Gili Trawangan is the most popular island. It developed rapidly following the establishment of dive centres around the coast, which eventually made way to their expansion with accommodation options that cater to various budgets, as well as restaurants and bars. It now has the most hotels and restaurants out of the three Gilis. Most of the crowds and excitement are on the south-eastern shore, while quiet and exotic beaches are along its northern and western coasts, offering a good mix of styles and experiences.
Gili Meno serves as the ultimate choice for anyone looking to rest and relaxation; those wishing for a total retreat away from the crowds. Meno is the most barren of the three Gilis, with very quiet coral sand beaches to explore easily by foot, and dirt village roads that interconnect and provide glimpses to the placid life of the local Sasak people. The local administration of Meno and the villagers have long upheld a ban on loud music and late night partying on the island. Still, there is a mix of budget stays and luxury resorts here.
Gili Air is the ‘little brother’ among the three. Unlike Meno with its ban on partying, Air has a variety of beach bar scenes. Smaller than Trawangan, but with the similar variety of choices for dining, nightlife and marine water sports, Air serves as a great alternative to Trawangan, and oftentimes is a concluding island hop for those travelling to all three islands. It is the closest to Lombok, and from where you easily ferry off to Bangsal Harbour in Lombok for a further extended trip.
As the most popular way to get to the Gilis is by sea from Bali’s two main harbours, the dry season provides the most favourable sea conditions for traveling, normally between the months of June and September. This also makes for the best visibility around the crystal clear waters if you’re in for great snorkelling and diving. In terms of crowds, the peak season is usually mid-year, between July and August, and the year-end, December and January.
As the Gili Islands have also attracted the domestic market and become a regular retreat for Bali expats, expect a surge of visitors and fully booked hotels over the usually long holidays of Idul Fitri (varying dates, usually between July and October), Christmas and ultimately over Nyepi (varying dates, around March), when most non-Balinese Hindus ‘escape’ the island due to the unique prohibitions in place island-wide during this observance. It would be wise to make your bookings, hotel and boat transfers well ahead of your planned visit.
What to Bring and What to Wear
Usually, backpacker style is the way to go. Once you jump off the boat at any of the three Gilis, you will easily find the gorgeous white sand beaches hard to resist. Whether you decide to jump in for a dip in the blue waters, spend some time snorkelling, or decide to circumnavigate a whole Gili along sandy paths, it’s good to protect yourself from the harmful rays of the tropical sun.
Some useful gear to bring along include: sunscreen, eyewear, hat, light and cool clothing, and comfortable footwear (preferably strap style hiking sandals that you can easily take on and off – virtually everywhere you step is sand). A smartphone with local GSM provider connection (details below) and GPS enabled is oftentimes optional and fun if you want to track your island hike in real-time, but maps are widely available at kiosks. And of course, don’t forget your camera!
Phone and Internet
If you have a smartphone with you and heading to the Gilis from Bali, you might already have a national GSM provider card installed while in Bali. You can use this on the Gilis. Cellular phone towers are visible throughout the hilly landscapes of the three islands; therefore you're never out of touch. Major providers include Indosat, XL, Tri, and Telkomsel. The latter is known to have the widest coverage, and often the strongest 3G signal reception for mobile internet connections. Almost all hotels, restaurants and cafes offer Wi-Fi connectivity, however speeds vary and can be unreliable.
Currency, Exchange and ATMs
Money changers are widespread throughout the Gilis, be it at standalone currency exchange kiosks, information booths or at hotels. Nevertheless, rates vary and are usually higher, so it is usually advisable that you have Indonesian Rupiah ready at hand before your Gili trip, or your foreign currency exchanged into IDR at an authorised and trusted money changer in Bali.
ATMs of CIMB Niaga, a major Southeast Asian bank chain, are easily found in major areas, especially on the main south eastern beach of Gili Trawangan. Meanwhile, there are no ATMs available on Gili Meno. Visa and Mastercard are accepted at most of the larger hotels and classier restaurants.
Safety and Security
First and foremost, book a boat transfer service that is reliable and with a good safety record. We have listed a few here. No matter how laidback and carefree an island escape to the Gilis may seem, you should never let your defences down. Make use of your hotel room’s safe deposit box and keep doors locked whenever you leave your room or bungalow.
Bear in mind that there are no coastguards or lifeguards on patrol; take extra caution when in the waters. Jellyfish are common and full wetsuits are advisable. If joining a dive trip or course choose a major PADI-licensed dive centre, and avoid impromptu dive trips offered by persons around the beach. Dive centres are available on all three Gilis with Trawangan having the most.
It’s good to get acquainted with the locals and bar owners, but keep an open mind when anyone persistently tries to get ‘too close’. Local security guards patrol the islands irregularly, but being a small island, crime levels are not high and usually limited to those of petty nature, such as overcharging and occasional theft. For emergencies, the number to dial is 118.
There are many retail shops around with fixed priced goods. Then there are local stalls selling art items that can be too hard to resist for those who simply like shopping ‘adventures’. Bargain hard, but not too seriously. Shopping, and bargaining as part of the process, should be fun. With a bit of diligence you could find yourself paying only a half or two thirds of the asking price in the end.
Some cash should be handy, as not all accept credit cards. A bit of humour helps in the bargaining process, and you could easily find yourself making new friends with the shopkeeper. Some of the major retail shops generally open around 10:00 and close quite early around 19:00. Treat all local beach peddlers and kids selling stuff on the beach with courtesy, no matter how pushy they can be.
It is advisable to stick only to cocktails served at the more upmarket restaurant bars. Or stay with the ice cold Bintangs available everywhere. There have been several incidents of methanol poisoning involving the consumption of poorly brewed local Arak in the past.
Tempting as they may seem, consumption of magic mushrooms that are widely offered by the local warungs, should be avoided. Stay away from drugs – the death penalty still applies in Indonesia.