“Welcome to the Maldives — where the sands are as white as the smiles of the locals, where fish swim happily in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, where the weather is a dream, and the deep rays of the sun await to engulf you in their arms…”
The Maldives is an archipelago of 1,192 coral islands, located to the southwest of India and Sri Lanka. Before the 1970’s, it was largely unknown to tourists. Now, it has made its way into everyone’s bucket list, including mine, even though I don’t consider myself a beach fanatic. It’s one of those places that I simply have to go and see for myself, just because of its fame, if nothing else.
In 2009, the Maldivian government had changed its regulations and opened the local islands to tourists, which means it’s now possible for budget travelers to visit without breaking the bank. However, due to there being no cheap flights from Malaysia at that time, it only remained in the back of my mind, that is, until 2015, when Air Asia started flying from Kuala Lumpur to Malé.
First and foremost, what is it about this place that makes it the coveted holiday spot for so many people? Aren’t there many other beach destinations in the world?
Well, imagine a cluster of remote uninhabited islands in the middle of the ocean, with shallow lagoons and consistently flawless beaches. With their powdery white sand and impossibly blue water, the Maldives’ beaches are what dreams (and screensavers) are made of. What’s more than that, most of these islands are so tiny that each of them can only house one resort. There are not many places in the world that can give you this level of isolation while not skimping on luxury.
Even though I only went to the local island of Maafushi, which is much bigger and apparently doesn’t have the best beaches in the country, I can still attest to the quality of its sand and water. Here is an unedited photo of my partner before we went kayaking.
Amazing marine life
Now you’re not going to sit on that sun lounger all day, are you? Grab your snorkels, and get into the water already, because you’re about to discover a marine wonderland that looks even better than Finding Nemo.
The Maldives supports the largest groups of coral reefs in the Indian Ocean, with 250 species of corals and over 1000 species of marine life. In fact, one of the groups of islands has been declared as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, because of its globally-recognized biodiversity. You have a high chance of spotting hammerheads, whale sharks, dolphins, turtles and manta rays. And the water is so clear that it’s even possible to see the manta rays from a seaplane if you fly over the Manta Point.
In addition to that, one Maldivian island called Ellaidhoo is actually concave, allowing you to dive underneath it. If that’s not mind-blowing, I don’t know what is.
With the right amount of money, your options are endless. Do you prefer a rustic chic treehouse, or an ultra-modern room with your own private pool and jacuzzi? Still not good enough? How about a private beach where you don’t have to see another soul except your personal butler when/if you call for him? Or you can have an overwater villa with front door steps that lead straight into the clear blue water. Just take your pick.
For dinner, maybe you’d like to dine in a glass-walled underwater restaurant where you can watch the marine creatures swim past while you gorge on their siblings. While you’re at it, there are also underwater wine cellars and underwater spas. After that, how about a movie on the beach where the giant screen floats above the water and your popcorn is prepared by a chef? And perhaps the night won’t be complete without a telescope that rises from the ground in case you’d like to gaze at the constellations.
Well, what else is new?
Out of the 1,192 islands in the archipelago, 200 are inhabited by locals, but only a few of these are actually open for tourists. So if you’re a budget traveler wanting to stay away from the expensive resorts, your options are still pretty limited.
If you choose to stay on a resort island with those fancy villas, be prepared to pay anywhere from $400 to $2000 per night. But your expenses don’t stop there. Well, they don’t even begin there. Obviously you first have to fly to Maldives from wherever in the world you are. In my case, this is not so expensive because we have Air Asia now. But how do you get from the capital city to that remote island where your resort is?
Basically, you have two choices: a private speedboat or a seaplane. A return speedboat transfer to one of these islands could cost you over $150 per person, whereas the airfare could set you back $500 and above, per person. That’s more than triple what I have to pay for my flight from Kuala Lumpur to the Maldives!
Every resort is on its own private island
Yes, the very thing that makes it special can also be its disadvantage.
You have about 100 resort islands to choose from, and you’ve got to make your decision wisely. Some resorts cater to honeymooners while some are more family-friendly. Some offer water activities, some don’t. Each resort will have a monopoly on services for their guests, considering that they’re the only premise on the island and you can’t simply nip out to buy something from another shop/hotel.
What if the resort doesn’t have what you need? What if there’s something about the place that simply irritates you? Realizing that you’ve made the wrong choice after you’ve reached your destination would mean that you’re pretty much fucked. The only way to get out is either by a seaplane or a private speedboat, and in the end the whole trip will have cost you your lifetime savings and your partner’s, combined.
This is why I don’t think going to a resort island is a good choice for me, even if I could afford it. It sounds too much like one of those theme parks that won’t let you bring your own food and drinks, and then charge you $10 for a bottle of water. I’ll probably spend my entire holiday being pissed off about this. I need to be able to explore a place and have the freedom to choose which shop or restaurant to spend my money at.
Alcohol, bikinis and public displays of affection are illegal
This island nation has a 100 percent Islamic population. Consequently, there are some codes of conduct that you need to adhere to. On the resort islands, since there are no locals living there, anything goes. You can get as drunk as your liver (and wallet) can take, and you can pretty much wear whatever you like.
But if you choose to go to one of the local islands, forget about getting drunk. You won’t be able to get even one sip of alcohol. And if you’re thinking of bringing your own bottles, forget about that too. Importing alcohol or pork into the country is forbidden. All luggage is X-rayed at the airport.
