Palau? Where is that? Or – What was the name of the place you will go to? Pulai? Puli? Many asked me so when I told them about my vacation plans. Most people have never heard of Palau, perhaps the only exception are the divers. I first learned about Palau nearly two years ago, when I read an article about it’s famous Jellyfish lake, a place where non-stinging jellies live. But then I ended up in Cuba, one of the reasons was that ticket to Palau usually are incredibly expensive. A year later I suddenly saw very cheap tickets, only 330€ return from Amsterdam! Just a few hours later I had my tickets and planning could begin!
Although 170 thousand people visit Palau each year, there isn’t too much information about Palau. One of the reasons for that might be the fact that 90% of tourists are from China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, thus information just might not be available in English language. Looking for guidebooks I only managed to find about twenty pages of text in Lonely Planet South Pacific & Micronesia.
Waiting for my dream-come-true diving expedition in Palau it felt like I had read every blog, forum and article there was to be found. Because of the overall lack of information, I have prepared a very detailed travel story this time. I hope it will be especially useful for those already planning their trip!
Where is Palau and Who Lives There?
Palau (historically also Belau and Pelew) is a country consisting of 250 islands in the western part of the Pacific Ocean and only about 20 thousand people live there. It’s capital is called Ngerulmud. Palau has sea border with Indonesia, Philippines and Federated States of Micronesia. The first people to come here where believed to be from Philippines and belonging to Negrito population, but they moved away later and Sundu Island people came in their place. The first European person Palauans ever met was Czech Jesuit priest Paul Klein. The Palauans he met had been stranded on Samara island of Northern Philippines. At the time Palau was already included in the Spanish territories, but no Spanish person had ever visited it. This encounter served as a trigger to send first ships to Palau, but all of them got lost in the sea, so Palau got the name of Islas Encantadas.
The first European who had prolonged contact with Palauans was British captain Henry Wilson, who had suffered a shipwreck on one of the Palauan islands. He lived on Palau for six months, repairing his ship and getting actively involved in Palauan life, helping chief Ibedul gain larger control of the territories, giving him firearms and changing the dynamics between the tribes. Some historians say that Ibedul had manipulated Wilson into believing that he was dealing with the chief of all Palau, although he only ruled Koror. In return for helping with his ship, Wilson agreed to take Lee Boo, the son of Ibedul, to London, where he charmed the local society. Unfortunately, Lee Boo died six months later of small pox. The story if the prince who died in Europe was depicted in a book by George Keats. It became very popular at the time and was translated into 20 languages!
After Spanish era, Palau was sold to Germany. Unfortunately, there were only 4000 people left from the original 40 000, as most died from diseases brought over by Europeans. Germans taught basic principles of hygiene and started inoculation. In 1914 Japan took Palau and it remained under it’s rule until the bloody battle of Peleliu (WWII), where 12 thousand people died. After that Palau was included in the USA Pacific Ocean Islands territories. In 1979 Palau refused to join the Federated States of Micronesia and declared independence in 1994. USA slowed down the efforts of independence, as Palau was the first nation in the world to announce anti-nuclear constitution in 1981, which did not match USA interests. USA stil has significant role in Palau, as the country doesn’t have it’s own currency and more people speak English than Palauan. This also explains why 15% of country’s inhabitants are Filipino workers, as they don’t need to know local language, English is enough. As many locals say – Palauans don’t even want those jobs, so guest workers must be brought in to do simple tasks like cleaning the guesthouses and cooking.
United States also funded the large circular highway on Babeldaob island. Although Palau has a new capital now – Ngerulmud in Melekeok State, all action is in Koror, which also has the international airport nearby. Interestingly, such a small country as Palau has 16 states and the smallest one has only 3 inhabitants! Palau economy consists of fishing and tourism. Subsistence agriculture has important role here too. Many people don’t work and live from what they grow and sell.
A typical question about Palau is – when is the rainy season? All year long! Although dry season is supposed to last from November til April, locals say there is not difference at all. Every day there is rain somewhere, and at times it’s heavy. When we visited Maldives a few years ago, it used to rain and pass in Maldives. In Palau it can pour all night long and then drizzle and then pour again during the day, and continue for 5 days in a row. So if you plan to enjoying Palau at it’s most, plan a few days extra, as there are things you just can’t do in rainy days, such as scenic flights on a small airplane. Palau has very constant temperature all year long – 30°C, day and night. Water is exactly the same temperature. If it’s raining, the temperature of water and air might drop to 29°C. But Palau does have a touristy season from October 15th til April 1st, and everything is more expensive then. Seasonality is only linked to cold weather in countries where tourists come from. We managed to leave Palau right before the season begun – October 15.
I spent the next six months planning this trip, going on another trip and then finding out that the main attraction of Palau – famous Jellyfish lake is no longer something to be seen. Due to El Nino effects 95% of the 8 million jellies died. It was the place where you could swim and snorkel with sting-less jellies. The lake was formed millions of years ago when it separated from the ocean, and since there were no natural predators for jellies, they lost the ability to sting. However, for people with allergies it can still be unpleasant to touch them. The water of the lake is also unique that deeper levels of it are highly poisonous, so diving is not allowed here. I was hoping that the situation would improve by the time I come, but unfortunately not, it will still take a few years for the population to recuperate. So I didn’t get pictures with thousands of jellies, but nothing to do.
