Part of a trip that brought me to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Palau, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands before being cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic in Fiji.
Travel Information on Palau is scarce, I therefore posted a detailed trip report concentrating on practical information here.
The officer takes my passport, places a stamp in it filling the whole page and gives it back to me with a pen, “please sign”. I do as told and sign the Palau Pledge:
“Children of Palau,
I take this pledge,
as your guest,
to preserve and protect
your beautiful and unique
I vow to tread lightly,
act kindly and
I shall not take
what is not given.
I shall not harm
what does not harm me.
The only footprints
I shall leave are those
that will wash away.”
Signing the pledge is a requirement to enter the country. No pledge, no entry.
As we began our approach on Koror Airport the screens suddenly started to show a few short films about environmental protection and the pledge. I loved it. Palau’s protection of Marine life is exemplary. In 2009, it was the first country to establish a shark sanctuary (a few others have since followed) forbidding commercial fishing operations from targeting sharks and retaining caught sharks within its whole Exclusive Economic Zone (that is an area the size of France). In 2012, commercial fishing was banned in 80% of Palauan waters. The reefs are its treasure and Palauans know that.
Have you ever heard of Palau before? Be honest. The country is a well-hidden archipelago about 800 kilometres east of the Philippines. About 20.000 people call it home. The biggest island is Babeldaob, home to the airport and since 2006 the capital Ngerulmud. Besides that, Babeldaob is sparsely populated but nowadays at least a road circles the island. The most important island (and town) is Koror to the south of Babeldaob and linked to it by a bridge. About 40 km south of Koror is the island of Peleliu and a further 15 km south is the island of Angaur. Between Koror and Peleliu we find Palau’s treasure, the 200 uninhabited Rock Islands. Densely vegetated rocky outcrops that resemble mushrooms and are surrounded by wonderful marine life. One of these islands is home to Palau’s special claim to fame, Jellyfish lake, a lake that has become disconnected from the sea and where a special kind of jellyfish has developed that has lost its ability to sting, they only tickle and you can have a swim with them. That pleasure will only set you back US$ 100. North of the main islands is the coral atoll of Kayangel (population about 50) and about 600 km southwest of all that are the aptly named Southwest Islands, which consist of a handful of islands with a total population of about 80 but that do constitute two of the sixteen states of Palau.
Don’t expect an island paradise in Koror. As usual, people tend to crowd where they find economic opportunity. And this is in Koror, with the port and the airport. Koror is a small but dense town (pop. 11,000) with bad traffic. Above ground, Palau does not rank very high on the environmental protection scorecard. I saw few sources of renewable energy and there is no public transport. Only the BBI shuttle runs a few times in the evening and is designed to shuttle tourists from the downtown restaurants to their hotels. I walked a lot and if I needed transport I hitchhiked. Palauans are a helpful lot, the longest I had to wait was four or five cars and twice the first car stopped and took me along.
There are not even nice beaches in Koror, really you are in a town and not some remote island. I swam at Icebox park which is possible but not something the locals do (the corals are so-so) and at Long Island Park which is nicer and sees a fair amount of people. The corals are okay. The only nice, sandy beach around town is on Arakabesang island (linked by a bridge as well). Unfortunately, it is within the Palau Pacific Resort and a day pass costs 100$.
Most people come to Palau to dive. Some go on liveaboards and do not see dry land until their return flight but most stay in some hotel in Koror, are picked up by their dive shop every morning and head out to the Rock Islands. I don’t dive (or at least I didn’t back then) so I explore the town. The private Etpison Museum focuses on ethnographic displays. At 10$ it is a bit too expensive but in line with “Pacific prices”. You are allowed to take pictures but no photographs please of the photographs showing near naked women during traditional cleaning rituals after giving birth. I enjoy the Palau Aquarium; its clean windows allow nice shots of marine animals and some of the information panels are very good. The Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center grows clams for sale but their biggest are only like 20 cm or so.
I climb to the highest point on Malakal Island (linked to Koror by causeway and bridge) which allows a nice view towards the Rock Islands. The place is not really meant for tourists, the tiny path seems to exist only for the technicians that service the communication tower up there. At some point, you have to climb over the cables.
The Belau National Museum has some nice exhibits and a Bai (traditional mens’ house) in the garden. The history exhibition is interesting. Palau is an example of a country with a relaxed attitude to its colonial history: First came the Spanish and they brought Christianity, and we still think that is a good idea. For some reason they sold us to the Germans. The Germans blasted a channel straight through our reef (known till today as the German Channel). There are countries where this story would be reported in a negative tone (“came and destroyed our reef”), there are countries (South Korea comes to mind) where this would be treated as outrageous (“the terrible Ja… engaged in a useless destruction of our beautiful nature”) and there is Palau where the text just says that this channel is still the only and often used way to get to the other side of the reef. A German anthropologist, Augustin Krämer, left detailed records of Palau and in land disputed his books are still consulted.
It is fairly rainy but I like Koror. It is not one of these sanitized places where everything looks neat. It is just life, how life is. For dinner, let’s have some Filipino barbecue in the park.
