When you think about Maldives, you’ll think of white sandy beaches and villas that sit above a gorgeous palette of turquoise waters. Oh, and a price tag that will probably cost a kidney and then some, since Maldives is synonymous to a super atas holiday.
So when AirAsia told us that they wanted to take us (plus few other writers from other publications) on a 4D/3N trip to Maldives under RM2,500, we were naturally skeptical. Sure ar? Everyday eat eggs and cucumber? Sleep at the bus stop?
Well, we actually ended up swimming with a shark and turtles, went looking for dolphins… stayed at some really nice hotels, ate delicious Maldivian food, and had beaches aaaaallll too ourselves as if we rented private islands!
How? Well before we get there, a disclaimer first! We eventually learned that we’ll be going on a share-basis, so this RM2,500 budget is calculated based on sharing per pax. Accommodation prices are shared by 2 pax. Excursion prices are shared by 8 pax, so do expect to pay slightly more if you’re coming as a couple, or pay less if your group is bigger than 8 pax.
So here’s what we learned on our thrifty little trip to Maldives:
1. On average, an off-peak flight averages at about RM599
It seems like AirAsia is the only flight operator that has a direct flight fro KL to Male (capital of Maldives), and it cost us about RM599 per pax for a return ticket. It’s an off-peak price, so that’s why it’s actually pretty cheap. Do note that the price fluctuates according to the schedule, so we’d suggest that you play around with the dates until you get a price that you’re happy with.
The flight itself also takes about 4 hours, so pre-book your meals (or buy on-board at a more expensive price) if you think you’re gonna be hungry on air.
There are other operators that you can try, like Malaysia Airlines (serviced by Sri Lankan Airlines) or TigerAir, but these flights have at least one stopovers.
For AirAsia, there is only one flight which leaves at 6:55pm (KL time) and arrives at 8.10pm (Maldivian time). The airport is situated on Hulamale’ Island, which is just a 15 minutes ferry ride away from Male (the capital of Maldives). Both islands are pretty small (maybe the Damansara area) or something… and they’re about as far as Penang Island is to Butterworth. Fun fact: Hulumale’ is 100% reclaimed land!
Anyway, once we arrived, we saw that…
2. EVERYTHING is in USD! How to be “low-budget”?!
Whoa. Everywhere we turned, it was all USD, USD, USD. Wei our MYR dah lah so weak already, with a terrible conversion rate of x4.3, how are we supposed to stick to our budget?
But as internet addicts, we had to do the most important thing: buy a local sim card!
The airport has two main telcos (turn right as your exit the departure hall) – Dhiraagu and Ooredoo. Both telcos have traveller sim cards that are super easy to use: just buy, put it into your phone, and you’re done. At the Dhiraagu counter, we weren’t even asked to register!
If you can’t see the prices above, here are the plans Dhiraagu offers tourists:
- 3GB data – 7 days, USD15/RM65 (+USD1 for tax)
- 15GB data – 7 days, USD20/RM86 (+USD2 for tax)
- 15GB data + credit worth USD6.50 – 14 days, USD30/RM129 (dunno how much extra for tax cos nobody bought this)
Ooredoo has similar prices, just about a dollar higher or so. Explains why it was very empty though…
For a country separated by a LOT of water, you’ll be surprised just how strong the signals are. It’s even better than some of our own telcos! In tiny little Rasdhoo island (where we eventually stayed), there were not one but TWO telecommunication towers. Patutlah we could still Instagram while in the middle of the ocean.
3. You WILL have to stay a night near the airport
After we got our sim cards, the hotel rep picked us up and took us on a 5-10 minute drive to our hotel.
Now, note this. Travellers WILL have to stay a night at Hulumale’, since most flights reach Maldives at night. The boats that go to the other islands mostly leave in the day, so you’ll either have to sleep in the airport (not sure if that’s allowed TBH) or find a simple place to spend the night.
As for us, we stayed at UI Hotel, a simple B&B with comfortable rooms and basic amenities – towels, air cond, fan, TV, soap and shampoo, phone… There was also a public beach behind us.
