The most awesome part about the astonishingly beautiful Gili islands is not their beauty, but the fact that there are too many of them. The famous Gili trio of Air, Meno, and Trawangan draw a maximum crowd and they are very pretty places. These three islands cater to different types of travelers needs and while one is a family destination, the other one is popular among those who enjoy extreme water sports. Gili Meno is famous for being a turtle haven and the island has a sanctuary to protect the marine animals. This Gili Island is also very popular among honeymooners and the trio of famous Gili Islands are well equipped with tourist infrastructure. In fact, over the years, the Gili Islands’ popularity has boomed so much that they have become well-established destinations in much sought after Bali-Lombok-Gili Islands itineraries. They have become so well-known that many travelers often mistake the islands to be Bali or toss them all together as Gili Islands, Bali.

This is one of the gili islands

Somewhere in one of the Gili Islands

The party hotspot of Gili T or Gili Trawangan

Because of the diverse tourism which exists in these Gili Islands, most travelers face the perennial question of “Which Gili Island is for you?” This a much-discussed topic and according to experts, the answer lies in what you seek. Gili Trawangan or Gili T as it is called is a well-established as a party island. It is the largest, liveliest, and most developed of all the Gilis. Many divers call it to be the safest place to learn diving and there are plenty of accommodations to suit all budget and styles. To dive all day and party all night, head for the high-quality hostels, guesthouses, and homestays in the eastern part of the island. If you are not interested in the hedonistic party scene and have some money to spare, then choose from the excellent sustainable resorts on the western part of Gili T. Motorized vehicles are prohibited on all Gili Islands and visitors and locals alike can choose between walking, biking, or going on horse carriages.

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Gili Air has a very relaxed vibe

Gili Meno vs the Gili Air

The tiniest of them all, the Gili Meno is popular among honeymooners. It has the best beaches and a quiet atmosphere. Options of accommodations and dining facilities are limited there and this island is for those looking for solitude and relaxation. Many choose to make it a day trip or a one night stay to avoid the trip from getting monotonous. Gili Air showcases the perfect balance between the two Gili Islands. It has a sizeable beach bar scene along with quiet corners and supposedly hosts full moon parties once a month. Gili Air caters to the relaxed slightly matured experiential travelers and has a wide range of comfortable bungalows for accommodations. All the Gili Islands are easily accessible from both Bali and Lombok and many go on day trips or liveaboard journeys to them.

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What kind of Gili Island is for you depends on what you seek?

And then there are 13 more Gili Islands

My Gili Islands excursions included none of the three famous Gilis. For my R&R’s I always visited what I liked to call my “Secret Gili Islands”. These include 13 Gili Islands which most travelers do not know about. Located in the southwestern side of Lombok, they are closer to Bali than their famous counterparts and are absolute slices of paradise. Their lack of easy accessibility and luxurious island infrastructure which make them so delightfully pristine. When bored of Lombok’s beaches, I visited them on weekends and those trips required some pre-planning. First came the drive to the southwestern part of Lombok and that in itself was a refreshing experience. Tourism had hardly touched that region of Lombok at the time of my visit in 2009. Thus the drive took me through the hinterland of the island and the sleepy rural beauty was very pleasing to the eyes. Tobacco fields, soybeans, cotton, corn, spices, and bananas grew there in neatly cultivated plots and the land was tilled by buffalo harnessed wooden ploughs.

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The Gili Islands are best explored by a local outrigger boat

The Gili Islands are best explored by a local outrigger boat

Meeting Ada at Tawun, the base for secret Gili Islands

The southwestern Lombok is known as Sekotong Barat and in 2009 it was one of the most untouched parts of Indonesia. Apart from a handful of small towns, there was nothing exciting in that part and life moved there at a local’s pace. The Sekotong region started from the bustling Lembar which was the main harbour of Lombok and the picturesque coastal road continued all the way to the famous Bangko Bangko, a surfer’s hotspot. To go to the secret Gili Islands, I used to hire a boat from the tiny Tawun village, where one of my colleague’s father worked as a fisherman. In fact, it was my colleague, Ade who introduced me to the Secret Gilis and her little sister Ada, always accompanied me on those trips. While Ade was a soft-spoken mild-mannered woman, her baby sister Ada was the firebrand tomboy who loved to do, in her own words, “all the boy things”. Ada was 20 years younger than Ade and being the baby of a large family of many children was spoiled a lot.

