Population: 338,000 (UN, 2005)
Area: 298 sq km (115 sq miles)
Major language: Divehi
Major religion: Islam
Life expectancy: 67 years (men), 66 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 rufiyaa = 100 laari
The Republic of Maldives is the epitome of a dream that is “a sunny side of life.” The Maldives islands conjures an imagery of a string of white glorious pearls afloat a cobalt blue of infinity, which is the Indian Ocean. Its paradise beauty is utterly stunning and the shores are in the purest white that it has in the last couple of years earned the prestige of the “World’s Most Romantic Destination.” The world’s true jewel, it is a destination beyond all destinations. Unfortunately, such a paradise that bathed in crystal blue waters and washed in pristine blue waters comes with a price (a hefty one too!) with its appeal almost exclusively affordable to everybody well-heeled. Acknowledged on paper as possibly South Asia’s richest country, the locals, however, suffer a different side of life that translates to dark and cloudy. Indeed, the local lifestyle in a land battered by storms, possessing too thin a soil to carry out a harvest, is a far cry from the brochure pictures of honeymoon suites and first class service. But of the multi-billion dollar travel industry, the 300,000 or so islanders reap no benefits. It is the government’s battle now to integrate progress within the society.
GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE
In Maldives, life is a beach, with around 1,190 corals strung afloat a total area of 90,000 km2 in which a greater part of which is water, and only 298 km2 is land mass. The paradise is endowed with the deep blue of the ocean, white of the sands and corals, gold of the sun, and the marriage of colours from different species of foliage and marine life. The terrain of the lowest country in the world is generally flat beaches with the highest point only at an elevation of 2.4 metres on Wilingili Island in the Addu Atoll, thus causing some recent green concerns and policies to surface and be open for dialogue. In truth, it is one of the most vulnerable places, if not the most, to rising sea levels. The Kingdom of A Thousand Isles is on the geographic coordinates (3 15 N, 73 00 E) right in the middle of the vast Indian Ocean, sunny as ever with a tropically warm climate and a just-right temperature of 24 °C-30°C balanced out by the cool of the constant sea breeze. As the ultimate “winter escape”, the Maldives is heavily-touristed from the months of December to April but a little caution, from the months of February to April, the island is at its hottest in all sense of the word, and from June to August, the monsoon effects on the island with heavy rainfall. Regardless, there is absolutely no wrong time to visit the Maldives. As a nation that prays for future safety among the ocean where it lies, there can never be an exceptionally better time to explore this crown jewel than now when the sun is high and the waters are low.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
The small archipelago of South Asia holds a small community of 396,334 (July 2009) Maldivians from the ethnic groups of South Indians, Sinhalese, and Arabs with culture and traditions of their own. More than 300,000 of the population are faithful of Sunni Islam. Adult literacy stands at 99%, and while MALDIVIAN DHIVEHI, a dialect of Sinhala, is the language of the islands, ENGLISH is widely spoken, not only by the elite and government officials, neither for business and state matters alone, but by the general public. The traveller will be amazed at how engaging and conversant the locals are that you can have a chat wherever you are in the archipelago. They aim to entertain as hospitality comes naturally to the Malidivians.
So, no prior visa is required, and a 30-day visa is free upon arrival for all visitors, but the immortal question remains for the independent budget traveller. What is in store for the backpacker, our modern explorers? It ought to be known even at the bottom end, the Maldives still is not cheap. Well, Male has great budget choices coming in the midrange at $50 for boutique brands to economically and ecologically sound hotels, and top-of-the-bottom range at $90. The backpackers are a rarity in these parts really, but we’re talking a “holiday of a lifetime” and “best value for money”. The Maldives archipelago is worth going to more than once if possible before the 23-inch sea level rise (that is almost 2 feet of water). The Maldives is the place for the “package tourist,” but getting to know the islands is by going independent. Good planning and a sweet decent financial lubrication will just about do it for the budget traveller. As 40% of Maldivians live on less than US$1 a day, so can you. Tourist policies tend to restrict contact with the locals and the tourists, so it just makes perfect sense to have your authentic Maldives vacation in any of the 200 inhabited islands like Male, if you cannot afford to stay in one of the 80 resort islands. The honeymooner or the sun worshipper may find a paradise in other few inhabited non-resort islands like Viligili, Hulhumale’, Thila Fushi and Himmafushi.
It is in these non-resort islands you will find a real taste of Maldives. Maldivian cuisine is another word for exotic gourmet, or so they say. The first wave of European travellers did not like the food so the history of a Maldivian-sophistication begun. Traditional Maldivian cuisine, is entirely different from the Maldivian gourmet introduced in hotel restaurants, and is based on fish (tuna), coconut, and rice and other forms of starch. Dessert is another cultural experience because instead of a sweet jam or chocolate filling, fish meat nestles inside a puff pastry. Desserts show a tamer side to Maldivian gastronomy like Foni boakibaa, a baked sweet square dessert made with coconut, rice, flour, water, sugar and rose water. Banana in coconut milk, and watlappan, which is like a coconut custard with nuts are mild and lovely as well.
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