I have five days and five days would be long in Koror alone. I decide to head to the island of Peleliu about 40 kilometres to the south. I just don’t know when the boats go. Walking around Koror, I stumble upon the Peleliu State Liaison Office. All over the Pacific, land ownership and local rights are a big topic and tiny Palau with 20,000 inhabitants is divided into 16 states. The Peleliu State Liaison Office is basically the embassy of Peleliu State in Koror State. Two girls staff the office. So, what are you doing all day? Well, for example, if someone from Peleliu who lives in Koror needs a new number plate they take care of it. Alright, so when do the boats go? They search for the timetable. I am lucky, tomorrow is the only day with even two boats (some see none). “Enjoy Peleliu, it is another world”.
Peleliu has some dive sites but most visitors come for the history part. Peleliu (as well as Angaur island) saw heavy fighting in World War II. Japan had seized Palau from Germany in 1914 during World War I. In WW II, Peleliu was heavily fortified and home to a large airbase. In the war of the Pacific, the US navy island-hopped across the wide ocean to get closer to Japan. Every new island involved another amphibious assault in often difficult terrain. They had long believed, that, in order to secure the Philippines they had to take Palau first to protect their flanks. In the last minute, military planners decided that the Japanese troops were too weak to pose a threat but the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific fleet decided to go ahead with the assault anyway as the necessary forces were already in place for the attack. He described it as two, three days of fighting. The battle raged for more than two months and the last Japanese fighters were found in 1947 only. What US reconnaissance had missed, is that the island is not flat but as a raised atoll has a geography with many fissures and caves that is perfect for hiding soldiers. As usual, the Japanese fought to the bitter end. Pictures of wartime Peleliu are haunting, you can hardly imagine this to be the same place. An island nowadays full of tropical vegetation looked like a wasteland. Before WWII, Peleliu was home to five villages but only one of them remains, the others are memorized with signboards showing their former borders. There is the 1000-man cave, the 34-man hideout (that is the one only found in 1947), a former communications centre right in the middle of Kloulklubed village (fairly well hidden in plain sight), a WWII museum, the former headquarters of the Japanese army, the runways of the airport are still recognizable and you can find various tanks and guns. On Peleliu’s highest point, a monument to the fallen has been installed. Around there, several “Battle of Peleliu Jungle Trails” have been established. Stay on the trails as unexploded ordnance might still be lying around! But before you visit anything, you need to buy a visitor permit. 15$ buys you the right to a land tour that can take up to ten days (if you want). The sleepy village is in the north-eastern corner of the island but the World War II sites are concentrated to the south. Tours are on offer but expensive, I prefer to rent a bike and to explore on my own.
There are a few guesthouses, none of them currently bookable online and there is one restaurant. Surprisingly, even in that restaurant the staff is Filipino and I wonder how the village people get their income.
The time for the boat back to Koror was long unclear. I had arrived to Peleliu on the 28th of February (in a leap year) and by then the March timetable was not yet finalized. You are told to be at the harbour one hour before departure. It is ridiculous, the only reason is, that the boat has a limited number of seats and if you want one, you need to come early. Then everybody waits for the hour until the boat departs. I get there 50 minutes before departure and get one of the last seats. People that arrive later just sit on the bow of the boat. There is plenty of sun but otherwise that looks like a great idea. I abandon my seat and end up sitting right on the bow, dangling my feet over the water as we cruise through the beautiful Rock Islands. Wonderful.
I will not visit the famous Jellyfish lake; I have only one day left and I already have other plans.
Soon after I get back to the hotel, the car is delivered. The tour of Babeldaob can start the next morning. I go with Collin, whom I met on the flight to Koror. He is from Taiwan and he came to dive, and, he came now because the Chinese are banned (they are because of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus). As we are ready to go, we meet Kathi who tells us that this is her last day and she doesn’t know what to do. We tell her to grab her bags, came along on the journey and we’ll all go straight to the airport in the evening together.
The island with the beautiful name of Babeldaob has long been a backwater. My old guidebook still mentions that you will need a four-wheel drive to get around. Today, the main roads are perfectly smooth. In fact, they are too smooth, the ring road has been built bypassing the villages giving the road a sanitized impression. You could basically circle the island, see beautiful nature but also think that there is not a single soul living there. If you leave the main road though, you find the living souls. And Palau is not free of history. We visit the Mother and Child Stone, a monolith that shows a child clutching to its mother (still on Koror Island to be precise). Airai State (Babeldaob is divided into numerous states) has a famous Bai (mens’ house) and on the way you pass a ruined Japanese Communications Centre. In the east of the island is the new capital of Ngerulmud with the newish Capitol Complex looking too big and out of place in Palau. You are allowed to walk around but not to go upstairs. In the far north is the so-called Stone Coffin, an old Japanese Lighthouse and the stone monoliths of Ngerchelong. Stonehenge it is not, but as mysterious in origin and still worth a visit. Expect to pay 5$ or 10$ at every sight.
On the way south again, we have a look at beautiful Ngardmau Waterfall (15$, 20 minutes to walk) where we enjoyed our nice bento boxes (Japanese style lunch boxes). Further south, we pass a Japanese monument and search for Ngatang Waterfall that we cannot find. Aimeliik Bai is maybe the most beautiful of the bais and if you arrive after closing time you can still visit but without paying the 10$ fee.