4. Food isn’t cheap, but it’s very Muslim-friendly
As we walked around, we saw some pretty familiar sights: mamak, ‘nasi goreng’, mosques, and even Malaysian products such as Life ketchup and cilisos!
We’re surprised that not many of our Malaysian Muslim friends didn’t even know that Maldives is actually a 100% Muslim country. Islam is their main religion, although their history has seen some bits of Buddhism.
Most shops are actually closed during Friday prayers too (and some the entire day), so if you need something, try getting it before or after Friday just to be safe.
We also couldn’t find a single drop of alcohol – not even Shandy – apart from them being privately sold at resorts. Some covering up of the body is also necessary, especially if you’re at a public beach. Private beaches, however, allow bikinis and swimsuits… just remember to put on a shawl or a short dress when you head back.
5. Over-water villa? You wish la! Try the Maldivian life instead
We checked out at 9:50am and were sent to the jetty (which is actually the same place as the airport) for our boat ride.
Maldives is made up of 1,200 islands, but only 200 are inhabited. (Corrected) There are some pretty popular islands, like Maafushi (which apparently can get pretty packed with tourists during peak season) and Koomandoo, but we stayed at the Rasdhoo Island instead. It’s very small – maybe the size of Mid Valley area – and not very popular, but it’s got its appeal.
There are various ways you can get to Rasdhoo:
We splurged a bit on this one and took the speedboat, which was, oh my gawd, TERRIFYING. We were gripping the bench, trying not to fly off our seats… but there were locals who were just playing with their phones and READING A BOOK! (Whattt?!!)
After an hour we reached the pier and walked to our resorts. Sharing the same owner, the first hotel we stayed in was the Holiday Garden Rasdhoo. At USD70 (RM301) a night, we got a cosy room with a soft queen-sized bed, a modern bathroom that came with a bathtub, WiFi, and a breakfast meal. The little hotel is single-storied, so there are only less than 10 rooms.
The next night, we switched to Shallow Lagoon Rasdhoo which was just round the corner. Also at USD70 (RM301) a night, we got a king-sized bed, a spacious room with a balcony, a modern bathroom (sans bathtub), WiFi and breakfast too. It’s double-storied, but still, less than 10 rooms available.
The difference between staying in a luxurious over-water villa and something more budget-friendly like the two above, is that you’ll be closer to the Maldivian life. Around us were little houses (oddly, most of them abandoned or empty) and teeny tiny shops. Walking around the island, we got a glimpse of what it’s like to be a native at the Rasdhoo Island –
And although not part of the package, the owner of the hotels also surprised us with a night performance of traditional Maldivian sing-and-dance.
We also got to eat some delicious Maldivian food, which if we were to describe in three ways they would be: simple, tuna-heavy, and wonderfully flavourful.
6. The waters and sea life, as expected, are BEAUTIFUL
So part of our itinerary were a couple of snorkelling sessions and a visit to a nearby sandbank. And really, all those photos you’ve seen of Maldives, are exactly what you’ll see when you’re here.
The waters are INCREDIBLY blue everywhere you look. If it’s not turquoise, it’s a deep dark blue. The sands are soft and white, and at certain beaches it was even cream-like. In fact, it’s even clear and turquoise-coloured at the busy Hulumale’ airport pier! *gives sideye to Klang River*
There were loads and loads of beautiful coral reef and aquatic life. During our snorkelling sessions, we even managed to spot three turtles, a shark and a sting ray!
Just a general PSA: if you’re going snorkelling, DO NOT touch the marine life, even if your guide encourages you to. Do NOT attempt to grab turtles and take selfies with them. Even if you think you’re not killing them, it’s still bad behaviour and completely against diving guidelines.
We also had the chance to experience a complimentary ‘Discovery Scuba Diving’ program (approx USD60/RM259) by some really nice guys at Rasdhoo Scuba. Just to be clear, this wasn’t in our initial itinerary… We were supposed to spend the time chilling by the hotel lounge but they offered it for free and we couldn’t say no!
