On the first page of Lonely Planet Maldives, it says: “Fully independent travellers are a rare species but, with good planning and some decent financial lubrication this is an equally possible way to travel!”. Oh well, that sounds doable – and in many ways, it was. Don’t let the five-star resort reputation put you off – an authentic experience is certainly possible on the islands by staying with local families or at guesthouses. So here are some learnings from our independent Maldives adventure:
Remember to plan ahead
We discovered that you can fly from Colombo Airport in Sri Lanka to Male, the Maldivian capital, from around 120 USD, with the flight taking about an 1 hour and 20 min. But don’t arrive on Fridays! There is no public transportation, most things are closed and you’ll be stuck in the city for the day. (NB Resorts aren’t closed on Fridays, but if you are looking to stay in one of those, this post isn’t relevant for you anyway). Staying a night in Male is not a bad thing, you just need to be prepared to do so and ready to take advantage of your time. One of the most remarkable things in Male is the fish market and surrounding food stalls. The smell, the sound and the vibrations from the crowds of people selling and buying is a fantastic introduction to the staple industry of the islands.
Local transportation, local sights, local culture
Transferring from Male to one of the amazing islands can be expensive and take a long time. I recommend looking out for the local ferry – a so-called Dhoni. At around 20 USD instead of 500-800 USD for a private speed boat, it’s the most economical way to get around. The good thing about the public ferry is the possibility to see much more of the Maldives and enjoy the beautiful islands and the sea at the same time.
When leaving the safe world of the resorts where Western behaviours are the norm, you have to keep in mind that staying on a local island involves respecting the strict Muslim code of conduct. This means that female travellers should swim fully covered, unless on one of the deserted islands, and be aware of male attention and approaches. Alcohol is not allowed outside of the resorts, giving you the opportunity to enjoy your evenings in other ways. Don’t try to buy anything on the black market – you’ll most likely be fooled!
You won’t find much wifi either, but buying a local sim card can help you a little. To our great surprise, they had a shop for this on the island we stayed at!
Things to do in the Maldives
Most activities on the islands revolve around the sea. My favourite thing was to simply admire the azure blue ocean and the magic white sand. Go for a stroll and collect beautiful seashells; the shores are full of great discoveries. Just remember you’re not allowed to bring them home with you.
Go diving or snorkelling, we did both. Since the wildlife in the sea is so rich, we enjoyed both activities equally and saw plenty of corals, turtles, rays etc. We also enjoyed a night snorkelling trip. It was actually my first time ever out in thesea swimming at night, it was scary in many ways! The sea life changes dramatically; some corals open up, fish go hunting and the plankton is magically glowing in the dark.
Bring your camera: there are amazing opportunities for great outdoor photography on the small islands and by the beaches. Equally if you have a GoPro or any other underwater camera, you can capture magical footage under the surface too. See some of my shoots here
Simple and tasty food
The local food is amazing, and staying in a village gives you a unique opportunity to taste great home-cooked food.
The world famous Maldivian tuna is an experience in itself and appears frequently in the native dishes. My personal favourite dish was the breakfast called “mas hunk” which consists of fish, rice, coconut, and onions. Simple and yet very tasty due to the freshness of the fish.
Don’t be a tourist – be a traveller!
When I was travelling in 2014 I met another backpacker and I remember discussing with them how important it was to stay a traveller and not become a tourist! To me, the Maldives is a great example of this; a tourist would do the obvious, expensive and easy thing – go straight to a resort. A traveller will take the challenge defined by Lonely Planet above and try somewhere different and that I can fully recommend – just keep in mind that open minds lead to open doors and exploring is not supposed to be too easy!
See a collection of my pictures from Maldives here