The Tiny Islands

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What is the smallest country in Asia? It is neither Singapore nor Hong Kong as many people think. The smallest in area is tiny island Macau, which is a Portuguese possession lying across the Canton River estuary from Hong Kong.

But the smallest in terms of population is the Republic of the Maldives, better known as the Maldives, with a population of a mere 160,000. The Island is also tiny in area, at just under 300 sq km, which makes it the second smallest country in Asia.

The Maldives lie in the Indian Ocean, west of Sri Lanka. The country is remarkable not only for its size but also for its geography. It is made up of over 1200 islands which dot a stretch of ocean 750 km from north to south. Besides these islands, there are hundreds more patches of sand which barely rise above the waves and do not really deserve the term “Island”.

Nowhere do any of the islands constituting the Maldives reach more that the height of a man above sea-level and even a relatively large island like Male, where the one and only town located, is only 1.5 sq km in area, not even a size of a small airport. The island looks identical to each other. Skirting each island there is a white sandy beach, and a few meters up the beach are gently swaying coconut trees. Further island there is the luxuriant vegetation common to the equatorial regions of the world. The islands are grouped in circuits, or atolls, so that together the islands surround an area of water which is sheltered the open ocean. Here the water is crystal clear and as calm as the water in the lake. Small colorful fish with delicate shapes swim amongst white coral. Over tens of thousands of years coral has built up platforms, the islands, which form a nation. There are a few countries in the world which can claim to be built by the activities of living organism.

All the island’s inhabitants are Muslims, converted by visiting traders from the Arab world more than 500 years ago. They are not rich, but they never go hungry. They cultivate a variety of tropical crops and pluck coconuts, papayas, mangoes and other fruits as they need them. Not surprisingly fishing plays a bigger part in their lives than agriculture. Indeed, seafood is an important export. Shark’s fin, a delicacy among Chinese is one of the better known sea products. Interestingly, but of obvious reason, there are no cars on the islands except for male which has a few taxis.

In place of cars, there are plenty of boats: there are the traditional white-sailed “dhonis” and small motor-driven boat. The government recently set up a shipping line, hoping that it will carry cargoes for other countries in the region and bring in useful revenue.

It is neither a shipping line nor the sea products which at present brings wealth to the islands: it is tourism. The peace, the water, the white sands and the hot but breezy climate make the Maldives very attractive to people in prosperous, industrialized but colder countries. The greatest numbers of tourists are from Europe, and they come in large enough numbers to bring the Maldives around 70 percent of its foreign earnings.

On arrival at the international airport, an island just north of Male, the visitors are loaded on the fast motor boats and whisked to one of the many “Holiday Islands”. These islands often previously uninhabited are completely given over to tourism. Here tourists lie under the sun, explore life amongst the coral, eat exotic seafood and buy souvenirs such as shells, local cloth and local postage stamps.

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