When I revealed to a good friend of mine that our next port of call on the trip after Mongolia would be Palau he joked that we were perhaps the 55th and 56th people ever to fly such a route. Our check-in experience at Chenggis Khan International Airport seemed to jive with this suggestion. It was as if the check-in agents had never heard of the country and it took a handful of them plus a supervisor to get us checked in. They took our word for it that we didn’t need a visa. The truth is, as Americans we can even go live and work there visa-free!
To get between the Mongolia and Palau, three flights were required. First we took Air China from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. This was our second flight with Air China and once again, we weren’t too impressed. The in-flight catering was pathetic (even by US standards) and the transit experience at Beijing was even worse. It took 90 minutes to get from our inbound aircraft to the lounge thanks to a remote stand, a slow bus, and a horrendous bottleneck at the transit counter.
From Beijing it was onward to Seoul with a much classier carrier: Asiana. Loads on the segment to Korea were very light… 13 passengers on board our Airbus A321 which can carry over 170 people. The Asiana business class lounge in Seoul was nearly deserted with only one other passenger to be found. I still refrained from banging on the grand piano. Our flight to Koror, the capital of Palau, left at 11:10PM and arrived in the midst of a thunderstorm at about 4AM the next morning.
Thanks to the short overnight flight, our first day in Palau was pretty much a write-off. We wandered town a bit and soaked in the island vibes. The island has a Hawaiian feel to it but it a very small place. The whole country has only about 20,000 people and of those, 13,000 live in the state of Koror.
Palau has been a sovereign nation since 1994 but has a “Compact of Free Association” with the United States that allows citizens to move freely between the two countries. It also gives them some other strange perks such as having US zip codes and being part of the US postal system. I made good use of this by sending a flat-rate box crammed with 8kg of stuff I had accumulated back to Florida. $14.95 to send 8kg most of the way around the world in under 10 days. Not bad, eh?
Palau’s ties with the United States were evident when we took a trip to the grocery store. The stock was a mix of American and Japanese brands. Spam anyone?
On day 2 we arranged a snorkeling day-trip with IMPAC tours to the Rock Islands. This set us back $90 per person plus $35 each in park permits (used for multiple days) and took to some of the Palau’s headlining attractions. The Rock Island archipelago is made up of thousands of limestone islets which have been worn away over the millenia. Most of them are sharply undercut by the lapping waves and almost look like mushrooms at low tide.
After one round of snorkeling we boated to one of the islands that has a marine lake. A marine lake is a sinkhole in the center of the island which is connected to the surrounding ocean through the island’s porous rock. The result? A unique and very rare salt-water aquatic environment. Some of Palau’s marine lakes hold millions of harmless jellyfish whose stingers have evolved away thanks to a lack of predators.
A short 10 minute hike from the boat was necessary to get to the lake. We swam out a good ways and before we knew it we were surrounded by thousands of pulsating peach-colored jellyfish. The biggest of them weren’t much larger than a softball and it was interesting to be able to gently cup them in our hands. As far as the eye could see it was nothing but jellyfish slowly pulsing away. This was definitely an other-worldly experience. Sadly neither of us had an underwater camera with us so the only photos I have of the jellies are from a friend we met the next day.
After Jellyfish Lake we made a lunch stop at one of the nearby beaches. The Rock Islands are all part of a state park and on many of the beaches you can find nice picnic huts and even bathrooms – you don’t see luxuries like that too often in this part of the world! A large tour boat was “parked” at the beach but it was still peaceful enough.
In the afternoon it was more snorkeling. My favorite part was snorkeling in amongst the mangrove roots along the shore – all sorts of little fishies call the roots home! We also stopped at a lagoon called Milky Way. The bottom is covered in a slimy limestone-based goo that they said was good for our skin. Honestly, it reminded me quite a lot of the white paste found on the bottom of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon spa!
As compared to Easter Island and the Cooks, eating out in Palau was dirt cheap. We talked to a guy at the tourist office and he filled us in on the local joints. We found a nice casual place called Emeimelei Restaurant that served up all sorts of island fare plus sweet tea (with free refills!) that made me feel like I was back at home. Dinner for two for $10. It was a good thing food was cheap because our accommodations didn’t offer any sort of cooking facilities! Speaking of which, we stayed at a place called Guest Lodge for $65/night which was the cheapest place we could identify.
On day 3 I went diving with a company called Fish & Fins and Amy joined the tour as a non-diver. Diving in Palau is very expensive – my two-tank day of diving came to $190 (in comparison, a three-tank dive in Malaysia set me back about $100). Weather was a mixed bag, it was cloudy in the morning and rainy in the afternoon. Sadly, heavy rain overnight made underwater visibility quite poor but it was still some great diving. Unlike many of the island destinations in SE Asia, Palau is spotlessly clean and the Palauans seem to be very responsible towards the environment. I didn’t see a single plastic bottle or grocery bag the whole day.
We rented an underwater camera for the day. I found that it is surprisingly difficult to use a camera while diving. Most of the really blue photos in the album came from my attempts with the camera, the better shots came from fellow divers (thanks guys!). I ended up using the camera for one dive and then Amy used it for snorkeling during my second dive. Best part of the diving? Manta rays!
Kayaking was on the agenda for our fourth day on Palau. We rented a kayak from IMPAC and just paddled the waters near Koror. Even though we were close to the biggest city in the country, it was easy to get away from the development and enjoy kayaking around the limestone islets. We took turns snorkeling from the kayak and found the reef to be pretty good although not as nice as the places our tours took us. The double kayak cost $35 for the day which makes it one of the cheaper day activities.
Our last day in Palau was spent taking care of the usual errands (like writing postcards). We also made an attempt at getting our passports refilled with more pages but we failed. They moved the US Embassy since our guidebook was printed and the new location was way out of walking range. Luckily, a nice local gave us a lift back to town after our frustrating walk to the old location.
Palau isn’t cheap but it is certainly a beautiful place. If I had to do it again, I would try to meet more locals. The locals we interacted with were very friendly and proud of their country and I suspect that might be the key to experiencing Palau on the cheap!