Five days, four nights on the Gili Islands - By Mitchell Lawson

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

I’ve been travelling to Bali for over 20+ now but I’m ashamed to say that until recently I had not taken the opportunity to visit neighbouring Lombok, and namely, the Gili Islands.

The past few years have seen a sharp increase in tourism to the Gilis, located off the North West of Lombok, so on my most recent solo trip to Bali I decided to give it a crack.

I was not disappointed! For any seasoned Bali traveller, or first timers with time to spare, I could not recommend a trip to the Gili Islands highly enough.

A quick guide

·       The Gili Islands are made up of three islands – Gili Trawangan (the party island), Gili Air (the backpacker island) and Gili Meno (the honeymoon island)

·       Get there from Bali by booking a fast boat service from Padangbai, it’ll take about a little under 2 hours, or you can fly to Lombok and get a shorter boat trip from there

·       During peak season the islands get very busy, particularly Gili Trawangan, so if you’re not up for partying, choose either Gili Air or Gili Meno

·       Book in advance during high season or you may end up sleeping on the beach

·       The islands are a divers paradise, with turtle sanctuaries and some of the most incredible sea life I’ve ever experienced – a must do

·       It is more basic than Bali and while there are some luxury options, don’t expect the high end style of Seminyak

·       There are no scooters or motorbikes on the island (a nice change from the madness of Bali roads), so you have the options of walking, horse & cart or push bike

Here’s how I spent four nights on the islands, based on Gili Trawangan.

Day 1

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

6.30am; A sobering early morning pick-up from my villa in Seminyak means I nap most of the drive to Padangbai, but they tell me it took around an hour.

9.30am; Boarding the fast boat with perfect seas ahead, the boat makes its first stop after an hour or so at Teluk Nara on Lombok and then onto Gili Air, picking up and dropping off passengers on the way. As I sit on the top deck with tunes pumping and Bintangs flowing, my excitement is building.

11.30am; Pulling into Gili Trawangan I’m floored by the beauty of the turquoise water and thrill of feeling far from the comfort and luxury I’m used to in Bali.

12.00pm; I find my villa, check in and have a quick power nap. Still feeling the 6am wake up a little.

1.00pm; I wander up and down the main strip of eateries, bars and dive centres on the eastern side of the island and quickly decided to hire a bike for my stay. I start with a leisurely lap of the island which takes a little less than an hour. Perfect.

2.30pm; It’s Bintang & swim time on the main beach. Did I mention the colour of the water? Breathtaking. I’m already in love with the basic nature and small size of the island.

5.00pm; I jump on my bike (I think this one is mine) and ride down to the southern end of the island for what everyone tells me is a sunset not to be missed. Dismounting at Paradise Sunset Bar, I’m clearly too early for sunset – it’s almost empty. The manager of the bar doubles as the DJ and quite simply plays the best beach tunes I’ve heard, all mixed himself. I’m pretty sure I’ll be back here every night.

7.30pm; The sun has set and the fire dancers have done their show so I attempt a wobbly ride back to town that is made interesting by little (or no) lighting, too many cocktails before dinner and some cows crossing the road.

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

8.00pm; I take a stab at a local warung for dinner as it looks busy (I prefer winging it, over research). A good decision.

9.00pm; I’m still feeling the early morning so rather than joining in the party at the Blue Marlin Club, I opt for a foot massage and an early night. Here’s a pro-tip – Gili is a party island and if you’re accommodation is next to one of the clubs, you’ll not get much sleep, so check where you’re staying ahead of time.

Day 2

9.00am; I have breakfast and remember it’s my birthday today! How quickly life slips away on an island like this.

10.00am; Back on my trusty bike (of which the chain fell off at least 5 times a day), I ride up to Coral Beach 2 and secure myself a sunlounge, mask and snorkel for the day. Time to check out the turtles the Gilis are famous for.

12.00pm; I have no luck finding turtles but meet another solo traveller, Simon, who’s 4 days into his Gili adventure. He gives me the hot tip and I immediately find some turtles munching away on the coral shelf, as well as an incredible array of other sea life. Wow.

2.00pm; Sharing a Bintang and some nasi goreng with Simon for lunch, he gives me more tips (try the other sunset bar, visit the other islands for a different flavour of Gili, watch the cheap & high alcohol cocktails – they can be deadly, literally). We agree to meet later for birthday Bintangs at sunset with some German friends he’s made.

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

4.00pm; as I return my mask and snorkel I start chatting to the local who rented them to me. We share a Bintang and he tells me about his family, one of only about 40 that are originally from the island. His name is Joel and he offers to take me out of his boat the next day to see the best snorkelling spots. I agree but can’t help feeling like he saw me coming a mile off.

6.00pm; I take my now daily ride down to the bottom of the island to meet my new friends at the second sunset bar, appropriately named Sunset Bar. This one is more basic but seems to have a better view watching the sun go down next to Bali, profiling Mt. Agung beautifully. Surprisingly the locals light a bonfire which, while not necessary, takes the experience up a notch.

