Bali has long been the destination of choice for Australians looking for a quick, cheap break away from home. It’s also been on the bucket list of thousands of travellers from the UK making the most of the other side of the world, looking to party and experience Indonesia. With a short three and a bit hour flight from Perth, or six hours from Sydney or Melbourne, it’s easy to get to, cheap, and the Balinese welcome the tourists with open arms, ready to sell them anything their hearts desire!
But more recently, people are skipping the bustling crowds and battling vendors to go a little further afield to the Gili Islands. A two hour taxi or bus ride from Denpasar up to Padang Bai, followed by another two hour boat trip to Gili Trawangan, or Gili T as it is affectionately called, and you’ll arrive in what is largely known as Bali as it was 30 years ago.
Roads are basic – with the only form of transport being the trusty road bike, dubious horse and carts (more on this later), the odd electric motor bike and of course, on foot!
Life is at a different pace here; it’s slower, it’s calmer and the islanders are relaxed and friendly. As we walked the 20 minutes to find our stay – The Gili Hideway – evidently, fresh off the boat with our double backpacks on our shoulders, at least four people smiled at us and said “Welcome to Gili T!” Lost as we were (the hideway was pretty hidden away), about three people came to our rescue to help us find it (how embarrassingly reliant on Google maps we are!).
The Gilis are an archipelago of three main islands – Gili T, Gili Meno and Gili Air. We visited all three on a day long snorkelling trip for 100,000 IDR (that’s £5.50). Gili T is the largest with a number of bars, restaurants, beach clubs and hotels to entertain you. Gili Air is the second biggest and closest to Lombok, while at only a kilometre in size, Gili Meno is the smallest, ready to give you the ultimate getaway from the modern world.
The Gilis are actually closer, and a part of Lombok, but many people choose to go there from Bali since flights to Bali are generally cheaper from Australia.
So the best things to do in Gili T:
Go Diving and Snorkelling
You can’t cross the road without seeing a sign for diving opportunities. The main street along the beach is lined with hotels specifically for divers, with pools full of first-timers excited for their discovery dive, albeit with the odd less energetic tourist sipping on a cocktail just three metres away in the pool bar! Exceptionally cheap, with professional teams of diving masters, it’s one of the best places to learn for it’s incredible underwater world. Sea turtles, moray eels, World War II shipwrecks, sharks, octopus, bump head parrotfish, rainbow fish and so much more are there if you look closely! Just hope you get a clear day. My boyfriend dived with Manta Dive Gili T which had a great selection of diving options across the week and a professional team. A dive for someone already PADI qualified cost 540,000 IDR or around £30.
But if diving isn’t your thing then snorkelling is a must as you try to catch a glimpse of the revered sea turtle. Helpfully around the island you’ll see signs for ‘Turtle Point’, areas where the 30 to 50 aged turtles like to spend their time cruising from place to place. The best experience of the trip we had was swimming off the beach about 50 metres and discovering a sea turtle, swimming freely and happily, not bothered by us whatsoever. It’s markings on both it’s shell and it’s skin are incredible and nothing can quite beat your first view of a sea turtle living its best life, peacefully wading through the water, dipping it’s head up on the surface, level with you as if to give you a true Indonesian hello!
On the snorkelling boat trip our guides took us out to another Turtle Point further off shore where we saw a number of turtles which was of course incredible, but the number of tourists chasing them for a glimpse was unnerving. You can’t but wonder what they must think of us following them in the water with our long rubber feet and plastic pipes and masks. It even got quite competitive, and at one point I got whacked in the face by an over zealous snorkeller desperate for a glimpse of the sea turtle. He apologised but it shone a light on the madness of it all!
You can sign up for a snorkelling trip with any local outlet but expect to pay around 100,000 IDR per person – that’s around £5.50.
After devouring your fair share of nasi goreng each day you’re going to want to learn how to bring some Indonesian flavours back home. We signed up to the Sweet & Spicy cooking class with Gili Cooking School on the main drag, besides Egoiste Restaurant. They teach seven Indonesian dishes in two hours and our chef, Gerry, was the perfect teacher! Cooking in pairs, or on your own, you learn to make dishes including satay vegetables or tofu, chicken in yellow sauce, chicken taliwang, fish in banana leaves, fried noodles and the sweet dessert, kelopon made up of sticky rice flour, palm sugar, coconut milk and grated coconut! And, of course, you get to devour your creations at regular intervals on the beach with a Bintang in hand!
