An Apprehensive Arrival in the Maldives


Maafushi Island palm trees
Favourite palm tree.

“Oh no, you’re going to visit Maafushi? You’ll have to be very careful there.”

The taxi driver glanced over at me and I pretended to look concerned. It was 6am and we were on the way to Colombo airport, due to be arriving in Male within a few hours. I prepared myself to hear about how visiting a local island in the Maldives was far too dangerous for foreigners. Independent travel has only been around in the country for four years, so very little is known about it — most people still believe the only way to visit is via $500 a night luxury resorts.

I’d managed to find a few local islands with guesthouses — Maafushi, Fulidhoo and Guraidhoo — but with so little information online I had no idea what they were actually going to be like. I did, however, know that our driver was probably going to warn us about crime and advise us to visit a resort instead. A resort would be much better suited for foreign visitors. Somewhere where the beaches would be cleaned and the bugs would be exterminated and the water would be $10 a bottle.

“Why do we have to be careful?” I asked.

“Maafushi, it is not a good place to visit. I used to work on Maafushi Island in the 1980s. Before you were born!” He chuckled. “Back then, we called it Leprosy Island.”

“Erm, Leprosy Island?”

“Yes, Leprosy Island! There you will find a very big leper colony taking up half the island. That’s why it is called Leprosy Island. You need to be very, very careful there. Lots of leprosy there.”

I turned in my seat to stare at Dave with horrified eyes. Like always, he’d left me in charge with researching our new destination and I’d assured him I’d found some wonderful islands to stay on. I mean, it’s the Maldives! It couldn’t not be wonderful! Even with the lack of information about anywhere we were visiting.

Dave stared back at me in silence but I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Not wanting to hear the taxi driver tell us that Fulidhoo was actually Smallpox Sanctuary and Guraidhoo was otherwise known as Syphilis Cove, I didn’t ask for any more details.

I made a note on my phone to Google the symptoms of leprosy and pondered my imminent demise for the rest of the drive.

Maafushi Island palm trees
Maafushi Island: lepers abound!

“So, Leprosy, huh?” Dave said as we made our way through Colombo airport.

“Seriously, Dave! I have never come across it being referred to as that. I mean, there were only, like, three websites with any kind of useful information about Maafushi, but still! You’d think they’d warn against visiting if it was all about the leprosy, wouldn’t you?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. You did the research.”

It was true. I’d happily taken on all the research and failed in so many ways. I’d even forgotten to buy our flights to the Maldives.

Yes, two days before we were due to arrive, Dave asked me to email him the flight details and… I couldn’t find them. An hour of searching my inbox led me to nothing.

I had booked every single guesthouse for the next three weeks, I’d figured out what ferry transfers we’d need to take, and I’d even booked our flights out of the Maldives and into Thailand. And yet, somehow, I’d managed to forget our actual flights to the Maldives.

Hi, I’m Lauren. I’ve been travelling for three years. I’m a travel expert.

One day.

Leprosy everywhere
Leprosy everywhere

We landed at Male airport, and passing through immigration was surprisingly simple and low-key. We collected our backpacks and were greeted with an arrivals hall like no other. Rows upon rows of resort kiosks. I’d have to guess there were at least 100 of them. Probably more. I’d never seen anything like it.

I stopped for a moment to soak it all in. We were the only people in the airport with backpacks and were attracting quite a few stares, from locals and tourists alike. We were given even more puzzled looks when we passed the kiosks and stepped outside the airport. Unlike most visitors, we were going to be travelling in the Maldives on the cheap.

We walked to the nearby ferry terminal. Male airport is on an island outside of Male itself, so we had to take a quick trip across the water. It cost $2 for the ride across, and we were the only tourists on board.

Stepping off the ferry in Male, I was surprised to see no cluster of taxi drivers like there usually is outside of an airport. There was nobody there.

After wandering aimlessly down a few streets, we eventually found a driver and negotiated with him to take us to Male’s main ferry terminal.

