Mention the Gilis (Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air) to anyone outside of Indonesia, and they’ll probably give you a questioning look. But mention them to anyone who’s spent a bit of time in Bali or Lombok and they’ll nod, immediately picturing Gili Trawangan’s party scene, Meno’s honeymoon hotels and Air’s family-friendly setting.
But while these Gili islands are lesser known outside of the country, they’re by no means secret.
I’d been living in Bali for approximately three weeks when I found out that I’d be moving to Gili Trawangan, a 7km island off the coast of Lombok, for a five-month marketing internship.
And I’d expected a little culture shock when I left London, England, for Indonesia. But I didn’t quite anticipate swapping crammed 7am Tube commutes for an island that only uses bicycles or horse and cart for transport.
Nonetheless, I adapted to life on Gili Trawangan pretty quickly - mostly out of necessity, as only a few weeks after I settled in - back in February 2020 - the land border closed and remained closed for another six months. Gili Trawangan was now my temporary home.
It was during this time that I found out about the other 20-something Gilis, located a little further south and tucked away just north of Lembar, Lombok.
For context, the word “Gili” means “little island” in Bahasa Sasak, the local dialect spoken in Lombok. And it’s a name that perfectly suits this tiny cluster of paradise, home only to a handful of homestays and beach bars.
From above, the secret Gilis look more like a scene from Lost - or the setting to those “what would you take if stranded on a desert island?” questions. With their white sand beaches, crystal clear waters and bunches of greenery, the secret Gilis are every inch the tropical paradise that many people only dream of experiencing.
I’d recently got into scuba diving so took my trip to the secret Gilis as an opportunity to do some snorkelling and practise my fish ID skills. Along with a few adventure-seeking friends, we arranged a day trip from Lombok to three of the largest Gilis, and, with our snorkel gear in one hand and a towel in the other, we were off.
Nanggu is only around a 20 - 30 minute boat ride from neighbouring Lombok, which meant we didn’t have long to soak up the early morning sunshine before arriving at our first stop. Here, we jumped straight into the water, admiring the schools of clownfish swimming all around and the coral reefs just below.
Some guides bring along bread to feed the fish here - something that can upset the delicate underwater ecosystem, our guide warned us. And it wasn’t really needed: the thousands of fish amongst us offered a kaleidoscope of colour without any encouragement necessary. If we’d had longer, we could have stayed there for hours. But we had more islands to tick off the list!
Next up, an even shorter boat ride across to neighbouring Gili Sudak, skipping past Gili Tangkong, which is apparently the “most underwhelming” of these picturesque islands. “An oxymoron,” I thought, considering how breathtakingly beautiful the entire miniature archipelago was.
Gili Sudak has a beautiful, long stretch of beach with soft sand that practically invites you to wander along it. This is the most popular lunch spot out of the secret Gilis, thanks to the little warung (family-owned restaurant) perched right on the beach.
Like most Indonesian warungs, the specialities here focus around the classics: nasi goreng (fried rice served with chicken, egg and vegetables) or mie goreng (fried noodles in a rich, salty sauce with the same accompaniments). We sat on tiny, colourful plastic chairs and watched the peaceful shoreline with sugary iced tea.
The funniest part? Ordering a kelapa muda (young coconut) and watching the man at the restaurant scale a nearby palm tree, hoist himself upwards with little to no effort and hack away at a coconut before letting it drop to the floor. It doesn’t matter how much time I spend in Indonesia: this is one thing I’ll always find incredible to watch!
The tiny nature of these islands means you’re never too far from a different spot of paradise. From Gili Sudak you’ll look directly across to Gili Tangkong or Lombok, depending on which side of the island you’re on.
Our final spot was the adorably tiny Gili Kedis. Little more than a raised patch of sand with a few trees on it, you can walk around Gili Kedis in around 10 minutes, including the inevitable time you’ll stop to snap a quick photo. While it’s definitely the most remote of these three Gilis, there are a handful of benches and beach swings to chill on and soak up the sunshine.
As mentioned earlier, there are close to 30 (estimated) Gilis tucked around Lombok. Some of these are completely uninhabited while others, like Gili Asahan and Gili Gede, further south down Lombok, are a little more built up. These latter islands are more designed for overnight trips, with hotels and homestays offering a similar remote island experience with a few more creature comforts.
I’d have loved to spend longer exploring more of the islands, but the currents can get pretty strong around Lombok in the afternoons and evenings, which means heading back to the mainland earlier than we would have liked. So we got back into our little fisherman’s boat and waved goodbye to the secret Gilis.
Most tourists who base themselves in Bali only tend to visit Gili Trawangan and Gili Air if they catch the boat across. But the secret Gilis highlight just how beautiful nature can be, especially in lesser developed spots without the crowds of tourists that Trawangan and Air now see on a daily basis. Though it was only a day trip, I’ll always remember the secret Gilis as somewhere incredibly special.
Book a day trip from Lombok to explore the Secret Gilis yourself.
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Last Updated 19 April 2023