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Palau

Jump to:  Introduction | Facts for the Traveler | When to Go | Events | Money & Costs | Attractions | Off the Beaten Track | Activities | History | Culture | Environment | Getting There & Away | Getting Around |  Lonely Planet Guides | Further Reading | Maps

 


Introduction

Palau is the last word in underwater wonderlands. It also features Micronesia's richest flora and fauna, both on land and beneath the waves, and what's more, they released an Elvis Presley postage stamp a full year before the USA got around to doing so.

Not only does Palau offer a central metropolis for all your (little) big city needs, but you'll never once have to pick your way through commuters on your way home from the beach. Bring your binoculars as well as your beach towel - you're going to like what you see.

Full country name: Republic of Palau
Area: 180 sq km
Population: 18,400
People: Polynesian, Malayan, Melanesian
Language: English, Palauan, Japanese
Religion: Christian (33%, including Catholic, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Assembly of God, Liebenzell Mission and Mormon), Modeknegi (indigenous faith)
Government: Constitutional government in free association with the USA
Head of State: President Tommy Remengesau


GDP: US$160 million
GDP per capita: US$8,700
Major Industries: Tourism, craft items, some fishing & agriculture.
Major Trading Partners: USA, Japan

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Facts for the Traveler

Visas: All tourists may visit Palau for 30 days. Visas are issued on arrival for up to 30 days and can be extendend. Passports should be valid for 6 months beyond the period of your intended stay and you must have a return/onward ticket.
Health risks: dengue fever, typhoid, Filariasis, jellyfish sting
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +9
Dialling Code: 680
Electricity: 115/230V ,60Hz
Weights & measures: Imperial


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When to Go

Springtime is full of festivals in Palau and can make it an interesting time to visit. February and March are Palau's non-rainy months, while June to August is the stormiest period. Typhoons tend to hit around this time when they come, which isn't often. Palau's water temperatures remain above 27°C (above 82°F) year-round, much to divers' delight.


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Events

Spring is a busy time around the islands. During the last week in April or the first week in May, the Palau Sport Fishing Association hosts their Annual Fishing Derby, attracting anglers from all over the region. The islanders' attentions are brought back to shore on 22 April for Earth Day. On 9 July, the Belau Arts Festival highlights the islands' best artists and artisans. The third week of November brings Tourism Awareness Week - an extra dose of haole consciousness - to Palau.

Public Holidays

1 January - New Year's Day

15 March - Youth Day

5 May - Senior Citizens' Day

1 June - President's Day

9 July - Constitution Day

4 September - Labor Day

1 October - Independence Day

23 November - Thanksgiving Day

25 December - Christmas


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Money & Costs

Currency: US Dollar (US$)

Relative Costs:
Meals
  • Budget: US$5-10
  • Mid-range: US$10-20
  • High: US$20-25
  • Deluxe: US$25+


  • Lodging
  • Budget: US$35-50
  • Mid-range: US$50-100
  • High: US$100-200
  • Deluxe: US$200+

  • Comfortable travel in Palau will run between US$200 a day or more, depending on your taste for island hopping and dive packages. Travellers on a moderate budget can get by for about half that, assuming they only see a few islands and keep their food costs down. Those getting by on a shoestring can do so for around US$50, but that's not leaving much room for doing the things the islands are famous for. Spend the extra money and get beneath the waves.

    There are banks in all the major tourist areas, where credit cards and travellers' cheques are widely accepted. Neither tipping nor bargaining is mandatory in Palau.


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    Attractions

    Koror

    The economic centre and capital of Palau, Koror is home to two-thirds of the republic's population. It's a much less vibrant town than it was when the Japanese called it theirs, with a Micronesian pace and no particular penchant for hustle and bustle. If you dig deep enough, you'll still find remnants of a more traditional past, but at best it's good for a day or two of exploration. Beyond that, use Koror as a jumping-off point for trips to the Rock Islands, Peleliu, Angaur and the other islands.

    On Koror Island, the Belau National Museum is a good place to firm up your understanding of the nation's culture and history. It's packed with exhibits ranging from the mounted head of a 5m (15ft) crocodile - the largest ever found on the island - to Palauan bead and shell money, intricately carved storyboards and other local artifacts and crafts. On the grounds is a beautiful wood-and-thatch bai (communal meeting centre) and a few remnants of Japan's war machine.

