Indonesia’s Gili Islands: A Backpacker’s Paradise

The Gili Islands – Indonesia’s backpacker’s paradise

Only 2 hours by boat from Bali lie the gorgeous Gili islands. A string of 3 white sand, reef fringed islands in turquoise seas just off the coast of Indonesia’s Lombok each with an individual feel.

Motorized transport is not permitted on any of the islands so the honks and noise of the motorbikes and thumping music from the bars of crowded Kuta were replaced by just the gentle jingle of the Cidomo – horse carts that trot along the island’s sandy tracks carrying everything from tourists, island supplies to building materials that come off the boats, villages working as a human chain line wading into the water to bring in the supplies.

cidomo horse carts on Indonesia's gili islands

Cidomo (horse carts) are the only transport on the Gili islands

The Gili Islands also differ from in spirit from Bali. I loved witnessing the temple processions and offerings at the Balinese Hindu temples. Instead, on the Gili islands the call to prayer wafts through the palm trees while roosters crow and waves gently lap at the soft, white sands.

Of the 3 Gili islands, Gili Trawangan is the largest and most developed by far, earning itself a reputation as a backpacker’s party island but now drawing in families and all kinds of tourists. Gili Meno is the smallest island and remains very laid back while Gili Air retains a good balance of the two, laid back and charmingly rustic but with enough restaurants to keep you entertained and bars for sunset cocktails whilst retaining a local feel.

Sunset over Indonesia's Gili Islands

Amazing sunsets over Indonesia’s Gili Islands

It’s easy to relax on Gili Air, soaking up the sun on the beach and taking in the beautiful views over to the hills of Lombok, swimming in turquoise, crystal clear waters. It’s also possible to hire a snorkel and mask and see a large variety of fish on the fringing reef just a short swim off shore.

Image of the beach at Gili Meno

You can snorkel right off the beach in the Gili Islands

Relaxed beach cafes complete with ‘berang’ for lounging and gorgeous views dot the south east corner of the island. A walk cycle or ride in a cidomo around the small island or through the local village in the middle shows off the authentic life still thriving on the island. In the late afternoon switch to the west coast for a cocktail while watching the amazing, pinky, orange sunsets against a background of the looming Gunung Agung on Bali.

Bali's Gunung Agung seen from the Gili Islands

Bali’s Gunung Agung seen from the Gili Islands, see the mosque behind the trees too

Mellow, Gili Meno is the smallest island and while Gili Trawangan booms and Air develops a buzz Meno still offers that chilled out, laid back tropical island experience.

To be honest, for me, Gili Trawangan, despite being billed as a backpackers paradise is actually getting pretty busy and congested in areas.

Riding in the cidomo (horse cart) can be an experience

Riding in the cidomo (horse cart) can be an experience

horse carts on Gili air island

The main center has become built up and crowded along the muddy lanes forcing tourists to leap aside to avoid being hit by cidomos and bicycles, bars openly advertise magic mushrooms, noise and trash start to spill out from the bars onto the streets.

However, the long main beach is still glorious despite being crowded with boats and theres a huge choice of bars, restaurants, accommodation and even a night market. You can cycle around the island in a few hours as longs as you don’t mind pushing your bike through some stretches of deep sand and once away from the main center the island vibe returns again.

The beach at Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

The beach at Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

Despite this, I’m sad to say that Gili T’s popularity is becoming it’s downfall as the island out grows it’s infrastructure and loses its charm as so many of these popular islands inevitably do. 

Still, there is a Gili island for everyone. Travelfish has an excellent article on deciding which Gili Island is right for you. Whichever island you choose offers excellent diving and snorkeling and the chance to see turtles, reef sharks, parrot fish and manta rays not far off shore.
Expect accommodation and food are more expensive than on Bali but the beaches, sunsets and island vibes are always free.

Go to Gili Air now before it turns into another Gili Trawangan, another paradise lost island ruined by popularity.


Images of the beach at Gili Air island

Enjoying the views from Gili Air – the gorgeous Gili islands




  • Julie says:

    This is such an interesting post to read after visiting the islands myself! I agree with you about Gili T being crowded, but I was quite surprised how chilled-down the western part of the island can be 🙂 Funny how you also seem to have had a tricky horse cart ride! Loved to read about your thoughts, best regards Julie

    • Thanks for your comment 🙂 Did you manage to see any of the other Gili Islands? I was truly spoiled by Gili Air – so beautiful and uncrowded but I can see the appeal of Gili T if you want somewhere a bit more lively. The horse carts were fun also!

  • Sally Munt says:

    The Gili Islands are beautiful but yes I agree a bit crowded, I can only imagine that will get worse too. Great post and pictures!

  • Gabrielle says:

    Gili Lombok is a very beautiful location and natural. I really like. because this location tends to be more quiet than Bali. perhaps for some people are not. but a lot of things that tend to be traditional in Gili Lombok. and these things are interesting for us to enjoy. Do you understand the thrill of riding a traditional horse-drawn carriage like that? shaking uncomfortable, but you will get a unique experience for it. thanks for the share.

  • Remy Browning says:

    This is a very helpful article! I’m off to Bali in June and was thinking about going to Gili t, but you’ve persuaded me otherwise. Especially as it will be peak season. When were you there? How long did you stay on Gili Air?


    • How exciting! I loved Bali and the Gilis. I went in June last year and I stayed on Gili Air for 5 days and then went to Gili T but only stayed there for 2 days as I found it a bit spoiled and too busy after Gili Air. Lombok looked gorgeous too from the boat but sadly didn’t have time. Avoid Kuta is my biggest tip for Bali!

  • YOLANDE says:

    Thanks for sharing all of this info! I’m heading to Bali next week and am really glad to have found this as I was trying to decide if I should make time for Gili Air. Where did you stay on Gili Air and on Gili T – any hostel recommendations? Thanks!

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