Living in the Gili Islands as an Expat

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Boats on a beach in the Gili Islands
Image: Sukhmani10

When most people think of paradise, they think of white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and swaying palm trees. What if you could find all that and more on a small, relatively unknown group of three tiny islands just off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia?

The idyllic Gilis are located off the northwest coast of Lombok and are made up of three volcanic islands:

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  • Gili Trawangan, the big guy and grand party central
  • Gili Meno, the little one, and the favourite of honeymooners and couples
  • Gili Air, the middle child and the healthy in-between

The Gilis are getting increasingly popular with backpackers and tourists that want a more off-the-beaten-path option to Lombok’s hugely visited cousin, Bali. They offer everything from world-class diving to secluded beaches perfect for beach parties with friends or a romantic getaway.

With white sandy beaches set against blue skies and aquamarine waters, these islands are the epitome of a tropical paradise, as many a traveler who has been here can attest. However, what about actually living here, and not just visiting? The remote, Robinson Crusoe-like feel of the islands often makes it challenging to live permanently on.

Beach pillows on a white sand beach in the Gili Islands
Image: Kolibri5

If you’re contemplating a move to a remote paradise, here’s the skinny on what it is like to live on a tiny island that you can walk around in 45 minutes:

      • Transportation
      • Culture
      • Food and Alcohol
      • Cost of Living
      • Healthcare
      • Education
      • Safety and Security
      • Internet and Infrastructure
      • Shopping
      • Where to Find Work on the Gilis
      • Remote Working
      • What to do for Fun

I moved to Gili Air a few years ago, and like most, fell in love with island life and now call it home. Gili Meno is quiet and peaceful, which makes it perfect for couples, but not so great for someone flying solo. Gili Trawangan is grand-party-central with plenty to do as a solo traveler but didn’t suit me with the constant coming-and-going of backpacking visitors and all-night parties.

Gili Air is, for me, the best of both worlds. Peace, quiet, a welcoming community and a few parties that get thrown in every now and then.

Transportation

You reach the Gilis by a boat from Lombok that takes about 15 minutes, or a fast boat from Bali that takes about 1.5 hours. Once you get to the Gilis, you’ll probably be overwhelmed with the sudden change of pace. I know I certainly was. I could breathe again!

The pace is way slower, people are more relaxed, and there are no cars or motorbikes on the Gilis! The fastest vehicle is an electric bike, and there aren’t many of those around.

A cidomo horse cart in the Gili Islands
Image: Kolibri5

Transportation is by foot, bicycle, or a horse-drawn cart called a cidomo. While this is a pleasant change of pace from the constant traffic of mainland Lombok, it can be a challenging quirk when you need to move large appliances like fridges, and furniture, or building materials.

I recently moved house with the help of my cidomo driver in a process that took several hours and multiple trips.

Walking is one of the most common ways of getting around, but if you need to zip out to the shops or on errands, bicycles are the way to go. Most of the facilities are located on the southern end of the island, near the harbour. With biking, you’ll cut a 30-minute walk from the north end to the south to a mere 7-minute bike ride. Or five if you’re hoofing it!

Culture

The locals on the Gili Islands are friendly and welcoming, and they love to share their culture with visitors. It is likely that when you bike around and meet someone on the road, they’ll say “good morning” or “hello”. They speak Indonesian, but their first language is likely to be Sasak, the dialect of Lombok.

Fun Fact: The word “Gili” is a misnomer. “Gili” actually means “small island” in Sasak. There are over 50 Gilis dotted all around Lombok!

Muslim girls wearing hijab
Image: Afik Eleck

The Gilis are Muslim islands, and the locals are very religious with a strong sense of community spirit. The entire population of the Gili Islands is estimated to be between 3,000 and 4,000, about half of which live on Gili Trawangan.

Whether Indonesians from other parts of the country, or expats from all over the world, the Gili Islands are a melting pot of a fascinating mix of cultures that all seem to make it work.

Food

While there are many restaurants on the Gili Islands that serve a wide variety of food, one of the best ways to experience the food on the Gili Islands is to eat at a local restaurant called a ‘warung’. The fiery dishes are not for the faint-hearted, and the traditional chilli paste called ‘sambal’ is just delightful. Be prepared to set your mouth on fire!

Indonesian food on banana leaf
Image: Celina Schou

Local food is astonishingly affordable. A plate of rice and two or three dishes costs about IDR 15k (US$1.10). In other restaurants more geared towards the tourists, food costs about IDR 30k – IDR 100k a meal. (US$2-8).

Beer-lovers rejoice! Even being a staunch Muslim community, beer is readily available in many restaurants, bars, and shops. The main Indonesian brew is a refreshing lager called Bintang, which means “star”. In addition, there are ample opportunities to try the Indonesian homemade brews of rice wine and palm wine.

Cost of Living

The cost of living in paradise is more affordable than you might think. Many resorts offer monthly rates for longer stays, or if you really are thinking of settling down, you can consider buying a small plot of land and building your own home on it.

For renters, a two-bedroom villa with your own pool can cost between IDR 6 to 10 million (US $450 to $700) a month, while a room rental can cost half that or even less.

A rental villa with pool in the Gili Islands
Image: Inno Kurnia

Food is super affordable, especially if you like Indonesian food. And yummy it is! Fresh veggies and fruits are sold everywhere, and for imported products, you can get them ordered from Lombok and shipped to the harbour, where you will have to pick them up by a cidomo or bike. Prices are pretty average, for example, a kilo of potatoes would cost about US$1.50 and that of chicken would be about $5.

If you’d like to treat yourself and go out for the night, lots of restaurants and bars dot the island. A glass of wine would be US$4, a cocktail $5, and a small beer $2.50. Be warned though – going back home on a bicycle is tricky after having a few!