    Malakal Island, across from Koror, is home to the Micronesia Mariculture Demonstration Center, a research marine lab engaged in conservation and commercial projects. Their big claim to fame is their success in cultivating giant tridacna clams. The tropical aquariums of the visitor centre are worth a peek. There's an excellent view of the Rock Islands from nearby Malakal Hill.

    Babeldaob

    The thickly jungled Babeldaob, the largest island in Micronesia after Guam, has a land area of over 400 sq km (150 sq mi), which is more than four times the total area of all the other islands put together. Still, its population is small, as most young people make their way to Koror in search of jobs. Babeldaob's Melekeok State was designated in the constitution as the future site of the country's capital, and although grandiose plans have been drawn up, many people doubt they'll ever come to fruition.

    Babeldaob is a high, volcanic island of gently rolling hills, with beautiful stretches of sandy beach on the east coast and mangrove forests on the west. Parts of the jungly interior are virtually unexplored, and many of the villages are still connected by ancient stone paths.

    Many of the island's hillsides were once terraced into steps and pyramids; archeological research suggest they were probably begun around 100 AD. Their purpose remains a mystery, and even more curiously, only one village was built anywhere near them. Ngarchelong State, at the northernmost end of the island, has an open field with rows of large basalt monoliths known as Badrulchau, placed there according to legend by the gods to support an enormous bai.

    Airai, at the southern end of the island, has Palau's international airport. The town's most visited attractions are its two bais, one old and one new. The northern Ngaraard State has some of the island's prettiest beaches.

    Peleliu

    Peleliu was the site of some of the bloodiest battles of WWII. Though only 13 sq km (5 sq mi) in area, in two months there were over 20,000 casualties, more than the current population of the whole country. Many of the island's residents today are survivors of that campaign. During the fighting, Peleliu's forest were burned to the ground, but now they ring again with songs of birds, who thrive in the second growth jungle. If there weren't the occasional pillbox, rusting tank or war memorial to remind you, you could almost forget the island's violent past.

    The island's main attractions are its war relics and underwater sights. There's a small war museum in the main village, Klouklubed. The Peleliu Wall, southwest of the island, is one of the world's finest dive sites, with an abrupt 900ft (300m) drop and scores of sharks, hawksbill turtles, mammoth gorgonian fans and an amazing variety of fish. Both White Beach and the inauspiciously named Bloody Beach are good for snorkeling.

    Rock Islands

    The Rock Islands are Palau's crowning glory. More than 200 of these jungle-topped knobs of limestone dot the waters for a 35km (20mi) stretch south of Koror. Their bases, having been worn away by tidal action and grazing sea creatures, are narrower than their tops, causing them to look like emerald-hued mushrooms rising from the turquoise sea. From the air, they're a knock out, and flights from Koror to Angaur or Peleliu are worth taking just for the view alone. But it's the waters surrounding them that make the Rock Islands unique. Dive in and you'll find some of the most abundant and diverse marine life in the world.

    The Ngemelis Wall is widely considered to be the world's finest wall dive. Starting in knee-deep water, it vertically drops off nearly 1000 ft (300m), showcasing a brilliant rainbow of sponges and soft coral whose intense colors form the backdrop for quivering 3m (9ft) sea fans and giant black coral trees. Blue Corner is the country's most popular dive, where you can expect to be dazzled by an incredible variety of fins and flippers, from schooling sharks and barracudas to soft and hard coral.

    Inland, Jellyfish Lake is a marine lake, popularised in the National Geographic TV special Medusa, wherein millions of tiny stingerless jellyfish float and bob in unison.

    Some of the Rock Islands have soft, white-sand beaches to laze about on after a dive, while others boast attractions such as caves with dripping stalactites, rock arches and underground channels; ancient rock paintings (on Ulong Island); and half-carved Yapese stone money (in a cave near Airar Channel). And, oh yes, crocodiles.


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    Off the Beaten Track

    Angaur

    Angaur is the southernmost of the Palau Islands group, and for the independent traveller looking to get off the beaten track, it has some serious South Seas charm. It's a low-key place, with only one village and just over 200 people, who are outnumbered 3-to-1 by crab-eating macaques. The monkeys descend from a pair brought over in the early 1900s to monitor air quality in the island's phosphate mines. The Germans began mining the island in 1909, and the Japanese continued the operation until WWII. Instead of their tunnels, though, you're more likely to see the green ponds that have formed in the pits, now home to a small colony of crocodiles.

