The Edition visits isles across the Maldives on a bi-monthly schedule, discovering the intricacies of island life and amazing islanders residing in different atolls, taking our readers through a 'virtual' tour of the country.
As dawn broke on the day of my departure to Gan, the excitement coursing like blood through my veins was akin to the adrenaline rush I used to feel as a child on family picnics. Born with wanderlust, those day trips to nearby islands were highlight weekends of my childhood – and I knew that this weekend in Laamu, an atoll famed even amongst Maldivians as one of the most stunning in the archipelago, would be a highlight of my adult life.
The 40-minute late morning flight from Velana International Airport to Kahdhoo was uneventful but lovely. Given the choice, I would always opt for a domestic flight during the day over night. There are no words that can fully capture the beauty of Maldives as viewed from the skies; the shimmering royal blue of the ocean dotted with serene islands under the tropical sun is a sight I never tire of.
The splendour that awaited us when I took my first steps in Laamu Atoll was no less breathtaking. Our airport pickup from Reveries Diving Village, where we were to spend our weekend, received us warmly and guided us to our ride – and then we were off along Laamu Atoll’s famed Link Road, the 18.5km highway that joins the islands of Fonadhoo, Kahdhoo, Maandhoo and our destination Gan. I’d been looking forward to this and I wasn’t disappointed; the Link Road is a boulevard of palm tree groves and other lush vegetation, with glimpses of the cerulean lagoon on either side which came into full view every time we crossed islands. It was a tick off the bucket-list for me.
Fifteen minutes later we were in Gan, the largest island in Maldives, spanning 5 km in length. Passing through the wards of ‘Mukurimagu’ and ‘Mathimaradhoo’, we finally arrived in ‘Thundi’, which is home to Reveries.
Nestled by the western shore in a lovely garden with a koi pond, the guesthouse was straight out of a daydream, becoming of its name. Our friendly hosts helped us settle in before we headed down to a savoury late lunch of fusion cuisine. I passed much of the remaining afternoon chatting with our hosts and exploring Reveries before heading outside, just as the sun set.
Even from the get-go, my steps naturally turned towards the beach, drawn to that irresistible call of the waves. Picking my way through beached vessels in a nearby boat yard, I stood several minutes with my toes in the soft sand as waves swirled around my ankles, bewitched by the sight of the sun dipping below the fiery horizon. That sense of tranquility unique to island life, away from the hustle and bustle of the capital, was sinking in, and adventure was beckoning.
I was up bright and early the next day, kicking off the trip in my preferred style – with a lazy stroll. Quite a few people were already up and about, and I exchanged pleasantries with some of the folks I met. Walking and talking about, I discovered some interesting quirks about the island – like the fact that most houses in Gan have quaint outdoor ponds, and that islanders collect dry palm fronds for an unconventional reason (for me, at least).
“These aren’t for thatch-making,” chuckled a middle-aged man as he hauled fronds down a street with a friend.
“We hang these up in mango trees and the like,” explained the other. “To scare away bats and protect the fruits."
Interested though I was to find out more about this unusual scarecrow-technique, I was called away by my schedule for the day. My guide Fauzy from Reveries had the van revved up and ready to whisk me across Gan for my sightseeing excursion.
Laamu Atoll boasts significant historical sites, including some of the most well-preserved Buddhist ruins from ancient times. One such spot I visited was the “Hawitta” in Gan. As the van exited the Link Road and carefully maneuvered down an unpaved dirt track through dense undergrowth, I glimpsed the towering structure even before we entered the clearing where it stood.
A pyramid-like mound of hardened sand and stone, the Hawitta rose up like a small hill that stood as tall as the trees that surrounded it. The winding narrow tracks leading to its summit were a challenge I enthusiastically took up, and as we climbed, my guide told me that the Hawitta is estimated to have been around for 850 years. Much like others found in various islands, Gan’s Hawitta is a remnant of the shift in Maldives’ landscape brought about by the country’s conversion to Islam in the 12th century. Fauzy recalled the local folklore, which say that the old Buddhist temples were demolished and their remains, along with idols and other trinkets, were buried under the Hawitta.
“But it’s a bit ruined now because, in the early days, people used to take stones from here to build their homes."
Whether the treasures supposedly buried under the Hawitta were real or not remain a mystery, though there are records of old explorers and historians exporting samples for research. Gazing across the trees from atop the mystifying structure, it dawned on me how the fascinating history of the Maldives, much of which is unrecorded, remains steeped in obscurity.
The feeling was driven home anew at my next stop - an ancient, overgrown graveyard, so covert I wouldn’t have noticed it had my guide not pointed it out to me. As we stepped through overgrown weeds, Fauzy remarked that there was no one left who knew how old the graves were, or the identities of the dead. I saw with melancholy that some of the graves were of children, no older than toddlers. The irregularly placed tombstones, weathered black and crumbling with their inscriptions illegible from exposure, stood silently in the unkempt field; a grim reminder.
My day took a more cheerful tone as I settled down for a late lunch, when I got to try the Laamu-special ‘Golha Riha’, a local curry featuring fish balls made from the sweet, mild flesh of reef fish, usually Snappers and Groupers, marinated and cooked in a concoction of freshly ground spices and the Maldivian curry staple - coconut milk. Paired with steamed white rice, golha riha was a spicy, savoury blast that I immediately fell in love with. Never miss out on golha riha when in Laamu - an authentic Maldivian experience that the locals are right to be proud of.
