Over 17,000 individual islands compose the country of Indonesia, but odds are Bali is the only one that comes to mind. Now don’t get me wrong Bali is jam-packed with ornate temples, exquisite beaches, the BEST island cuisine you could possibly imagine, and endless opportunities for adventure. But even the most off-the-grid travelers seem to skip right over some of Bali’s more exciting neighbors and are missing out on some of the most breathtaking destinations I have had the opportunity to explore.
Lets get started on geography with Bali as the starting point since it is the most conveniently located airport (and likely the reason you are dreaming about Indonesia in the first place).
To the west you have the island of Java which is home to the capital city of Jakarta as well as the cultural region of Yogykarta. To the North you have the islands of Kalimantan (Borneo) and Sulawesi which happen to be some of the best places in the world to see Orangutans in the wild. Both are equally good options depending on what you are looking for but we were in search of some dirt cheap white sand beaches (and some wildlife).
With that in mind we chose to spend several weeks on the Eastern side of Bali exploring Lombok, the three Gili Islands, Flores, and Rinca Island. If you are short on time (or money) I would suggest picking one direction off the coast of Bali to venture out from to avoid extra transportation costs (domestic flights/boats) and wasting your valuable exploring time. My experience with the Eastern Islands was so far above my expectations and in the case of the Gili islands even more budget friendly than many parts of Bali.
First stop, Gili Trawangan also affectionately known as Gili T. There are endless online sites for fast boats from Padangbai, Bali to Gili T, but as with most things in Indonesia its 10000x cheaper to buy it in person where you can haggle with the ticket salesman. The shore of Padangbai is full of venders selling tickets for 250,000 IND Rupiah (around 18$ US) but you can easily talk them down to 150,000 or lower in the shoulder season with a little bit of bargaining skills.
Visiting Bali and the surrounding islands in the high season is a completely different experience and will cost you twice as much as visiting just a month earlier.
The three Gili Islands have three very distinct personalities. Gili T is the party island, it’s the more adult version of Bali’s Kuta. Kuta has sickening-ly sweet fizzing mixed drinks that will guarantee a hangover and screaming whistle-blowing bartenders (literally) while Gili T has strong craft cocktails made of fresh local ingredients and a vibrant music scene that ranges from Deep House EDM to Ed Sheeran. This little island is known for its hookah lounges and muslim influenced cuisine as well as a booming nightlife. Beach bars will be bumping music all night long and drinks are cheap. If you’re feeling real adventurous try the “Joss Shots”; $3 US for what I’m pretty sure is a form of powdered redbull mixed with vodka. My favorite beachside restaurant had pillow seating on the sand and you can’t beat drunk eating naan underneath the stars with the waves 5 feet from your toes. Although Gili T is the larger of the three Gili’s you can walk the beach completely around the circumference of the island in around 2 hours or you can rent a broken down tandem bike and explore in style.
The price of everything besides restaurant food and drink is up for discussion. To get the best deal barter with all the venders and save yourself some cash. Half of whatever price they offer you is usually a fair estimate of where you should start the bargaining. Also Balinese masks are sold on this island for a tenth the price of them in Ubud, Bali.
Rent a bike and explore the entire island, there is a HUGE elaborate mosque that you can hear the prayer from the loud speakers everyday and its worth a look.
Eat beachside at Scallywags restaurant. Seriously do it. The espresso martini is made with Balinese coffee, the food is phenomenal, and get a table in the sand as the sun goes down and you will LITERALLY eat with your toes in the sand (and in the surf as the tide comes in) with the most beautiful sunset view you can imagine. Bonus: if you’re a cat lover there is an abundance of adorable beach kitties that roam around the entire island who love to eat your table scraps
There are no motorized vehicles allowed on any of the Gili Islands, if you don’t want to walk or bike you can pay for a ride on an old-school horse and tuk-tuk but since the island is so small everything is walking distance.
On mainland Bali drugs are basically non-existent but in the Gili’s you will likely get offered mushrooms and cannabis multiple times a day. I’m not gonna tell you how to enjoy your vacation but be aware that punishment for drug offenses in Indonesia are on the harsh side.
The Gili Islands are all very close together and there are various cheap boat services that shuttle between them all day long so you don’t have to plan very far in advance to hop to the next one. For each of the islands we found it extremely easy to get off the boat and walk to the nearest beach villa without booking in advance. Every night we stayed in a different private beach villa, with air-conditioning and breakfast included for $20 US for the two of us.