    Angaur's lone village overlooks its harbour on the western coast. The harbour, which is nearly enclosed, has waters so calm you'd think it was a giant swimming pool. North of town, there's an old Japanese lighthouse hidden by a jungle on a hill. It takes a sharp eye to find it, but you'll enjoy a great view from the top if you take the trouble.

    There's a miniature wooden Shinto shrine located on the northwestern coast, with a nice beach nearby and good snorkelling when the water's calm. On the northwestern tip of the island there's a statue of the Virgin Mary, erected to protect Angaur from stormy seas. A Buddhist memorial with markers honouring fallen Japanese soldiers is nearby, and if you look to the east you'll see a big blowhole.

    On the northeastern side of the island, an eerie airplane graveyard is littered with pieces of wrecked WWII planes. You'll have to look closely into the dense jungle covering, as most of them are overgrown. Look hard enough and you'll find a Corsair with its wings intact, although the amazing root structure of the towering ironwood trees is just as interesting as the planes.

    Kayangel

    Towards the northern end of the Palau Islands is Kayangel, a picture-postcard coral atoll. Its four islands, fringed with sun-bleached beaches, ring a well-protected aqua-blue lagoon. The main island, Ngcheangel, is less than 3.5km (2mi) long and takes only a few minutes to walk across - and yet there's a chief for each side.

    The atoll has just one village thats's home to about 140 people, most of whom live in tin houses. There are a couple of small stores, a little ice-making plant and a few mopeds, but the island has no cars, phones or airport. Although Kayangel is fairly traditional, it welcomes culturally sensitive visitors. Dress is particularly important - women should plan on wearing a T-shirt and shorts over their bathing suit when swimming, and neither men nor women should wear shorts in the village. Woven handbags and baskets from Kayangel are in demand, as they're made from a high-quality pandanus leaf. The average bag is reasonably priced and lasts a couple of years.


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    Activities

    Palau is one of the world's truly spectacular scuba diving locales, with coral reefs, blue holes, WWII wrecks, hidden caves and tunnels and over 60 vertical drop-offs. It's the meeting place of three major ocean currents, which bring abundant food supplies and an enormous variety of marine life to the area. Thanks to that, the waters surrounding the Rock Islands literally teem with over 1500 varieties of reef and pelagic fish and more than four times the number of coral species than is found in the Caribbean. If you're a diver, you probably already know this, and if you've ever thought about learning, Palau is the place. Need further testimony? Palau was named the number one Underwater Wonder of the World by CEDAM International, an organisation of divers, marine scientists and conservationists. The southern end of the archipelago is particularly worthwhile.

    If you're sticking close to the main tourist area, the beach fronting the Palau Pacific Resort has some of Koror's best snorkeling, with rainbows of tropical fish, platter and mushroom coral and giant tridacna clams in full view. That said, no one really comes to Palau to snorkel in Koror. The real action is in and around the Rock Islands, and it's worth whatever it takes to get yourself out there. Probably the most surreal snorkeling experience you'll ever have is waiting for you at Jellyfish Lake, a saltwater lake made famous by the National Geographic TV special Medusa. A ten-minute jungle trek inland, it pulsates with millions of harmless, transparent jellyfish, swimming en masse and following the sun.

    For sun seekers, Palau's best beaches are found on the Rock Islands, Babeldaob and Peleliu, but most islands have a few lovely spots to toss down your towel. Local sportfishing catches include marlin, sailfish, tuna, mahi-mahi and wahoo. There are also tennis, running and - increasingly - kayaking possibilities on Koror, if underwater watersports aren't your bag.


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    History

    It's thought that the first inhabitants of Palau came from eastern Indonesia. Carbon dating of ancient habitation sites shows that the Rock Islands were settled by at least 1000 BC. These early Palauans developed fairly complex matrilineal and matriarchal social systems, wherein money and property were inherited by women though owned by the clan.

    The first European to sight Palau was probably Ruy Lopez de Villalobos of Spain in 1543. Spain claimed the islands in 1686 but did nothing to develop or colonise them. It wasn't until 1783, when English captain Henry Wilson shipwrecked on a reef off Palau's Ulong Island, that any significant contact between Palauans and Westerners began. Wilson was aided by Koror's chief, Ibedul, who helped rebuild the ship and then sent his son, Prince Lebuu, back with the sailors to be educated in England. Although Lebuu died of smallpox shortly after arriving in London, his presence there touched many Britons and piqued their interest in Palau. The country soon became Palau's main trading partner and remained so for over 100 years, until the Spanish returned and expelled them in 1885.