Someone might think I am maniac when it comes to planning, but that’s how I am. Before going to Palau I had a table in Google drive that had every bit of information that I needed – a plan with what to see (with reserve time as well, as weather is unpredictable), names and addresses of hotels and departure times of my flights. I also saved a lot of information that could be useful and had the Lonely Planet guidebook. The table was synchronized on the phone, as well as with all pdf documents were copied to Dropbox. We also had GPS navigation installed on the phone.
During the first days of planning I realized that the tickets might have been cheap, but expenses on the island are just there and nothing to be done about them. Palau is not famed for it’s prosperity (minimum wage is $3.50 per hour), but prices are just insane. So I ended up spending a lot of time researching hotels, reading about places to see and trying to fit the plan in at least some kind of budget. You won’t find any large chain hotels on Palau, as foreigners need special investment permit for any kind of business activity. It also means there are no McDonald’s or Pizza Hut’s here. Most of the hotels of Palau aren’t event found in the large hotel booking sites. From the three hotels we stayed in, one we did find on a large site like that, the second I reserved via email and the third I had to book directly on it’s own website. I have described in more detail where we stayed and written down the contacts in the final, practical section of this article.
If you are on a tight budget, perhaps Palau is not the destination to go to. Also, I would advise visiting Palau primarily as a diving destination. It’s too far and too expensive for just swimming and sunbathing. Palau has beautiful jungle and nice places to relax, but the underwater world is so amazing that I wish everyone can see it at least once! That feeling when a manta ray swims near you is just indescribable!
It’s no wonder that divers are the ones who knew where Palau is, as it is one of the best places to dive. Blue Corner has been named among top 3 diving spots in the world. Palau was the first country in 2009 to establish a shark refuge to stop fishing for shark fins in it’s waters, and now it is about 600 000 square km (same size as France). Could one say that since there are so many sharks here, it’s not safe to swim? Completely the opposite! Sharks almost never attack divers. You have a greater chance of dying from cow stepping on you than getting attacked by a shark. Sharks don’t see people as food. But it’s also wrong to start feeding them, as this is exactly the kind of behavior that causes attacks like those in Egypt. I have been diving with sharks in Seychelles and now Palau, and swimming with them in Maldives and I can say it’s perfectly safe! The question about sharks is the second one how to spot a diver, as when they hear that you got so see sharks they ask – Really? And what kind of sharks did you see? How many? You can I have a good chance of seeing them there?
We had a long journey ahead of us, I think I had never flown so far all in one go. Our journey was as follows: Riga Amsterdam (with a little reroute to Rotterdam, as we had 10 hours to spare)-Bangkok-Taipei-Koror and same on the way back. We also spent a night in Taipei, as our flight was on the next day. If you ever have a chance to take a flight with the so called stopover, I suggest to use the opportunity! You can get a glimpse of another country and have some sleep laying flat. I am going to write another story about my experience in Taiwan. Interestingly, the most fuss we saw at the controls was in Bangkok, where check-in staff even asked to show return ticket to Riga, not just Amsterdam, spent a lot of time adding something in the system and checking if we don’t need a visa.
A few months before the trip one of our flights was moved a day back, which would mean losing Riga-Amsterdam segment, but after calling we where moved to KLM flight. The rest of the trip we used China Airlines, which is based in Taiwan. When registering in their loyalty program I had a chance to choose special meals and I decided to go ahead and write lactose free. And I did get lactose free food all the way there (but, not on the way back). By the way, requesting special meal is a way to get your food first on an airplane, as those are delivered before everyone else’s.
Palau, Finally There!
Finally we are there and exit the plane. The first breath of air confirms – it’s very hot and very moist. We proceed to the passport control and there are only two other white people. The faces almost feel familiar, but I notice that passports are German. But when they start speaking Russian, everything becomes clear. The more I travel, the more I understand how merchants in different countries know in which language to address you, it’s really your face that gives you away! Turned out, the Russian couple lived in one of the hotels we stayed at also went back on the same day, they must have used the same offer for the tickets.
Latvians don’t need a visa when entering Palau, one just needs to remember that you have to pay $50 upon exit. You get a stamp in passport and noone asks anything. Then you proceed to baggage inspection. Already in the airplane we got the declaration form to be filled in, and there were a few interesting questions, such as if you are bringing any medicine, food and what kind. Our luggage was scanned, but most of other passengers had to open their bags and there is a very thorough inspection. Saw a Chinese man who has a block if cigarettes, when the limit is just one pack. Locals told us it’s a $8 tax per package, if you want to bring in more. But regarding the food I am still not sure how it works, as considering how expensive it is to eat there, it’s not such a bad idea to bring some small snacks. I had a whole bag full of protein bars, as I never have enough time to eat on vacation, but those I brought in without any problems.
