Mission It’s Possible: Enjoying — Not Just Surviving — Maldives on a Backpacker’s Budget (Part 1)

This is Maldives.

This is Maldives.

After the whole hullabaloo with my booking, it became clear that I was going to Maldives. I felt thrilled, then I started to worry. Unless you’re really loaded, Maldives isn’t a country you go to on a whim, right? It’s something you need to prepare for. In fact, some people think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime getaway.

Could I enjoy Maldvives on a budget? Was there such a thing as backpacking in Maldives? What an oxymoron that seemed to me!

But I wasn’t about to forfeit my ticket, not when I paid close to nothing for it. I wouldn’t have missed these:

AirAsia X business class section

AirAsia X business class section

Loads of legroom

Loads of legroom

Sweet dreams

Sweet dreams

AirAsia X’s business class was nothing short of awesome. The premium flatbed straightens out like an actual bed, and it’s adjustable so I played with the buttons like a little kid. I tried different angles and positions simply because it was a lot of fun (get your mind out of the gutter).

I prefer the aisle seat but for this trip, I snagged a window seat and enjoyed these views:

Such blue much clouds wow

Such blue much clouds wow

Prepare for landing / photo courtesy of Diane

Prepare for landing / photo courtesy of Diane

Touchdown

Touchdown

The food was delicious, too. I was given three options: chicken tikka masala, vegetarian meal, and beef lasagna. I don’t get to eat chicken tikka masala often so I picked that one. No regrets!

Yummy chicken tikka masala + side dish + dessert + drinks

Yummy chicken tikka masala + side dish + dessert + drinks

The sad news is that AirAsia X cancelled the Kuala Lumpur-Malé route beginning March 1 this year. There’s a silver lining, though: Tony Fernandes, AirAsia Group CEO, tweeted that AirAsia would take over the route from Air Asia X soon. There’s no update as to when this is supposed to happen, but let’s wait and see.

For now, you can book the Singapore-Malé route via Tiger Airways or the Kuala Lumpur-Malé route via Malaysia Airlines if you’re coming from Manila. Tiger Airways’ rates are higher than AirAsia X’s but they’re lower than Malaysia Airlines’.

Because my trip was Feb 13-16, my flights were still confirmed. I wanted to go to Maldives and experience AirAsia’s business class so badly that I promised myself I would make it work with a budget of 800 USD for 4D/3N. I hoped against hope it would be sufficient though it was hardly a backpacking budget (at least, not for countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia).

It turned out 800 USD was more than enough. I ended up spending 335 USD — and I didn’t deprive or inconvenience myself in any way!

Accommodations, meals, drinks, entrance fees, and transportation fees were already included in that total. Here’s how it went down:

1. We took the public ferry.

For Feb 13-16, the cheapest private resort I found was Fihalhohi. They had an available classic room with half board accommodation for around 240 USD all in per night. Half board means breakfast and dinner are included in the rate, while full board means all meals are included, sometimes even snacks and drinks.

This Fihalhohi deal was not a water bungalow but it was cheaper than what my friend Jana and I expected for a private resort. We were going to book it until the staff said the round trip speedboat would cost us more than the room’s per-night price! We would have to pay roughly 270 USD for a round trip speedboat that could hold a maximum of six people. Fihalhohi couldn’t find four other guests who could share the rides with us, so we would have to pay 135 USD each. That was the downside of traveling in a pair and not a big group. I couldn’t justify spending that much on a speedboat, and neither could Jana. Speedboat transfers are expensive in Maldives.

Next, we tried to look for a slightly higher priced private resort accessible via the public ferry, but we didn’t find any.

It was goodbye to private resorts for us and hello to Maafushi, an inhabited island. Our decision to stay in Maafushi was influenced by the availability of the public ferry. We were lucky our flight arrival and departure times were in sync with its schedule.

For your reference, here’s the Malé-Maafushi transfer timetable from one of the hotels I contacted:

Yes, 'available' is misspelled.

Yes, ‘available’ is misspelled.

