atolls of the perfumed waves

Around 1342, when Western seafarers were swapping alehouse stories about mermaids and sea monsters, the famous North African adventurer Ibn Battuta sailed into Maldives and described it as one of the wonders of the world.

He seemingly spent two years on the islands where he made friends and acquaintances of important members of society and royalty, dispensed advice on religion and gained position as an Islamic jurist. Although he complained about his frustration in trying to get the stubborn females on the islands to cover up their nubile forms, the journal of his wandering lifestyle as a slave-owning expat male cum casual polygamist may stir unintended social media outrage in today’s woke-sensitized readers.

He said:

"On the 2nd of the month of Shawwal I agreed with the vezir Sulaiman Manayak to marry his daughter. Then I sent word to the grand vezir Jamal-ud-din with a request that the nuptials should take place in the palace in his presence. He gave his consent, and in accordance with the custom, betel as well as sandalwood was brought. The people assembled but vezir Sulaiman delayed. He was called but he did not come and when called a second time he excused himself on the ground that his daughter was ill. The grand vezir, however, said to me secretly, ' His daughter refuses to marry and she is absolutely free to have her own way. But since the people are now assembled, would you like to marry the step-mother of the sultana, the wife of her father—that is, the lady whose daughter was married to the vezir’s son.  'Yes', I answered. Then the qazi and witnesses were summoned, and the marriage was solemnized and the grand vezir paid the dower. After a few days she was brought to me. She was one of the best women and her society was delightful to such an extent that whenever I married another woman she showed the sweetness of her disposition still by anointing me with perfumed ointment and scenting my clothes, smiling all the time and betraying no ill humour. After this marriage the grand vezir Jamal-ud-din compelled me against my will to accept the qazi’s post." 

From The Travels (الرحلة, Rihla)  or A Masterpiece to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling (تحفة النظار في غرائب الأمصار وعجائب الأسفار, Tuḥfat an-Nuẓẓār fī Gharāʾib al-Amṣār wa ʿAjāʾib al-Asfār)
Morning at the Jetty in Mahibadhoo Island where the black flowing niqab seems incongruous with sun, sea and sand.
Morning at the Jetty in Mahibadhoo Island where the black flowing niqab flutters incongruously with the sun, sea and sand.

Clumps of Octopus Bush (Heliotropium Foertherianum) on the beach sands of Bodukaashihuraa.

A late morning hermit crawling out of his hand-held home.

Sailing to Omadhoo on the local ferry

Young female football fans, Omadhoo Island

Arriving in Hangnaameedhoo Island

Striking the Maldivian Beach Pose, Omadhoo Island

The postcard perfect high tide view of Maldives, Bodukaashihuraa

With a bit of sailor’s luck, a present day castaway may find himself washed ashore, to one of its 1,190 islands and lagoons (only about 30% are inhabited) if he is shipwrecked halfway between the coasts of Sumatra and Somalia. The chains of coral reefs running two-by-two, that form the islands of Maldive are actually the tops of a giant undersea ridge that runs north from the Lakshadweep Islands off India’s Malabar Coast, to south at the Chagos Archipelago deep in the Indian Ocean.

The Maldives are like the tiniest ticks off the giant continental body of Asia. The physical size of all the 26 Maldivian atolls combined is a shade smaller than even Penang, but these fantasy islands sparkle and shine, like sprinkled glitter dust, scattered across a dreamy blue expanse of waters the area of Portugal.

The disappearing jurassic landscape of Bodukaashihuraa, an uninhabited islet that has been sold for development into a high-class resort.

Picking salad leaves from beach plants on the reclaimed island of Hulhumale

The Stingray feeders surveying the shallows at their sunset rendezvous

With an average elevation of around 6 feet, the Maldives is the lowest country in the world.

The Hulhumale riders

Mahibadhoo the capital of South Ari Atoll has a population of 2,500 living in well-swept single storeyed houses with small but tidy courtyards.

Coconut, watermelon, banana and some greens are grown but most food are imported

Bikinis and skimpies are only permitted in a limited beach area on inhabited islands where traditional mores prevail.

Pillion in the after-work rush. The capital Malé is the crowdiest city on earth with 78,000 people packed into one square km of urban space. Manila comes a distant second with 43,000 per square km.

Sun-dappled pathway to the beach, Omadhoo

Disembarking at Mahibadhoo from a neighbouring island by the morning local ferry.

Brothers on a buggy ride with mother, Omadhoo Island

Maldives is by law 100% muslim. No other religion is allowed on the islands.

The Tree of Life: Traditional Maldivian culture, folklore and of course cuisine are centered around the coconut palm.

Maldivian women are conservative in attire but the young especially are moderately secular in outlook and attitude.

Paragliding foxes

School girls on their way home after class

An Edward Hopper moment in Mahibadhoo

The football obsessed island of Mahibadhoo where many of the national players come from.

Smiling siblings on the sand

The grand Sea Hibiscus tree of Omadhoo Island

The bashful and beautiful young face of Maldives belies centuries of racial intermingling from across South India, Ceylon, the Malay Archipelago, Arabia and East Africa.

The hardy and salt-resistant vegetation of Maldives, Omadhoo Island

Finding Neemey: Our amazing guide and new friend who derived his maritime knowledge and love from his previous job working on live-onboard vessels scouring the ocean for prized Yellow-fin tuna.

Travel Tips

Maldives is world-famous but a latecomer in tourism. The first tourists were Italians who came fifty years ago in 1972. Now almost everyone dreams of Maldives as a paradise of blue waters, white sands and romantic celebrity-type getaways. This image is true to a large degree, but Maldives is not just a cluster of luxury resorts but a real and authentic country. It is a nation of oceanic people with a unique history, culture and language called Dhivehi.

For a full and true taste of Maldives, staying and spending time on local inhabited islands is recommended. If you do, even a romantic and comfortable trip for two to Maldives can be fairly affordable with some planning.

To find cheaper accommodation (from $60 a night) go off-season during the months of choppier sea and cloudier skies from April to October. Island-hopping will significantly inflate costs, unless you travel within one to two atolls (there are 26 atolls in total spreading over 800 km north to south) using the slow and infrequent service of local ferries. You will need to travel by the more flexible and faster private speedboats at least once or twice during the trip but pop a seasick pill 30 minutes before the ride if the sea is rougher than 22 knots.

Download the traveller declaration Imuga before you arrive at Velana Airport to save time, hassle and avoid paying extortion roaming charges.

Maldives is a jaw-droppingly beautiful and amazingly friendly country. To experience this, dress sensibly, show humility and respect local customs, as you would anywhere. It is simply the best sea paradise there is, even for non-beach lovers (I am talking about me here). The time for Maldives is now, go sooner before the crowd gets bigger, when people fully and finally wake up to the truth about the pandemic flu.

In our trip we stayed at these lovely accommodations:

In Omadhoo at the Hudhuveli Maldives, http://www.hudhuvelimaldives.com. Please call Nihan +960-988-3886

In Mahibadhoo, at the Dhamana Beach, http://www.dhamanabeach.com. Please contact Enzo +960-7329-228

  • All Pictures and Texts Copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2022

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