It’s a 15-minute experience where you’ll get to taste the dive life at pier. Armed with a goggle, flippers and an oxygen tank, we descended down – about 3 metres – and learned how to breathe through the tank while swimming alongside some fish and a sting ray. It was definitely the highlight of our trip… In fact we’ve gotten bitten by the dive bug and now this writer is signing up for a PADI Open Water course in August!
If you’re keen to dive at Rasdhoo, we’d definitely recommend these guys cos they have the best-looking shop (err the others looked a little run-down) and have tailor-make dive trips. Which means, if you wanna see manta rays, they’ll tailor a trip to see manta rays. The rep also told us that if you don’t see manta rays, they’ll try again the next day.
7. There IS a risk of bad weather
Not gonna lie to yall – if you want to enjoy Maldives on a budget, you gotta look at off-peak monsoon seasons (May – October). The best time to visit Maldives is actually between November – April, but you can be sure that prices can be pretty steep, overall.
It rained every day while we were there, but thankfully, most of these wet sessions were merely light showers. Very unlike the Malaysian rain!
In addition to the rain, one of the speedboat rides was hella traumatising as the waters were choppy AND all windows had to be CLOSED to keep us dry. Combine that with 20 people, and you get a speeding box of humidity with its contents (read: us) being shaken like Missy Elliot. Plus vomit.
But despite the less-than-favourable weather, light showers didn’t stop us from heading out to sea. We were still snorkelling and enjoying ourselves at the sandbank, and a bit of cloud in the sky made for a comfortable time under the mid-day sun.
There was only one time evening when it got a little bit too heavy and we had to cancel our dolphin-sighting trip! We tried again the next morning, but the reps told us that it would be a 50-50 chance of spotting them… we ended up on the boat for an unfruitful 2 hours with no dolphin in sight.
8. But the best part is, you can sometimes even get a place all to yourself
The upside to visiting Maldives during an off-peak season? You’ll still feel like a prince/princess. The sights that we were brought to were so empty, it felt like we were on a fully-private beach reserved just for us.
A Maldivian friend also told us that during high season, popular islands like the Maafushi can get super crowded to the point where you’ll see more tourists than locals!
And because there are so many different islands in Maldives, chances are, you won’t be bumping into 90% (agakration) of the other tourists. It’s very unlike Phuket or Krabi, where the excursions are similar across all tour operators, meaning which you’ll be sharing your sights with a hundred other tourists.
Verdict: Great place, great people, but you’ll need a bit of perseverance (and great company)
Budget travelling isn’t for everyone, but this would be suitable if you love the sea and don’t mind living the simple life and the occasional raindrop. As for ourselves, we wish we had spent a little more time to learn more about the Maldivian culture. There’s a LOT of hype on their beautiful beaches and villas, and while it’s merited, we just feel that there’s more to Maldives than its outward beauty.
Sure they’re a young nation, much like Malaysia… but their history seems rich and impossible to ignore. They’ve been inhabited from as early as 1500BC, and according to the Persians and Arab travellers, this beautiful place was once ruled by women. How interesting is that?!
Anyway, we can’t say that you’ll enjoy it the same way we did, because being a media trip, we were well taken care of (especially by the ground sponsor, ALL H Maldives, which brought us around when needed. Thanks guys!).
But if you’d like to try this budget trip yourself, here are some other tips:
- Just change to USD. We couldn’t find Maldivian Rufiyaas in Malaysia, despite having ordered some at a money changer.
- PLAN AHEAD. Trying to “wing it” may work in more affordable places like Thailand or Bali, but definitely not Maldives.
- Water is usually served in bottles and can be expensive (sometimes USD5!), and we’d recommend bringing it along with you at all times. If you’re checking in luggage, maybe tapau some bottled water from a kedai runcit or something. 😛
- They speak English pretty well, so learning basic Maldivian phrases isn’t thaaat important.
- Cover up when you’re in public. Be respectful to the Maldivian culture and their religion.
- Be the first to smile. Some of the people we met along the way initially didn’t seem very friendly, but once we said hello or smiled to them, they smiled back just as wide… if not wider