Scenes from the sandbox of Mui Né

When the 4×4 jeep we were in rolled on the national highway we could see nothing else but a sky of midnight blue. Our driver, Vu, disturbed the morning with EDM music blasting on the stereo and all I could make out of the surroundings were hazy silhouettes of trees and a hundred tiny lights floating on the sea beside the road. It felt like a music video for Avicii except it was 4:30 in the morning and all four of us were still half asleep and shivering from early morning chills.


Mui Ne is a coastal town in Southern Vietnam famed for the big waves on its beach and sand dunes.

The day we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, we immediately boarded a sleeper bus that would take us to Binh Thuan province. After an uneventful 6 hours of travel time on top of a 3-hour flight after a 5-hour delay caused by an outgoing storm in Manila, the four of us decided to take things slow for the rest of the day. We only had exactly 24 hours to spend in Mui Ne but everyone agreed that a leisurely stroll around town, a few hours in the resort’s lukewarm pool, and a strong dose of Pho are exactly what we needed to get our energies back up in time for our half-day tour the following day.

Our alarms simultaneously went off at 4:00 AM, and as schedules, Vu was waiting for us outside the resort thirty minutes later. Today’s agenda: Mui Ne’s famous sand dunes.


We rented ATVs to get around because it would take too damn long and tiring to explore by foot.

To avoid the heat, we chose to start our tour at 4:30 in the morning in time to catch the sunrise at the White Sand Dunes.

To avoid the heat, we chose to start our tour at 4:30 in the morning in time to catch the sunrise at the White Sand Dunes.

Each ATV rental costs around P700 and it's good enough for two people.

Each ATV rental costs around P700 and it’s good enough for two people.

I couldn’t help but sing some lines from ‘A Whole New World’ because aside from the sand, it really felt like we were outside Southeast Asia.

The sky gradually transitioned to a subtle periwinkle. Light emerged from the horizon and poured itself over to the white slopes of wind-ssculpted sand which we saw from a far distance. Soon enough, we found ourselves driving ATVs across a great sandbox, destroying the peace with the rumble of our engines and swooping past people who decided to explore the dunes on foot.

Lines from Aladdin’s popular romantic ballad played on loop inside my head, an unavoidable thing to do when you are surrounded by what seemed to be an infinite amount of sand. We went over, sideways and under on three wheels, instead of a magic carpet ride. I drove my ATV to the tallest hill and watched as tiny strangers created patterns with their footsteps across the vast landscape. The coordinates of where I was standing can be traced with a flick of my finger, but the scenery tricked my mind into believing I was in the middle of nowhere. But regardless of my position, I was clearly in awe. It was hard to believe we were still in the same country known for streets overrun by motorbikes. There, it was just us and that enormous Saharaesque landscape.

I was in the middle of a vast sandbox. I could just lay there for hours as long as the sand’s not too hot.


It was also my first time to operate an ATV and despite my dislike for anything too fast and furious, I had an amazing time on it.

While most tourists prefer renting motorbikes to get around Mui Ne, we opted for a 4×4 drive around the countryside. Besides none of us knew how to drive one.


The white sand dunes is located an hour away from the center of town but is certainly worth the trip. Half-day tours cost $10 per person during lean seasons.

What was supposed to be a 30-minute ATV ride extended to 60; but that single hour was all it took to make up for the stress we accumulated the previous day. The sun soon caught up with us and we decided to move on to the next spot in hopes of avoiding the morning rush of tourists. But in our heads we knew that was already the highlight of our day.

Unlike the white sand dunes, its much redder sibling is located just 10km away from the main resort strip of Mui Ne, making it more accessible to the public. And the more people it attracts, you are certain the more scammers flock the place.

It is populated by lady vendors making a living by balancing two plastic buckets of local delicacies on their shoulders, and a bunch of kids who are infamous for persistently offering plastic sheets to use for sandboarding. We avoided the pesky toddlers, because according to many online reports, they are notorious for stealing from tourists while pretending to assist them in the dunes. Instead, we approached one of the Vietnamese women who sold us their local version of taho, only instead of the sweet arnibal, it uses lemongrass and ginger syrup, which I personally prefer because of the play of sweet and tangy flavors on my palate.


The yellow sand dunes is closer to the main resort strip, but because it’s open to the public, there are more people here than its white, much bigger sister.