    Spanish missionaries introduced Christianity and a written alphabet to Palau before Spain sold the country to Germany in the wake of the Spanish-American War.

    Germany took control in 1899 and immediately set about curtailing the devastating effects of Western diseases on the local populace. They then forced the Palauans into servitude while setting up coconut plantations and other business ventures.

    Japan occupied Palau from 1914 until the end of WWII. It was during this time that Palauan culture went through its greatest transformation: free public schools were opened, instructing islanders in a subservient dialect of the Japanese language, and village chiefs lost power to Japanese colonial bureaucrats. Koror was developed into a bustling modern city, with paved roads, electricity and piped-in water; thousands of Japanese, Korean and Okinawan laborers were imported; and the traditional inheritance patterns were shattered as Palauans lost their land, either through sale or confiscation.

    In the late 1930s, Japan closed Palau to the outside world and began concentrating its efforts to develop military fortifications throughout the islands. During the final stages of WWII, Japanese installations across Palau became targets for Allied attacks. The fiercest fighting took place on Peleliu and Angaur; the more heavily populated Koror and Babeldaob (where the Japanese had relocated most Palauans) were never invaded.

    When the USA began to administer Palau after the war, it hoped to spin it off with the rest of Micronesia into a single political entity. Palauans, however, held out, voting in 1978 against becoming a part of the Federated States of Micronesia in favour of retaining a separate identity. In 1980, Palau adopted its own constitution, and the first president, Haruo Remeliik, took office in 1981. Koror was named the provisional capital, though the constitution requires that it eventually be moved to Melekeok State in Babeldaob.

    The transition to self governance, however, has not been easy: in 1985, Remeliik was assassinated (the crime remains unsolved), and his successor, Lazarus Salii, was found shot to death in an apparent suicide after being placed under investigation for accepting political payoffs. Palau's next president, Ngiratkel Etpison, a successful businessman and part-owner of the Palau Pacific Resort, was the first to serve out his term in full.

    On 1 October 1994, Palau officially became an independent nation, ending 47 years as a Trust Territory. That same year it was admitted to the United Nations. The USA retains some rights to a third of Palauan territory, thanks to its Compact of Free Association, which netted Palau a hefty 450000000.00 financial package for the first 15 years of the 50-year compact.

    Post-independence has been difficult, with political power struggles, the Asian economic crisis and lack of infrastructure. But Tommy Remengesau, who replaced Kuniwo Nakamura as president in November 2000, has promised to make Palau more organised and more self-sufficient. Besides, this country more than any other in Micronesia epitomises tropical paradise and the tourism industry - though still embryonic - is seen as an important future growth-stream.


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    Culture

    The people of Belau, as the islanders call their homeland, may appear to be among the most Westernized of all Micronesians in their casual American togs and baseball caps. However, they still frown upon skimpy beach attire away from the water, and most homes and many public buildings require that you leave your shoes near the door. Furthermore, many traditional rites have been retained over the years, such as those for a first-born child, and village chiefs still command an important role in the social hierarchy.

    Most Palauans are Christian, with the Catholic and Protestant churches well established and Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists and Bahais gaining in membership. Modekngei is a revived form of the indigenous religion, which also shows up in traditions such as leaving a light on to ward off spooks.

    Staples of the traditional Palauan diet include coconut milk and meat (copra), cassava (tapioca), sweet potatoes and all sorts of fish and seafood. Japanese and American mealtime influences are common. Although not as prevalent as it is on Yap, many Palauans chew betel nut, which when mixed with lime powder produces copious amounts of bright red spit. Old-time chewers are noted by their red teeth, newcomers by the stains on their chins and shirts.

    Palauan is spoken at home and in casual situations, while English is more common in business and government. Schools teach both languages, so most Palauans are bilingual from an early age. The South-West Islanders speak some Sonsorolese and Tobian languages. Islanders have borrowed the Hawaiian term haole to refer to foreigners.


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    Environment

    The banana-shaped Palau Islands group - part of the western Caroline Islands - lies at the far western end of Micronesia in the Philippine Sea. The cluster is roughly 2400 miles (4000km) south of Tokyo, 1380 miles (2220km) north of Darwin, 2800 miles (4500km) southeast of Seoul, 1000 miles (1600km) southwest of Manila and 4600 miles (7400km) southwest of Honolulu.