Finally we are out of the airport and suddenly I cannot remember if I have order a transfer or not. Just to be sure I start looking at the people in the waiting area, and there he is, a man holding a sign with my name! There are only three ways to get from airport to the city – order a transfer (we paid $15 per person, other hotels wanted $20), get a taxi (around $30 per ride) or try to hitch-hike (I wouldn’t do that in the dark), and you are still expected to leave a tip in the latter case.
First Day in Palau
We get to DW Motel ($80 per night, no breakfast), drop our things and happily turn on the AC and feel all excited about the towels folded into shape of stingrays. It’s time for dinner! There is a cafe nearby called Rock Island Cafe, which we visit every day while we are in Koror. It feels a lot like an American diner, and, of course, everyone speaks English here. There is an enormous menu, large servings and drinks are refilled for free. The best price/value/quantity ratio is for pizzas (20 cm with one topping except for cheese is $14) and noodles from the Japanese menu are okay as well ($5 for a large serving). Other things we tried were not so good and pricey too. Ice-tea is $1.75 and is brought to you with a little bottle reminding that for babies, it has syrup in it, so you can add as much as you wish.
Sitting in that cafe we also understood why Palau is considered to be one of the most obese nations in the world, seemed every second person walking in had a serious issue with weight. Locals say it’s because there isn’t anything else other to do that eat, their food is high in calories and they don’t move around much. It also turned out that a study done in 2012 placed Palau at the top of the world in cannabis and beer consumption per person. If that wasn’t enough, many people chew betel nut, a special kind of palm fruit wrapped in tobacco leaves. It colors your teeth black and is cancerogenous. The government has been trying to ban it for few years already, as even children chew it.
We spend the next day walking in Koror, going to the main shopping center WCTC where we buy a large quantity of snacks (or so we thought) for our stay in Carp Island Resort. We had read that snacks are expensive there, so we bring our own. Various sweet drinks are about $1 per tin, there is also Chinese, Japanese and American beer, starting from $1.10. We also buy a lot of various little snacks to eat after diving. There is almost no local fruit in the store, basically just some green papayas and bananas. Although the choice is not as grand as in the USA, many of the products are imported from the States, Philippines and Japan. Cards are accepted here, and probably this was the only place where we were not asked to pay 5% surcharge for credit card use. Beware of American Express cards, those have 30% surcharge in many places! There is also a pharmacy here and an ATM. You can also visit numerous smaller stores across the city, which have everything from household goods to swimsuits. The choice is not amazing, but is enough for little things, and even gas stations have those small convenience stores. The only problem is that on Babeldoab island all of gas stations are very near Koror.
We walk and then cross a bridge to another island where we see small islands in the distance for the first time – they really look like mushrooms covered in moss and just popping up in the ocean! Almost every boat that passes us, hosts divers, and just next to the road we see squid, stingrays, colorful fish and coral! We almost feel like having seen a pike in the local Riga canal (that never happens).
We also walk by the local hospital, which is tiny. Later we learn that there is almost no surgical service in Palau, all of it is done in Taiwan or Philippines. So it’s very bad to get seriously sick in Palau. Locals get partially funded tickets which cost them $200 to get to another country anyway. I would sincerely recommend making sure you are healthy and buying travel insurance with medical evacuation costs covered before coming to Palau. There is no need for any special vaccines when coming here and also no malaria prevention medication is needed. Adequate medical care isn’t the only thing missing in Palau – if you want to study further and not just go to a community college, you have to go abroad. But there are plenty of church schools and churches here, seems every Christian religion is represented here.
All of the locals we meet are very friendly, they answer all our questions and we don’t have to run away from touts or merchants. Feels safe to walk on the street. I read that in indigenous Palauan culture it was important to be kind. Not sure how much of importance it still has today, but all of locals really were very approachable. I did learn later that there is some crime in Koror (steel bars in shop windows is one indication of that), drug usage and similar, but we didn’t run into any particularly suspicious people while there.
And, already on the first day we discovered that something is very wrong with our mobile phones, as we couldn’t send through any messages or call. Turned out our local carrier LMT doesn’t offer service here! Since free wi-fi is still that of a luxury as well, we bought pre-paid card by PNCC which was $5 for four hours. You still have to find a hotspot, but many hotels and cafes offer one. One card can be used by one person at a time, once you finish using it, you should log out.
On the next morning we have a pick up from the same driver to bring us to the port where Carp Island Resort boat will take us to Carp. One of the reasons we stayed in Koror for the first night was because you cannot get to Carp so late in the evening. Carp Island has one significant advantage over other places, as it is right next to the famous diving spots, so you get there right away and don’t have to spend 40 min by boat to and from every day.
There are mixed reviews about Carp (and I agree to all of them), but apart from diving it’s also good for those looking for a really secluded place, as Carp is a private island and there aren’t any other people. When we arrive, we see beautiful wooden pier and the very tip of the island (the island looks like a starfish from air), there are small birds walking under the palm trees – idyllic! We leave the bags to the attendant and without visiting our cottage, head straight to dive. We got a call the day before asking us if we would like to start diving on the first day and sure! Why not, if we can? We are ensured that we manage everything here. The resort buys us permits for being in the Rock Islands ($50 per person, valid for 10 days) and we are ready to go. Jellyfish lake permit costs $110. It also turns out that despite us being guests at the hotel, we still have to pay $37.50 per person per way for the transfer here.