Flocks of middle-aged Vietnamese women can be seen wandering around the sand dunes carrying baskets of treats for the tourists.


One of the ladies was selling a dessert similar to our Taho, but instead of arnibal, they use ginger and lemongrass to achieve an interesting flavor.


These women barely understood any English so we weren’t able to get the names of what they were selling.

With the day’s temperature quickly rising, the four of us wrapped things up and didn’t bother any further explorations of the place. Based on experience, the sand would be scorching our soles in a matter of minutes after being exposed to too much sun. Besides, compared to the one we went to earlier, the red sand dunes seemed like it’s only worth a half-hour visit.

Vu then drove us to the quaint fishing village at the north end of Mui Ne bay but the lack of activity in the area made me feel like he just dropped us off at a random dirty beach where empty shellfish and plastic trash littered the shore. It was a Sunday in Vietnam and the fishermen were probably having their day off, leaving the beach bland and boring.

As the day progressed, the beads of sweat forming around my head doubled. The heat started getting its way into my nerves, making me more anxious to get back to the hotel than finish the rest of our tour. That’s the problem when you have too much fun way early in the day. Everything else seemed to fall short and there was no way to get the energy back after the morning’s adrenaline-filled activity.


Used shells and trash washed up on one of the fishing villages.


One of the few fishermen left by the shore.

Our last stop for the day is a stream that winds its way through sand formations that resembled a mini Grand Canyon. Barefoot, we treaded on ankle-deep water and followed the tiny river while looking at the striking colors that accompanied us on the way. To our left, red and white walls of sand towered over us while vibrant green vegetation with an occasional pop of lavender can be seen on our right. Above us, nothing but blue skies.

The scene came straight out of a fairy tale which is probably why the locals named it the Fairy Stream, only, at the time we were there the only fairy spotted was myself. Even though it only took us half an hour to enjoy the scenery, I left the stream feeling refreshed.


One of the guardians at the entrance to the Fairy Stream


This enchanting place got its monicker because it looked like it was drawn out from a fairy tale book.


Locally known as Suoi Tien, the Fairy Stream is a small river that winds its way through canyons made entirely from sand.


Toney and his head-to-toe poses at one of the mini canyons of fairy stream

Mui Ne delivers and is clearly one of the highlights of my Vietnam trip!

Mui Ne delivers and is clearly one of the highlights of my Vietnam trip!

Still playing his favorite club music at maximum volume, Vu parked his jeep in front of our resort around 10:00 in the morning. Glad that we still had a couple of hours left to burn before checkout, I quickly disrobed and jumped in the pool, recalling my satisfaction in the past day’s activities.

I liked Mui Ne and the fact that we didn’t have to rush despite the limited amount of time we had to fit everything in. 24 hours was just right for us at the time, but after coming back to Manila, I felt like I wanted to get to know the place more even for just another night. The place had enough sizzle. But it also has the ability to simmer you down like a lover that kisses you sensually after a hot, raunchy ride. It keeps you interested and curious for more. But you don’t feel the need for a second affair anytime soon.

Mountain dew: Traversing Mt. Batulao

Greasy hair, scum underneath my fingernails, the smell of dried sweat on my clothes, insect bites, sleeping on uneven ground, cramped tent space, and holding in my bodily wastes for hours until I find a cleaner throne. As much as I like busting out a sweat outdoors and pretending to be a forest nymph tramping in the woods of a mountainside, the physical discomforts of camping is the main reason I prefer day hikes than staying for the night.


Feeling refreshed by the view. Mt. Batulao was the first mountain I summited back in 2013, and the second for this year.

We received an email from Smart Mountaineering Club, the official outdoor adventure club of Smart Communications, to join them for a fun climb at Mt. Batulao. For us daily grinders that work for a subsidiary of Smart, it served as an invitation to be part of their elite mountaineering group whose weekly training means taking the stairs to their office at the 32nd floor of Smart Tower. #Intense

But it was more than another opportunity to climb. Given the chance to have proper outdoor survival training and be a part of a group whose idea of fun involves reaching a stunning view at the end of the day is something I’d take in a heartbeat. Suddenly, almost 30 of my colleagues at work signed up and we were divided into three groups where I was voted one of the Team Leaders because they thought I had the most “experience” in the mountains. Had they known about my misadventures I’m pretty sure none of them would trust me with any important decisions.