No trip to Gili T will be complete without a trip to the night market where you’ve got plenty of fresh food on offer and of course tourist tat a plenty! Make sure you pay it a visit one evening and pick up your Gili T or Bintang singlet.
A journey around the island
You can walk around Gili T in around two hours – or cycle in less – which is a must to escape the main drag and see what else the island has to offer. Walking towards the north of the island by the coast you’ll be greeted with dozens of signs advertising magic mushrooms. Not legal in Indonesia, and being caught with drugs carries a long jail sentence, it’s surprising to see the islanders so brazenly promoting their wares. While we didn’t try them ourselves, we did see a guy who probably had, dancing to Dr. Dre in the street on his own at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, laughing uncontrollably, entertaining the tourists and Indonesians who walked on by!
Further along the island you’ll find cats, cats and more cats. Second to the celebrated sea turtle, it’s the cats that rule the roost – with the majority having a half tail. Not because of an unfortunate accident with a horse and cart but apparently because of the islanders’ belief that cats with short tails make better rat catchers and so evolution did it’s thing and the strongest survived!
Of course, one thing you can’t miss when travelling around the island is the horse and carts, carrying tourists and their huge luggage to their chosen location. We were told not to use these because of the poor treatment of the horses which you would be supporting. I did come across an animal sanctuary for the care of retired or injured horses, and some restaurants would leave out bowls of water for those passing by, but it’s clearly not enough as many of them looked sad, dishevelled and exhausted. If you can walk or cycle then do.
On the west side of the island – the ultimate sunset side – you will find some amazing hotels to stay in. They welcome others with open arms who want to stop for a drink and a swim too which is what I did for a well-earned rest at Skinny Dip Beach Club. Of course it’s here that you’ll find lots of the famous Gili swings to take your perfect instagram picture as the sunsets!
An Indonesian massage
As you walk through the main street by the beach, you’ll be approached by numerous people wanting to sell you a massage and so make time to accept one of them! For £7 you can have a wonderful, relaxing hour-long massage in the comfort of a serene smelling air conditioned room away from the beach.
Gili T’s night life
With dozens of restaurants to choose from, it’s never going to be easy picking one! We tried a few and they were all great – Natys for the fresh fish, Scally Wags for the strongest (and tastiest!) pre-dinner cocktails, Fat Cats Café for the best nasi goreng and Tapaz Bar for their live entertainment and Indo-tapas!
We also tried The Italian Job for a takeaway pizza to watch The Beach at one of the island’s open air beach movie locations – Pearl Beach Lounge. A great location to watch a movie – until a huge thunder and lightening storm hit forcing us to find refuge in a nearby bar, but it’s a great idea on a drier day!
For drinks and dancing, Sama-Sama, the reggae bar was clearly the most popular bar on the island, always busy and always having a lively reggae band playing the hits of Bob Marley, UB40 and beyond!
Gili T is one of the most friendly places you could visit. Our host, Alip, at Gili Hideway, would hand carve figures out of melon each morning to accompany our delicious banana pancakes – with the highlight being a tennis playing kangaroo!
In August 2018, the island was devastated by an earthquake at nearby Lombok with around 30 per cent of the buildings destroyed and 40 per cent damaged, but as a fresh visitor, you couldn’t tell. The energy and enthusiasm of the locals, the busy and bustling beach-side strip, the continuous arrival and departure of diving, island hopping and tourist boats in and out of the bays leave no signs of an island in recovery but an island thriving with tourism and pride for its beauty both under the water and on land.
The downside of course is the mosquitos! With the tropical temperatures and regular rainfall, it’s party time for the mozzies so bring as much repellant, bite cream, antihistamines as you can! You don’t want them affecting your stay.
We ferried from Bali to Gili T with Wahana Fast Boat 500,000 IDR return (£29) and flew from Perth to Bali with Citilink for £241 each. We stayed at Gili Hideaway (£14 per night).