Planning a trip to the Maldives can be mildly shocking - in terms of budget, that is. While we have an easy, 4+ hours direct flight from/to Singapore that is comfortably affordable, the next step of identifying suitable accommodation might just break the bank. Assuming one does not travel all the way to paradise in order to hole up in what looks like East Coast Park chalets amidst backpacking surfers and budget travelers, be prepared to fork out some serious cash to stay in a basic water bungalow - that is, the kind built directly over water that gives one private access to the sea and vastly reduces one's chances of feeding mozzies that lurk in tropical beachside vegetation. (On the other hand, if one is going to be out all day diving and engaging in the myriad other water sports, then I suppose it doesn't really matter.)
Waiting to board at Changi, I was slightly taken aback that we were surrounded by a large number of Chinese honeymooners who seemed to be on a group tour. There are well over a hundred different resorts among the Maldives' 1,192 islands - I fervently hoped that they'd disperse into the horizon when we landed. More on this further down.
The Maldives' Ibrahim Nasir International Airport on Hulhulé Island is tiny, although apparently there will be a new terminal by 2014. On exiting the arrival hall, one is greeted with dozens of stands where representatives of the various resorts would meet you for your onward transfer. We had arranged for a speedboat transfer to our resort on Thulhagiri Island, which is about 25 minutes away. So near that, from our villa, Malé Island's numerous buildings still taunted us on the horizon. Still, it was a lovely place, and very good value too:
It was clear and sunny when we arrived, just past mid-day, and while our water villa was by no means luxurious, it was perfect in its simplicity. Under the traditional thatched roof, past rustic four-poster bed and glass-bottomed table, the floor-to-ceiling windows look out and open onto a screened-off sun deck with lounge chairs and umbrella. Beyond that, the ever-inviting brilliant turquoise of the lagoon within the reef, and the deep blue of the Laccadive Sea beyond. Thulhagiri's water villas are either sunrise-facing or sunset-facing (the newer ones), and are arranged in curving lines so I believe some units get more direct sun during the day, some less.
|Thulhagiri Island Resort (Day 5)|
Speaking of sun, boy did we get a lot of it. Amazingly, whenever I'm on holiday and there's a remote chance of viewing an unblocked sunrise, I've no qualms getting up early. And from the moment the sun broke the horizon, the heat was literally on. Facing an unblocked fireball in the middle of nowhere, what was I thinking, right? Thanks to my 2 bottles of SPF50 sunblock, I lost the geisha pallor but didn't quite get a very noticeable tan. I did get about 479 new wrinkles, but that's a slightly different story.
|Soaking up the UV|
Our island was tiny, so much so that a walk around it took a mere 5-10 minutes. There were also beach villas around, which we had to navigate through to get around. When one has to tramp through sand and trees to get past sunburnt Caucasians reading restfully in front of their huts, it does feel like one's intruding on their idyll. I don't know how they do it, though - Mystery #1. By 9.30am on the second day, I was feeling a little restless and on the brink of cabin fever. As my occasional attempts at meditation would attest, it is kind of challenging to concentrate on doing Nothing.
|Challenge #1: Dolce fa niente, am I doing it right?|
But Nothing was what we were there for. A break away from civilisation, a chance to rest and unwind. For once, there was neither agenda nor itinerary - except maybe to absorb some UV rays. Not being into any kind of water sports at all, I went with 2 bathing suits and a pair of goggles. Yup, I was goggling, not snorkelling, in more ways than one, and me a non-swimmer, even. Still, managed to get a glimpse of underwater life as most of the fish didn't seem to be very shy. So the days went on, with our time there basically marked by sunrise, breakfast, sunset, and dinner. Hence, Challenge #2: Try to shoot a different sunrise/sunset every day:
|Maldives sunset (Day 1)|
|Maldives sunrise (Day 2)|
And speaking of honeymooners... apparently the Maldives is really popular with young and wealthy Chinese couples. During our five days, I spotted no less than three different couples each doing their respective DIY wedding photo shoots complete with tripod, gown, tux and 80's poses. Mystery #2 of how all the Chinese tourists managed to stay so shockingly pasty despite the daily solar assault was solved when I came to realise they were always covered up either in windbreakers/cardigans (FFS!?) or dive suits. And here I was, fretting that I wasn't getting sufficiently toasted.
To ensure that we experienced a variety of weather conditions during our stay, the Maldivian gods decided to treat us to a thunderstorm on the afternoon of our 4th day:
It was a Thursday, on which a scheduled trip to Malé had been organised by the hotel. We went from wishing we had signed up to thanking our lucky stars that we didn't, because the clouds built up quickly, started pissing so much I couldn't see Malé's skyline any more, and then hit us with a steady downpour. That day, I napped in air-conditioned comfort, woke to a non-rainy and also non-sunset evening, then headed off to dinner as usual. It started raining again as soon as we had sat down with our food! We were trapped on the island and had to wait for it to stop briefly before heading back via the lightning-lit boardwalk to our villa.
I was a little sad to leave the next morning, made worse by it being a gorgeous day with wispy cirrus and lower puffy cumulus clouds against a bright blue sky. We took a walk along the beach once more after breakfast. There were a couple of reasons why we hadn't frequented the beach as often as we could: 1) we already had direct access to the lagoon; 2) the beach was some distance away and there wasn't much shelter on the blinding white sand. I said I wanted a tan, not to burn or get skin cancer.
|The other jetty|
It is easy to take for granted what luxuries one might find on a six-star, elite-tier resort. After all, you'd think that you're fully entitled to unlimited bottles of water, leaving the room AC on all day and having a bubble bath every night, what with the exorbitant room rates. In a way, I'm glad we stayed here because the resort actually reminded us to be mindful of water usage for simple things like getting towels replaced daily, or having to boil the tap water before consumption. Fresh water on the Maldives has to be desalinated, and it's not a simple or cheap process. It pained me to see used water bottles and other debris floating in those innocent crystal waters. All food has to be shipped in, so it further distressed me to see meat and stuff left on plates whenever people took more than they could finish from the buffet. In addition, the Maldives faces a very real threat of losing more islands due to rising sea levels within the next 10 years. With such little land and few natural resources, the nation depends heavily on tourism (dear me, that sounds so much like Singapore). So when people started signing pledges to boycott the Maldives as a holiday destination due to some religious ruling on a rape case earlier this year, I was taken aback. Do those hypocrites boycott Italy and the Vatican as well when the Pope is against LGBTs and abortion? Come on.
I have a lot more gossip and anecdotes than can or should fit into this post, but I'll stop here. Took some photos, not too many, some of which you can also see here (DSLR) and here (iPhone).
Yes, paradise exists. It's not a place, but a perfect state of being whatever you wish to be at that moment.
- April is a great time to visit. It's the shoulder period, which means boarding is a bit cheaper, there's fewer people and the weather is still reasonably good. I think the chances for rain are higher from May onwards, until the next dry season at the end of the year.
- The Maldives uses its own currency which is pegged to the USD, and tourism makes up a huge part of the economy, so establishments that cater to foreigners transact in US dollars.
- Once you're on your island resort, there are no shops, pharmacies, etc so bring whatever you think you'll need and then some to avoid paying through the nose or going without.
- If your resort is within speedboat distance of the airport, you might still get to it on the same day if you arrive in the evening or night. However if you're putting up further afield which involves a separate seaplane trip, resign yourself to spending your first night in a nearby hotel. Do your own math between accommodation and flights (the seaplane fare is quite costly too).