Who knows what lurks behind a door like this? Hint: leprosy
Who knows what lurks behind a door like this? Hint: it’s probably leprosy

Transport in the Maldives had been an endless source of frustration while I was making plans. First, there are the horribly expensive options:

Speedboats: expect to pay at least $200 for a single speedboat journey in the Maldives. I was quoted a price of $130 for a 6 kilometre trip by one hotel.

Seaplanes: You’ll be looking at around $500 each way for these.

For budget travellers, the only option left is the local ferries. And the timetables are kind of complicated if you’re trying to plan an island hopping adventure.

There are 26 atolls in the Maldives and over 1000 islands to choose from. As I mentioned above, there’s barely any information about these islands online. No articles, no photos. There’ll maybe be a couple of sentences on Wikipedia if you’re lucky. I therefore planned my trip around which islands had guesthouses listed on Airbnb. I narrowed it down to three islands at random. Now I just had to work out how to get to them.

In the Maldives, the weekend runs from Friday to Saturday, and no ferries run on Friday.

I decided on Maafushi as our first island to visit. The ferry timetable showed that the ferry from Male to Maafushi runs “every week day”. We were arriving in the Maldives on a Saturday. Does “week day” mean the Maldivian week days, so Sunday to Thursday? Does it mean the Western week days, so Monday to Thursday? Or did it mean every day of the week but Friday? Fortunately, it was the last of those, but it took a few emails to a guesthouse owner to find out.

Next, we were going to Fulidhoo, on a different atoll. To Fulidhoo, the ferries run every other day. We’d planned to stay on Fulidhoo until Thursday but Thursday was one of the days when the ferry didn’t run. They didn’t run at all on Friday, so we’d have to leave on Saturday — as long as Saturday counted as a week day on this timetable, too.

And so on.

Itineraries were shifted around. Days on every island were extended. My head almost exploded countless times. And this was just a three week trip to three islands. I’d hate to plan anything more convoluted.

Maldivian ocean
Travel days in the Maldives always involve several hours of this.

Back to Male.

Our guesthouse owner on Maafushi had claimed that there might be a ferry at 10am, an hour after we landed. There was no record of this ferry online and, when we got to the ferry terminal, we discovered it wasn’t running that day.

With the next ferry not running for another five hours, we wandered aimlessly around Male in a sleep-deprived state.

Was this why nobody travelled independently in the Maldives? Was there no information online because there was nothing to discover but leprosy?

Had we made a huge mistake in coming here?

Previous Month 37: Travel Summary and Statistics
Next How to Travel the Maldives on a Budget: It's Possible!

71 Comments

  1. Cecilia - cycling around the world
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    Oooohhh, exciting! Can’t wait for the next part!

    • Lauren
      October 22, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks, Cecilia!

  2. Michelle
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    Oh no! I’m excited for Part 2 of this :)

    I recently made a mistake when booking airfare. I booked my name twice, and forgot to book my husbands. I realized it a week before we were supposed to leave. I was so happy I double checked because airlines are not legally allowed to change names on tickets so he would have been screwed!

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      Ahhh, I’m always terrified I’ll end up making mistakes like that!

  3. Emily
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    I look forward to your upcoming posts as I’ll be doing the exact same thing in a few months time! Best of luck!

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      Great! I hope my upcoming posts will help you out :-)

  4. Kristin Addis
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    Ha! I had no idea about that, either! I could have just as easily ended up there because I knew absolutely nothing about visiting the Maldives either before I went. What an awesome place, though and what a wonderful discovery it was to stay with locals. I look forward to reading more :)

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      Absolutely! It felt like win-win: save lots of money and experience local life!

  5. Kari
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    omg this is great! I am totally living vicariously through you right now :)

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      Glad you enjoyed it, Kari! :-)

  6. Andrea Anastasiou
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    Oh I do love a cliffhanger, although judging by your Facebook pictures I think it must have all gone well in the end :)

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      It did! :-)

  7. Turner
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    Maldives are definitely high on my list, but I’m thinking I just wait until I have several thousand dollars to spend and go all out.

