The Gili Islands are a must-stop destination on most Indonesian itineraries due to picturesque white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, and fascinating aquatic animal life. Whether you’re heading to the big islands of Gili Trawangan, known as Gili T, or the more subdued and smaller Gili Meno and Gili Air you’re sure to have a fantastic visit of the Indonesian archipelago. Although the islands are far from being undiscovered there are many quintessential experiences to have while exploring the Gilis. Here are 15 unique things to do in the Gili Islands.
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Travelers can reach the Gili Islands on fast boats from Lombok or Bali. Be sure to book in advance as boats sell out quickly and some vendors may fluctuate the price. To get a fair rate book your transfer from Bali to Gili T with Get Your Guide.
Don’t miss my photo journal of 20 pictures that will inspire you to visit the Gili Islands.
LEARN HOW TO MAKE INDONESIAN CUISINE
The best way to get in touch with a new culture is to taste its cuisine. Even better is learning how to cook it yourself. Don’t miss the chance for an authentic cultural cooking exchange at Gili Cooking Classes. The school is located in a bohemian shack with an open-air kitchen right in the Gili Air harbor so you can easily take the course at 11.30 am, 4 pm, or 8 pm even if you’re staying on Trawangan or Meno. This isn’t one of those classes that’s really just a demonstration, you’ll be getting hands-on, literally, as you learn how to combine love and flavor to make exquisite Indonesian fare. Gili Cooking Classes was the first cooking school for tourists on the Gili Islands. They keep culture cuisine flourishing by employing local Indonesian chefs who’ve been brought up on these special recipes that are passed down from one generation to the next. In an effort to be more eco-friendly recipes are available online in lieu of a printed cookbook.
Not only are the culinary teacher’s experts in their craft, but they’re also hilarious! It was hard to stop giggling long enough to pay attention to the order of the ingredients, but as my meal turned out fantastic I think it’s fair to state that I did a decent job, if I may say so myself. The crew at Gili Cooking Classes was happy to help me adjust the menu to be vegetarian. But first things first, we made dessert! Who doesn’t love a meal that starts with something sweet? I was thrilled to learn we were making one of my favorite treats, Kelopon! The green balls are colored and flavored naturally with pandan and made of rice flour, palm sugar, and grated coconut. Grating coconut by hand is no easy task and all that extra work made the gooey bite even more delightful.
For the main course, I got to work crushing peanuts to try my hand at making that infamous zesty and sweet Indonesian peanut sauce for gado-gado. Gado-gado is actually one of my all-time favorite dishes and it was a relief to discover how simple it is to prepare! Fried tofu and tempeh come together with blanched veggies then are doused with peanut sauce for a wonderful meal. The most difficult aspect of the dish is making lontong, rice which is hard-boiled while wrapped in a banana leaf. This process makes the rice sticky and soft, but of course, you can substitute at home for regular rice.
SWIM WITH WILD SEA TURTLES
Get in the ocean for a swim to see majestic wild green and hawksbill sea turtles in their natural environment. Around any of the Gilis, you can rent a snorkel and mask then swim out towards the reef ‘wall’ where the island formation drops-off into the sea. If the water is smooth don’t rent flippers as they can cause serious damage to reef during low tide and aren’t necessary for the short swim unless the current is rough. If you have a limited time book this 7 hour Gili Trawangan, Air & Meno snorkeling day trip for just US$28 or if you go ping book this 7-hour pe trip around all three islands for only US$68.
Back to the wall, it’s the best place to spot sea turtles when snorkeling around the Gili Islands, especially during the high tide. They stay in the area to feed as there is an abundance of seagrass along the seabed. The water is usually crystal clear so you’ll be able to have a magical moment witnessing these creatures from a safe distance. If you do bring a GoPro to be sure to get an extra-long selfie-stick so that you don’t disturb the reptile by getting too close. Never ever touch or feed a sea turtle or any other aquatic life. I was able to swim with sea turtles at Gili Meno near the sunken pier and spotted three together off the coast of the beach just north of the pier on Gili T near Villa Unggul.
SNAP A PIC ON A BEACH SWING
Unless you live under a rock you’ve certainly seen those idyllic Instagram posts of mermaid-like ladies lazily lounging on a swing erected in the ocean as the sun dips below the horizon in the distance. Well, luckily for you there are literally dozens of swings that have popped up around all three of the Gilis. The majority are located on the west side of Gili T. As you walk or cycle north from the pier you’ll come across the first collection of swings at Hotel Ombak that are all branded, and usually have long lines of beach-goers waiting to capture their whimsical moment. Skip these and continue north towards Le Pirate and you’ll start to find more rustic swings beckoning your name. Without the lines, you’ll actually be able to take a ride on the swing, instead of just hopping on for a quick pic.
REDUCE. REUSE. RECYCLE.
