Lombok's most popular tourist destination, the Gili Islands (or just the Gilis) came to the attention of the wider world as a backpacker mecca in the 1980s and 1990s. This is still true to some extent, and the islands are still a fixture on the Banana Pancake Trail. But the times they are a changing, and there is now a rash of glamour options on the islands, especially so on Gili Trawangan. The islands are very relaxed and laid-back, with countless little beachside cafes still playing reggae and serving up questionable "energy" drinks, but also at the other end of the scale, elaborate seafood buffets, fresh salads and good quality western and Asian food. Best of all, there are no cars or motorbikes to disturb the peace.
There are increasing numbers of westerners living on the Gilis, and operating businesses ranging from dive companies to resorts. There is a strong environmental focus here as the reefs have been very damaged in the past. While once people came to dive, snorkel and party, a more upmarket tourist is showing up now. It is still all about the beach, there are many more options to wine and dine or hang out and meet new friends.
Strictly speaking, the name "Gili Islands" is rather redundant as gili simply means "small island" in Sasak, but the name has stuck and is universally used and understood in Lombok.
There are also some other islands off Lombok called Gili Something, eg. Gili Nanggu and Gili Gede, but these are located to the southwest near Lembar, quite a distance from the "main" Gilis.
The Gilis are noticeably drier and hotter than Lombok, but evenings can still be cool and refreshing. The rainy season is roughly from November to April, but it rains much less than on Bali. The peak tourist seasons are July-August and December-January.
There are no airports in the Gilis.
Alternatively, you can fly to Bali and connect onward with a domestic flight to Mataram, which is a quick and cheap 20-25 min hop. The Bali-Lombok route is operated by Merpati Nusantara Airlines, Garuda, Wings (code shared with Lion Air), Trigana Air, Trans-Nusa and IAT (Indonesian Air Transport).
From elsewhere in Indonesia, Mataram is served by flights from Jakarta, and Surabaya provided by Batavia Air, Garuda, Lion Air and Merpati. Sumbawa is serviced by Trans Nusa Air Services. International flights are available from Singapore with Silk Air and from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia with Merpati airlines. In December 2011 Sky Aviation introduced scheduled services from Lombok direct to Flores.
Please see the main Lombok article for more details on the new international airport and connecting services to the Gili Islands
There are now numerous direct boat services from Bali to the Gilis, all of which continue onto the main island of Lombok. Established daily services depart from Benoa and Serangan Island in South Bali and Padang Bai and Amed in East Bali. Benoa Harbour and Serangan are around 25 min by car, (dependent upon traffic) from the South Bali tourist hub. Padang Bai is a lot further by road. If one was to depart by car from South Bali at the same time, the trip to Padang Bai would take at least an hour longer in a vehicle on most days.
If you are traveling from south Bali resorts such as Kuta, Legian, Nusa Dua etc., it's more efficient to depart from South Bali departure ports such as Serangan or Benoa. Padang Bai or Amed are better departure ports if you are staying in Central, East or North Bali locations such as Ubud, Candidasa, or the east coast dive areas around Amed and Tulamben or North Coast locations such as Lovina or Pemuteran.
No matter what port of departure you use, with the exception of those staying in Padang Bai or Amed, you will be required to use a vehicle transfer for one portion of your journey. The big consideration in choice of port of departure is time and distance by road and sea at sea, coupled with weather.
The road from south Bali up to Padang Bai may be congested causing numerous hold-ups, and can lead to long and tedious traffic jams. That route is also the main transport corridor for all heavy road traffic travelling from Bali to neighbouring Lombok and futher east.
The distance by sea from Benoa/Serangan to Gili Trawangan/Lombok, is almost twice that of the distance from Padang Bai and is more than twice the distance from Amed. Amed is the closest departure point to the Gili Islands from Bali and travels to the same ports of arrival at Gili Trawangan and the Lombok mainland.
Passengers staying in South Bali and departing from Benoa/Serangan will spend almost twice the time at sea as passengers departing Padang Bai and and more than twice the time at sea as passengers departing from Amed - but much less time on the road.