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      I did that for a few nights and it was definitely fun, although I much preferred the cheaper method of exploring :-)

  8. Ashley
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    At least it looks gorgeous! Can’t wait for the posts that follow.

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      So beautiful!

  9. Rika | Cubicle Throwdown
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    I laughed the whole way through this – quite the adventure you guys got into! Can’t wait to read part 2. It’s really nice to know there are other options in the Maldives besides the $500/night hotels. I thought the only way I was ever going to get to visit was to work as a scuba diving instructor, but you are giving me hope!

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      You can definitely visit without having to blow a load of money on the resorts. Although, I don’t think working as a diving instructor there would be too bad either!

  10. Olivia
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    Oh my god, that sounds like an amazing adventure ! Haha… But i guess not so much fun living this than reading it… But on the bright side, you might help hundreds of people finding their way in the Maldives ! Including me (will read carefully every post)…

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      I hope so! :-)

  11. Ali
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    I can’t believe you forgot to book your flights to the Maldives! And your photo captions about the leprosy cracked me up.

    • Lauren
      September 12, 2014
      Reply

      It’s such a typical thing for me to do!

  12. Anxious Traveler
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    Surely leper colonies don’t exist anymore. I thought they were just something from the bible! I guess not! Showing my ignorance, I suppose.

    I think the Maldives sounds like a good choice as at least you now get to travel and explore properly without being guided by books and websites. Sounds like you’re going to experience a bit of culture shock though!

    • Lauren
      September 12, 2014
      Reply

      Yep, they do, though they’re pretty rare now!

      It’s fun to experience what it would have been like to travel without the Internet. It drives me crazy not being able to research anything :-)

  13. Dayami
    September 9, 2014
    Reply

    Lol why do I have the feeling that he meant something different with ‘leprosy?’

    Looking forward to hearing about the rest!

    • Lauren
      September 10, 2014
      Reply

      Nope, he meant leprosy. He was talking about leper colonies.

  14. Katie @ The World on my Necklace
    September 10, 2014
    Reply

    Sounds similar to when I was researching to visit the Quirimbas Archipelago in Northern Mozambique. We only had a week spare and it ended up looking too complicated and unreliable to try getting up there from South Africa so we decided to go another time when we had more of a time cushion. Looking forward to reading more in Part 2!

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      I’ve been put of visiting so many locations in the past because it looked like it was too difficult and too stressful to get to. I’m glad I persevered with the Maldives though, as it’s become one of my favourite travel experiences! :-)

  15. Nichelle
    September 10, 2014
    Reply

    This is intriguing! Sounds like a very tiring trip arriving at Maldives. I hope you were rewarded from your lack of sleep and almost unending sea travels. Can’t wait to learn how your entire Maldives adventure went through! :)

    • Lauren
      September 12, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks, Nichelle!

  16. Suguna
    September 10, 2014
    Reply

    Looking forward to the next installment, which hopefully involves hanging out on one of those gorgeous beaches!

    • Lauren
      September 12, 2014
      Reply

      I hope so, too :-)

  17. Laura
    September 10, 2014
    Reply

    OMG I absolutely love your blog! I am so inspired! This post was hilarious, cant wait to read more about the Maldives.

    • Lauren
      September 12, 2014
      Reply

      Thank you so much, Laura! :-)

  18. Catherine
    September 10, 2014
    Reply

    Ahh, you can’t leave us on a cliffhanger like that! What happened!?! I can’t wait for the rest of the story!

    I had no idea leprosy was still an issue, but there’s loads of places that still have these leper colonies according to Wikipedia, and apparently it can take 5 to 20 years for the symptoms to kick in if you catch it – that’s crazy!

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      I didn’t know that it could take so long for symptoms to show, either. And I really wasn’t aware that leper colonies were still a thing until I arrived! Next installment coming this week :-)

  19. Escaping Abroad
    September 10, 2014
    Reply

    With views like the one in the first photo I don’t care who I’m stuck on the island with… it would be stress free and nothing but fun!

    • Lauren
      September 12, 2014
      Reply

      Haha! Absolutely!

