Three years ago, on a rather idyllic day at work, our Singaporean project manager was doing market research for an idea for his upcoming wedding. “Girls, what would be your ideal honeymoon destination?”
The three singletons said in perfect unison, “Why do you even have to ask? The Maldives!” (Back then we were unaware of El Nido or Seychelles or Bora Bora, and Bali and Phuket already seemed too worn-out to be considered.)
Maldives; two syllables that conjure up images of bone-white sand, turquoise water, and water villas on stilts that only royal families, celebrities and similarly wealthy resort-goers can afford. Maldives; the ultimate wedding/anniversary/who-needs-a-reason destination daydreamers like me save up for for years.
That’s how it was for nearly 40 years after the Republic of Maldives opened its first resort in 1972, something that was kept separate from the country’s residents by the then-President. Given that the country consists of a double chain of 26 atolls with 1,192 islands, there would seem to be enough sun, sand and sea for everyone.
But things took a big turn in 2009 when the Maldivian government started to allow guesthouses to be opened on the populated islands rather than limiting tourism to the uninhabited islands. Budget travellers can now stay with locals and gain an insight into the islanders’ lives while enjoying the same natural beauty as those royals and celebrities.
Partly in the name of writerly research and partly to indulge a long-standing personal fantasy, I learned that the upper limit on the cost of accommodations in the Maldives is, not infinity as I previously believed, but a bit less. Velaa Private Island Resort houses the most expensive room in the Maldives at US$30,000 per night. That’s not a typo. I now can believe the story that a Russian millionaire, at the end of his vacation, asked for his guide’s backpack and stuffed it with US$3,000 in cash as a tip for a few days’ work. I’m seriously considering seeking employment in the Maldives high-end tourism industry.
Most international flights to the Maldives land at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in Hulhulmale, where the majority of tourists board connecting domestic flights or take seaplanes or speedboats to other islands. On a shoestring budget, we spent a night in Hulhulmale and the next day took a less-than-glamorous ferry to Male (the capital) and on to the island of Maafushi. Hulhulmale struck us as an artificial island reclaimed to provide the needed landmass for growing residential and commercial demand of Male. Since being among apartment buildings that look like sisters to the Linh Dam urban area of Hanoi was not our idea of holidaying, much less paradise, we quickly escaped via the 20-minute ferry ride to Male.
And what an escape it was. Measured in people per square kilometre Male happens to be the one of the most crowded cities in the world. We arrived on New Year’s Eve, but I doubt that other days are any better. The air was full of exhaust fumes from cars and scooters vying for space with pedestrians in the narrow, tangled alleys. It reminded me of the Old Quarter of Hanoi just before Tet, which is nothing you’d normally associate with the stereotyped ethereal Maldives.
As the Maldives is a Muslim country, alcohol cannot be bought or consumed in public there. We tried to find a coffee shop in which to ‘escape from our escape’ but there were hardly any in sight. We bought some imported Australian bottled juice and waited for the New Year’s Eve traffic to thin out before heading back to Hulhumale. When it comes to travelling, there are places you know in your heart you would or at least wish to come back to someday. Neither Hulhulmale nor Male makes that list for me.
From Male, we took a taxi to the Vilingili ferry terminal and boarded another ferry to Maafushi where we would stay for three days. We arrived early, but the tickets for the morning ferry were already sold out. I shuddered at the thought of hanging around Male waiting for the afternoon ferry. Luckily we met a tourist who had managed to secure a private boat and was rounding up other tourists in the same predicament. Our (slower) boat cost US$10 per person compared to US$200 for a speedboat.
Maafushi — Not Your Resort Island
It was high noon when we disembarked at Maafushi, one of the local islands opened up for tourism close to Male. Two people were already directing visitors to their hotels. We were told to go stand in the shade and someone would take care of our luggage. One guy read the suspicion on my face and said with unconcealed disdain: “Don’t worry about the money. This is not Sri Lanka, where even having somebody keep an eye on your luggage costs money.” Since we had just left Colombo two days earlier, I can attest to his accurate knowledge of tourism practice in neighbouring countries.
After much-needed welcome drinks and lunch, we were briefed on the Maldives by Ali, who we took to be the Holiday Lodge Maldives’s owner because he spoke with so much pride and confidence about the Maldives and embodied everything we loved about the hotel and the island of Maafushi. With Ali’s help we designed an itinerary for the next two-and-a-half days. Ali frankly answered all our questions about what you can and cannot see at that time of the year, and customized a tour for us to make the most out of our limited time and money.
