Grey Go-away-bird (Corythaixoides concolor)
Grey Go-away-bird (Corythaixoides concolor)
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)

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!

ULN
ULN

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.

We had to share the huge Asiana business class lounge with one other passenger.
We had to share the huge Asiana business class lounge with one other passenger.

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?

A good sign that one is on an island in the Pacific
A good sign that one is on an island in the Pacific

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.

Milky Way - lagoon with limestone bottom
Milky Way – lagoon with limestone bottom

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.

Bubble eyes going for another dive
Bubble eyes going for another dive

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!

Manta ray
Manta ray

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.

Lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore by kayak
Lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore by kayak

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!

Palau
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ULN
We didn't fly MIAT but I was happy to get my hands on some MIAT bag tags and boarding pass stock!
We didn’t fly MIAT but I was happy to get my hands on some MIAT bag tags and boarding pass stock!
Air China 737
Air China 737
Some of the gourmet food offerings on Air China
Some of the gourmet food offerings on Air China
Plane-to-lounge in just under 90 minutes.  Good job, Air China.
Plane-to-lounge in just under 90 minutes. Good job, Air China.
Nice sunset at PEK
Nice sunset at PEK
A321 Asiana flight from Beijing to Seoul.  13 passengers on board!
A321 Asiana flight from Beijing to Seoul. 13 passengers on board!
We had to share the huge Asiana business class lounge with one other passenger.
We had to share the huge Asiana business class lounge with one other passenger.
The Toto Washlet...sure could have used one of these in Mongolia!
The Toto Washlet…sure could have used one of these in Mongolia!
I love it when my flight is the most obscure one on the departure board
I love it when my flight is the most obscure one on the departure board
"The Rainbow's end"
"The Rainbow’s end"
A good sign that one is on an island in the Pacific
A good sign that one is on an island in the Pacific
There are signs like this all over the place in Palau
There are signs like this all over the place in Palau
Gasoline is north of $5 per gallon in Palau
Gasoline is north of $5 per gallon in Palau
Have you ever wondered what the Palau Supreme Court building looks like?  Well here you go.
Have you ever wondered what the Palau Supreme Court building looks like? Well here you go.
A calm and beautiful Palau morning
A calm and beautiful Palau morning
Our first snorkeling site in Palau
Our first snorkeling site in Palau
One of the residents of Jellyfish Lake
One of the residents of Jellyfish Lake
This is how you park a boat in Palau
This is how you park a boat in Palau
Milky Way - lagoon with limestone bottom
Milky Way – lagoon with limestone bottom
This stuff is supposed to be good for your skin.
This stuff is supposed to be good for your skin.
Gas station ice cream
Gas station ice cream
Tridacna clam - about two feet across
Tridacna clam – about two feet across
Jaws
Jaws
Eel
Eel
Bubble eyes going for another dive
Bubble eyes going for another dive
Manta ray
Manta ray
Manta ray
Manta ray
Heavy rain on the ride back to Koror...good thing I had my mask
Heavy rain on the ride back to Koror…good thing I had my mask
Pitcher plants
Pitcher plants
Those are some big clams!
Those are some big clams!
Lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore by kayak
Lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore by kayak

Sep 162011

Readers who have been watching the map on the website have probably noticed that we are no longer in Sri Lanka.  Indeed, we left the Pearl of the Indian Ocean a little over a week ago.  After almost 25 days of frequent use of Sri Lanka’s public transportation, coach seats on a Bangkok-bound airplane felt absolutely luxurious!  I still have quite a bit more to write about Sri Lanka but I thought I would interrupt the normally scheduled broadcasts and share our upcoming adventures.

During our last week in Sri Lanka I spent some quality time looking at airline award charts.  Ever since we left the States in July, I have been carrying hard copies of redemption charts for United, America, British Airways, British Midlands, and US Airways – all airlines in which I have a fair number of miles sitting in the bank.  I am sure I really confuse other travelers and locals alike when I sit someplace public and pour over these tables but staring at them for a long time is the best way for me to find the fun corner cases.  While planning our escape from Sri Lanka I think I had some good luck finding one of those corner cases.

The basic goals we had were as follows:

  • Thailand for a quick jaunt to Cambodia/Laos
  • Hong Kong – a city neither of us has visited
  • Mongolia – a country that has long been on my must-see list
  • Philippines – for more SCUBA and snorkeling

The first idea I had was to cash out some British Airways miles for an award with Cathay Pacific.  This would take us from Sri Lanka to Thailand for a stopover then onward to Hong Kong for another stopover.  Finally, the award would terminate by carrying us from Hong Kong to either Manilla or Cebu in the Philippines.  This seemed to be a good value but I wanted to stretch it even more.

Mongolia has long been on my must-see list and we are in the same neck of the woods, sort of.  OneWorld has no service to Ulaanbaatar but Air China, a Star Alliance member, has once daily service from Beijing.  Nesting a second award ticket inside of our Hong Kong stopover was doable but the miles required wasn’t all that attractive and the Chinese visa issues even less so.

Image from Wikipedia Mongolia article

Mongolia

Eventually it occurred to me that I could probably accomplish most of our goals with a single ticket using my British Midland (BMI) miles.  BMI allows stopovers, even on one-way awards, and prices their awards with a zone-based system which favorable groups all those destinations into adjacent zones.  By booking two one-way reservations I was able to construct a ticket to take us from Sri Lanka to Thailand for a stopover and then onward to Ulaanbaatar.  After a 16-day stay from Ulaanbaatar a second one-way ticket will take us from Mongolia to the Philippines…but wait, there’s more!

While I was checking the Star Alliance timetables for Manilla, I noticed that Continental’s Micronesia division has twice-weekly service from Manilla to Palau.  I also noticed that Asiana has four-times-weekly service from Seoul to Palau.  I wasn’t sure if the airline would accept the detour through Palau but I was determined to give it a shot.  After checking award seat availability I phoned up BMI and read off the segments.  The agent commented on the long routing but also noted that routing through Singapore, a much longer distance, was legal.  He had to get a supervisor involved but eventually all was approved.  15,000 miles were used for the entire ticket: Sri Lanka to Thailand to Mongolia to Palau to the Philippines.

My good friend Charles opined that we will perhaps be the 55th and 56th people ever to fly from Mongolia to Palau.  It is certainly a strange routing and a testament to the power and flexibility of air miles and global airline alliances.  Even if we aren’t the 55th and 56th, travel that day should be a radical change of scene after 16 days out on the steppe!

Palau image from Wikipedia

Palau's Rock Islands

So in the end we didn’t accomplish the goal of visiting Hong Kong but we did add the bonus destination of Palau!  Hong Kong should be easy enough to hit up some other time as its a major hub.  Our stop in Thailand is scheduled to last 12 days; not enough time for Laos but certainly enough time to visit the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  We could have stopped longer but the Mongolian winter is closing in.  Even this week, the second full week in September, they are already seeing lows around 15F (-10C)!  It’s high time to shop for some cold weather clothing!

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