Additionally, bikinis and bathing suits are not allowed on the local islands. This is a notice put up in our guesthouse on Maafushi:
This strict adherence to religious rules brings us to the next problem:
There is no nightlife
Most shops close at 10, and the restaurants take their last orders at around the same time. After that, the island is DEAD.
Now I have long since passed that age when I wanted to party all night, every night. But it’s still rather strange to go on a beach holiday and not have a bar to go to, where you can just chill out and listen to music, even if you don’t want to go crazy on the dance floor.
There's nothing much to see other than the beach
Fine, I get it, it’s a beach destination–why would I expect anything other than the beach and the sea? But then again, most beach destinations I’ve been to, especially in Southeast Asia, come with other attractions and gorgeous sights as well. Bali, for example, has beautiful sea temples, rice fields and volcanoes. Lombok has Mount Rinjani. The Philippines too, has volcanoes, waterfalls and rice fields, all within close distance to the beach.
You see, I don’t mind spending time on the beach, lazing around and snorkeling and sunbathing…but only for a day or two, max. Any longer than that and I’d start itching for other stuff to do–mountains to climb, rivers to cross, cooking classes to take, night markets to explore.
On Maafushi, I rented a bicycle, but there wasn’t much to be said about it. I could easily cover the whole island in under 30 minutes. There was a prison, a local village, a few shops, guesthouses, and that’s about it.
Being Asian (and Malaysian in particular), I’m big on food. You want to know how food-obsessed we Malaysians are? Well, we would happily drive across the country and brave a 5-hour traffic just to get a particular dish from a particular restaurant that just happens to be in another state. So, trying out local delicacies is usually one of the main highlights in my travel itinerary.
Sadly, Maldivian cuisine leaves a lot to be desired. They seem to be using only three ingredients in their dishes: tuna, coconut and onion. A typical Maldivian meal would consist of fish curry or shredded fish, served with rice or unleavened bread. They have the same thing for breakfast too.
On top of that, most of the seafood on the many islands of the Maldives is imported from Male, while other produce such as chicken, milk and rice are imported from India or Sri Lanka. Vegetables are a rare commodity.
The drinking water is recycled
Okay, maybe I’m nitpicking here, but the Maldives has no fresh water for drinking. This means that the water you drink on the island has actually been recycled, treated and produced via reverse osmosis desalination. The process changes the taste a little and strips it off all its natural minerals.
It may not sound like a big deal, but when you’ve been sitting under the hot sun and sweating out your salts and mineral, drinking demineralized water may make you feel sluggish after a few days. So, if you’re prone to dehydration, this can be a bit of a problem. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find energy drinks on the islands.
So is the Maldives an overrated destination? Does it live up to all its hype? Ultimately, it boils down to what sort of traveler you are. The Maldives is a perfect destination for:
- Honeymoooners. You want a quiet and relaxing holiday together, in a plush resort with a beautiful backdrop. You don’t need anyone else but each other. You don’t want to do anything else other than stay in each other’s arms. Okay, maybe you want to do more than hugging but let’s not go there. Bottom line is you don’t mind being cooped up in your room for a huge portion of your holiday.
- Those who like to be pampered. It doesn’t matter if you’re a solo traveler, a honeymooning couple, a mother-and-daughter pair or a group of girls on a bachelorette party, if you like being spoiled and pampered with room service, in-house massage therapist, personal butler and stuff like that, you couldn’t have chosen a better destination. Some resorts even have their own photographer who can find all your good angles for those perfect Instagram shots.
- City dwellers wanting to get away from it all. Maybe you’re a very busy person working a high-stress job in a hectic city, and all you need is a few days’ escapade to a remote island where you can switch off and relax. The Maldives will give you the sense of isolation you need.
- Hardcore beach bums, because it’s all about the beach and the sea here.
- Fish lovers. Go and eat all the tuna you like!
The Maldives is NOT for:
- Backpackers or independent travelers. It’s possible to visit the Maldives on a backpacker’s budget but your options are going to be pretty limited. If you’re an independent traveler who gets around by hitchhiking, or on your own bicycle, car, etc, this is not possible here. Also, if you stay on the resort islands, there won’t be much ‘independence’ there either. Everything will be set out for you, whether you like it or not.
- Adventure junkies or people who get bored easily. The only adventure you can get here is water sports, IF your resort provides it. There’s nothing to do other than that. So if you can’t swim, or are scared of water/sea creatures, then I’m sorry but you’re going to have stay on the beach and build sand castles or something.
- Party people. Just forget about it. There are better, cheaper places to go.
- People who hate overpriced tourist traps. If you’re anything like me who gets irrationally worked up over exorbitant prices, ‘luxury’ brands and other capitalist traps, you’re not going to like this place, unless you stick to the local islands.
- Vegans/vegetarians. You’re going to have a tough time finding good food here. Maybe it’s not a problem in the resorts — they’ve got chefs to make everything to order — but judging from the condition of vegetables I saw on Maafushi, I’m feeling a little dubious.
So, that’s my take on this popular destination. I fall into the latter category, unfortunately. Although I still found it quite enjoyable, it’s certainly not my favorite. How about you? Is the Maldives your dream destination? Or if you have visited, what did you think about it? Comment below: