The Maldives on a budget…

 

The Babymoon. My new favorite concept in travel. It’s that window between 12 – 24 weeks in your second trimester where you’re still energised. The ‘last time’ you and baby-dadda will ever have the freedom to holiday for while. Ha – Who are we kidding! But it’s the perfect excuse for country #62… The Maldives.

If anywhere lives up to the google image of itself, it’s here. #NoFilter – sums it up perfectly. We chose Rasdhoo island, because of it’s proximity to the hammerhead shark dive site. A place where you can see black tip reef sharks, turtles & sting rays whilst snorkeling at 5 meters. It reminded us of Malupascua and/or the Gili Islands. No cars, 6 guesthouses, 3 restaurants, 2 stray wooden sun-loungers & 12 or so tourists, max.

Our top 5 Maldives survival items; 1) A gripping book (Gillian Flynn’s brilliant Gone Girl) 2) Snorkel 3) Travel scrabble 4) deck of cards.

wpid-img_20141112_170129.jpgAnd 5) As it turns out…. an engagement ring for a surprise proposal on the beautiful Mandivaru sandbank island!

Come on, it’s the MALDIVES & we’re both beach-bums at heart. We had to really :) X

 

The practical stuff

wpid-img-20141112-wa0002.jpgOn a budget

When I say budget, I mean we spent less than $1000 USD  for 7 nights. (Total, not per person.) The price of an average resort is $1050 USD per night! It’s not quite backpacker prices but it’s definitely do-able on a budget. Not just because alcohol is banned, although this helps on the old purse-strings.

As a rough guide:

Flights: $280 USD return pp from Singapore – Tiger Airlines
Rasdhoo Island Inn $26 USD per room including all taxes. Highly recommended
Food: $5 – 6 USD for pp for noodles or rice (your only option!)
Ripple Beach Hulhumale $72 USD per night.
Seahouse Topdeck Villingili $50 USD per night.
Scuba Diving: $60 per dive at Atoll Divers. Great instructors. Ask for Ronny.
Day trip to picnic island: $20 USD per person

M3Which island to choose…?

The Maldives has around 5 ‘inhabitable islands’ which have recently opened up to tourism, meaning you can now DIY your own trip at guesthouses instead of the all-inclusive resorts. However piecing together the ferry schedules is half the battle in picking your island.

The public Rasdhoo ferry is dirt cheap at less than $5 USD for a 3 hour ride. It runs x3 times a week, just not in harmony with Tiger Airline’s flights. A private speedboat to Rasdhoo costs $450 – 500 USD or the seaplane similar at $250 USD per person. We booked a shared speedboat through out guesthouse for $40 USD one way pp, leaving 3 times a week from Male South West Harbour. Forget the chaos ‘Fiji/island time’, our boat (The Crystalline) was super smooth & super punctual, taking exactly 1h 20 mins Male to Rasdhoo.

wpid-img_20141108_195310.jpgMale, Hulhumale & Villingili…

Be warned; The entire country grinds to a halt for Muslim prayer time. Male has to be the only airport with zero taxis, since we arrived during Friday prayer. If you’re at a resort you get to do the super cool exit; dashing straight from arrivals into a speedboat, which practically meets you off the tarmac. If you’re like us, you’ll need a extra night in Male either side of your flight. It’s a good excuse to check out two more islands; Hulhumale and Villingili. Both are rustic, local, worth checking out for half a day, but somewhat overpriced at $60 USD+ for hotels. Villingili was the nicer of the two for it’s house reef & decent restaurant; xhi xhi.

Male city itself is tiny, busy, colourful, nothing to get excited about. Our only notable hour there was to hit up HSBC, which surprisingly only dispenses Rufiyaa not USD. You can use either currency everywhere and ask for change in whatever you prefer. Shops give a good rate of 14 or 15 Rufiyaa to the USD.

wpid-img_20141111_163614.jpgThe Verdict…

Traveling the Maldives independently was interesting, budget-friendly, and above all; easy to do! It’s a friendly, punctual and hassle free in a way that many South East Asia countries have lost over the years. What’s intriguing is that on the DIY islands locals absolutely don’t pander to tourists in anyway. You feel welcome but it’s not ALL about you, which is relaxing, refreshing or maybe just more real than most holidays.

As for the baby/pregnancy factor; it’s perfect, if you don’t mind the odd speedboat & reef shark! And besides, when in your life do you ever want to be on a tropical island and not mind that it’s alcohol free!

Istanbul, Turkey

Since I spent most of my time in Istanbul sick as a dog & confined to our hotel (Deniz House) I should really poach some photographs and tales from the BF, who made his Australian pilgrimage to Gallipoli, famous for it’s WWI battle and the origins of ANZAC day. Here are a few quick ones from when I did venture out into Sultanahmet, to The Blue Mosque & the Grand Bazaar.

The Trans Siberian Express

For anyone googling ‘Trans-Siberian’ the 2 big questions are normally:

Q) How long? How much?

The long answer is – it totally depends! Use Lonely Planet and absolute guru of train travel; http://www.seat61.com for anything and everything to do with planning.

The short answer (for me) – 3 weeks & approx 600 euros for tickets. 4 stop offs; Ulaanbaatar/Irkutsk/Yekaterinburg/St Petersburg. Here’s how it was…

Train #23 Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (29 hours)

Compared with train travel elsewhere in the world (ahem, India) China trains are Orient Express standard; clean, spacious, no family of 7 piled onto your berth. They have dining carts Hercule Poirot would be pleased with. The food is cheap (3 – 5 USD) and beer $2 USD. In other words; all perfectly pleasant. And that’s kupe (2nd class.)

I caveat this by the fact that you’re still rudely awakened by the off Mongolian farmer offering to share pre-packaged salami with you at 5am, but that’s part of the joy of shared 4 berth compartments after all.

Since this first leg is all exciting and new, all us tourists are happy staring wistfully at the view for hours on end, photographing every tunnel, tree and cow for the first 1000 KM. Unlike some inner China routes (See Chengdu post) the landscape isn’t as grey & industrial as you might think. It’s quite green with striking looking wind turbines running off into the horizon at sunset. Everyone settles in, talks to their english speaking neighbours, shows a new-found delight in Beijing instant noodles from the free hot thermos in each cabin. Good times.

Lessons from train #23; No matter the time of year, the heating is up to tropical. Pack lighter than you think. Strategise your toilet breaks. The train toilets are locked 30 mins either side of every station and (as I leant the hard way) for up to 6 hours on the China / Mongolia border. Opt to alight whilst they change bogies (wheels) at Erlain/Zamyn Uud.

Train #263 Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk (34 hours)

Rumour has it; the higher the number, the older the train. Not true! The 263 was brand new since May 2014, and the best train of our trip. We lucked out with nice cabin mates too; Louise; a UK teacher from Hong Kong and Bovvy; an english/russian speaking Lithuanian. Entering Russia is so much easier with a translator! We kicked back with a long game of Scrabble washed down with Skittle vodka.

Lessons from train #263: Catch the fast train! The #263 spends most of its time stationary, including a staggering 11 hours halted at the Russian Mongolian border. It’s not unpleasant, as you’re allowed off to explore the border towns, Sukhbaatar and Naushki. However the twice weekly 2pm fast train west catches the most scenic stretch of track ; Ulan Ude to Irkutsk, during the daylight hours.

Train #79 Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg (52 hours)

Lessons learnt from train #79? Don’t miss train #79!!!

It all started with a hydrofoil in Listvyanka. Or hydro ‘fail’ as we’ll call it. Shane and I have travelled to 90 countries between us yet we make the monumental mistake of not checking it’s destination before we board. Instead of turning right to Irkutsk, it veered left to what we’ll call the ‘Shutter Island’ of lake Baikal. Bolshie Koty is a roadless coastal hamlet with 1 return ferry every evening and a 20 km hike back to the nearest civilisation. Despite flashing the USD and pleading with local (drunk) fishermen to charter a boat, or row ourselves back in time for the train, we were stranded. We softened the blow by drinking our remaining vodka in the sunshine and leaving our Visa MasterCard to take the hit buying replacement tickets when we made a mad dash back to Irkutsk 3 hours later than scheduled.

