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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Palau - Jewels of the Ocean

If paradise exists, then this is definitely the place!

As the plane circled and prepared to land at Koror International Airport, I caught glimpses of the coral atolls of Palau. The mesmerizing beauty and splendor of the scene rendered me speechless until I was jolted back into reality by a stewardess who was chiding me for not having my seatbelt on.

Adrenalin ebbed endlessly through my body as I stepped out of the Continental Micronesia Airbus onto the hot tarmac of the airport runway. It had been a tiring 36 hours, 3 flights journey to Palau. Not many know of its existence and even fewer know of its location. Its remote location, coupled with its dismal flight connections excludes it from the tourist circuitry of even the most intrepid travelers.

The Republic of Palau is one of the youngest nations around, having obtained its independence only on 1 October 1994. Geographically, it is part of the western Caroline Islands and lies in the westernmost part of Micronesia. The Palau archipelago consists of the islands of Babeldaob, Koror, Peleliu and Angaur, the coral atolls of Kayangel and Ngeruangel and of course the jewels of Micronesia - the Rock Islands. The Rock Islands are limestone islands and numbered about 200, stretching from north to south, covering a distance of about 125 miles.

The airport terminal is rather basic and drab. However the warm hospitality rendered by the staffs duly compensated this infrastructure deficiency. They spared no effort in assisting us to book our accommodations and in briefing us on the attractions that this wonderful country has to offer. A short drive brought us to the capital, Koror.

This is indeed a capital like no others. With a population of 12,000, it does not have the bustling feel of a city. A narrow two-lanes street serves as the main artery of the city. Non-descript buildings are juxtaposed on both sides. Traffic tends to choke up especially during the rush hour. There are few attractions in Koror but it is a convenient base to explore the Rock Islands.

The following day, we headed out to the small island of Peleliu. We endeavored to reach Peleliu by the local state boat, but it was a bad decision. The boat was clearly overloaded. Over a hundred people, together with their paraphernalia ranging from bicycles, trams to fresh food were sandwiched in a boat that were designed to carry no more than 50. Other than the blatant disregard for safety, the additional load caused a 3 hr journey to end up as a 5-hour journey. The weather was not too kind to us. The drizzle coupled with the rough open seas sent colossal sprays of water upon us, drenching us from head to toe thoroughly. But it was not all too bad. At least, the boat ride provided me with lots of opportunity to chat with the locals who were all too eager to find out more about us, since tourists always fly into Peleliu and foreigners are a rarity on the State Boat.

Peleliu, although only 5 square kilometer in size, was the site of one of the bloodiest battle during World War II. In two months in 1944, the fighting on this islands had left a casualty statistics of over 15,000. During its heydays, the population of Peleliu numbered in the thousands with settlements being found all over the island. Today, there is only one village on the northern part of the island with a population just above 500. Many villagers had followed the exodus to the capital in search of better career opportunities.

Peleliu does not see many tourists nowadays, which is amazing, considering the fact that it is a treasure trove of historical artifacts. Remnants of the war, ranging from tanks to warships to planes could be found at every little corner. Complimented by its scenic beaches and spectacular scenery, this island could be a hot tourist spot by its own merits.

Wenty Inn was our pre-booked accommodations on the island. It was staffed by a Filipino couple, Ray and Christina who happened to be one of the most gracious hosts around. From whipping up gastronomic meals to showing us around the island, they made every effort to ensure that we had a wonderful time on this island.

The attractions around the islands are too numerous to list but the following are definitely not to be missed at all costs. At Camp Beck Dock, an amazing number of WWII plane engines, ships and bunkers can be found.

The waters are enticing and a soak in it left us feeling completely invigorated. Snorkeling among wrecks can be a rather sobering experience. Honeymoon Beach and Orange Beach are superb for snorkeling. At the Peleliu Peace Memorial Park, we are able to spot Angaur Island to the south and view several dramatic blowholes exploding aggressively and the incessant crashing of the surfs on the headlands.Orange Beach is the site where the first US invasion forces first landed on Peleliu. Today there are two monuments with plaques dedicated to the sacrifices made by the US Army 81st Infantry Wildcat Division. There is also another monument on Bloody Nose Ridge, the highest point on the island, which provides a panoramic view of the entire island.

It was with a heavy heart that we bade farewell and boarded a six-seater plane for the 10 minutes flight to Angaur. Angaur, another tropical gem in the Pacific Ocean, has a population under 200 and a certain timeless South Seas charm. Lying outside the protective reefs of Palau, open seas pound the north coast endlessly, resulting in a spectacular sight of the sea blasting through numerous blowholes.

The population of Angaur is easily outnumbered many times by the thousands of crab-eating macaques inhabitating its forests. The monkeys were accidentally released in the early 1900s, when they were brought to the islands by the German to monitor the air quality in Angaur?s phosphate mines. Together with land crabs, wild fowls and giant chameleons, they contribute to the diverse and abundant fauna on this island.