I started negotiating with the hotel about the diving prices in February. I was told that two tank dive in October will be $130 per person, excluding the equipment (but including tanks and lunch). If we would dive for at least 5 days, 5% discount. Then suddenly in June I was told that diving would be $150 instead of the previously agreed price! I used all the negotiation techniques I learned in India and got the initial price, as well as additional discount for equipment, because BCD, reg & wet-suit are $12 per day each! Boots and fins are $5 per day each, and it’s cheaper to buy new ones at home. The guides dive without wet-suits, we dive with and it doesn’t ever get cold underwater, as even 25 m deep the temperature is 29 degrees. The diving package includes lunch too, but usually we eat back at the island, as I get queasy when boat is only moving in the waves and not actively going somewhere.
Our dive guide is a local guy Stallon who together with the other guide (works as a captain for our group) Beau says that they aren’t even sure how many dives they has done, as eight years ago it was already over a thousand. Turns out there is another advantage to diving in Carp – the groups are small. There is two of us and a guy from Holland Tim, and on other days when more people show up, those dive with Beau seperately. So we always dive just three or four of us, including the guide! When we meet other divers in the sea, it’s rare to see groups of less than ten people. It’s possible there are more people staying in Carp during the high season, but reading the reviews, I got the impression that in any season it’s highly probable to be the only guest staying at the resort. By the way, if you are organizing a group of divers and you can find seven more people to come, you stay and dive for free in Carp. And, speaking of tips, I read it’s common to leave $5 per dive, which is what we do.
Underwater world in Palau is amazing! We do a total of eleven dives, and visit German Channel dive spot multiple times, where we get lucky every time and see magnificent manta rays! Actually, we see the first manta already after the first day of diving in other locations when we are passing through the German Channel, as Stallon notices one near the surface. He has an eye for these things, as for us water looks all the same. The boat turns around and we see it in it’s full glory, the span of wings can be even 5-7 meters!
The German Channel is an artificial channel that Germans dug to transport phosphorus directly through the islands and not to go around every time. Why manta rays are here? They come for the so called cleaning station, a formation of corals that hosts a large amount of small fish that nibble on the dirt and parasites on the skin of manta rays. Stallon laughs and says we are lucky, every time we come, manta rays come as well, seems we could dive here five times a day and would see one every time! Or course! If the biggest fan of rays comes from Latvia, they must come to greet me!
Mantas are enormous, gracious and look like they are flying under water. Each is different and has a different pattern of spots on the stomach, those are as unique as fingerprints, and a ! Manta ID database has been created based on those. There are mantas that are interested in humans and will come to take a look at them, but the wisest thing is not to move around too much, definitely don’t try to touch them! The best is to sit on your knees and just watch them circling around the coral.
We also go to the famous Blue Corner where you can really see many sharks, one of the top things to do here is hold on to rocks and hang in the stream – it’s really something here! There are so many fish! You can also see the pair of Spotted Eagle Rays living on the plato, we get to see them both times, also, we notice the famed poisonous Banded Sea Krate. There are numerous other beautiful dive spots that have coral walls, platos, (Turtle Cove, New Drop Off, Big Drop Off) where we meet sleeping turtles, swim with large schools of fish, greet moray eels and see unbelievable variety of fish, as well as WWII artifacts, such as ship wrecking chain.
Most of the time visibility is amazing, at least 40 m! The water in German Channel sometimes is a bit more mrky, as sand is moving around here (and we dive during the times of tide to see more rays). In places where you have current, visibility is astonishing. We don’t see any dolphins or whale sharks – the latter come on cold days and you have greater chance to see them in open water. Stallon shows us everything there is to see, as he notices marine life dozens of meters away! Sometimes we feel aloof not seeing things right in front of our eyes, but he always takes care to show us everything!
For those who don’t know how to dive, Palau is a good spot to learn to. But I am a firm believer that you can learn to take off your mask in a pool or small lake near your house, don’t waste precious time in Palau, but enjoy diving to the fullest there! Some say that Palau should be saved for the last, and we with our 25 dives in a dive-log are total novices here, as Tim has over a hundred and we see someone had written over 300 in Carp log.
Stallon says that despite that we have the skills, not like the Koreans, who have dive master certificate but have never been outside of a pool. Of course, you can snorkel in Palau too, but I’ll never agree it’s enough! You must go diving if you are in Palau! Otherwise you will not see rays, sharks, Napoleon wrasse and other larger fish.
Living on Carp
After first two dives are done, we are back on Carp and finally get to see the house we are paying for ($120 per night + 12% tax for the state and 5% cleaning fee, of course, it’s all in small print). We stay in Sunrise Cottages which are supposed to have more breeze from the sea. Turns out, the cottage doesn’t have AC. It’s a simple wooden building (not likely to have any building permits) and on rainy days water is dripping on the third bed in the house and you can see light coming through the roof. Everything is clean and orderly, but there is salty water coming from the shower (most of the times – just cold water), and we dearly miss AC. There are a bit cheaper houses in the dive-house, but there it’s really just a bed, because even shower and bathroom are outside in a different place. Since we spent most of the time diving, walking around or sleeping, we don’t care much, but this is not a place to expect five star treatment. Seems the only novelty here is free wifi, which is available during working hours where island administrator Jane is in her office.
