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
ULN
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

Aug 242011
Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan

At the far eastern end of Sabah lies the town of Semporna, the gateway to Tun Sakaran Marine Park.  The park, which includes Sipadan Island, is widely regarded as one of the world’s best dive sites.  We arrived in Semporna on a hot and humid afternoon and without any specific plans as to how to visit the park or where to stay.  Finding some accommodations was pretty easy even through the tourist season is in full swing.  After some food, we dropped off our laundry at the laundromat and went shopping for a dive operator.

Singamata Reef Resort
Singamata Reef Resort

Most of the dive outfits have accommodations on islands in the park that you are allowed to use if you book dives and/or courses.  Mabul Island is the most popular and the most highly recommended places to stay (at least in the budget category) were booked up.  We came across a place called Singamata Reef Resort that seemed to be a nice alternative.  Instead of being on one of the islands in the park, it is located on a reef a few miles offshore from Semporna.  Their prices were reasonable (US$33 per person per night, full-board provided) and they still operated dive trips to the park.

We wanted to escape Semporna the very next day but our laundry wasn’t ready yet so we were forced to stay another night.  Laundry places in Malaysia are full service – you can’t wash your clothes yourself even if you want to!  Semporna isn’t exactly the nicest of Malaysian towns so we mostly hid out in our hotel room (with AC!).  The main activity for that day was a lunchtime visit to the open-air food market.  Semporna itself didn’t seem to have all that many restaurant options.  Maybe that was because it was Ramadan, or maybe that is because we didn’t know where to look.

Murtabak vendors
Murtabak vendors

The food-market had quite a bit to offer.  There were numerous drink vendors whose beverage selection covered every color of the rainbow.  There were also quite a few vendors with grills covered in fish and chicken.  Personally, I ended up grabbing a vegetable murtabak which is a stuffed roti served with curry.  Roti is a flakey flatbread made of flour and ghee that is cooked on a grill.  I also noticed that quite a few stalls were cooking up large pancake-looking things that were filled with peanuts.  To drink, I got a plastic bag of super sweet orange juice.  The problem with the market was that there was no place to sit and enjoy your food – it was purely a takeaway operation so we headed back to the hotel room and I very carefully tried to eat my murtabak and curry without spilling it all over the place.  A tasty lunch for about a buck.

Vegetable murtabak with curry
Vegetable murtabak with curry

The next morning we reported in at the Singamata office at 8am for the morning boat departure.  The ride out to the resort was less than 10 minutes and they quickly showed us to our room in one of the stilt-houses.  Amy and I chatted with a Swiss couple who were staying a few doors down and we learned that they were both dive masters staying at the resort.  For those unfamiliar, the basic setup for dive masters is they get free housing in exchange for leading dive trips.  It’s a good way to do lots of diving on the cheap but of course you have to pay for all those certifications first!

The view  out our room's door.  Qualifies as waterfront I would say!
The view out our room’s door. Qualifies as waterfront I would say!

At Singamata there are a couple of options for diving.  First you can just go diving at the “house reef” which is literally just below the resort.  These dives cost RM80 (US$27) and can be made more or less spontaneously, subject to dive master availability.  The second option is one of the full-day island trips where you get three dives, lunch, and boat transfer for RM300 (US$100).

Nudi branch
Nudi branch

Since it had been many years since my last dive, the dive masters recommended a check-out dive for the house reef that afternoon.  Four of us went that day, two dive masters (Eric and Nat from Switzerland) and another diver (also Swiss, I think).  We dove to about 12m and had a poke around for 41 minutes.  The coral in that area isn’t all that spectacular but as a “muck diving” site there was lots to see – mainly small creatures like shrimp and colorful nudibranch.  One of the dive masters has an underwater camera so I am happy to be able to share some photos from the dive.  Given our proximity to the town, visibility was quite good – around 10m.

On the second day we had hoped to do a three-dive day trip.  The weather overnight was absolutely miserable.  Violent thunderstorms, strong winds and plenty of rain.  When we rose it was still drizzling and windy and I didn’t feel comfortable going out to one of the islands, particular if lightning was a possibility.  We stayed behind and I completed another house dive late in the afternoon.

Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan

On day 3 the weather improved and we took the full-day trip to Sibuan Island.  The boat ride out was about 40 minutes and we completed two of the dives before the lunch break.  Amy split her time between snorkeling off the beach of the island and snorkeling from the boat when it took us to dive sights.  For me, the best experience of the day was getting to swim alongside of a huge green sea turtle (3-4 feet across the shell) while he/she grazed on the bottom.  Amy also managed to spot a sea turtle while snorkeling.  Other highlights of that day included a black frog fish which I never would have spotted had it not been for my able dive master.  Unfortunately the dive master didn’t bring the camera along on the day trip so I don’t have pictures of my turtle encounter.  Visibility for all three of the dives that day was quite good, at least 15m!

In the end we were very happy with the Singamata Reef Resort.  The food was nice, the rooms were clean and the location was a welcome change from the stifling heat in Semporna.  It’s too bad about the weather on day 2 as I gladly would have done another full-day dive trip. but we had to move on.  I am glad to get back to the diving hobby and hopefully this trip will carry us through other good diving locations in the coming months.

SCUBA at Sibuan Island
Semporna's food market
Semporna’s food market
I was intrigued by these peanut pancake things so I bought one.
I was intrigued by these peanut pancake things so I bought one.
Some sort of sweet pancake with peanut filling
Some sort of sweet pancake with peanut filling
Murtabak vendors
Murtabak vendors
Vegetable murtabak with curry
Vegetable murtabak with curry
One of the common shower annoyances: a broken showerhead holder. This one I fixedw ith bungee cords.
One of the common shower annoyances: a broken showerhead holder. This one I fixedw ith bungee cords.
Another nice traffic circle
Another nice traffic circle
The view out of our room's window
The view out of our room’s window
The view  out our room's door.  Qualifies as waterfront I would say!
The view out our room’s door. Qualifies as waterfront I would say!
Heading out on my first dive in many years!
Heading out on my first dive in many years!
Nudi branch
Nudi branch
Another nudi branch
Another nudi branch
Smile!
Smile!
Crocadile fish
Crocadile fish
Lizard fish
Lizard fish
Razor fish
Razor fish
Nudi branch eggs
Nudi branch eggs
Singamata Reef Resort
Singamata Reef Resort
Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan
Amy snorkeling in the “aquarium” at the resort
Amy snorkeling in the “aquarium” at the resort
Amy snorkeling in the “aquarium” at the resort
Amy snorkeling in the “aquarium” at the resort

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