  20. Fran
    September 10, 2014
    Reply

    I’m so glad you’re writing this! It would be great to have first-hand tips on how to do this at a cheaper rate and whether it’s actually doable!

    • Lauren
      September 12, 2014
      Reply

      Definitely doable! Quite easy, too :-)

  21. Rachel of Hippie in Heels
    September 10, 2014
    Reply

    omgsh don’t you hate dealing with bad public transport!? sounds like some rural Indian buses! I’m looking forward to your island break down because I’m living so close and might end up going soon if there are affordable options there.

    • Lauren
      September 12, 2014
      Reply

      There are many affordable options! It’s no more expensive than the islands in Thailand.

  22. Casey
    September 10, 2014
    Reply

    Can’t wait to read the next part! I hope everything turns out well! :)

    • Lauren
      September 12, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks, Casey!

  23. Shaun
    September 11, 2014
    Reply

    I have been curious about budget travel in the Maldives. Thought it didn’t exist. Thanks for testing the waters! Will be interested to see how you make out.

    • Lauren
      September 12, 2014
      Reply

      It definitely exists! :-)

  24. KC Ang
    September 12, 2014
    Reply

    And naively I thought traveling through some Thai islands around Andaman sea is bad. But seems like you find a piece of paradise!

    In Penang, Malaysia, there was a leper island too! But now, there is a resort

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      Oh, thanks for sharing! I wasn’t aware of that :-). It was a bit complicated to get around the Maldives but it was also totally worth it!

  25. Jo
    September 13, 2014
    Reply

    Love the cliffhanger! I’ve never considered the Maldives as doable on a backpacker budget, but your photos on instagram are making me want to go so badly!

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks, Jo! It’s surprisingly affordable once you get away from the resorts :-)

  26. Rodrigo
    September 13, 2014
    Reply

    Very funny post!

    I’m looking forward to finding out whether travelling independently in the Maldives is a feasible option or not! The Maldives are gorgeous and right up my alley where climate is concerned, but I don’t really want to spend a fortune to spend a week or two barely leaving a luxury resort.

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks, Rodrigo — I’m glad you liked it! And fortunately, independent travel is a possibility and became much easier once I got to Maafushi :-)

  27. Meghan
    September 14, 2014
    Reply

    Sounds like an awesome adventure in a socially complex but deeply beautiful nation … can’t wait for the next part!

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks, Meghan! You described it well :-)

  28. Epic Gap year
    September 14, 2014
    Reply

    Can’t wait to read your final, hilarious review about Dave’s birthday trip!

    • Lauren
      September 17, 2014
      Reply

      Looking forward to writing it! :-)

  29. Helen G. Dickerson
    September 22, 2014
    Reply

    Thank you for sharing these! I can’t wait for my vacation at the Maldives. My friends and I are booked to go next year!

    • Lauren
      September 22, 2014
      Reply

      Great! I hope you have a wonderful time :-)

  30. Davy
    October 9, 2014
    Reply

    Just got your book e-mail and I know you’ve heard it before but you are an inspiration. I’ve visited a lot of countries (50) but I will still be getting your book as it’s is likely to be a fresh and honest account of a professional traveller – can’t wait. All the best to you and Dave – I hope some time I’m visiting somewhere you are so I can buy you both a drink, you deserve it. D

    • Lauren
      October 13, 2014
      Reply

      Thank you, Davy — that means so much to me! :-)

  31. GL
    October 15, 2014
    Reply

    I hope you can resolve my confusion. In AN APPREHENSIVE ARRIVAL IN THE MALDIVES you wrote: “We walked to the nearby ferry terminal. Male airport is on an island outside of Male itself, so we had to take a quick trip across the water. It cost $2 for the ride across.”
    And in HOW TO TRAVEL THE MALDIVES ON A BUDGET: IT’S POSSIBLE! you wrote: “We paid $0.60 for the ferry from Male Airport to Male.”
    Was the fare for the ferry $2 or $0.60 per person? Since I am going to Maldives it would be good to know the correct fare. Thanks.