Horses tread the narrow trails to and from the campsites, which explains all the random shit one needs to watch out for while trekking.


My Team! (L-R) Paolo, Arvin, Anna, KL, Aaron, Julia, Iris, Alex, and Penelope.


Being one of the most visited dayhikes near Manila, the trails in Batulao are well established. I still recommend hiring a guide though.


At some stop overs, kids will be selling bottles of Mountain Dew to tired mountaineers at P25 each.

The last time I climbed the muddy trails of Batulao I was wearing slip-on shoes that made the trek twice as troublesome as my footwear kept getting stuck on the mushy earth with every step. But that was me circa 2013. Now, I’m glad I invested on decent equipment and apparel after several trial and errors outdoors. One time, instead of a backpack, I brought a tote back on a hike and one can imagine just how inconvenient that was.


With the help of Smart Mountaineering Club, we planned to traverse the mountain from the Old Trail to the New Trail.

Anyway, by the time we reached the campsite, after a little over an hour of trekking the dry trails that were occasionally dotted with horse shit and cow dung, our team immediately prepared camp after lunch. Since we were there for a traverse, we knew that we were only halfway done for the day. We were back on our feet a couple of hours later as we headed for the final assault to the summit which was mostly composed of steep ascents that pushed our calves to breaking point.

I panted and gasped for air. My legs screamed for a break every 5 minutes. This last stretch was the toughest challenge in the entire traverse and I was clearly out of shape for it.

Our campsite. The green tent is where I shared the night with officemate, Julia.

Our campsite. The green tent is where I shared the night with officemate, Julia.


After setting up camp, we started the steep ascent to the summit. Even though I had the most experience among my colleagues, the hike still took its toll.


One of the highlights of the Old Trail feature a rope-assisted ascent during the final stretch which may look daunting at first but is actually easy.

This old trail was much more challenging than the one I took a year before. Steeper slopes and rope-assisted ascents included. Good thing the gloomy skies loomed over our heads with clouds that saved us from the potential heat of the sun and stayed that way until we got back to the campsite before dusk. Having the presence of guides from SMC also made the experience more amazing and less strenuous than it should. They were able to motivate everyone in the group, which were mostly first-time climbers.

My strong team of 9, plus 2 SMCnoys FM and Kris, arrived first on the summit and we were welcomed by thick white mist that surrounded the entire peak. We were enveloped in clouds, it seemed. In a matter of minutes the rocky peaks of Batulao appeared as the fog moved on to another place in the sky. Strips of sunlight peeked through the sea of clouds above us, giving emphasis to the contours of this mountain’s famous peaks. Soon enough, we were no longer alone at the mountain top. One by one the rest of our party emerged from the tall grass that fenced the summit and everyone was able to share the view of Batangas’s scenic landscapes.


FM, our Team Leader from SMC who went on ahead to the summit while we finished the last challenging obstacle.


Aaron with a magnificent view of Batangas in the horizon.


Bird’s eye view of the iconic rock formations of Batulao’s peaks illuminated by the sun’s rays peeking through the clouds.


On a high as Chito, our climb organizer who introduced us to SMC, waves his arms for a photo op. We are eternally grateful!


The fearless pooch that scaled the steep ravine at the summit. We feared for his safety but I guess he was used to the height already.

We all had to go down eventually. It took a few bottles of Mountain Dew, a dozen of halo-halos, a plateful of turons, and several more minor peaks at the new trail before we ended back at camp.


Our local guide, Erwin (R), resting atop one of Batulao’s peaks beside his friend.


The standard refreshment available in Batulao. Other huts have halo-halo and fresh buko juice.


We had good weather all throughout the day. Not too hot, not too cold.


Exhausted, we got back to the campsite before it got too dark and in time to prepare dinner and socials.

We dined underneath the stars. Dinner was made up of chicken adobo, quinoa, pesto pasta, and plenty of hot coffee to go around. The night was filled with conversations and alcohol (or just more coffee on my part). The full moon watched over our heads until each one fell into slumber inside their respective tents. The uneven ground was not enough to keep my tired body from succumbing to the solitude the night offered. The kind of atmosphere you only get hundreds of meters above sea level.