A short rest later, I was back on the road. Despite the day’s activities, my excitement for the next destination was too great to be cowed by exhaustion - the infamous ‘Paree Fengandu’. In the words of Fauzy, as we stepped over fallen flowers of Kin’bi Gas (Sea Poison Tree) along a narrow path shadowed by towering thickets of trees: “You haven’t been to Laamu if you didn’t see Paree Fengandu."
The air of mystery surrounding one of the most famous lakes - or more a pond, in this case - in Maldives could be felt on sight. As I caught my first glimpse of Gan’s ‘Bodu Fengandu’, I could see why it has earned the more popular monikors of ‘Paree Fengandu’ (Fairy Pond) or, more insidiously, ‘Naraka Fengandu’ (Hell Pond). The murky waters of this enclosed pond, which local legend claims is “bottomless”, has a distinctive reddish-brown hue that guards whatever lurks beneath its surface - a tint that locals say is the result of years and years of leaves and branches that fall and accumulate in the pond which has no water-flow in or out of it.
In fact, a local man I’d met earlier claimed that, in the past, the people of Gan had witnessed mangrove trees that stand as tall as 20 metres, which grow by the pond’s edge, fall into the water and sink without a trace - which may have borne the “unfathomable” myth of Paree Fengandu.
However this fable has been dispelled since. Fauzy recounted that Reveries had undertaken the challenge to measure the depth of Paree Fengandu back in 2015. With some handy fishing lines and measuring tapes, the deepest point they found was 28 metres in depth - while not boundless, certainly enough to swallow any of the trees lining the Hell Pond!
Yet much of Paree Fengandu remains unexplored and Fauzy warned me, teasingly, of water snakes as I nervously stepped into the cool water. But the sight of Gan residents who enjoy picnics at Paree Fengandu - even swimming! - gave me the courage to wade knee-deep into the pond. Water snakes or not, I can tell you one thing - there are tiny fish - at least I hope they were fish? - that nip at unsuspecting ankles, so be prepared for an impromptu pedicure if you dare to brave this realm of fairies (or demons, depending on which nickname you prefer).
My next day in Gan was no less adventure-packed, though this time it was off the island. After a quick breakfast, I was speeding across choppy waters in a motorised dinghy towards an uninhabited island that had my heart pounding the closer it loomed - Baresdhoo. The name may not ring bells for everyone, but as those of my geeky ilk would know, this was one of the shooting locations for ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ back in 2015 - an exciting time for the people of Laamu as Maldives was put on the galactic map of one of the biggest film franchises in cinematic history.
As a hardcore fan, I was so excited to find out that Reveries offers excursions to Rogue One’s shooting locations for fans, some of whom come from around the world to see the beautiful scenery for themselves (and even reenact famous scenes).
The jetty-less island required the dinghy to pull up close to the beach. As we waded ashore, I realised to my delight that Baresdhoo was essentially a forest of palm trees. The towering palms, beautiful and picture-perfect, appeared to outnumber the other greenery of the island, and I learnt from my guide that the atoll residents harvested coconuts from Baresdhoo.
Of course, I took the opportunity to splash about and swim in Baresdhoo’s turquoise lagoon before it was time to leave - this time to snorkel. I’d caught a peek of Laamu’s natural beauty on land, but as I soon discovered, there is so much more to behold below its waters.
Stopping by a reef halfway between Baresdhoo and Gan, I found myself in another world that proves that, whether a local or a visitor, if you don’t put on your big girl/boy pants and take the plunge, you’re dearly missing out on what truly makes our country ‘paradise’. Floating only what felt like a few feet above sprawling coral formations and schools of colourful fish, I felt my nervousness due to the rather rough sea of that day fade away. If I could’ve, I would’ve happily spent the rest of the day there. The untouched underwater landscape was so mesmerising and peaceful, but it was only a miniscule fraction of the world that awaits us below - and I must admit that it inspired me to consider taking up diving lessons.
Back in Gan and tired after the day’s exploits, I spent the rest of my final day in Laamu in a more relaxed manner. After lunch, I spent the afternoon farm-hopping. Gan is famous for its agricultural fields, growing several local favourites such as pumpkins, varieties of chilli and beans, aubergines and cucumber, which they supply to Male and Huvadhu Atoll. I met some of the farmers tending to their fields, and even bumped into a cheerful old man harvesting mangoes – we had fun catching the ripe fruits he jovially pitched at us from atop his roof.
Strolling along the island’s harbour back to Reveries, I was lucky enough to meet some of Gan’s lovely ladies, who were chatting and enjoying sundown over tea at a ‘holhuashi’, resting places by the harbour or beach featuring palmwood benches or gazebos and typically a lively hub of gossip and conversation. Seeing new faces, they greeted us cheerfully and invited us to join them, plying us with delicious ‘faiy mashuni’ made from ‘kulhlhafilaa faiy’ to be enjoyed with boiled sweet yams and steaming cups of black tea – a typical evening feast in Gan, according to my guide. The great food and even greater company made the glorious sunset just that much better!
I ended my unforgettable Laamu trip with a magnificent destination dinner, courtesy of our hospitable hosts at Reveries. Seated at a lantern-lit table strewn with petals on the beach, surrounded by the music of the waves, we enjoyed a delectable fusion meal inspired by Maldivian tastes; local favourite tuna-fried rice, pasta with a tuna twist, chilli chicken, green salad and the MVP: a reef fish grilled to perfection. Finishing off with a rich brownie topped with ice cream, the dinner was a perfect end to my first visit to Laamu.
As I boarded the flight back home to Male, to reality, the next day, I could only hope for another opportunity to return to Laamu again; for surely this is an atoll one cannot fully appreciate with only a single visit!