Across the Gilis you’ll find handcrafted signs requesting that guests recycle. On Gili T there’s a wooden sign nailed to a tree inviting guests to, “Make this island like your home. Don’t throw garbage on the street.” Upcycled trash cans made of old plastic water bottle caps can be seen throughout the island with bins for empty beer bottles and cans, nonorganic plastic, and organic compost. On Gili Meno, there’s a local home that has used old glass bottles to create a beautiful gated fence. Do your part as a responsible traveler and use a reusable water bottle that you may fill up with potable water at any of the locations listed on RefillMyBottle such as the Pearl of Trawangan or Mowies on the Beach on Gili Air.
GRAB A BICYCLE AND GO FOR A RIDE
The Gili Islands are entirely pedestrian meaning there are no cars or motorbikes allowed on these islands. The islands are each quite small, and very walkable. The only methods of transportation are by horse carriage or bicycle. Please don’t take the horse carriages, the tiny horses are overworked and burdened by the weight of passengers, luggage, and the extreme Southeast Asian heat. Learn more about the plight of the workhorses of Gili T from the nonprofit that’s working hard to provide better living conditions and care to horses of Gili. If you can’t carry your luggage far be sure to book accommodation near the pier of the island where you’re staying. If you’re eager to get around the islands quicker you can rent pedal bikes to get around but make note that the roads get a bit more rugged and sand-covered the further away you get from the piers, especially towards the central part of the island where locals typically reside.
PAMPER YOURSELF WITH A MASSAGE
Bali gets all the credit when it comes to soothing massages but Lombok’s Gili Islands are here to battle for the best wellness treatment facilities. I was invited to try the pine signature massage treatment at Azure Spa that helped ease the strain out of my tired muscles from all the snorkeling I did while exploring the Gilis. Balinese techniques blend perfectly with Swedish and Thai methods as expert therapists refresh the skin and soul with an energetic citrus massage oil. It was no surprise that the experience was phenomenal as Azure is continuously rated as the number one spa in Gili T on Tripadvisor! The Azure Spa villa is located just behind the eco-conscious Pesona Beach Resort where I stayed on Gili T. A full review of Pesona Beach Resort and Azure Spa coming soon!
TAKE A SNOOZE IN A HAMMOCK
I spent over a week frolicking around the Gili Islands and spent almost every morning and afternoon swimming in the sea in search of the colorful members of the underwater world. By afternoon I was absolutely fried and stumbled to the nearest hammock for a snooze. The hammock pictured above belongs to The Exile on Gili T. The Exile was also the only place I went out at night as they have live reggae drum jam sessions on the beach.
ENJOY HEALTHY EATS AT CHIC CAFES
The Gilis are full of darling cafes that made me feel at home with the cozy decor, delicious vegetarian food, and sweet smiling staff. Pachamama cafe serves up organic eats on Gili Air on a dreamy terrace just a few feet inland from the shore. They brew their own kombucha and make all sauces, peanut butter, and nut milks. All other ingredients are sourced from organic farms. If you haven’t had the chance to try jamu, the healthy tonic of Indonesia, give it a go here. The bitter elixir is potent and powerful–filled with antioxidants from ginger and turmeric that reduce swelling and enhance liver function for a natural detox. They also serve one of my newest favorite dishes–fern! That’s right, you can eat ferns! At Pachamama, the vegan and gluten-free dish mixes sauteed fern tips with steamed organic quinoa, tofu, avocado, and cashew cream. Yum!
On Gili Air, treat yourself to a healthy whole food meal at the CocoLoco Cafe at Captain Coconuts. The menu includes options for those who don’t consume gluten and dairy and they never use refined sugar, MSG, or palm oil. The delicious menu rotates with the produce of the season and includes massive fruit salads, buckwheat banana pancakes, and the super tasty Buddha bowl made heavenly with turmeric cauliflower rice, garlic, spinach, tofu, eggplant, and a traditional Javanese sauce. Patrons at the cafe can enjoy the resort’s pool and sundeck at their leisure.
On Gili T my favorite spot was Pituq Café. I loved my meal of farm-fresh vegan eats in a bamboo bungalow set in a laid-back garden setting. They offer an extensive list of fresh fruit juices, smoothies, and caffeinated drinks. Pituq also operates a charity dedicated to improving lives of those less fortunate in Lombok which makes this spot one of my favorite vegan cafes in the world.
AVOID DYING BY SEA SNAKEBITE
Forget snakes on a plane, in the Gili Islands, there are snakes in the sea! I knew water snakes existed but I foolishly thought they were exclusive to rivers and lakes. I was wrong! Not only are there snakes in the sea here, but their bite is deadly to us mere mortal humans. I actually didn’t discover that the Banded Sea Krait was poisonous until I was walking out of the water my last day in the Gili Islands and a scuba instructor physically stopped me from stepping forward onto a baby Banded Sea Krait. He explained that the black and white banded sea snake has a neurotoxic venom that will cease your ability to breath within minutes. There is no antivenom for a Banded Sea Krait bite. They also often go on land to digest food, shed skin, and lay eggs. Banded Sea Krait generally isn’t aggressive and have only been known to bite (and kill) tourists who manhandle them and the occasional fisherman that accidentally catches them in nets. Lesson learned to research what deadly things lurk in the water before entering.