Ada who made me fall in love with the Gili Islands.

Being with Ada in the Gili Islands

Being a big Bollywood movie fan, she took an instant liking of me and though we had a huge language barrier, never failed to chatter endlessly on those Gili Islands trips. Our conversations were mostly monologues with Ada talking her head off and pointing out to endless pretty sights, while she perched nimbly on the helm of her father’s boat. Her small child talks reminded me of my own little girl waiting for me on the other side of the world and being around Ada, made me crave for her even more. Despite the longings, time flew nicely with Ada in the Gili Islands and she is the reason why the islands became my happy place. She brought with her appealing wholesome goodness from a place where a good life means being in a close-knit community.

Ada comes from a tight knit family from Tawun village

My Gili Islands “days” lunches

Tawun residents are friendly, welcoming fishing folks and her family never used to let me go without feeding me a delicious lunch or dinner. Lombok food is delicious and for an island, whose name’s literal translation is “chilli”, its cuisine is pretty fiery too. My favourite Lombok dish is the wholesome Bebalung (rib soup served with lemon slices, chilies, and plain rice) and I loved the northern Lombok specialties, Sate Ikan Tanjung (tuna fish satays) and Taliwang Chicken. Seasoned with dried red chili, onion, garlic, dried shrimp, sugar and salt, fried Taliwang chicken is an explosion of tastes. A regular Tawun meal with Ade’s family included a plethora of seafood-based dishes and it was more of a home-made fare than a delectable spread of local culinary highlights. They usually served the simple, but delicious Pelecing (boiled kale and water spinach, served cold with tomato slivers and sauce made from chili, salt, shrimp paste, tomato puree, and lemon juice), along with bowls of condiments, fish cooked in various ways, and coarse steamed rice.

Food, glorious, food: something which bonds the locals and outsiders

The easy-breezy Gili Nanggu

Ade’s mother, just like mothers all across the planet, always packed for us big picnic hampers full of food and anticipating the secret Gili Islands isolation, used to grill dozens of delicious sate Rembiga for the trip. The Gili Islands, however, were not as isolated as she liked to think and to call Sekotong absolutely untouched would be a bit of exaggeration. World-class surf breaks off at the further situated Desert Point and Bangko Bangko drew surfing enthusiasts from all over the world. The fairly small Gili Nanggu was the closest island to Tawun and it had breezy beach bungalows, swings which went over the waves, tropical forests and a turtle breeding farm. Our breaks at Gili Nanggu were to quench our thirst and there is nothing more relaxing than lazing on its sugary, soft sand with tender green coconuts.

gili islands are near lombok

Gili Nanngu is a great place to unwind

The joy of Gili Genting and Sudat

The stunning uninhabited Gili Genting sits across Gili Nanggu like a gem floating on the crystal clear turquoise water and Ada and I have enjoyed many picnics at its volcanic rock-carved caves and coves. I love all the Gili Islands although, in my memory, they are blended into one another as a long chain of white sands and endless stretch of the warm turquoise ocean. My favourite, however, is the tiny Sudat. One of the smallest and uninhabited Gili islands, Sudat is more of a sand bar and the only island in Indonesia where I have slept under the stars. Ada used to like it too and we requested her father to ship us there on his rough-hewn outrigger boat, more than any other place on the vast ocean. Surrounded by bigger Gili Islands, Sudat is a gem of a place and apart from Ada and me, hardly any other person stopped at it. We loved swimming and splashing in its surrounding warm ocean, and during low tides sometimes walked all the way to the nearby inhabited island. My Gili Islands escapades made my time at Sengiggi pass by quickly and soon thereafter I flew out of Lombok, with a big hole in my heart. It is where memories of Ada and secret Gili Islands remain until today and even now, I retreat inside that hole whenever the world I live in gets too much to bear.

A sandbank with no name somewhere among the Gili Islands

It looks like this when the water starts receding

Hire a local boat from Tawun village to explore the secret Gili Islands

A protected one at the turtle sanctuary at Gili Meno

I saw this floating hut from a vantage point at Sudat

lombok has beautiful beaches

This is how empty the secret Gili Islands look like

Do you still wonder why

The secret Gili Islands is my happy place.