Our flight arrived at 12:25 p.m. on a Thursday so we were able to catch the 3:00 pm ferry. If you plan to take the public ferry, make sure your flight schedule will allow you ample time to travel to the terminal. Otherwise, you’ll have to charter a speedboat, or stay the night in the capital city of Malé and catch the ferry the next day. Also, take note that there are no trips on Fridays.

Getting out of the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport should be fast and breezy. The lines weren’t that long even for peak season, and the immigration officer didn’t ask questions before stamping my passport. Filipinos are given free visa on arrival for a stay of up to 30 days.

I dashed out of customs without a problem, and at 12:50 pm, I was already in line at the money changer.

Jana wasn’t so lucky. She was leaving the customs area a few minutes behind me when one of the officers noticed her and asked her to step aside. He thought she was alone, so he started interrogating her.

Of course, she called out to me to prove to him she wasn’t by herself. But when the officer saw me, he asked two other officers to join him so that I could be interrogated as well!

It was a short but nerve-racking encounter. I didn’t hear what the officer asked Jana because I was being barraged with questions, too. I couldn’t remember everything, but here’s the gist of the inquisition I faced:

  • Are you married? No. This is my birthday celebration with my close friend.
  • Why did you choose to go to Maldives? It’s my dream destination and AirAsia offered cheap flights.
  • Are you going to work here? What? No, of course not! I have a great job back home.
  • What’s your job? I’m a social media specialist and copywriter.
  • Can I see your ID at work? Here, and I have a leave certification, too.
  • What kind of company is _____? I’ve never heard of it. It’s a multinational software company. Many of our clients are in the UK.
  • Where have you worked before? I worked for ***** as a trainer for almost four years.
  • Ah, I know *****. But what do you do for _____? I write for them and do marketing as well.
  • When are they expecting you to return? Feb. 17, as it says in the leave certification.
  • How much money did you bring? 400 US dollars.

The officer assigned to me shook his head and started tutting. I knew I screwed up — 400 USD is loose change compared to what other people are willing to spend on a Maldives trip. But I didn’t want to lie to him, and to be honest, the thought didn’t even occur to me.

With trembling hands, I pulled out my hotel voucher from Agoda and showed it to him. “We already paid for our hotel beforehand.” Then I grabbed my cards from my wallet. “Look, I have two debit cards and one credit card. I don’t like carrying cash with me,” I said as I almost shoved them under his nose.

He still looked dubious, but he focused his attention on my passport. By some miracle, the first page he opened to was my expired UK visa in my old passport. In my desperation, I seized the opportunity.

“See, I even went to the UK and came back!”

This seemed to satisfy him, thank heavens. He closed my passport, handed it back to me, and smiled with a wave of his hand toward the exit. He even greeted me a happy birthday, and the lone female officer who had been watching in silence said out of the blue, “I like your dress, it’s nice.”

Jana, being the active traveler that she is, was cleared to go as well. We lined up at the money changer in dazed silence, both of us rather traumatized from what happened.

I don’t blame the officers for thinking we were up to no good. To be fair, they were never inappropriate with their inquiries. Even the “Are you married?” question, when put in the proper context, was within reason. It was Valentine’s weekend, after all, and most of the people there were couples or families. Being the Asian women we are with no partners or kids in tow, we stood out like a sore thumb. I could see why we raised alarm bells in their head. Maybe they thought we were going to look for a job. At least they didn’t insinuate that we were drug mules or prostitutes. @.@

Sadly, that’s par for the course when a nonwhite female citizen of a third-world country travels abroad. But the important thing was we escaped with minimal emotional damage. It would have been devastating to be deported back home without stepping foot on a Maldivian beach!

So there we were at the money changer. The going rate was 1 USD = 15 rufiyaa, Maldives’ local currency. I had 400 USD in cash, but I exchanged only 50 USD to rufiyaa because I read somewhere that US dollars are accepted everywhere in Maldives. I wanted to have rufiyaa for small purchases.

Bill and coin

Bill and coin

It’s advisable to bring small US dollar bills (1s and 5s) because you’ll be using them a lot for tips, fares, and meals.