Gili Cat was the the second operator to start operating daily services in 2007, after poineer BlueWater Express initiated the fastboat route from Bali to Gili more than a year earlier. Gili Cat's official operating logs demonstrate an average time at sea, all conditions, all years, of 80 min. Time on the road, on the other hand, is usually a lot slower than the advertised "+/- one hour". BlueWater's time at sea, from south Bali, varies from 2 to 2.5 hr in standard conditions, with a road time to and from south Bali of 20-30 min.
A previous provided a larger vessel with inboard diesel engines and higher operational safety standards however it was withdrawn from service, presumably as the higher operating costs could not be sustained when competing with the alternative providers using lighter duty lower cost vessels.
Anyone travelling with children or infants, prone to sea sickness, historically uncomfortable on boats, or with any health conditions, would be well advised to select the shortest possible sea crossing or use one of the many air services available from Bali to Lombok.
A daily speedboat service called Amed Sea Fast Boat started to ply the Amed to Gili Trawangan route in 2010. There is also a daily fast boat service to Gili Trawangan from Nusa Lembongan, a small island off the south east coast of Bali.
There are currently significant differences in prices between operators on all the Gili Fast Boat routes. There are also significant differences in the standard of the vessels, operating standards, operating experience and crew certfication. The worst offenders for safety standards currently all operate out of Padang Bai. Passengers would be well advised to look at more than just price. As competition has increased, so has misinformation about availability of seats or operating schedules. Passengers would be well advised to check the veracity of information direct with their chosen operator if told by a tour desk a vessel is "full" or "bankrupt - not operating" or has "spontaneously combusted." Passengers are also advised to ensure their ticket states the specific vessel they have requested. Stated trip times are often highly misleading and do not reflect the reality of the voyage nor previously achieved average crossing times.
If you have more time than money, you can use a tour service for around Rp 160,000 from Kuta/Ubud to take you from your hotel on Bail, drop you off at the vehicular/passenger ferry at Padang Bai, then pick you up at the port of Lembar in south western Lombok. You may switch vehicles a few times and will be eventually be dropped off at the beach landing area at Bangsal servicing the boats to the Gili's and put onto a small boat for the short sea crossing to the islands. The whole trip may take up to 12 hr if things do not go smoothly. You may also be subjected to hard sells on booking unnecessary return tickets. At the last stop you may be befriended by those talking up stories of mosquito born illness who will later try to sell repellent and coils at absurd and extortionate prices. These products are reasonably priced on the Gilis and are also available at many roadside warungs and shops on mainland Lombok. Try to avoid entering into any arrangements to carry your bags to the boat, you may find the outcome both irritating and expensive. The best way to avoid this is to prevent anyone from interfering or touching your bag/s at any time.
For keen travellers who do not hesitate to use local transportation it is good to work with a group of 3-4 people to share taxis or other transportation options. Do some prior research for awareness of the correct rates and fares, and know how to bargain. Ensure a taxi is always using the meter. It may be cheaper to do it all yourself via the slow ferry and transfer from the main island of Lombok. However, do be cautioned that public transport tends to be sparse to non-existent starting from late afternoon so there is little point setting out to either Bangsal or Teluk Nare if there are no services running across to the Gili islands when you get there. Going from Bali to Gilis, it's best to spend a night somewhere on Lombok (such as in Senggigi), in order to continue to Bangsal early next morning and avoid any hassle, delays, disappointment and/or rip-offs when crossing from there to Gilis. When going back, it's better to depart as early as possible - unless you prefer to spend a night in Padang Bai on arrival to Bali.
There are essentially two ways to get from Lombok to the Gilis: a shuttle bus or taxi to Bangsal (1 hr), and a public boat from there (15/30/45 min to Air/Meno/Trawangan) or direct privately chartered boats from Senggigi (1-2 hr) or Teluk Nare (30 min).
The easiest way to get to the Gilis from Lombok's airport or Senggigi is to walk to the nearest travel agent, taxi desk or tout and book a package.
The cheapest way is to take a bemo/taxi to Pemenang, walk or cidomo to Bangsal, and then take the Public boat (ferry) from there. However, this may involve long waits and dealing with a truly unpleasant bunch of touts, so some people figure it's not worth the hassle.