8.00pm; Riding back to town we decide my birthday dinner needs to be a feast, so we choose The Beach House where we enjoy an amazing spread of just-caught seafood. We make friends with waiter Andi and barman Edi. These guys will end up being great friends of mine.

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

11.00pm; it is a full moon so we check out the full moon party. While it’s certainly a party and a half, I’m 32 now, not 22, so don’t last as long as some other party-goers. I get back to the villa in the early hours. Happy birthday to me.

Day 3

8.30am; I quickly grab a bite and kick myself for agreeing to a 9am snorkelling trip the day after birthday celebrations. Apparently it is best to go before the public boats scare the turtles away. Just me, Joel, our snorkelling guide Ali, and a boat driver who didn’t speak English but whom I considered a friend by the end of the trip.

10.00am; All remnants of my hangover have disappeared after the first snorkel at the ‘coral garden’. I actually feel like I am in Finding Nemo with the sheer volume and variety of sea life. Clown fish, shrimp, puffer fish and millions of others I don’t know the name of. Ali, has been taking tourists snorkelling every day for the last 7 years so knows exactly what he’s doing.

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

12.00pm; Next we snorkel near Gili Air, and find turtles the size of my torso (again, Finding Nemo) then make a stop at Gili Meno, the most basic and untouched of the three islands. We sit in a tree hut, share stories over Bintangs and eat some lunch – I’m starving after a full morning of snorkelling. This is actually heaven.

3.00pm; Back on Gili Trawangan I jump back on the bike and get lost in the streets that traverse the middle of the island. This seems to be where the locals all live. I play around with some cute kids for a bit.

6.00pm; Yesterday’s friends have left the island so I struggle with the choice of which sunset bar to go to. I land on Paradise as it is the first I come to, and again, has an unbeatable DJ. Sunsets on Gili T have become my reflection time.

8.00pm; I check out the night market - a bunch of stalls selling local food & produce. Dirt cheap and the most authentic food I had on the whole trip. I ride past The Beach House and stop in for a drink to say hi to Andi & Edi.

10.00pm; On Andi & Edi’s recommendation I settle in at SamaSama, the local reggae bar, without disappointment. Amazingly talented musicians play traditional reggae and turn other covers into reggae versions. I get chatting to a Canadian couple whose names I’ll never know, but who are also seasoned Bali travellers on their first trip to the Gilis, so we get on like a house on fire.

11.30pm; Andi & Edi come and meet me once they knock off work, joining us for a couple of beers. I learn Edi’s wife is pregnant and their home is on Lombok. He works 6 days a week and returns home 1 night a week, 2 if he’s lucky. I feel bad about how lucky I am to lead the life I do but honoured to get an insight into his life. He offers to take me to his village and show me bits of Lombok on his day off. I tell him he should spend the time with his wife.

Day 4

9.00am(ish); It’s my last full day on the island and at breakfast I mull over the decision to completely chill or do as much as I can on and around the island. I decide on the former.

10.30am; Securing a sunlounge at Pearl Beach club I make friends with my waiter, Rudy. He likes my t-shirt so I give it to him. Swimming, reading, eating & juicing.

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

2.00pm; For a change of scene I ride up to the north of the island for a final snorkel session, stopping to say hello to Andi & Edi on the way. I still can’t quite believe this sea life is for real.

6.00pm; I can help but have one last sunset at Paradise. Quite possibly the best sunset yet and I sadly say farewell to my favourite DJ.

7.30pm; Earlier in the trip I’d noticed there was an outdoor cinema and decide it might be good to have a quieter night so settle in for a silly rom-com. I soon get thirsty and have a couple of Bintangs.

10.00pm; The quiet night idea was silly so I head back to SamaSama for more reggae. It is, after all, Bob Marley’s birthday so they’re celebrating. I meet a hilarious, gregarious Dutch woman and quiet, reserved Irish man and we sweat it out on the dance floor for a bit. Andi & Edi, my good friends by this point, drop by again to say hi and I continue to gain insight into their lives and families. They think the Dutch woman is hilarious also.

Sometime well after midnight I fall into bed.

Day 5;

8.00am; It is my last chance to say goodbye to the island so I quickly cure the hangover with breakfast and an ocean swim and do one final ride around the island before packing up and checking out.

10.30am; As I search for my boat back to Bali I’m quite moved to find Andi & Edi have turned up to farewell me. I’m not sure how they found out what boat I’m on, but it’s touching they did.

11.00am; I secure a spot on the top deck of my boat and as we pull away from the island I’m full of mixed emotions. How did it take so long for me to visit the Gilis? Why only four nights? When will I be back? Why didn’t I explore Gili Air and Gili Meno more? Why doesn’t my DJ friend have a SoundCloud account?

There’s always next time.

Photo by Mitchell Lawson

Photo by Mitchell Lawson