Sadly, Angaur like Peleliu had also earned a notorious mention in the history text as its soil had been tainted with the bloodshed from the many who have died during the fierce battles that had taken place. Like Peleliu, the dirt tracks that interweave around the islands are dotted with remnants of war machineries, each with its untold tragic stories.

Our arrival, like the US battle on Angaur, was fraught with difficulties. Leon, the owner of the Island Villa, where we had reserved our accommodations, was nowhere in sight. A local lady driving a pickup that was falling apart (in the most literal sense) offered to drive us to his quarters. The search was futile and we had to settle for the only other lodging on the island, Kasiano's Guesthouse The Guesthouse had been in a state of neglect and it was situated a long way from the sea. To compound our problems, there was no restaurant at the guesthouse and canned food became our meals for the next three days. Our problems didn?t end there. The weather at Angaur was totally unpredictable - one moment it could be bright and shiny and the next moment, torrential rain could be pelting down. The sudden change in the climatic conditions was the catalyst for the nasty cold that infected us. The worst bombshell came on Monday when we were scheduled to depart. A heavy downpour caused the domestic flight from Angaur to Koror to be cancelled and for the next 10 hours, we were holed up in the guesthouse with absolutely nothing to do.

However, Angaur is not without its redeeming features. The magnificent blowholes, the rugged cliffs, the biodiversity of its ecosystems, the stunning beaches (Green Beach, Blue Beach, Ngedloch Beach, just to name a few), and the crystal clear waters are enough to mesmerize us for days and days. The island is relatively flat and it was quite a breeze for us to get around on bicycles.

Babeldaob was the next island that held out its affable hands and beckon to us. Our encounter with Babeldaob was brief but fruitful. Although Babeldoab is the largest island in Palau and is separated from Koror only by the Palau Japanese Friendship Bridge, it remained relatively untouched by development and under-populated with just under 4000 people residing on it. We had the opportunity to visit the Palau oldest bai - a beautifully wood and thatch bai that is carved and painted with depiction of Palauan legends. Bai used to be the traditional meeting place for the Palauan and was constructed without nails using native materials of wood and thatch on a stone platform. The visit was followed by a 4WD through the bumpy dirt tracks to a scenic lookout point in the hills. At this spot, we were rewarded with a 3600 breathtaking view that took in the Rock Islands to the south, the pristine forests and the rolling hills of Babeldoab to the north and west and the Pacific Ocean lapping the Palau reefs to the east.

The climax of our trip had to be the Rock Islands Trip. The Rock Islands are indeed the crown jewels of Micronesia. More than 200 rounded knobs of limestones, covered almost entirely by lush jungle growth, dot the waters for over hundred kilometers south and west of Koror. Over long period of time, the bases of these islands have been undercut by water erosion and grazing fish, resembling emerald mushrooms rising from a turquoise blue sea. As three major ocean currents converge in the seas of Palau resulting in an abundant food supplies, the waters surrounding the islands support an impressive array of marine lives. Over 1500 varieties of reef and pelagic fish are teeming in these waters. The island themselves are also the habitats to a wide diversity of wildlife, ranging from kingfishers, reef heron, black noddies, crocodiles and fruit bats. The dive sites will be too numerous to list; today our destination happened to be Blue Holes and the Blue Corners.

These two dive sites are Palau's most popular dive sites, due to its sheer abundance of underwater life. Manta rays, sea turtles, moral eels, and chambered nautilus are enough to take our breath away. But what really made hearts stopped are the numerous reef sharks swimming around us! Sharks!! But these sharks are totally docile in nature. They seemed oblivious to our presence and we had a field day observing them.

A short ride after lunch brought us to Jellyfish Lake. In the heavily forested island of Eil Malk, we took the plunge to have a close encounter with thousand of jellyfish, of various sizes. Yes, jellyfish!

The jellyfish here, due to the lack of predators, have lost their ability to sting. The close encounter with jellyfish is a spooky yet fulfilling experience that one should not miss. The lakes in the Rock Islands are former sinkholes that are now filled with salt water and have a limited exchange with the sea. Each of these 80 lakes supports a unique ecosystem, and provides the habitat for specialized creatures that have evolved in these waters over million of years.

All wonderful things must come to an end eventually. That night after the Rock Island trip, we had to catch a flight back to Singapore via Guam and Tokyo. That night at the airport, as I was waiting in the departure lounge, all the memories from this trip flooded into my mind. Deep inside, my heart was crying. I was overwhelmed by my emotions, touched by the wonderful experiences that the Palauans have given me. I knew that I had left my heart back in Palau and this tropical paradise will etch a place in my memory.


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