Healthcare

There are several clinics dotted around the islands, with most stocked with medications for taking care of mild ailments like colds and minor infections. However, for more serious illnesses, you’ll have to head to Lombok, where they have hospitals, equipment, and many more medical facilities. It’s advisable to have a fully stocked medical cabinet to take care of the small stuff yourself.

An emergency room in an Indonesian hospital
Image: Respati

If you’re going to live on a tropical island with limited health care facilities, then it’s advisable to have an expat health insurance policy that includes evacuation if you become seriously ill. The younger you are, the cheaper such policies are, but conversely the older you are the more expensive those policies will be, especially if you already have any pre-existing conditions.

Education

There are two local schools on the island, one for the younger kids and one for the older ones. There used to be a school for expat kids on Gili Trawangan, but that closed a couple of years ago. The majority of the expat kids on the Gilis go to school on mainland Lombok, are homeschooled, or have an online school.

Safety and Security

I can’t speak for the more crowded Gili Trawangan, but on Gili Air, you feel as safe as a baby. Sure, there is an occasional petty crime or theft, but these instances are few and far between. The locals have a strong sense of community and stealing and crime isn’t part of the culture for most.

The island life mentality fosters a great sense of trust for the small things. For example, if I forget my wallet on the way to the store, I wouldn’t have a problem owing them the money and paying it back when I go there next. The same for any restaurant, warung, or bar on the island. “No problem, pay later” seems to be the mantra, for everything.

Internet and Infrastructure

Ahhh, the perks of living on a remote paradise! It comes with its own quirks but with some preventative care and preparation, Lombok and Bali are both short boat rides away. Storms can knock out key cables and cause blackouts that last for hours. Not so much of a problem if it’s just a few hours but any more than that and you’re looking at a fridge or freezer full of spoiled food. Just stock up on candles, be prepared, and don’t open the fridge or freezer and you’ll live.

Row of candles alight
Image: S. Hermann & F. Richter

Internet is available and can be installed in every home. An unlimited package will probably cost you about US$30 to set up and another $60 in monthly subscriptions. A way easier thing to do if you don’t use too much data is to hotspot your phone. Data is cheap and easily available. 50GB of data will cost you about US$12.

There are numerous ATMs around the Gilis that can take international credit cards, but for any other type of banking, you’ll need to go to Lombok.

Shopping

Many shops and market stalls can give you anything from clothes to fresh produce and fruits. It might be a tiny bit more expensive than the products on Lombok because of the increased transportation cost, but most of the time, the difference isn’t too significant.

Vegetable market in the Gili Islands
Image: R. B. Rudolph

If you need something specified that isn’t available on the islands, you can order from one of the many food delivery businesses on Lombok that will be happy to help.

Alternatively, order online at any of the Indonesian e-commerce platforms like Tokopedia or Shopee and have it shipped right to the harbour, where you can pick it up or arrange to have it delivered. Try to avoid shipping things from international platforms. The tax you will have to pay is fairly steep, you might have issues at customs, and anyway it is nice to keep the expenses within the country. It is always better to buy local because that’s a more sustainable way to live.

Where to Find Work on the Gilis

While many expats fall in love with the islands and move here, the easiest way to stay here is to start your own business and give employment back to the community. Although some businesses employ Western staff, a working permit is difficult and expensive to get. You’ll have to prove that an Indonesian cannot do your job.

While Indonesia is a developing country with an average monthly salary of US$788, this number is dramatically reduced in Lombok, one of its poorest regions. In the Gilis, a salary of IDR 3 million ($250) is considered good for resort staff, while the average salary remains at $100 to $200.

A way better way of doing things if you were thinking of living in Indonesia, is to buy a small piece of land and build your own slice of paradise, giving back money to the community and businesses, yet still not breaking the bank. Land is relatively affordable and readily available throughout the Gili Islands and construction is happily done by the locals.

Remote Working

Many expats in Bali are remote workers, taking advantage of the cheaper cost of living to provide a more extravagant lifestyle that they can afford while working online.

Digital nomad working on a laptop
Image: Peggy Marco

While in theory, this seems like a logical thing to do, since remote workers earn money outside of the country and spend it within the country, it is technically illegal in Indonesia. Whilst still a grey area, it is frowned upon by the Indonesian government. You can be deported, fined, or jailed if you are caught working illegally. Many expats get away with it by working remotely discreetly, but the penalties of getting caught working on a visitor’s visa are severe.

What to do for Fun

The Gilis are small islands, and you’ll need to find ways to entertain yourself. You’ll find a nice community of expats and locals alike that enjoy various sports like football, badminton, and an Asian sport called sepak takraw, a sport played with a woven ball and gymnastically kicked over a net. Kinda like volleyball, but with a different ball and using the legs. It is really athletic!

Biking, running, and exploring are also wonderful ways to know these little islands. Even after years of living here, I still don’t know all the hidden shortcuts and trails through the various villages.

The Gilis are a dream for the ocean lover. Reefs with turtles and sharks are just a short walk away, and numerous dive centers are around for those interested to try their hand at scuba diving in these beautiful warm tropical waters. There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer for reef clean-ups and marine life surveys with the various dive schools.

Turtle swimming in ocean
Image: Marcello Rabozzi

Many community events like beach clean-ups and tree plantings are organized throughout the year, giving you a fantastic opportunity to give back to the islands and make some new friends. Horseback riding can be found throughout the islands. What better way to explore than on horseback, or a sunset ride?

And, of course, the numerous bars around the islands are home to loads of parties and raucous evenings.

The Gilis are the poster-child of a tropical paradise. While living here comes with its own challenges, the pros far outweigh the cons. Think you are ready for island life? Drop me a message and I’ll be happy to do what I can to help you out!


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