Gili Meno is the definition of honeymooners paradise. The beaches are pristine and white, many covered in white broken coral, and the island is quiet because it is beyond the reach of most tourists. Following the party of Gili T this was much-needed relaxation and rejuvenation time laying on the beach and snorkeling throughout the day. One of my favorite things about this island was that it leaves you to explore on your own, we rarely ran into other tourists and spent all our time lounging on beautiful empty beaches.
Every few nights or so the Indonesian government shuts off electrical power to the island for a short time to divert it to other larger islands. DONT WHIP OUT YOUR HEADLAMP TO LIGHT THE WAY. You will end up being swarmed by bugs the size of your fist. It’s best to be back near your villa at nightfall because the entire island will be pitch black since it is so far from light pollution.
Snorkel!! This was the highlight of our vacation. It costs around 3$ US to rent a full snorkel and fins set from beachside venders. The water is clear and you have full access to colorful fish, reefs, and sea turtles if your lucky. The best snorkeling we found was hiring a boat here on Gili Meno to take us and 4 others out to the open ocean where we could swim along reefs in search of turtles (which we found 🙂 ) and it only cost us 15$ US for the entire day.
SCUBA! All three of the Gili islands offer PADI Dive certification courses and it happens to be one of the cheapest (and fastest) place in the world to certify. You can also do smaller dives here without certifying if you are looking to save money.
The third and final Gili island is Gili Air. Still covered in beautiful serene beaches that you see on postcards but with a slightly grungier motif. This island is covered in local clothing shops and is the gateway to Lombok. We did have a more difficult time locating lodging right off the boat and it could be beneficial to book a place to stay in advance or at least have a direction in mind when you arrive on the island.
The cheap “slow” boat to Lombok was small and overcrowded. We made it to Lombok without incident but if the idea of a 12-year-old Indonesian boy guiding you through choppy swells, in a boat weighed down to 2 inches above the water makes you nervous maybe spring for the “fast tourist” boat instead.
Lombok might as well be an entirely different country than the Gili’s despite being a 5 minute boat ride away. It sees far fewer tourists with its main attraction being Mt. Rinjani, this is a climb that is reserved for more experienced climbers than myself and takes 2 days to hike properly. The weather here is unpredictable with wild rain washing out areas of roadway and the terrain is more jungle than beach. If you’re not interested in scaling the volcano there are plenty of jungle waterfalls and hikes to explore as well as some beautiful mosques. Lombok is one of the more expensive islands so we didn’t spend too much time here. Since they see fewer tourists transportation and lodging is harder to come by and therefore more expensive, I recommend booking in advance and making sure you packed something you can wear when it rains. From Lombok you can fly to Flores (not directly, it will likely take you back to Bali where you will get on a connecting flight to Flores) which we chose because it is the stopping off point for reaching Komodo National park. This nature preserve is the only place in the world to see Komodo Dragons in the wild and well worth a visit if you have a few days to spare and/or are complete nature freaks like us.
Flores is a place to get to know the locals. English is spoken but not fluently and life is simpler here. Labuan Bajo is the area of Flores we focused on. It has a scenic coast line filled with restaurants and shops facing the sunset over the water, in an otherwise rural area with not a paved road in sight. Flores still has the untouched feeling that most places riddled with tourists now lack. This is where all excursions for Komodo island depart from and although I am generally against tours, because they tend to be more expensive and less fun than exploring on your own, there is no other way to access the nature preserve. From Flores you take a boat either three hours to Rinca or six to Komodo Island. Both are part of the preserve and both have plenty of Komodo Dragons lounging around the desert landscapes.
Things to know before you go:
Many of the Islands aside from Bali are Muslim predominately instead of Hindu and Buddhist. This is a change in culture and expectation for female travelers especially. Just do your research, learn the customs, and be respectful.
I cannot emphasize enough for budget travelers like myself (who often don’t plan ahead) Flores and some of the more rural islands have limited lodging at a reasonable price. BOOK AHEAD. They don’t cater to many tourists so a backpacker style room at a low price is difficult to find in any season and the LAST thing you want to spend your day doing is hiking miles on muddy roads in the pouring rain with your entire backpack looking for a decent priced room…
Each island of Indonesia has its own personality with unique activities to experience and you get an amazing amount for your money on each of them. Whether your dream vacation is filled with white coral beaches and cocktails or getting a taste of rural life and up close and personal views of the largest reptile in the world, Indonesia can get you there you may just have to venture a little beyond Bali.