Maldives: Exploring Asia's smallest capital

By Chris Pritchard

Tourists often bypass Male, the capital of the Maldives, in their hurry to get to the country's outlying resort islands. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Shahee Ilyas
Tourists often bypass Male, the capital of the Maldives, in their hurry to get to the country's outlying resort islands. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Shahee Ilyas

An ancient ceiling fan whirs and squeaks above me. Just outside the open window, calm blue sea sparkles in bright sunlight. Behind a desk sits a tourist official.

"So many foreigners take their holidays here in the Maldives," he says. "But very few come to Male."

Tourism is the Maldives' biggest industry. But, incredibly, most of the half-million tourists who visit this Indian Ocean nation annually miss out on exploring its cute capital.

Male, with fewer than 100,000 people and arguably the smallest capital on a continent where mega-cities dominate, is used to being overlooked.

In fact, Vientiane, the Laotian capital, is often described as Asia's tiniest - but it's much larger and is more accurately called southeast Asia's smallest capital.

Male's only true rival is better-known Thimphu, capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. The two have similar numbers of people, though Thimphu's population is sometimes boosted by the inclusion of people living on its outskirts.

Most sources agree Male is slightly smaller, possibly because living on its watery outskirts isn't possible. Male doesn't have a beach. Capital of a country famed for gorgeous beaches, Male - occupying an island of two square kilometres near the airport (also an island) - makes do with an artificial beach composed of sand brought from other islands.

The Maldives, with 350,000 people, comprises 1190 low-lying islands - of which only 200 pinpricks are inhabited. About 100 islands are resorts, generally with isles to themselves. More resorts are planned.

Male, unsurprisingly, has hotels of its own. Some are more business-oriented than the resorts. Guesthouses attract backpackers, even though the Maldives features on relatively few backpacker itineraries because it pitches itself squarely at well-heeled tourists - and far cheaper options are available in nearby India and Sri Lanka.

Some opulent Maldives hideaways discourage Male visits, telling tourists they'll be wasting a day that could be better spent lazing at the resort. But others encourage day trips, providing daily boat transfers.

Farther-flung resorts rely on sea-plane connections to the airport, meaning Male visits often require overnight stays. But strolling in Male, I encounter several travellers who've tagged on a night or two at local hotels before or after outer-island resort stays.

Male is a place of narrow, neat streets winding from the interior to the sea. Motor cycles suit it and are much more common than cars. I step from a ferry onto Boduthakurufaanu Magu, which - fortunately for anyone unable to speak the local Dhivehi language - is usually referred to simply as "the waterfront".

Guides approach offering walking tours, but politely leave when I say I'll be exploring independently.

"Don't forget the Fish Market," smiles one guide as he turns towards another visitor.

Office workers, most toting mobile phones, emerge from mid-rise office towers along the waterfront. T-shirts and handicrafts hang outside souvenir shops. Small malls sell fashions and beachwear, mostly from India and Sri Lanka.

My map takes me to the contemporary-style Islamic Centre, opened 28 years ago. It includes a vast Grand Mosque which non-Muslims are welcome to visit. A guide appears to tell me about a facility he says was bankrolled by Saudi Arabia.

The Islamic Centre's spacious starkness, though attractive, impresses less than nearby Hukuru Miskiiy (Friday Mosque), built in 1656 and the oldest place of worship in the Maldives (where Islam is the national religion). Its interior features intricately carved coral and wood. Next door is Medhuziyaaraiy, burial place of Abu-al Barakaat who brought Islam here in 1153.

Ambling further, I reach a small park where the National Museum is located. Despite its grand title, it is smallish and within a former Sultan's rather humble palace. Nonetheless, it oozes charm and gives an interesting overview of Maldivian history. It is overshadowed - in size, at any rate - by a near-neighbour, the Presidential Palace.

Highly-ranked among Male's sights, it blends modern Islamic design with Maldivian touches. A former president's residence, its current role is as presidential offices and a locale for receiving foreign dignitaries. A walk back to the waterfront takes me past offices, small shops and houses from which people peer through slatted shutters.

Male is for living as well as working. A stream of shoppers spills from the Local Market. Squeezing through the throng, I wander inside - discovering it crammed with fresh fruit and vegetables, mostly shipped from Sri Lanka and India. Not much grows on the Maldives' sandy atolls.

I'm popped from the crowded market like a cork from champagne and - recalling my would-be guide's waterside instruction - head next door to the Fish Market (another to-the-point name). It's mid-afternoon. Dhonis (Maldives-style boats) are arriving back in port.

Only tourism is a bigger industry than fishing. Many varieties are caught but tuna, much of it exported, is the most economically important. Fishermen stagger, large tuna draped over their shoulders, across the street - a daily boat-to-market procession that ends where dealers and other Male residents haggle over prices.

Watching this sweaty activity makes me thirsty. On a crumpled note I find an Australian friend's scribbled recommendation: the outdoor waterfront restaurant of Male's Nasandhura Palace Hotel. It's a short walk. Called Trends, the restaurant is a hang-out for fashion-conscious Maldivians. It reminds me of a beer garden - but no beer is served. Alcohol is forbidden in Male (though freely available to tourists on resort islands).

On my way to Trends I pass numerous small restaurants from which waft tempting aromas. Some are, in local parlance, "short eats" (snack) outlets. A mango smoothie revives me enough to visit the remaining attraction on my list: Male's quirky artificial beach. This band of white sand was a governmental response to residents' complaints that only foreigners at expensive resorts had good beaches.

The beach, at the island's eastern end, is much used for carnivals and concerts. Young Maldivians gather here, as they do at Jumhooree Maidan, a grassy palm-studded downtown rectangle - also called "independence square" and "republic square"- which seems immensely popular for picnics.

Daytrippers return to their resorts in time for sunset cocktails and few visitors remain in Male. I gaze out to sea as tourist vessels head towards the horizon. A few straggling fishing vessels are still arriving at the port. Souvenir shops are shuttered by dusk.

The Maldives' seaside capital is somnolent once again.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Many Asian carriers connect through their home cities. Convenient routes are through Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.

Staying there: The Maldives has many resorts, some more opulent (and expensive) than others. Male's hotels attract a mix of business and leisure travellers.

Further information: See visitmaldives.com or tourism.gov.mv.

The writer was a guest of Sri Lankan Airlines and Anantara Hotels, Resorts and Spas.

- AAP

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