We have breakfast included in our stay, which usually consists of: eggs, very salty sausages, toast with jelly, juice from concentrate (as someone commented on a forum – everything the cheapest). You can drink instant coffee and tea all day without any limits. Lunch is $15 per person, dinner $25. After seeing the large servings in Koror, we order just one meal for two people, and it’s more than enough, as there is soup, rice, several types of meat, stew, sashimi, fruit and drink. Since we are celebrating wedding anniversary while staying there, I find out options for an anniversary meal, but that would be $60 per person. Finally on the day of anniversary we get a complimentary chocolate cake and a bottle of champagne, which is a really nice gesture on their behalf!
You can go around the island on a kayak or go into the jungle to see the famous Yap stone money. Those are large stone disks that look like windmill stones and they were used in place of money, without actually moving the stone, as it was too heavy and large. So objects were simply handed over to the buyer, assuming the the stone disk changed ownership. These disks are made from limestone and since none was available on Yap, they were considered valuable. The oldest of Palauan disks could be made as early as 500 AD.
Besides the disk we also saw lizards, rats and one of the rarest birds on Palau – Ground Dove, as well as unusual swampy area where tree roots look like pikes. We also saw a bird that looked like a runaway chicken, but turned out to be one of the jungle birds. From nature conservation perspective it didn’t seem right that there were three cats living in the resort and two dogs that constantly begged for food or scratched.
If you would like to enjoy nature, read a book and dive a lot, Carp is the place to go. If you would like cocktails, dancing and entertainment, don’t come here. On the evenings when it doesn’t rain, there are amazing sunsets there when water and sky becomes one color, later you can also see the Milky Way.
When on pier, you don’t even get bitten so much by mosquitoes (there is plenty on island, and even with a lot of spray you will get bitten). You can observe the birds and the changing coastal line due to tide. It gets dark early, around six pm, so we go to bed early and wake up with the sunrise, which are even more beautiful than sunsets here. Probably many do so, as breakfast is at 7 am, and it announced by a bang on an old diver’s tank.
As there aren’t many people apart from us, the only lively time of the day is midday, when snorkeling groups arrive to have lunch. As these times we are worried for our things safety, as the key to the house is very symbolic, even more, on the first day we accidentally enter the house from the terrace side, thinking it’s the entrance (without a key at all). Snorkeling groups also do a weird photo-shoot every time they come, a woman wears a wedding dress on top of her swimsuit and takes pictures with a guy dresses in shorts and flip flops. It even seems the dress is the same one.
From what we hear, Asian tourists don’t have the best reputation in Palau. They litter and there has been a case that a tourist took a bag with protected jellies to a restaurant and asked to cook those for him. The cook called the police.
The Rock Islands Tour
When I stared to plan our trip in February, I had immediately asked about Rock Islands tour, to see the beautiful islands better, not just passing by some of them while diving. The brochures said it’s three people minimum to do a tour, and hotel assured me that they have other reservations for our dates and it will be possible. Arriving on the island it turned out that the Russian couple is living on a budget and only eats what they catch and go around on kayaks all day long, as those are free. The Chinese girl and Japanese couple go diving ever three times a day and Tim left soon after we arrived. I had to use all of my negotiation skills to convince the resort that we do want the tour and we will not pay for the additional person and I did it!
So we spent a whole day on the boat, driving around the islands and seeing the top spots – famous Milky Way where limestone residue is coloring water even brighter shade of blue-green! I had never seen this color, not in Maldives and Seychelles and not even in Pltivica lakes. It’s supposed to be healthy to put on a mask of the dirt as it is rumored to have anti-age properties.
Arriving here seems surreal – there are two boats there when we come and loud music is blasting – PSY-Gentelman, Asian tourists are doing selfies and jumping in water wearing life jackets (as Stallon told us numerous times – they don’t know how to swim at all, so always wear those even when snorkeling).
The mud didn’t even ruin my new neon colored swimsuit! After a short while other boats leave and we are there alone. It’s just two of us, Stallon, captain Mike and his six year old daughter who also wanted to see this place. It’s interesting that the Asian tourists we encounter, really take care to avoid the sun – nude colored tops with long sleeves and sleeveless dresses on top, always a sunhat and leggings til sandal tips. They also snorkel dressed like this, and not without a reason – one hour under water, even with sunscreen might result in serious burns. Sunscreen is a must in Palau!
We also visit Clam City, that has giant clams living about three meters deep, each about meter long. Definitely don’t put your arms or legs inside, as they will shut down, especially fast are the small ones! We eat lunch on another island that hosts many other tourists during the time, and Japanese and Chinese tourists even get freshly cooked rice. On the way back we see differently shaped islands, some look like a sleeping person or a whale, and we also see the famous beaches such as Long Beach. 70 islands, the postcard signature of Palau, is off limits for visiting, so we only observe them from a distance.