The next morning, I woke up with my hair all entangled and greasy. The ends of my fingernails still black from all the dirt stuck underneath them. The clothes on my back smelled like yesterday’s adventures and I haven’t taken a dump since I left Manila 24 hours ago. But I’d do it all over again.

The places I have come to miss the most: El Nido

Back then, it was like a dream. I would wake up at 6:00 in the morning and hear the waves gently crashing right outside our room and it would feel like the water could reach the foot of our beds, sweeping our slippers away out into the sea. The ambient sound of the ocean soothes as nature plays one of its lullabies in an attempt to put us all back to sleep. Each time the tide would break on the shore my consciousness would slip a little. I stretched out my arms in protest and headed straight for the veranda in hopes of catching my first sunrise in El Nido.
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El Nido was everything I expected it to be, which is nothing short of the paradise that most travellers boasted about on their journals. The town itself is a haven for western backpackers and despite its notoriety for being a place for people with deeper pockets, my experience proved otherwise. Having a tight budget did not rob us of an amazing experience getting lost among the hundreds of limestone cliffed islets dotting the Bacuit archipelago.

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On our first day, we had to swim underwater and through a narrow opening in a rock wall to reach the secret beach that inspired Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, which was written while the author was in El Nido. Our second day involved riding a tricycle to Nacpan where we spent that one perfect afternoon lazying at the beach. On the third, we paddled through the famous lagoons on a canoe and ended the day waiting for my third sunset in Palawan.

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There, after an overdose of vitamin sea underneath a blanket of blue skies, the sunsets brought a feeling of uneasiness. Yet none of us were seasick. ”I don’t like sunsets,” Brenna said, “it means something good is about to end.” And sure enough, a lot of things have ended. Some taking longer than it should have.

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That El Nido trip was enough to fill an episode of my life with clips marked for future references and behind the scene footages that should never be aired. An episode tagged as one of the best in history despite the downward emotional spiral that it caused afterwards. An episode archived in my memory drive, waiting to get overwritten with one having a better script. Same setting, different cast.

Because back then, it was all a fantasy.

This is part 1 of a series about all the places I miss.

Of expensive houses on stilts

They looked like ordinary wooden houses on stilts. Well, technically, they are. Back home, people who live in water bungalows (sans air-conditioning and breakfast in bed) are plenty and considered to be below the poverty line. Here, a night inside one would cost you almost $200 for two. And this was the cheapest resort we could find! What a difference in geography and lighter shade of sand can make.


Fihalhohi is one of the last islands of South Male Atoll and is 45 minutes away from Maafushi if you take a speedboat.

We transferred to Fihalhohi Island Resort just for these water bungalows, convinced that we needed a photo op with these ridiculously priced huts in the background to make our Maldives experience more legit. Because we won’t see anything similar anywhere else in the world, right? Heh.


The only access to these island resorts are via speedboat transfers. A private ride will cost you a staggering $250.


Fihalhohi is a budget resort with rooms rates starting from $200 a night.

After leaving the local island of Maafushi at 10:00 AM via private speedboat transfer that deducted another $250 to our group expense, we were all left confused to arrive on Fihalhohi an hour later… yet it was still 10:00 in the morning. Later on, it was explained to us that the island rests on a different time zone one hour early from where we came from. But more importantly, the staff also informed our group that the buffet lunch is on the house! That may not sound like a big deal, but the free meal saved our third-world stomachs from eating Nissin cup noodles and SkyFlakes inside our overpriced rooms that looked nothing close to luxurious with tacky-colored walls that reminded me of a similar shade of pink found in a 24-piece Crayola box.


These water bungalows are made of pinewood and is the most expensive room type because of its secluded location in the island.


Resort guests are free to roam around the deck but has to be respectful of those actually staying inside these huts.


On the upside, unlike the local islands, the laws are more flexible within the resort as bottles of liquor can be found at the bar and guests are allowed to bare their flesh in public. To me, that only means more images of half-naked hunks on the beach, and boy, did I see plenty of bulges and buff arms every time I frolicked by the shore. It was a sausage fest filled with hotdogs I cannot put in my mouth.