    • Lauren
      October 22, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks for spotting my mistake — I’ll have that corrected now! It’s 60 cents to take the ferry from the airport.

  32. Maaaz khan
    November 15, 2014
    Reply

    Thanks lauren, while I was reading this article It was feeling like I’m there.. :)

    • Lauren
      November 18, 2014
      Reply

      You’re welcome. Glad you enjoyed!

  33. Sam Banks
    February 6, 2015
    Reply

    We are planning team visit to Maldives, your article will be helpful to us in planning the trip !!!

    • Lauren
      March 10, 2015
      Reply

      Glad to hear it!

  34. Maldivian
    September 26, 2016
    Reply

    So the picture of the door? Its a list of councillors to vote for during the elections :P

    • Lauren
      October 1, 2016
      Reply

      Ah, awesome! Thanks for letting me know :-)

  35. Sonal
    November 3, 2016
    Reply

    Hi Lauren,

    This is Sonal from India. I am planning to visit Maafushi this december on 13th. We have a cruise from male to India on 17th December so basically I have 4 days to explore Male. Please help with my itenanry and queries.
    So first I plan to visit Maafushi on 13th Dec, tuesday : Arrive Male airport at 10:30 a.m >> go to Male and stroll around before we get a local ferry scheduled at 2:30 p.m. to Maafushi>> 90 minutes ride so day at leisure>> selecting Water Breeze hotel as suggested by you.

    **second day 14th, wednesday > will try scuba diving in maafushi, snorkling and if other water sports are available,

    ** 3rd day 15th, thursday >> leave maafushi early morning local ferry to Male and book some hotel there as there’s no option to leave maafushi on Friday at a budget.
    ** 4th day 16th, Friday: I can check in my cruise at 2 p.m so nothing planned for that day

    now queries :

    1.What can we do in Male city, is scube diving an option in
    male?
    2.will not booking a resort at all, make Maldives visit a miss because visiting Maldives is all about resorts??
    3. Can we stay in Maafushi itself and pray that we could get some more people to travel on Friday back to Male , because in that case the speedboat cost will split?
    4. Also we already have a loads of relaxation time on cruise so what will be the best sports to indulge in Maldives.

    An early reply will help as we need to book resorts at the earliest.

    Regards,
    Sonal

    • Lauren
      November 4, 2016
      Reply

      Sonal,

      I’m not a travel agent, and I’m definitely not a travel agent who works for free. I don’t have time to sit down and research your trip options for you, especially as you can find most of these answers by googling them.

      1. I literally spent a few hours in Male and saw none of it, so I have no idea if SCUBA diving is an option. But if you google it, you’ll find the answer.
      2. It depends what you’re looking for on your holiday. I enjoyed my resort stay and I enjoyed my budget stay. They’re very different experiences, but guesthouses on local islands are just as much a Maldivian experience as staying in a resort.
      3. You could. Having never done this before, because I’ve only taken the ferries, I have no idea if it would be successful or not. I do know that Maafushi is now very, very crowded, so I’d imagine you’d probably be able to find people.
      4. I didn’t do any sports in the Maldives, so I can’t help with that. I went on a snorkelling tour, which I enjoyed, and that was it. You can google sports in the Maldives to see what options there are, or look at what your guesthouse offers when you book it.

  36. Inte
    September 30, 2019
    Reply

    Oh goodness. People will say anything to relate and advise. I am a Maldivian and let me tell you about where the leprosy talk came from. In the early 1900s Leprosy was becoming a globally problematic disease. The prevalence rate of the disease has dropped by 99% globally since then with eradication programes and cures. Leper colonies are documented all over the world including the USA during those ages. However, its the 21st century now. Over the past ten years an average of seven new cases were reported in the entire Maldives.

    As for the history of leper colonies, islands such as Guraidhoo had secluded areas where people suffering from leprosy were isolated in, during the 1900s. No such colonies now. I am 28, live in the capital and I have traveled to almost all the nearby islands including Maafushi, and Guraidhoo. There are no such colonies now. The reason I know about the history is through Television dramas have been made regarding such stories which is documented in Maldivian cinema.

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