Just a kilometer our from Carp our boat breaks down, we do get to the island safely but keep thinking, how lucky we are that this didn’t happen mid-way! When we wake up on the next morning and it’s pouring again, we can only be thankful for the wonderful weather the day before.
Back to Civilization
It’s the last day on Carp and time to go back to the big island. The time spent on Carp will always be remembered by diving and calm afternoons, when it’s time to write a few postcards and it’s always raining. You can see that this place used to be grand, with a helipad, but now all it’s left is a pile of rusty scrap. Seems nothing gets invested back into the repairs, all goes to profits. The reviews on Tripadvisor say the truth – it lacks love and money. Even simple things as fixing the roofs, installing ACs or at least buying some flee collars for the dogs would already leave a better impression. But the proximity to dive spots and amazing dive guide makes us remember this place kindly.
We were promised to see Natural Arch on the way back, a place where the mushroom like island has been degraded to a level it has a hole in the middle. The ocean really isn’t calm and I keep on thinking to hell with the arch, let’s just go to safety quicker. Finally we go around one island and it calms down. But we reach Koror soaking wet.
Living on Babeldaob
It’s foggy, we are tired, settle the bill and get into car where Arlene – the owner of M&A Riverside Bungalows, greets us. We pay $75 for the ride to the other side of the island, where we will be spending our last five days in Palau. We stop at WCTC again to buy some food for the evening (again, dinner is pricey, $28 per person), a bag of charcoal, aluminum foil and some snacks, as we have a terrace with a grilling pit. The house is very comfortable, it has an AC, teapot, microwave, fridge and a terrace. It also has it’s own beach, where during low tide you can crawl (it’s 30 centimeters deep) to see corals and fish.
While staying in M&A, we cook all of our meals, mostly consisting of tasty American imported steaks. On the first evening while cooking, a cat litter shows up, begging for food. So for the first time on vacation we end up buying cat food and feeding the tiny little Filipino cats. Turns out, toads also like cat food! Some of those are so big that really can be compared to the cats! In the evenings we fall asleep to loud noises made by the toads and other jungle sounds.
Coming back to Koror we eat in Rock Island Cafe two more times and once in MogMog in the city center, where for a garlic fish, shrimp, some rice and one Pepsi we end up paying $60 (“the fish was heavy”). We don’t come back here. But, if you would like to try local fruit bat soup, this is the place to go. We didn’t, those who will read book my Mandy Etpison, will know why.
We rent a car at Arlene’s, automatic Mazda Demio, $47 per day (with insurance). As the final gas station is almost on the other side of the island, we get it 7/8 full and return same. We had our first experience driving a car that has steering wheel on the right side this May, and this is again the time. However, the road is the same as ours, rules are American. The reason why so many cars have a steering wheel on the other side is that they come from Japan. Our car has engine warning light on all the time and sometimes we mix up the turn indicator with wipes. Also, we find a set of car keys in our car inside one of the seats, but strangely, those are from another car!
There is only one, circular road on Babeldoab, and you can go to the capital Ngerulmund and the latest attraction – Capitol. There are waterfalls on the way, numerous WWII sites and stone monoliths. Although maximum speed limit is 30 miles per hour, everyone drives faster. Arlene tells us that police doesn’t have any equipment to measure the speed. We only see police a couple times in the city. Driving is quite easy here on the highway, but not so in Koror – Main Street is so full of cars that getting on and off is nearly impossible There is no culture of courtesy here, you have to fight for your way on the road. Arlene tells us that when the road was build, all stray dogs disappeared from the island, because Vietnamese workers where told they can eat them, and so they did. But still stray dogs is a serious issue in Palau.
One of the main sightseeing places is Ngardmau waterfall, which is the largest one in Palau (30 m) and biggest in all Micronesia. Entrance is $10 per person, and it’s best to come on cloudy days, but not when it’s raining. Climb back will be challenging on sunny days.
You get a walking stick at the entrance, and you should wear comfortable shoes, as well as long pants if you would like to get deeper in the jungle. If you don’t want to walk, there is a monorail ($25 per person for both way ride. But it is interesting to walk here, see the railway being swallowed by the jungle (from Japanese boxite mining times), and see local flora and fauna.
There is a nice pathway to walk on, you can also walk near the river by the small pools, but it’s very slippery there. Also, there is a wooden path by the waterfall and some people even go inside. On the day of our visit after heavy rains we didn’t dare, and I have also read that someone’s kid got a mild concussion when a fish fell on his head here.
Going north to the very tip of the island, you can visit stone monoliths. Some compare them to Easter island, others say it’s the attendant who is the real attraction here and fee is too large.
For $5 per person you can see some stones that used to have faces on them, and those supposedly have been part of foundation for the traditional bai house. There is a nice view from the place to the surroundings, you can see the jungle and coral reef. There is very little left of the faces on the stones, and because of that scientists now say they might not be as old as thought before. There are also other places to see relics from this time – stone casket and petroglyphs.