We retired to our rooms to get ready for the night fishing, which almost everyone staying at the lodge was eager to try. After multiple failed attempts to catch a fish, even with patient instruction from the super helpful professionals on board, I decided to slack off and wait for the others to finish. I lay down on the deck, feeling the cool breeze caress my skin, soaking in the star-coated velvety sky, and soon dozed off to the lulling sound of the boat engine. Apparently utopia doesn’t need to be bought at a whopping 30 grand.
When we got back to the lodge, tables had been nicely set along the seafront and the staff immediately began grilling our catch, generously supplemented with fish from their kitchen. I pulled my knees up, wrapped a scarf around my body, and revelled in the beauty and tranquillity of the dark ocean on my left and the lights of the ‘village’ on my right. I finally understood the appeal of this island for me. It was like the Vietnam of 15 years ago. Not completely untouched but not yet devoured by commercialisation. I loved the lodge’s personal touches — a frangipani here, an oil lamp there, the tentative waiter who took his time setting out the cutlery as if it were Victorian Era silverware and served your food as if you were royalty.
I thought again of the charming manager, Ali, whose sharp tongue entertained and whose warmth and authenticity shone through. When you’ve stayed in five-star hotels where the staff display manufactured smiles and answer you with scripted replies, a small lodge like this is refreshingly personable and a welcome break from the standardisation that is swiftly overtaking the hospitality industry.
All Equal Before the Sea
The next morning at 10 (“early” according to Ali) we set out for a day of snorkelling. Corals are not the selling point of the Maldives but I was impressed with more than 50 mesmerising shades of blue and green that I had glimpsed from the plane the day before and fell in love with the turquoise water whose shade varied with its depth. Our knowledgeable guide and our speedboat driver whom we fondly referred to as our Captain, took us to an area that was ours alone.
I was unlucky enough to miss both a beautiful turtle and a baby shark that swam by, but the colourful Maldives fish (including many Nemos), dolphins, and flying fish I saw more than made up for it. After a few hours of oohing over the flora and aahing over the fauna and posing for underwater photos with our merman-guide, we flopped onto a sandbank for a late lunch catered by our lodge.
We spent the late afternoon exploring Maafushi, which you can circle in 20 minutes on foot. At the island’s southern end is the largest prison in the country — it has held a number of prominent inmates, including a former president. Western tourists in shorts passed Muslim girls wearing abayat and niqab (meaning they were covered from head to toe except for their eyes) on the island’s unpaved paths. No bikinis are allowed on public beaches in the Maldives, but there is a small stretch partitioned off where the private beach looked like any beach in the world, dotted with tourists in usual swimwear.
That evening we had dinner in the lodge’s lovely garden. Ali had brought in a singer from Male who performed covers of timeless ballads such as Wonderful Tonight and a beautiful, sad Maldivian song to give us a taste of Maldivian culture. This inspired one of the guests to sing Avril Lavigne’s I’m With You for her partner, which prompted Ali to invite her to sing something for the rest of us. She sang a song from her country, Russia, which for a brief five minutes transported me to another world. The randomness of all this made us appreciate all the more the small-town feel of Maafushi and the intimacy of a place like the lodge.
The Maldives is a destination we are often advised to save for our honeymoon. I headed to “paradise” with my girlfriends, expecting to myth-bust a tourist trap. I came back in love with an island with a small-town feel, a turquoise green sea and white sand beach, and the life-loving attitude of some funny guys who run a modest guesthouse. Do I wish I could recount the experience of staying in a super luxurious resort that costs a few grand a night or spending the night in a secluded villa above water with nothing in sight except the ocean?
Yes, it would surely feel more than great, if not just for the feel of exclusivity and extravagance and make for good conversation (read, bragging) with friends and acquaintances. Yet having a limited budget does not mean we have to miss out on another kind of experience in the Maldives. The kind that is arguably equally enjoyable, or just satisfying in a different way.
AirAsia offer direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to The Maldives. Alternatively, you can fly via Bangkok with Bangkok Airways. Flights from Bangkok start at VND5.5 million one-way before tax and other extras. From Kuala Lumpur the cheapest fares before extras and taxes cost from VND2 million one-way.