If you want to travel at your own pace, you can charter a boat directly from Senggigi to take you across. Ask any travel agent or simply head to the beach behind the Santosa Hotel in central Senggigi or on the beach at Mangsit at the northern end of Senggigi. At Mangsit most of the charter boats are located between Qunci Villas and the Holiday Resort Lombok (ex Holiday Inn Resort). On either beach you're guaranteed to be solicited by boat operators and guides. The Senggigi article has more information on this. A charter of a regular outrigger (perahu) to any of the Gili Islands can cost as much Rp 500,000, but bargain hard. Some of these boats are pretty basic so make sure you check the safety equipment for yourself, especially if you cannot swim. The better guides at Mangsit beach will provide life vests of their own if the chartered boat does not have them. If there are three or less of you, it is much faster and infinitely more comfortable to arrange a speed boat pickup from Teluk Nare with one of the dive shops or your hotel on Gili Trawangan. A taxi to Teluk Nare from Senggigi will cost about Rp 40,000-45,000.
For organising your trip back to Bangsal, there is a public boat ticket office on each of the Gili Islands.
Note that the sea is calmest in the morning and all transport stops running in the late afternoon, and well before dark. During periods of southerly winds and in July and August especially, the swell can be a bit hairy and you are very likely to get wet on the crossing. It is advisable to place laptops, cameras and handphones in waterproof bags for the crossing.
In a rare display of foresight, all forms of motorized transport are banned from the islands: your only choice is horse-drawn carts, known as cidomo, which are used even to shuttle around diving gear. The price for visitors is Rp 20,000-30,000 per head for any trip, although it varies per island and per season. However, as the islands are only a few km in diameter, it's entirely possible to just walk instead.
Bikes are also available for rent, but be prepared for as much walking as cycling as your tires spin-out in frequent stretches of sand.
Travelling between the islands requires either catching the infrequent scheduled Koperasi Island hopping boats, or chartering one to take you across. You can buy tickets from the ticket offices on each island from where the boats depart. Booking through a travel agent just costs more, and you still need to change the reservation to an actual ticket at the very same counter.
The distances between the islands may seem swimmable, but do not attempt it — the currents are fierce and several foolish visitors have died trying.
There are no A grade sights as such on the islands, but the snorkelling and diving all around is a major draw.
There is reasonably good diving here, and the islands are globally known as a teaching center. An impressive array of sea creatures and plant life is to be seen, such as green and hawksbill turtles, manta rays (rarely), bumphead parrotfish, black-tip and white-tip reef sharks, and more. Visibility is commonly in the 15-30 m range. However, due to the exposed position of the Gilis, currents can be quite strong and drift diving is the norm.
Gili Trawangan has the most dive operators, but PADI and SSI licensed dive operators exist on all three islands. Equipment is kept in top shape, with excellent facilities and (mostly) western dive instructors. Divemasters are more commonly experienced locals. Dive and course prices are fixed by agreement between the dive operators on each island, so there is nothing financial to be gained by shopping around between the operators. A good approach is to settle down on your chosen island, get to know the dive shops, and chose to dive with the one with which you feel most comfortable.
For those interested in learning to dive or advancing existing qualifications, several of the operators now offer both PADI and SSI options. Nitrox and other technical diving options are also offered by operators on Gili Trawangan especially.
All dive shops on the Gili Islands are members of the Gili Eco Trust , a non-profit organisation set up to protect coral reefs surrounding the islands and provide environmental education. There is a one time only reef tax of Rp 50,000 payable by all divers and dive students. This is collected by the dive operator and it is this reef tax that funds the work of the trust. If you are interested in learning more about the work of the trust, or volunteering to help, ask for Delphine at the Big Bubble dive shop on Gili Trawangan.
Dive prices, PADI & SSI courses
All dive shops accept US dollars, Indonesian Rupiah and credit cards, except when the telephone lines are down (in this case, pay using internet banking).