The history of Palau is tightly linked to Japan. In the 1930-ies Japan turned Palau into closed military territory and many locals where forced to move to the jungle and live from what they could find. Japanese build roads and sewers, and there were 30 thousand of them living here before WWII (only 7 thousand Palauans at the time).
Most of the tourists interested in history go to Peleliu island to see the battle place, but there are a few objects on the big island too, such as communication center and the lighthouse. Entrance to the lighthouse is $5 per person, and there really isn’t anything to see here! At the communication center we saw a sign – entrance is $25 per person, please buy a permit at Airai state office during working hours. Suddenly a strange man showed up from the construction taking place inside and said that he would be collecting the payment. Since we had only come to the sign and decided this was way too expensive, we told him no. Then he said maybe just one of us should go inside then, and that we are cheap, enough money for hotel but not enough for this place! This was the only tout we saw during our time in Palau. I would not recommend also to go get the permit, as all you can see, is already visible from the road – one rusty tank. Unless you have a very deep interest in history, I wouldn’t recommend wasting time on these objects. The only exception could be divers who would like to see wrecks – there are plenty of those in Palau.
Not far from the Japanese communication center is the traditional bai house. Bai houses where places where chiefs came together and it was men-only (except for entertainers), first Europeans got to stay inside here as well.
If you would like to visit the 100 year old house, there are absolutely no signs to it. The road there is as follows: at the large highway going from Koror to northern part, turn right at the gas station as you would go to the airport, don’t turn at airport, but continue straight, past the American embassy object, until turn left at the very end. Bai is supposed to have a keep who will charge you for seeing it and taking pictures, but we didn’t see anyone here. You can also see the new concrete bai on the way here.
One of the most grand modern buildings on the island is the Capitol – looks exactly like one in Washington or Havana, just yellow. If you tap on it, sounds like it’s made from foam rubber. European Union and China gave money to build it. At three pm there were no people there. We walked the nice gardens and went inside the yard, seems politicians here also enjoy short working hours.
At the time we visited Palau, an active election campaign was going on, as they needed new senators and new president. Same as in US, they put up a lot of posters at the road crossings, at times it is difficult to see the name signs if you need to get someplace. Arlene told us that there are more Palauans living abroad and they are the ones who actually determine the fate of the county. She was born in Guam and doesn’t have a right to vote, but has a residents permit, as is married to Palauan. She has to pay everything a tourist would, for example, exit tax.
Former Palau presidents sons wife Mandy Etpison came to Palau as a diving instructor from Netherlands and has not only written several books about the island country, but also established a museum. It is interesting to read about the history and see traditional artifacts such as glass bead money, which are still used in clans, as well as see beautiful seashell collection.
Carp Island resort had her book in the dining area. She wrote it celebrating 30 years of her life in Palau and it is quite interesting, describing nature, traditions and history. Perhaps, a bit too heavy for a souvenir, but it’s worth at least to take a look. The entrance is $10 per person and you can plan for 30-45 minutes visit. There is a nice souvenir shop here as well where you can buy wooden carvings, seashells (it’s not allowed to collect them on the beach), jewelry and magnets. You can buy cookies and Japanese alcohol in the city. Don’t leave shopping to the last minute in the airport, as prices are twice as high as in WCTC. But even in the city souvenirs are expensive – magnets cost $4-6, a cookie box $5-10.
When living in M&A, first thing we did every single day was to check what is the weather and the forecast. It was raining for five days straight. We somehow managed to see the monoliths in a short streak of sun, but most of all we wanted to do the scenic flight above the islands, and you definitely need sunny weather for that! We went to the airport on one of those rainy days to find out how it works. There is a Pacific Mission Aviation hangar in the closed area, luckily, a guy was cleaning the airplane and after a little waving he came to speak to us.
He gave us a brochure on the flights and told us to call if we would like to fly, and said that usually spots fill up for the next day around 2-3 pm, when tourists come back from the activities of that day. But we didn’t feel comfortable booking a $180 tour per person and risk bad weather, so we kept on waiting for a sunny day.
Finally, one day before leaving the island the morning was nice, we called and arranged for a tour at 10 (as it takes an hour to get to the airport from Choll, where we lived). Luckily, we were the only passengers, although capacity is five. So, the two of us and the German pilot, who lives in Palau for two years already, went to small Cessna airplane with one door taken off for better visibility. I would only recommend sitting by open space if you camera is heavy and is well attached to your body. Taking pictures with phone here most likely will result with your phone on the bottom of the ocean. The windows are very clean and you will get really nice pictures also from those.
Before entering the plane we were briefed on the safety instructions and given a life vest in a hip belt to wear right away, as well as headphones with a microphone to be able to communicate. This 40 minute flight is one of my key highlights of the trip! Tiny little island scattered across the ocean, all of the dive spots we went to, Carp island and famous 70 islands, as well as even a shipwreck! Pilot took us over all of the key places and told us a little about each of those. This was a beautiful final trip to map everything we saw.