Jana and I were still not talking when we left the airport premises at 1:20 pm, but the sight that greeted us once we were outside dissolved whatever residual shock we felt and brought back our excitement.

The water is so clear and that's just the Hulhule port!

The water is so clear and that’s just the Hulhule port!

The airport is in its own island called Hulhule, so to reach Malé, we needed to ride an airport ferry. There were many speedboats waiting for their guests, but the ferry was easy to find because it was right outside the exit for domestic arrivals.

On the airport ferry

On the airport ferry

The ferry going to Malé runs every 10 minutes from 6:00 am to 12:00 am. It runs after midnight every 30 minutes up until 2:30 am, I think. The price for a ticket is 10 rufiyaas or 0.067 USD, but if you pay 1 USD, you won’t get change unless you specifically ask for 5 rufiyaas. From my experience, no one in Maldives gives out US cents as change, only rufiyaas. Sometimes, they don’t give change at all if the amount is less than 1 USD.

The ride was 10 minutes long (or maybe even less). We were already in Malé before we knew it.

Hello, Malé!

Hello, Malé!

The next thing we needed to do was to ride a taxi to the Villingili Ferry Terminal at the other end of the city. Taxis in Maldives have no meters and prices are in fixed rates. The first taxi driver we asked wanted 5 USD. He thought we didn’t know that the usual rate is 25 rufiyaa (1.67 USD). The next driver asked for 2 USD, but that was reasonable because we were carrying big bags.

We arrived at the terminal in 15 minutes as the clock was about to strike 2:00 pm. Traffic was bad in some parts, but it was nothing frustrating. I experience worse in Manila every single day.

If you think you can take up the challenge, you can walk to the terminal. Two people we met on the plane, Jesehl and Diane, skipped the taxi and walked for more than an hour with their heavy luggage. They thought the terminal was near, and by the time they realized they should have taken a taxi, they were way beyond the halfway point. They were sweaty and thirsty when they arrived at the terminal at 2:45 pm, but at least they were able to do it with a little time to spare.

We bought our tickets at the terminal and paid using local currency. A ticket costs 22 rufiyaa (1.47 USD).

Waiting area at Villingili Ferry Terminal

Waiting area at Villingili Ferry Terminal

We thought we would be the only tourists there, but we were pleasantly surprised to see other tourists of different races. Yay for fellow cheapskates practical people!

The ferry to Maafushi / photo courtesy of Jana

The ferry to Maafushi / photo courtesy of Jana

The ferry left at 3:00 pm on the dot. The trip lasted 1.5 hours, but I didn’t notice it because it was so smooth. We also passed by several private resorts, so it was fun poking our heads out of the windows to catch a better view.

Maafushi from afar

Maafushi from afar

On Sunday, the day of our departure, we took the 7:30 am ferry from Maafushi back to the Villingili Ferry Terminal. For the return trip, the ticket cost us 30 rufiyaa each (2 USD).

But instead of taking a taxi to the port where we would ride the ferry to Hulhule, we decided to explore Malé on foot. It was 9:00 am, and that left us three hours of free time before our 1:40 pm flight to Kuala Lumpur. When we were done touring Malé, we took the airport ferry back to Ibrahim Nasir International Airport.

Malé is unlike any city I’ve ever seen. It can be covered in half a day because it’s so small. It’s crowded and compact, and at times, it can be overwhelming especially when large cars barrel down the narrow streets, or when motorcycles dart in and out of all the free spaces they can find. But as chaotic as the city is, I found it quaint, perhaps because of its cobblestone roads and brightly painted buildings.

We didn’t have enough time to go to the wet markets, but we were able to get a feel of the city from the three hours we spent in it.

A street in Malé

A street in Malé

Wall art

Wall art

Barney Stinson would be so proud.

Barney Stinson would be so proud.

A mosque

A mosque

If your Maldives trip is longer than ours was, then I think it’s a good idea to stay at least one night in the city to see all the mosques and visit all the markets.