    A tightly bunched archipelago, Palau consists of the high islands of Babeldaob, Koror, Peleliu and Angaur; the low coral atolls of Kayangel and Ngeruangel; and the limestone Rock Islands, of which there are more than 200. Nearly all of the islands in the group sit inside a single barrier reef. The nation's boundaries also encompass six small, isolated islands, collectively called the South-West Islands, which extend some 370 miles (600km) to the southwest, almost as far as Indonesia.

    Tropical forests blanket much of the islands, with ironwood, banyan, breadfruit, coconut and pandanus making up the bulk of the waving greenery. Mangrove forests and grassy savannas are also present. Palau's highest point, Mt Ngerchelchuus on Babeldaob Island, measures 715ft (215m) above sea level.

    The region's spectacular underwater biodiversity includes over 1500 species of fish and 700 species of coral and anemone. Other noteworthy sightings include giant tridacna clams, sea turtles, manta rays, gray reef sharks, sea snakes, chamber nautiluses and dugongs (manatees). On and near the land, you'll also be impressed with the massive reptiles, including estuarine crocodiles and monitor lizards. In addition, expect to see dozens of species of birds, colonies of fruit bats (the only native land mammals) on the Rock Islands, monkeys on Angaur, a few nonvenomous snakes and small lizards and more insects than you ever thought possible. There are no poisonous land animals on any of the islands.

    The Palauan government has set aside a group of its uninhabited Rock Islands - the 70 Islands - as a marine reserve, prohibiting public access so as not to disturb nesting turtles and seabirds. Otherwise, there are no national parks.

    In Koror, the average daily high is 87°F (30°C) and the average daily low is 75°F (24°C). Humidity averages a sticky 80%, though it's washed down by 150in (3800mm) of rain annually. Palau's waters are always in the low 80s °F (high 20s °C). Typhoons are uncommon in Palau, which lies outside the typhoon belt, but when they arrive it's usually between June and December.


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    Getting There & Away

    Continental has daily flights to and from Guam. Far Eastern Air Transport has twice-weekly flights to Taiwan and another option, if travelling from the USA, is a Circle Micronesia air-pass. Other connections are through Guam. The airport is a 25-minute drive from the capital Koror; travellers leaving Palau must pay a 20.00 departure tax.

    Although there are inter-island boats within Micronesia, it's rare to find any sort of passenger vessel going to Palau from countries outside the region, aside from the occasional private yacht and live-aboard dive boat. Organised tours focusing on diving, snorkelling and - in dwindling numbers - guiding WWII veterans back through the islands in which they fought during the war, are also available.


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    Getting Around

    A few hotels provide airport transportation for their guests. Otherwise, there's a shuttle bus service, taxis and car rental available at the airport. Because Koror is the nation's commercial centre, Palauans commonly commute by private speedboat between Koror and their home villages on other Palauan islands. You can sometimes hitch a ride with them by offering to chip in for gas. Ask around at the gas docks. Otherwise, there are occasional flights aboard small Cessnas and weekly trips by government boats from Koror to Peleliu and Angaur.

    Visitors are allowed to drive in Palau for 30 days with their home country's driver's licence. Driving is on the right, and the speed limit is a doddering 40km/h (25mph).


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    Further Reading

  • Mandy Thyssen's comprehensive The Palau Islands gives a good understanding of the islands' history and culture.
  • For a broad look at Pacific Island culture, pick up William H Alkire's An Introduction to the Peoples and Cultures of Micronesia, Gene Ashby's Micronesian Customs and Beliefs or Anne Nakono's Broken Canoe: Conversations and Observations in Micronesia.
  • Taking a none-too-friendly view of US intervention, Sue Rabbitt Roff's Overreaching in Paradise: United States Policy in Palau Since 1945 wags a finger at Uncle Sam's bullying ways.
  • Arnold H Leibowitz's Embattled Island: Palau's Struggle for Independence is a more recent publication that takes a less anti-American stance on Palau's postwar political history.
  • James H Hallas' The Devil's Anvil: The Assault on Peleliu is a well-researched account of the WWII US attack on the Japanese-held island, which resulted in the deaths of many thousands of soldiers on both sides. For a more harrowing account of the assault, try EB Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.
  • Learn to talk this way with the New Palauan-English Dictionary by Lewis S Josephs.
  • Dan E Bailey's WWII Wrecks of Palau is a coffee table book on the various wrecks found in Palauan waters.

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