If you’re not into that kind of bird-watching though, the resort offers plenty of activities that involves going further into the depths of the Indian Ocean and several water sports that did not interest me aside from being too far out of my budget. While my friends bragged about its house reef, I ended up sleeping in my room most of the time which I didn’t mind since I was there to relax, but everyone else thought I was wasting my hard-earned money by staying indoors all day. In my case, it doesn’t matter where I am, if I feel like taking a nap, I will. The country has that kind of vibe that puts me to sleep and I couldn’t rob myself of having quality time with the bed. It called my name and I embraced its soft sheets with no regrets.


Most guests thought we were a big family of OFWs having a vacation. They had no clue I just met most of these guys at the airport! Photos by Win Shia.


Wearing sunscreen is an imperative. Unless, of course, you want to get roasted. Also, that guy has a nice big bulge.



Thank you, Lord, for this meal I am about to receive. Charot. Photo by Jonas Roque.

In my 24-hour stay within the island, I only spent an accumulative 3 hours on the beach. We were on day four of our trip and I was beginning to get sick of seeing the ocean around me. As much as I enjoy getting wet and digging my toes into the spread of milky white powder resting beside a turquoise bed of water, it takes a variety of activities for me to really enjoy a place. For me, pristine and perfect gets old very quick.

Don’t get me wrong, after seeing a small pinch of what Maldives has to offer, I was convinced that it does have better beaches than my home country, hands down. But that’s about it. Soon enough, I started longing for the dirt and grime of old city streets with broken down walls that told stories of its rich history. My taste buds hungered for new spices and flavors that would orchestrate a symphony in my palate. My feet itched for movement that can only be satisfied after a rough trek to the summit of a mountain or a two-hour photo walk into hidden alleyways and heritage sites.

The water bungalows did nothing for me. The photos we all sought after felt empty. My impression of Maldives was as flat as its topography. Then again, I am judging it based on what little I saw of it.

The infinity pools of Kaafu Atoll

Growing up in a country known for having the finest white sand beaches in Southeast Asia, the bar has been set quite high. But that’s not always a good thing. With great expectations, I stepped out to the ferry’s bow and watched as islands passed by while still in utter disbelief of where I was. Everyone else in the boat were either drained from the heat or tired from the long flight that once we arrived in Maafushi Island after three more hours of slow travelling across the Indian Ocean, our group ignored the beach and headed straight to the guesthouse where I slept the rest of the day away.


The Kaafu Atoll is an administrative region consisting of Kaashidhoo Island, Gahaafaru Atoll, and Malé Atoll (North and South Malé).

The next morning, I reluctantly got out of bed and readied my stomach for a big breakfast. Based on the previous day’s first impressions, hitting the beach was not at the top of my to-do list. Nope, not even in the Maldives. It was expected of a proud islander to compare the shoreline to his home country. ”I’ve seen better”, I thought.

The port of Maafushi Island, located in the Kaafu Atoll.

The port of Maafushi Island, located in the Kaafu Atoll.


Kaafu atoll has a total of 107 islands, most of which are uninhabited and hard to pronounce. Our first stop was Maafushi Island in South Malé Atoll.


One of the many excursions available for tourists include island hopping, snorkeling, and scuba diving.

It was only after three trips back to the buffet table that I decided to catch up to my travel buddies at the beach, which was oddly barricaded from the rest of town by tall wooden fences to prevent the conservative locals from seeing images of barely clothed foreigners. See, aside from alcohol, the Maldivian law strictly prohibits any person from baring too much skin in public, but for tourism’s sake the locals were able to compromise. Ergo, the divider.

But that wasn’t the only obvious divide on Maafushi. Except for the small hub of humble hotels front-lining the coast, the rest of town seemed distant and less hospitable than their commercial counterparts. Adding to the fear factor is the fact that a huge prison compound occupies the island’s Eastern side and guards roaming the streets with their guns. The gap may be due to the cultural and language differences but they sure made no extra effort in making us feel welcome unless we were the ones to initiate a conversation. Maybe we didn’t look too approachable as well.


Maafushi Island recently opened itself for tourism, with guesthouses being built left and right, after getting hit by the tsunami back in 2004.

Maafushi's beach was similar to Philippine beaches

Maafushi’s beach was similar to Philippine beaches

Local islands like Maafushi were not always open to international guests but since after being devastated by the 2004 tsunami that also destroyed Ko Phi Phi in Thailand, opening themselves up to more tourists became one of their solutions for immediate recovery. And with new guesthouses currently being built to accommodate more people, they may just be able to get back on their feet before their homes sink below the Indian Ocean.