To summarize, here are the expenses I incurred from taking public transportation:

0.67 USD — airport ferry from Hulhule to Malé
1.00 USD — per pax share of taxi fare from Malé to Villingili Ferry Terminal
1.47 USD — public ferry from Villingili Ferry Terminal to Maafushi
2.00 USD — public ferry from Maafushi to Villingili Ferry Terminal
0.67 USD — airport ferry from Malé to Hulhule
________

5.81 USD

That’s a far cry from 135 USD for the speedboat!

2. We stayed in Maafushi.

As I already mentioned, we chose to stay on one of the inhabited islands, Maafushi. Inhabited islands are reachable via public ferry and their room rates are relatively affordable at an average of 100 USD a night. From my research, the most popular inhabited islands where tourists can stay are Maafushi, Thulusdhoo, Huraa, Himmafushi, and Guraidhoo. In the end, we chose Maafushi because it’s 1.5 hours away from the airport via public ferry, it’s near to places of interest, and it’s the first inhabited island opened to tourists. Thus, it offers more options compared to its later counterparts. But it isn’t fully developed yet. It opened to foreign guests just a few years ago.

The island's main road / photo courtesy of Jana

The island’s main road / photo courtesy of Jana

Take note that there are many affordable guesthouses in Maldives if you search on Agoda or Booking, but be careful to read the fine print! Some guesthouses are on inhabited islands so remote you have no choice but to take the speedboat or seaplane. If that’s your intention, then it’s all good. But it’ll be a nasty surprise to think you’ve scored a great deal only to find out you’ll need to spend 500 USD on a seaplane ride.

Another thing to take note of is that there are restrictions on inhabited islands. Maldives is a Muslim country, so if you’re going to stay with locals, you can’t wear a bikini (or even an ordinary one-piece swimsuit, for that matter), you can’t eat pork, and you can’t drink alcohol. These restrictions don’t apply to private resorts.

Don’t expect much of a nightlife, either, but I think that holds true for most of Maldives, not just the inhabited islands. Ibiza and Boracay are for partying; Maldives is for relaxing.

Also, the beaches of inhabited islands are not on the same level as the picture-perfect beaches you see in promotional shots taken at expensive private resorts. You need to spend on excursions to see those (more on this topic later).

We were okay with the restrictions, so staying in Maafushi wasn’t an issue. Although we couldn’t drink alcohol or eat pork anywhere on the island, we sampled the private white beach sectioned off for tourists. It’s a small area and it gets crowded fast, but women can wear bikinis in it.

But the real challenge was looking for the right guesthouse. There were many things we needed to consider: Should we stay by the beach? But if the beach isn’t that great to begin with, is it worth paying the price for a beachfront room? The room rates may be cheap, but how much are the excursions? And what if the service is terrible?

After almost three months of going over our options, we picked Arena Lodge Sky. This guesthouse is the sister of Arena Beach Hotel, a brand new beachfront property.

Facade of Arena Beach Hotel / photo courtesy of Jana

Facade of Arena Beach Hotel / photo courtesy of Jana

The staff at Arena Lodge Sky assured me that we could use all of Arena Beach Hotel’s facilities, so we figured it was a win-win scenario: We didn’t have to pay beachfront rates but we had access to beachfront amenities. They offered reasonable excursion rates, too, and with a high guest rating in Agoda, Booking, and Trip Advisor, we knew we wouldn’t be disappointed.

It turned out to be a great choice. Though the staff never responded to emails or social media comments — I had to call them up via Skype, grrr — the service they gave us once we were on the island was excellent. As soon as we disembarked, Arena staff met us to take our bags and bring us to the hotel.

They had wheelbarrows waiting for our bags. / photo courtesy of Jana

They had wheelbarrows waiting for our bags. / photo courtesy of Jana

Members of the all-male staff were accommodating, warm and polite. When they accidentally overbooked Arena Lodge Sky on Feb. 13 and had to put us in another hotel for the night, they were very apologetic. At first, I was pissed off, but I was pacified when they placed us in Shadow Palm, a more expensive hotel right beside Arena Beach Hotel. Then, in the morning, they helped us move out and transfer to Arena Lodge Sky.