You can rent masks and fins off the beach, or contact any of the numerous dive shops to arrange snorkelling at choice spots nearby. A daily snorkelling programme usually involves a 10AM departure and 4PM return, and includes three or four spots around the three islands and a 2 hr lunch break. The cost ranges from Rp 60,000 to 150,000 depending on the shop and your negotiating skills. The quoted price normally includes the mask and snorkel but Rp 10,000 (or more) may be charged for the fins. Lunch is typically not included.
It's possible to snorkel off some of the beaches, but pay attention to the currents, which can be strong even near the shore. Wear flippers even if you're a strong swimmer, or you'll spend most of your energy fighting the currents.
In the local marine stakes, surfing is a distant third to diving and snorkelling. There are occasionally surf-able waves on the south side of Gili T, however these are few and far between.
One of the attractions of the islands is the ability to do nothing. With no cars on any of the islands and the lower tempo of Gili Air and Gili Meno, there are several bungalow-style accommodations with verandas that overlook gardens of the ocean. The styles of cafes and restaurants involves small open huts perfect for two to four people to claim for a good part of the day. With a good book and your swimsuit, the day passes quickly when you leave your watch in your bag. The beaches are not exceptional. Gili Meno has the nicest beaches of the three islands. Gili Meno and Air have their best beaches on the west side of the islands. The south side tends to be windy and rough and the north and east have a lot of coral on the beaches, making the sand rough. On Gili Air, the only pleasant beach for swimming is really in front of the Chill-out cafe and Sunrise Resort on the main strip.
The perimeters of all three islands are conducive to a 90 min to 3 hr leisurely walk with no strenuous hills. Just follow the coastline, put on your sunscreen and it makes for a nice morning.
There are 10 ATMs on Gili Trawangan, but that's it. Exchange rates offered by moneychangers are noticeably poorer than on the mainland. Credit cards are accepted by some of the more upmarket places and all dive shops; some will also arrange credit card advances, but with hefty fees in the order of 7-10%.
Shopping opportunities are very limited. There are plenty of kiosks offering tourist staples such as drinks, basic cosmetics, suntan lotion and such, but anything even remotely unusual is best brought with you.
All the islands feature myriad restaurants and cafes concentrated on the beaches. The east sides of all the islands have the most activity. The majority are small cafes with decent food oriented toward tourists in small open huts. Featured food is usually barbecued fish or pizza from a wood-fired oven.
Be careful with "fee and tax" especially in "luxury" restaurants, it can be written in very small font at the bottom of the menu and from 5 to 25% or more.
Gili Trawangan has a huge reputation as a party island, and whilst the scene has calmed down somewhat in recent years, there are many bars and something is happening almost every night of the year.
Demand often outstrips supply, so prices tend to be noticeably higher than on Bali or Lombok. During the peak seasons (Jul-Aug, Dec-Jan), it pays to make advance reservations, as the best places are often fully booked. Arrive early for better chances of getting accommodation without a reservation. Late arrivers need to be prepared to spend a night on the beach (it's perfectly safe though).
There are plenty of largely identical backpacker guesthouses on the islands. The price ranges depending on the season and island. Figure on Rp 100,000+ for a basic room with fan only. Air conditioned rooms are more in the Rp 300,000-400,000+ range. Gili Trawangan especially, has a rapidly increasing range of high end accommodation with prices up to US$500 per night.
Always try to negotiate for the best price, and be clear about whether or not the quoted price includes taxes and breakfast. Some hotels feature fresh water for showering and others use salt water. Much of the so-called fresh water still has a high saline content, so it is hard to feel really clean after a few days. Some of the higher end places on Gili Trawangan have reverse osmosis desalination systems, and provide top quality fresh water.
Little changes on the Gili Islands during the fasting month of Ramadan, as food is served during the day and bars stay open at night. However, many dive shops cut down the diving schedule to cater for fasting locals, and out of respect you should also refrain from blatantly eating, drinking or smoking in public.
True to the hippie vibe, magic mushrooms are widely available and openly advertised, particularly on Gili Trawangan. Their legality is questionable, as are any physical and psychological effects.
Be very careful with locally produced booze, especially arak. It can contain methanol and has caused many cases of serious injury and even death among tourists and locals alike.
