Most people dream of becoming castaways during a trip to the Maldives, going there to get away from it all. But it seemed a shame to leave this delightful young country of a half-million people without experiencing its culture. The Maldivian government does not generally encourage tourism outside of the resorts, but it is possible. And I resolved to do it.
Malé, the capital, is one of the world’s densest cities, with a population of more than 140,000 living on an island that’s barely a mile long and half a mile wide. It attracts very few tourists, because resort staff discourage visits by insisting there’s nothing to see there. Teeming with motorbikes, this miniature tropical Manhattan has a noticeably young population. They crowd its narrow lanes of brightly colorful buildings, some of which bear graffiti, giving the city an edge.
Among the sites worth visiting are the 17th-century coral-stone Friday Mosque, the Islamic Center (Malé’s most emblematic building), Sultan Park (great for people-watching) and the National Museum, architecturally undistinguished but containing beautiful wood carvings. Located a stone’s throw from Jumhooree Maidan, or Republic Square, the fish market is also very much worth a look as the busy showcase of the Maldivian fishing industry, the mainstay of the local economy for centuries before tourism. Adjacent to the fish market is a small fruit market selling the produce of the very few working farms in the Maldives, including mangoes, papayas, guavas, bananas, watermelons and coconuts.