ADMIRE VIBRANT CORAL REEF
Whether you like to paddleboard, snorkel, or scuba it’s an absolute must to spend as much time as possible in the water while visiting the Gili Islands. While the sea turtles are the main attraction you’ll be delighted to discover other wonderful wildlife underneath the sea. The vibrant coral reef is thriving after suffering from a damaged past due to the Gili Island inhabitants and visitors’ commitment to recycling and keeping trash out of the water. I passed hard and soft coral in all shades of purple, blue, and yellow that seemed so unrealistic as I’ve grown accustomed to bleached out dead coral.
Among the coral are equally colorful fish darting around from huge schools of silverfish with scales that reflect in rainbow hues, dozens of parrotfish, pairs of angelfish, Moorish idols, butterflyfish, as well as the occasional tiny bluefish.
Some of my favorites are the hard to see but easy to photograph puffer fish which like the Banded Sea Krait are lethal. They get their name from their ability to inflate by swallowing water and can be identified by their eyes which are positioned on the side of their heads. They’re second only to the golden poison frog for most poisonous vertebrate in the world. Some of their organs, including their skin, is poisonous and extremely deadly for humans–1,200 times more than cyanide! Yes, this is the same fish that some chose to eat as a delicacy, typically in Japanese cuisine! A risk I wouldn’t take considering that a single pufferfish could kill 30 adult humans. Oh, there’s also no antidote. Slightly less dangerous are the giant moray eels that lurk in dark places around the slope of the reef.
FIND THE SUNKEN STATUES OFF OF GILI MENO
At first glimpse perhaps you, like me, found intentionally sunken statues to be a bit of a tourist trap, and disturbance to a natural setting. While the submerged installation at Gili Meno will certainly bring in more tourist, they do so intentionally, and with responsible tourism in mind. Sculpture Jason deCaires Taylor is known for his life-like pieces that reside under the sea in Britain, the Caribbean, the Canary Islands, and now Gili Meno. Nest, the structure just offshore of Meno, features casts of 48 real people who gather together in a harrowing circle grasping each other or curled into fetal position on the ground to represent the circle of life. The piece is disturbingly beautiful but holds a greater purpose beyond its artform. Nest is meant to enhance, not to disturb the underwater nature off the coast of Gili Meno. It will eventually become a man-made reef as soft coral and sponges can naturally grow on the environmental-grade concrete structure. Nearby is another circle of three female figures forming a triangle on the ocean floor.
GO ON A PHOTO WALK
On any of the Gilis you can walk slightly inland to discover the local way of life. Remember that the culture here is more conservative than Bali and that many inhabitants are devout Muslims. You should respect their customs and wear a modest cover-up if you’re heading to explore the island after a day at the beach. The locals I was fortunate enough to meet were extremely friendly, many asked for photos to be taken as I passed by their farms like this ultra-strong vendor heading to the evening market. As always be sure to ask before taking photos of persons or places.
STAY IN A BUNGALOW
No Indonesian experience would be complete without a few nights stay in a picturesque bungalow. I checked this one off my bucket list during my nights on the serene island of Gili Meno when I stayed at Malaka Bungalows. The newly opened family-owned and operated bungalows are likely some of the most affordable in all of Southeast Asia. They prepare a made-to-order breakfast this morning. It’s worth noting that Gili Meno is so tiny (about 6 miles big) that the morning call to prayer can be heard from across the island. It sounded as if the Imam was standing right in my bungalow! Over on Gili Air, I stayed in the darling Colour Cottage, not quite a bungalow but equally adorable, affordable, and they have a swimming pool!
CHOW DOWN ON VEGGIE DISHES AT THE GILI T NIGHT MARKET
While there are many amazing restaurants to dine at on Gili T you can’t miss out on the chance to chow down on local grub for a few bucks at the Trawangan Night Market. From freshly caught fish, fruit smoothies, and my personal favorite, a massive table full of vegetarian dishes, everyone is sure to find something they’ll enjoy! My insider tip? Be sure to ask for extra peanut sauce.
WATCH THE SUNSET BEHIND MOUNT AGUNG
Promise me this, you’ll never miss a sunset during your stay on the Gili Islands. This is an agreement you won’t mind making. Every night is more glorious than the last as the sun descends behind the glorious Mount Agung on Bali. You should be able to witness the spectacular spectacle from any western spot on all three of the Gili islands. My preferred method is in a sea swing but there are plenty of other options for those who prefer to watch the sunset from a bar, a beach chair, or even from a boat.
Thank you Gili Cooking Class and Azure Spa for hosting me. All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.