Various other drugs and intoxicants are readily available and sometimes flaunted (as is the case of mushrooms and 'power drinks' at parties), and you can expect to be offered everything from marijuana to methamphetamine. Keep in mind you are still in Indonesia, where drug usage and distribution penalties are extraordinarily harsh ranging from 20 years in a dilapidated prison to the death penalty. On Gili Trawangan, there have been a number of busts of high profile local characters resulting in serious prison sentences. On Gili Air, village leaders have been known to banish tourists from the island for drug usage and several signs posted around the island will remind you of their local laws.
Small but annoying jellyfish are common in the waters around the Gilis during certain moon cycles, with July and August getting the brunt, so wearing a full-length wetsuit or surf skin in the water is advisable. The stings can be quite painful, but they're harmless and usually go away within an hour. The welt from bad multiple stings may last a day.
There are massive spiders roughly the size of a grown man's hand scattered about the islands; while not venomous, their bites can result in a painful wound. Thankfully, avoiding them is relatively easy, don't tread through brush and avoid climbing random trees.
There are no police on any of the islands. Crime is largely limited to opportunistic petty theft, and all problems are usually settled by the local islands councils; if you face larger problems or need to make a police report for insurance purposes, you will need to head over the mainland to do it.
[edit from 2012 May] There is as minimum as 5 police units on Gili Trawangan. So - don't do nothing restricted, be smart :)
All three islands have a small, simple clinic. For serious problems, visitors should get back to Lombok (or preferably Bali) as quickly as possible.
Tap water is very salty and not potable. Bottled water is widely available and many cafes, dive shops, and stores will fill up bottles for Rp 3,000, reducing waste and costing less than a new bottle. The refill supplies can be a little erratic in availability at times; however, do not be concerned as drinking water is always available for sale on the Gili Islands.
There are many self-styled gigolos anxious to swoon foreign girls on Gili Trawangan and Gili Air. If you're female and on your own (even temporarily), you will be approached often. If you find yourself swept off your feet, condoms are available at most little stores.
Thanks to the islands' dryness, mosquitoes can be quite rare, but there have been a few cases of malaria and dengue reported, mostly during the rainy season. Mosquito repellent, mosquito nets and long sleeves at dusk are wise precautions. Please see main Lombok article for notes on malaria, dengue fever (DHF), methyl alcohol adulteration of traditional local drinks such as arak, and other tips for your health and safety whilst on the Gili Islands.
The islands have no supplies of completely fresh water, although some is distinctly less brackish than others.
There is a very spotty electricity supply; it's not uncommon for power to be off for hours at a time on a daily basis, and the same goes for water as most is directly fed by electric pumps. Many upmarket hotels, restaurants and dive shops have generators, and there are tentative plans for solar and wind power generation. It is worth checking with your chosen accommodation whether they have a generator.
Laundry can be arranged through most guesthouses, expect to pay by piece rather than by load. The cost can add up quick, you may want to consider hand-washing smaller items yourself, clothes dry very quickly in the equatorial sun.
Several hospitals are located on the nearby mainland in city of Mataram including the islands principal public hospital Rumah Sakit Umun and also the Risa Hospital in Cakranegara near Mataram mall.
Mobile phone towers ensure you're never out of touch. Telekomsel's Simpati SIM card has the strongest and most reliable coverage on the Gili islands.
Internet cafes are quite widespread but connections are often very slow, prices can be Rp 300-400/minute). Free, slow Wi-Fi is often available to customers in restaurants and bars lining the beach on Gili Trawangan. Gili Divers and The Deck has got free Wi-Fi and this connection is very fast. Skype, book tickets or do bank stuff no problems.
Many visitors chose to use a USB modem stick with a Telkomsel Flash SIM card  fitted to it. Reception is reasonable on all three Gili islands but 3G connections should not be anticipated. More likely a connection will fall back to the slower GRPS system. CDMA coverage is also available through the Telko Flexi network . USB modems and SIMs suitable for use on either the Telkomsel GSM/3G network, or the Flexi CDMA network are available from outlets on the Lombok maninland and in Bali.
There is no post office on the Gilis, but William's Bookshop, right behind the Art Market on Gili Trawangan, sells stamps and can mail out your postcards.