Maafushi is the only local inhabited island with most number of guest houses in the country. If you’re looking for affordable rooms, this is the place to go.


With an elevation peak at 2.4m, Maldives is known as the flattest country in the world.


A traditional fishing boat called dhoni docked by the pier. And my feet in contrast with the sand.

That afternoon, our group’s head honcho had arranged an excursion to a floating sand bar marketed as the ‘Sexy Beach’ and from what I have gathered, any couple lucky enough to be left alone on this beach can get away with spending a good amount of time practicing any position from the Kama Sutra guidebook. If I was there by myself, my right hand would be very, very tired.

As four of our companions spent the next hour diving while the rest frolicked by the sand bank, I was left drifting across the shallow waters near a couple who have been suspiciously hugging each other since our boat docked. Snorkelling became a little awkward especially after accidentally swimming too close to see their underwater activity. They were literally putting the sex in ‘Sexy Beach’ and no one else seemed to notice.


On our second day, we were taken to a floating sand bank they called Sexy Beach. Just a strip of sand and random pitched umbrellas.


An unapologetic selfie because sometimes you just got to.


Whitest sand I have ever seen in my life! When I posted this photo online, most people thought it was snow.

I was beginning to believe that the Maldives was just another overrated tourist destination reserved for privileged people with deep pockets and not for some middle class man living in the third world. Islands filled with overpriced resorts on beaches that looked similar to what I have seen in the Philippines, with water bungalows on stilts by the shore for guests who prefer spending the night with ambient sounds of crashing waves on the background at a premium rate. But since I was able to spend only half of my monthly salary for a week’s stay on this country, I am not complaining. It was worth every centavo.

And then there was Maadhoo Finolhu.


The island of Maadhoo Finolhu is where most tourists are taken for a picnic, which is why it’s more commonly referred to as Picnic Island.


Years from now, this Maadhoo Finolhu will be developed into an island resort.


While the island is surrounded by fine white sand, its center has lots of shrubs and tropical trees to shelter you from the intense heat of the sun.


My view before and after an hour of good sleep while waiting for lunch.

On our third day, our party of thirteen rented a private speedboat that whisked us away to what they now refer to as Picnic Island. There, tourists are able to have grilled lunch under a canopy of palm trees, kite-surf by the coast, or spend the rest of the afternoon letting your body flow with each push and pull of the currents. Which is exactly what I did despite the sun’s warning signs of potentially scorching my skin. But with my low E.Q., it was impossible not to give in to nature’s invitation.

The sand was literally white as snow and the aquamarine water stretched for miles making the scene look like I was in the middle of a gigantic infinity pool. It felt like we were the only ones left in the world and right then and there I declared that those particular coordinates in the world map was better than anything I have seen back home. It didn’t have to take a luxurious resort and premium pampering for me to believe in the paradise that Maldives have been advertising all these years. It was all there to begin with.


Temperatures can reach up to 40 degrees! But with this backdrop, the heat is just part of the experience. Negra mode on!


Their fishes might be bigger, but they don’t grill ‘em half as good as the guides in Palawan. They don’t have ‘toyo’ either! Blasphemy!


It’s impossible not to get emotionally hyped up in Maldives because it’s like one big infinity pool.

I have never spent so many hours adrift on a beach as much as I did on Maadhoo Finolhu. My complexion was baked in a shade of golden brown that I will never be ashamed of that by the time I went back home and my colleagues teased me for being well done, I couldn’t help but brag that I got it from sun bathing in fucking Maldives.


There really is nothing much to do in Maldives but to relax.

We spent the first three nights at a newly opened guesthouse called Arena Lodge where we individually shelled out around $150 per room inclusive of full board meals and free internet. Not bad for a country notorious for breaking personal bank accounts (Good thing it was pay day when I returned home). The trick is to avoid the private resorts and instead opt to stay at a local island where a bottle of water does not cost more than $10 each and Wifi is paid per hour.

The food may be limited to undercooked fish, bland soup, pita bread and curry, eggs, and sausages, but there’s a convenient store down a few blocks with familiar junk food brands and instant noodles on the shelf. At least now, I know that I can return to Maldives without having to spend more than my month’s income.


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