A tiny island, densely crowded with motorbikes, bustling business people, stern-faced policemen, hawkers and crisply uniformed school children, Male’ (mar-lay) is the modern, mercantile face of the Maldives that few people take the time to see. Overlooked by brightly coloured tall thin buildings and surrounded by incongruously turquoise water all around, this is the centre of the Maldives, the engine driving its economic progress and the forum for the country’s (stifled) political debate.
Far smaller than the neighbouring airport island of Hulhumale’ – where long-haul flights land on a runway that dwarfs the main avenues of the capital – Male’ nevertheless feels like an important place, where the economic, political and cultural leaders of the republic congregate, where nearly all the country’s massive number of exports arrive and where more than a few expats and travellers find themselves from time to time. That said, Male’ is interesting to visit mainly for a taste of Maldivian life more than for its inherent wealth of things to see and do. Independent travellers (or FITs as they are known locally) will find that this is a place they see a lot of – it’s also one of the few places where palm trees and sandy beaches aren’t on the menu.
Male’ is pleasant and pleasingly quirky – its alcohol-free bars and restaurants jostle with its incredible array of shops and lively markets (imagine that in this tiny space all imports into the country are administered and sold) and the general hubbub of a capital is very much present. This is a chance to get a real feel for the Maldives, what makes its people tick and to meet Maldivians on an equal footing.