We sailed eleven days in our thirty-five foot sloop from Thailand to reach our destination, the Maldives. Discreetly nestled in the Indian Ocean, this island nation is roughly 450 miles Southwest of Sri Lanka. This archipelago has over 1,100 flat, coral-crushed islands with only 200 of the atolls inhabited.
As we approached Male, the capital and only bustling city of the Maldives, we noticed tall pastel colored buildings stacked side by side like dominos. We didn’t know what we would find in Male but I had read that most of the Maldives’ population resides here–about 75,000 people. I knew the city’s citizens were 100% Muslim and to walk the circumference of this small atoll would take a little over an hour.
With its buildings and narrow streets, a satellite image of Male gives it the appearance of a Mini-Manhattan. There are very little natural resources here. Most of the items to buy here are imported in. With the lack of raw materials, the main revenue generated is from its healthy tourism industry.
Most of the visitors to the Maldives escape to one of the atolls where high-end hotels spoil guests with every hedonistic pleasure available to man. Sadly the resorts attract many tourists that rarely get the chance to interact with the locals in their environment. An opportunity is lost on many tourists but for the culture seeking traveler go to the heart of the Maldives. Go to Male to get the true vibe of its people.
Know the List of Don’ts
This was our first country where the official religion is Islam and practice of any other religion is against the law. Even bringing religious icons, symbols or books to shore was forbidden. We were informed of these laws as we checked into the country. No alcohol, pork products or live pigs (we left ours in Thailand) were allowed on shore. But keeping these items on our boat was okay. I was grateful the customs agents didn’t confiscate our wine.
If we wanted to purchase these items from a supplier on shore we could. But an expensive permit is required. That is how the resorts are allowed to have these items. It seems like the resorts on all the other atolls have more freedom and choices than the locals on Male. After reading these laws, I wasn’t sure what to expect when we ventured on land. I wondered what the people were like.
Walking Around Male
We dressed in conservative clothing. My husband wore kaki pants and a buttoned up short-sleeved shirt. I wore pants, a short sleeved shirt and brought along a long sleeve linen shirt just in case I needed to cover my arms. I chose not to bring a head scarf since I do not practice Islam and I did not read in any laws of this land that I required to do so.
When encountering a new culture, we are careful observers. Getting to know our surroundings and trying to read people. Maldivians are reserved but respectfully pleasant.
The women vary in their dress. Some wore the burqa, completely covered with their faces exposed; the younger females either wore a hijab which only covers the head, or nothing to cover their hair.
It was on a Friday that we first walked the streets of Male. Friday is the equivalent of a Sunday in the States. Not many shops were open. As we walked past the mosques, hundreds of shoes lined the entrance.
When we returned the next day, the streets were alive with commerce.
What to Do
The oldest mosque is called the Friday Mosque or Hukur Miskiiy. It was built in 1656 and is still used on special ceremonies to this day. The minaret is white with blue Arabic print. Gray aged headstones within the grounds are protected by a shoulder height wall. If you want a visit the inside of this mosque, you will need a permit.
To experience the inside of a mosque, visit the Islamic Center. It can hold up to 5000 worshipers and is open to all visitors, but not photography allowed.
If you like museums, the National Museum of Maldives contains a collection of pre-Islamic artifacts. The grounds of the museum were known as the Sultan’s Palace which dated back to the 17th century.
For the adventurous type, there is a surf break. If you have a surfboard or prefer body surfing, the local “artificial” beach is for you. Located just north of the airport ferry pier, you will find fully clothed swimmers and surfers enjoying the aqua blue waves–a perfect place to meet locals.
There are plenty of restaurants and coffee shops for dinning. My favorite was Jade Bistro, near the ferry piers. It had wireless available and decent pastries to complement coffee.
The Local Commute
Getting around on the atoll, most people walk or use scooters. There are cars and trucks here too, but don’t seem to dominate the roads.
There are ferries to get around from atoll to atoll. The atoll next to Male, about a mile in distance, is Hulhumale which is a twenty minute ferry ride and costs around $1 (USD). The airport is here along with a new community of sky-high apartment buildings. There is a restaurant above the ferry terminal and other services are sprouting up so it might be worth a quick visit.
A Pleasant Surprise
After spending a couple of days around Male and Hulhumale, we felt at ease with the people yet kept in mind the restrictions placed on us. The restrictions were to only visit atolls that were approved by the government and adhere to their curfews to be off the atolls (not Male) by 6:00PM.
The pleasant surprise came from the locals. They were reserved but pleasant people…even generous. At seeing the price of imported water, we inquired where the locals obtained their drinking water. Finding out that the Mosques provided desalinated drinking water, we went to the Hulhumale Mosque to check it out.
On the grounds was a white tiled structure with a water spigot. With our empty jerry cans, we started filling up our containers. As a local came up with his empty water containers, we were a bit nervous. What would he think of us taking water from the Mosque? We stopped filling our jerry container and let him take water. When he was finished, he took our container and started to fill it up.
There were no words exchanged, just an act of kindness. Those are the things we travelers leave with when visiting a country. The local landmarks and national treasures fade overtime, but the one guy that helped us fill our water tanks will always remain in our memories and hearts.