The delights and dangers of a shoestring travel budget

By Zhao Xu ( China Daily ) Updated: 2017-01-21 10:01:19

On a Chinese website Zhang Xiaolei discovered two-way air tickets between Beijing and Male for 1999 renminbi ($290) in October. "Seized by excitement, I bought the ticket in a rush, only to realize, minutes later, that the price of the hotels were beyond my means," said the 34-year-old. "Because the ticket has a huge discount it was nonrefundable. That was the beginning of my crazy rendezvous with the Maldives."

After doing some research on must-visit website for serious frugal travelers from China-Zhang found his solution.

"Local islands, islands inhabited by native Maldivians, was my answer for cheap accommodation. I made a reservation through for a guest room for two on a local island called Maafushi. For the five days I was there I was ferried every morning by local fisherman from Maafushi to a nearby resort island and was ferried back every evening."

The accommodation, including breakfast and dinner, was $60 a day. The cost for transport was between $15 and $25, depending on the distance between the local island and the resort island.

"But of course the resort island is not open to non-staying tourists for free. I paid for about $30 for each individual one that I visited. There are more expensive ones if you like ... and I suppose there are also resort islands that refuse to open to any tourist who's not staying there for the night."

Overall, the strategy worked "extremely well" for Zhang, who, on the second day of his arrival, befriended a young man who had come to the Maldives to recover from love wounds, as well as a woman in her late 30s who has scuba-dived in some of the world's most beautiful waters.

"Biyaadhoo, that was where I had my most enthralling diving experience ever," Zhang said. "The fishes, whose reflective scales seemed to have melted into the sun, bumped constantly into my feet while colorful live corals swayed gently with the ocean flow, waving a million glow sticks around me. I bet this place will live up to comparison with any better-known diving spot in the Maldives.

However, Zhang acknowledged that traveling on a shoestring budget has its drawbacks. "No one from a hotel is going to pick you up at the airport in Male, so you have to schedule your plane every carefully, to make sure you won't miss the local ferries that's available only twice a day. And remember: no ferry on Friday."

However, even the most shrewd traveler could have miscalculated.

"The flip side of traveling on the cheap dawned on me when I felt like a slice of barbecued beef under the scorching sun," recalled Zhang, referring to the whole day he was forced to spend on a treeless island a quarter the size of a football field.

"As usual, we arrived at the island in the morning. But then, when the temperature started to rise, we called our landlord, asking if he could come and pick up early. The answer was a definite no.

Another thing Zhang complained of was the food. "I had the same fish for virtually every meal during my stay at Maafushi," he said.

Every morning, Zhang woke up to the call to prayers from a local mosque.

"From where I stayed, on the second floor of the guesthouse, we saw many white caps moving in one direction. But there's no doubt that the advent of tourism has changed local life fundamentally, and probably irreversibly. For one thing, the houses located on the outer fringe of the local islands-the part closer to the sea-have all been refashioned into mini-hotels."

The day Zhang left he finally found time to take a closer look at Male, the capital and biggest city.

"With brightly colored motorcycles charging on the streets, often against traffic laws, Male reminded me of cities in Thailand or Malaysia-chaotic and lively, rich in sounds and scents. The fish market stank and was filled with fish I'd never seen before.

"It's another side of the Maldives-mundane but equally memorable."

While staying on that tiny island Zhang became so bored and so sizzled up that he decided to swim around it. It took him two hours.

"The real effect of that swim became clear to me weeks after I left the Maldives, when my skin started to peel off. Now I have new skin, but it's not as white as it was before."

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