeymooners, apparently). Homestays are aimed at those on a budget or for longer stays and can have their own kitchen. You pay a premium for beachfront property, although it is not a total disaster to stay in the center. The village is best avoided due to the noise not only from daily activity, but also the mosque, which blasts out a call to prayers every couple of hours starting at 4am. The east side of the island gets the sunrise and it is the better side for snorkling. The west side gets the sunset (obviously) and is better for swimming.
Where to eat?
There are many, many options serving western and local food. Although prices are slightly higher than Bali, the Gilis are still very cheap compared to Europe or Australia. There are also a plethora of healthy eating joints offering vegetarian and vegan dishes. Here are my recommendations for top places to eat on the island: Mowie’s – the perfect sunset spot on the beach with a cool vibe and sensational food at very reasonable prices; Pachamama – fantastic healthy food in a super chilled atmosphere; Warung Sunny – awesome local fushion food from master chef, Sunny. They also offer cooking classes.
What to do
Meditate. Read a book. Do nothing.
You can rent snorkeling equipment and snorkel from the beach on the eastern side of the island or book a tour. I recommend a local tour company, Marta Explorer, run by my personal friend, Anto. You will support a local family and not some mafia or faceless conglomerate. You can reach him on Whatsapp: +62 878-6522-9412.
There are several dive shops on the island. I dived with Blue Marlin. I saw some turtles, but nothing spectacular. The diving is much better in other locations in Indonesia, for example, the Komodo National Park, Sulawesi or Raja Ampat.
While not the mega party destination Gili T, Gili Air has its fair share of bars and clubs. I was there for new year’s eve 2018/19 and there was a good mix of locals and tourists/foreigners living on the island. Some bars have live music; others blast out progressive and psy trance. Popular spots are Lucky’s and Cheeky Monkey on the sunset beach and Zip bar on the eastern side. Psy trance fans will flock to the Space Bar in the central northern section of the island.
What about drugs?
Alcohol is legal and freely available. Consumption of illegal drugs is pretty much a no-no in Indonesia and penalties for possession are steep. That said, in the interests of harm reduction, knowing that you readers will ignore my advice – here is the low down. Ecstasy pills/MDMA are freely available at about three times the price of Europe. Crappy bush weed is brought in from Sumatra. The quality is really shit and it’s expensive, but beggars can’t be choosers. Crystal Meth is a major problem, like everywhere in Asia, but most likely you won’t be offered it. Don’t go looking for trouble.
The main attraction of the Gilis, however, is of course, magic mushrooms. “Shrooms” as they are colloquially known, are available at practically every bar and even in some restaurants. You even get little old ladies offering you a packet on the street! Standard prices range from 200K IDR for a “medium” (read weak) dose to 300K IDR for “strong” (slightly stronger than weak). Take this dosage advice with a grain of salt, as the quality can differ according to the season and if the mushrooms are sourced locally or coming from Lombok.
The legal status of mushrooms is a little unclear. If you ask locals or foreigners living on the islands, you will get different replies. Up to 10 years ago, they were freely available at all bars in Kuta on Bali. The police apparently made a decision to gradually phase them out, but left the Gilis untouched. On the Gilis, there are no police and very little crime. The only real crime is petty committed by visitors to the island (read from Lombok or opportunistic tourists). In the rare event of theft, justice is meted out by village elders who shame the thief by parading him/her around the island with a sign around his/her neck.
The Gilis are muslim islands and although beachwear is tolerated at the beach, it is a no-no to wear a bikini in the village. There are even signs on the main street thanking tourists for not wearing a bikini. Despite this, you will see almost every day some dumb tourist with a thong and her tits half hanging out walking around like she owns the place. I even heard a story that a woman showed up to the mosque with a camera and a bikini on. There are only two possible explanations for this flagrant disregard for local culture: complete ignorance and failure to do even the bare minimum of research, or; colonial arrogance – the idea that you are priveleged and can treat people of other cultures, who are less fortunate than you, anyway you please. I think the latter is the more likely explanation, but it never ceases to amaze me how stupid tourists can be. If you are not sure, just check what the locals wear – do you see any local women walking around half naked?
Disclaimer: The Earlybird does not condone the use of recreational substances, legal or illegal. The information provided here is for harm reduction purposes only. The Earlybird does, however, support the right of the individual to choose what he/she puts in his/her body, so long as it causes no harm to others.
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