Facade of Arena Lodge Sky / photo courtesy of Jana

Facade of Arena Lodge Sky / photo courtesy of Jana

Reception area of Arena Lodge Sky

Reception area of Arena Lodge Sky

Arena Lodge Sky is right in the middle of the island, about 10 minutes away from Arena Beach Hotel. We walked every morning to Arena Beach Hotel to experience breakfast with a view. It was the perfect way to work up an appetite.

The way to Arena Beach Hotel

The way to Arena Beach Hotel

The complimentary breakfast buffet was yummy and filling enough. There were eggs, bread, jam, butter, and sliced fruit — typical items found in breakfast buffets. They also served spicy curry-flavored noodles. If you’re craving for Asian flavor amidst the western breakfast options, then those noodles are your best bet.

My favorite item would have to be the fruit juice: no ice, but quite cold, and oh so fresh whether it was orange, watermelon, mango or pomelo.

Couldn't get enough of this!

Couldn’t get enough of this!

Then there was the coffee which was another one of my favorites. It was brewed coffee with a dollop of fresh milk, and they served it free until 11:00 pm (the time the kitchen closes). For each day we were there, I gulped down one cup in the morning and another one before bedtime.

And there was parotta, a kind of layered flat bread. When I ate it as it was, it tasted bland, but when I put in tuna flakes in the middle and rolled it up like a burrito, it tasted quite good. The neutral flavor of the parotta balanced out the saltiness of the tuna.

I could go on and on about food so I have to stop myself now and get back on track. In case you were wondering how much we spent for three nights in Arena Lodge Sky, it was 261 USD all in via Agoda. The guest tax (around 20 percent) and other fees were already included in it. Since the rate was for two pax, I spent 130.5 USD for accommodations. The 8 USD bed tax per person per night was waived. Not bad!

Maafushi itself was far from bad either. The stuff I read about it online was much worse than what I saw. I found the island clean and well-maintained. There was a visible pile of trash, but only in one area far from where the guesthouses and hotels are. I think that’s where they place all the island’s waste for later disposal. It would be better if it wasn’t conspicuous, but at least it wasn’t scattered in different places.

Maafushi’s beaches are pristine and white, including the public ones. True, they weren’t stunning like the other beaches we saw in our excursions but they’re worth a second look nonetheless.

A public beach in Maafushi

A public beach in Maafushi

The locals always smiled at and greeted us when we passed by. Some of them even offered us free motorcycle rides so we didn’t have to walk. They were genuine and responsive to our questions. I noticed that other tourists didn’t bother talking to them which was kind of sad. The locals were eager to chat, ready to tell us about the nearby islands we shouldn’t miss, or about the lives they had in their home countries. We discovered that many citizens from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and India go to Maldives to work. We didn’t encounter a Filipino worker in Maafushi, but we were told a lot of Filipinos are employed by private resorts.

Aside from its people, another highlight of Maafushi is its interesting sunrise that looks like a sunset.

Maafushi sunrise

Maafushi sunrise

Maafushi reminds me of an undeveloped Boracay. It’s not for party people, but for folks who want a quiet escape. When we were there, many of our fellow tourists spent most of their time lounging on beach chairs or beach towels. Some slept, others read books, while the rest listened to music in their earphones. Time seemed to stand still, and it was beautiful.

~~~~~~~~~~

Here’s a summary of my expenses so far:

130.5 USD — 4D/3N stay in Arena Lodge Maldives

Add 5.81 USD (the cost of public transportation) to this and we get 136.31 USD. I’ll round this off to 137 USD for the sake of simplicity.

The remaining 198 USD was spent on food, beverages and excursions which I’ll cover in the next and final installment. I’m currently writing it so please stick around for that!

P.S. Accommodations and transportation will eat up the bulk of your Maldives budget if you’re a backpacker. Once you have them out of the way, everything else is easy to sort out. This entry already addressed a big portion of your anticipated expenses, so I hope this alone will help you a lot.

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