The overwhelming majority of tourists travelling to The Maldives just stay in a resort. What is less well known is the real culture behind this fascinating country. After developing a range of distinctive activities that let you discover Maldivian culture, we’ve listed our top 8 experiences.
1. Hedikaa on Villimalé and beyond
A traditional late afternoon snack, hedikaa is a range of bite sized treats served with with fresh black tea or coffee in Maldivian cafés. Also known as ‘short-eats’, the small meal is taken by friends when the temperature drops and the conditions are perfect for relaxing in the shade after a day’s work. Served tapas style, everyone is encouraged to tuck in and share bites from the same platter.
A range of spicy meat filled samosas, crunchy tuna rice balls, coconut-based onion rolls are served and each mouthful is a delicious treat. Cafes also serve sweet versions of the dish that are made from fresh pastries and honey of different colours. Surrounded by Maldivians going about their everyday life, sampling hedikaa is a wonderful way to absorb the local culture.
The different eateries serve their own variations of the food so you’ll never have the same short-eats twice. An insider recommendation is to have it at Marimba café on Villimale. It’s situated on an idyllic local beach with stunning views of the metropolis of Malé rising almost miraculously out of the country’s turquoise ocean. A sight to behold.
2. Island tours
A brilliant way to get under the surface of The Maldives is to go on an island tour with a local guide. They’ll be able to show you more about the way of life and provide insights into local customs. Wandering around, you’ll noticed that the pastel-coloured buildings have beautifully tiled doors – an architectural relic from the influence of 16th and 17th century Moroccan traders who brought Islam to the Maldives during this period.
You’ll also notice that many of the buildings have graffiti on them with political slogans. Democracy is still in its infancy and many Maldivians take pride in expressing their support for political parties. The two major ones you can try to spot are the yellow Maldivian Democratic Party and the pink Progressive Party of the Maldives.
Fishing is still a major industry in the country, which is 99% composed of water. You’ll have the chance to visit a shipping yard where workmen are building various fiberglass boats. You can also visit factories producing rihaakuru, what I call the Maldivian marmite. It’s a fish paste of a very thick consistency used to flavour curried dishes with rice. Made in vast vats, it’s a very typical addition to most meals and very Maldivian.
3. Learn boduberu drumming
A typical Maldivian style of music, boduberu is a type of drumming and singing heavily influenced by east African traders who passed through Maldivian waters hundreds of years ago. Usually performed by twenty people, it features one singer with a chorus singing in a question and answer fashion. The drums themselves are made from coconut trees and hit on either side. Joining in with a group of locals is a great way to get a sense of Maldivian culture and ultimately have fun in what is an engaging group activity.
4. Cook Maldivian food with the locals
Go inside a typical Maldivian home and learn how to make some of the wonderful fresh fish and coconut curries. The house itself will give you an insight into life on a local island, don’t forget to bring a pen and paper to note down the instructions and ingredients as you go through the lesson. This kind of experience is not an activity that can be offered by many, only specialist tour operators, so makes for a truly unique addition to your holiday.
5. Tasting food at Malé’s markets
Malé in Dhivehi roughly translates to ‘big blood’ which refers to the fish market that has long connected the north and southern atolls in the middle due to its strategic trading position. With your expert guide, you can explore the colourful building in which fishermen bring their top produce, fillet and sell them. Some of the tuna brought in spans over a metre in length and the skill and precision the fishermen have developed to carve up the fish meat is amazing.
Beyond the fish market is a large sheltered vegetable market where you can try various produce. Make sure you drink a chilled fresh coconut on entering and try the crisp-like snacks made from tropical fruit. They’re delicious.
6. Malé’s historic architecture
Malé has been a trading capital within the Maldives since the 12th century and has a long history with influences from the various traders coming and going from East Africa, Morocco, Arabia, Persia, Southern India, Sri Lanka and southeast Asia.
Discovering this city rising out of the ocean seemingly from nothing is an incredible experience. It is rough around the edges as a working capital, with a litter problem and high rise buildings dominating the skyline, but the hidden gems in the metropolis, including various historic sights and monuments, make the adventure worth it.
Male has dramatically transformed over the last century. It used to be composed of flat sandy walkways and low rise homes. Since the 1930s this has all changed as banks, hospitals, schools and the government were built with a national drive for modernisation. Nearly half of the capital is built now on reclaimed land and the country is constructing a second nearby island Hulhumalé. The government has called this spill-over island ‘youth city’ and is offering lots of subsidies for younng Maldivians to resettle there.
When visiting you must try to go to the Friday Mosque built in 1658 out of coral stones. A stone minaret once was the tallest in Maldives (until they built all the skyscrapers!) and the entire religious complex is tipped to be names a UNESCO heritage monument very soon. A few metres away is the Medhu Ziyaarai Shrine, dedicated to remembering Abul Barakaath Yoosuf al Barbaree, the Moroccan scholar who is credited for bringing Islam to the Maldives.
7. Fishing with Maldivians
A fun experience is to go fishing with a group of locals to earn your dinner. They are true experts at catching fish from long lines and will help you catch your very own. Transport is either in a traditional Dhoni boat or on a high-speed vessel that can whizz you past the resorts to a tranquil area. Do note that it won’t take long at all to catch enough for a BBQ back at your guesthouse.