The last day of our vacation in Palau comes and we head to the airport. We are too early and everything is closed. There is no AC in the waiting area, but there are plenty of mosquitoes. Two hours before the flight the door is opened and a line forms quickly. This is the place where you get your boarding pass, which has already been printed for you! There is a big box with all letters of the alphabet and a lady finds our passes there. After getting the boarding passes we head our to the baggage drop off. Here our loyalty card numbers are written down on a piece of paper, to be input in the system later, and luggage tags are written. Yes, written by hand! We get 40 cm long ticket each. We asked if it is possible to check our bags until final destinations, despite Amsterdam-Riga ticket being separate, and the lady says yes. Our flight itinerary is very complicated, so it takes a while to write it all down and there isn’t enough space. At the end we fuss about the bags in every airport, but somehow they did reach Riga in the end. Then we proceed to luggage scan, and finally our bags are away. Then we have to go to the second floor, pay $50 exit tax per person, go through passport control, and get our hand luggage checked. At last we are in the waiting area to board the plane.
We spent little over two weeks in Palau and it feels like we have seen most of the worthwhile places of interest. Would I go to Palau again? Definitely! After a year or two, when Jellyfish lake is back to normal, I would love to swim among orange jellies. I would also have liked to do a longer kayak tour in Rock Islands. But most of all I would like to see the numerous marine animals.
Would I recommend Palau to others? For divers there is no question! For non-divers – if you can afford it, of course! But Lonely Planet doesn’t mention without a reason that this is not the best place to come with children, as there isn’t much to do. There is an aquarium in the city center and you can do dolphin encounters, but this is not the usual beach destination, only if because there are only two hotels that have a beach in Koror. But it is definitely interesting to visit a country that is so unknown to the rest of the world and there are no other people thousands of kilometers around it.
- Amsterdam-Bangkok-Taipei (one night here)-Koror and back is €330 per person
- Riga-Amsterdam and back, around €100 per person (bought with PINS miles, paid taxes and extra for luggage)
Hotels where we stayed:
- DW Motel, $80 per night, no breakfast (+ city tax) http://www.dwmotel-palau.com/ firstname.lastname@example.org
- Carp Island Resort, $120 with breakfast,+ 12% tax, +5% cleaning fee http://www.carpislandresort.com/ email@example.com
- M&A Riverside Beach Bungalows, $145 dolāri per night, ,+ 12% tax, +5% cleaning fee http://www.marivsidebungalows.com/ firstname.lastname@example.org
- As an alternative to living in hotels is living on a boat, such as Rock Islands Aggressor. Usually unlimited diving is included, as well as food, but it’s not cheap. A spot on the boat should be reserved well in advance The best option for those interested in maximum diving and not so much other sightseeing. You have to be absolutely sure you don’t get seasick before booking such accommodation.
- Koror-Carp by boat, $35.70 per person, per way
- Koror- M&A, $37.50 per person, per way
- Airport-Koror, $15 per person, per way
- M&A-airport, $25 per person, per way
Diving, car rental, entrance fees:
- Car rental was $47 per day, insurance included, booked in M&A
- Diving $130 for two tank dive; equipment: BCD, wet-suit, reg -$12 per day each, fins & boots – $5 per day each, mask $2.50 per day each. Excursion to Rock Islands $110 per day per person, minimum 3 people. Permit to be in the Rock Islands (also diving) $50 per person, valid 10 days.
- Most of the entrance fees in the sightseeing spots are around $5-10 per person, for locals cheaper.
- Scenic flight $180 per person.
- Rock Islands cafe: Japanese noodles $5, 20 cm pizza with one topping $14, iced tea $1.75
- MogMog: shrimp, rice, fried fish and one Pepsi for two – $60. Although they gave us complimentary small bowl of soup and a bit of tea, it just doesn’t justify the price.
- Carp: dinner $25 per person – soup, rice, sashimi, stew, meat, a few slices of fruit and a drink. When we asked to have more fruit instead of sashimi, we wouldn’t get sashimi anymore, but also no more fruit. One serving is enough for two. Lunch $15, but we only ate the one included in the diving tours – usually it was a box of rice, some meat and one slice of orange.
- M&A: breakfast $20, lunch $15-20, dinner $28, we didn’t order.
Prices in the stores:
- Two thin raw steak slices (frozen) – $6
- Celestial Seasonings tea – $4
- Coke around $1
- Beer from $1.1
- Souvenir cookies $5 small box (literally 5 tiny cookies inside)
- 2l bottle of still water $1.85
- Mosquito spray $10
Things to pack with you or take care of:
- Some cash, alternatively, you can take some out in ATM. There is an ATM next to restrooms in the airport, so you can get some there as well.
- Mosquito spray
- At least SPF 50 sunscreen
- Burn spray (even with sunscreen could go either way). Palau only has the ones with lidocaine, no dexpanthenol
- other needed medication (but you can buy many American brands here)
- Sunglasses and hat
- One extra towel, will come in handy in wet hikes or tours
- Plastic rain poncho, if you have little time and plan to go sightseeing no matter what.
- Insurance that includes medical evacuation – the healthcare services are very limited here, in case of emergency you might need to go to Taiwan or Philippines. If you are diving, definitely buy special divers insurance.
As usually, all pictures by my dear husband Jekabs Andrushaitis!
Also, if you speak at least some Latvian, check out my recent radio interview about Palau!