Lessons from (replacement) train #43: Thank you to Natasha, our Russian law student saviour who helped us out enormously by translating our desperate plee to buy last minute tickets at the station (entirely possible,) and for showing us that you can pay 100 rb to wait in the VIP lounge. Not only are they beautifully decorated like turn of the century grand ballrooms, with comfy sofas that feel like heaven at 3am. We got our train karma back with a 4 berth kupe to ourselves for 52 hours. Score.

Train #71 Yekaterinburg to Saint Petersburg (34 hours)

It’s quite cool that each train is unique. We were thrilled that this old cabins featured small shelves on the upper bunks; aka our minibar. After 5.5 days on board it’s all in the detail. This last leg goes to prove just how comfortable you become being rocked to sleep, even in carriage 1 next to the engine. It helps that we had lovely old Russian lady kupe mates who hardly made a peep, content with their Sudoku puzzles. A very peaceful and lovely arrival into the beautifully European Saint Petersburg.

Lessons from train#71: The dining cart is always a guaranteed hilarious outing. Plus it actually feels like you’ve had a night out. We ended up drinking beers and being taught the very confusing card game of ‘Durak’ by a group of 21 year old Russian soldiers, who adopted us with so friendliness and inquisitiveness they practically delivered us to our hotel when we arrived.

So after 1000 KM, 130 hours & lots of Baltika beer, here are my final top 10 Trans-Siberian tips:

1) The dining cart rocks! Don’t miss it. So many blogs claim it’s expensive, but it’s worth a $20 USD meal and bottle of red to feel the romance of the rails. Apparently the first 19 century rail carriages came with a piano bar & marble bath carriage. Treat yourself!

2) Learn to recognise a few letters of the cyrillic alphabet, if only to recognise the station names. There really is zero English outside of Moscow & Saint Petersburg.

3) It sounds like an adventure in theory, but 6 – 8 days non-stop from Beijing or Vladivostok is a mighty long time. Even if it’s just for half a day, plan some stop offs!

4) On some Russian trains the difference between 2nd and 3rd class seems non-existent, despite double the price. One benefit can by that Kupe tickets are swappable for free if you’re delayed, but it’s kind of pot luck.

5) Netflix

6) Dried fruit, dried noodles, chocolate. Our 52h train didn’t have a dining cart! Always have supplies.

7) Factor in at least 1 stop within 7 days of entering Russia to officially resister your visa. It’s a pain but a mighty fine if not.

8) It’s a well-known joke that no one on the train ever knows what time it is. Trains and station all follow Moscow time, so local time can often be +4 hours. It’s pretty weird, especially in summer when its broad daylight at midnight. Either set misc time zones on your phone, or like us; just forget time completely! You sleep and eat pretty constantly anyway :)

9) I hate to say it, but prepare some thick skin. Russian provodnitsas (train attendants) can be the rudest women on the planet. They’ve perfected the art of the shrug and scowl. Our experience was that anyone actually employed in customer service in Russia has the attitude of an angry hitman. Don’t take it personally.

10) The Trans Siberian is rewarding.  Asia to Europe overland feels like an awesome achievement. China, Mongolia & Russia are crazy, challenging & amazing in equal measure. However it’s also gruelling, hard-core and not for the faint hearted. Most backpackers we met were seasoned wanderlusters. It’s an absolute must for all of us that appreciate it’s not about the destination at all, but as De Botton would say; the art of travel. From Russia with love x

Saint Petersburg, Russia

wpid-img_20140719_175307.jpg My top 5 spots;

1) The church on spilled blood; the postcard shot it’s gem covered onion domes, even without the snow.

2)  Udelnaya Fair; the flee market of all flee markets. Vinal, funature, antiquies, leather bags. Real one-off finds, but no logic to the pricing. Bric o brac could be $1000 rb or $10 rb depending on the seller.

3)  Kazanskaya street cafe’s, namely Zoom and Soup Vino.

4)  Peter & Paul’s Fortress beach for ridiculous Russian fashion spotting.

5) White lights festival on a summer’s July night; seeing the bridges rise in almost broad daylight at 1am, and the view from Teressa roof terrace.

Where we stayed; https://m.airbnb.com

Pic of the week; Yekateringburg, Russia

The Church Upon the Blood, the Romanov Death Site from the 1918 murder of Tsar Nicholas II.

The Church Upon the Blood, the Romanov Death Site from the 1918 murder of Tsar Nicholas II.

Previous Older Entries

An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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