Sunday, December 18, 2011

Palau: A fish and coral paradise

To get to Palau from Phnom Penh we first flew back to Vietnam, staying overnight in Ho Chi Minh City before flying on to the Pacific. To make things easy, we had arranged with our Vietnam travel agent, Tonkin Travel, for a car to pick us up at Saigon airport and take us to our old standby, the Sanouva Hotel.  As usual, there were a bunch of drivers waiting with signs as we left the airport, and we spotted our name on one of the signboards. We waved to the driver and he led us out to his van, which took us on the route we were familiar with by now. But when we got to our street the driver pulled up to the Golden Hotel, not the Sanouva, which was across the street. No problem—we told him we were going to the Sanouva, walked across the street, and checked in. 

A few minutes later we got a call from the travel agent asking us how we had gotten to the hotel. When we told her, she asked if we’d paid the driver anything. (No, since we knew that the agency paid the driver directly.) Then she said that our driver—apparently the driver we were supposed to go with—was still at the airport, looking for us! Very strange. I think what happened is that when we waved to the driver at the airport the wrong driver came over, and it was just a lucky coincidence that he was supposed to take someone to the Golden Hotel, across the street from our own hotel.  So now we know how to get a free ride from the airport even if you haven’t reserved one—just point to one of the name boards and go with it!

The next morning we were back at the airport by 10 for our flight to Koror, Palau, via Singapore and Manila. The first two legs were on Singapore Airlines, which has to be one of the finest airlines in the world. Great service, sufficient legroom (even in row 57), decent meals that included free wine. And Singapore airport is really nice—the floors are carpeted (and the carpet is spotless!) and the chairs at the gates are padded. Comfortable! Quite a contrast to Manila airport. There we got to use the VIP lounge because we’d been upgraded to business class on Continental for our flight to Koror, but the lounge was the worst I’ve been in. When it came time to board the flight the extra security checks were the most stringent we’ve seen in awhile. No more laid back Southeast Asian airport security!

Many flights into and out of Palau all take place around 2 a.m. We arrived around 2:30 a.m. and took the West Plaza Hotel shuttle to our lodgings for the next 5 nights. First impression of Koror: sleepy, and sleeping. The hotel is basic but expensive for what you get ($100 a night), like many things in Palau. But it has air conditioning (important in this tropical climate) and a view across the water, so it’ll do. The plan was not to spend much time in the hotel anyway—we’re here to kayak, snorkel, and enjoy the laid-back tropical atmosphere.

We arranged a trip with Sam's Tours to the nearby Rock Islands that included a speedboat to the best kayaking locations (the boat takes us and the kayaks to the spots), kayaking, and snorkeling. Water tours aren't cheap here--they run about $115 per person. Oh well--how many times will we get to Palau?

Red roosters are popular in Palau!
Our plans were put on hold, however, by a tropical storm that passed through Palau on its way to the Philippines. That gave us more time to explore the town, including the Belau National Museum (there's no "p" in the Palauan language, so Belau is the local spelling of the country). Palau has been administered by several countries in the past couple of centuries: the Spanish gave way to the Germans, who gave way to the Japanese, who lost Palau to the United States in World War II. After the war the islands that make up Palau became a U.S. Trust Territory; in 1994 they became an independent nation with a seat in the United Nations. The museum has some interesting exhibits on the area’s history. It was a nice place to visit until it was overrun by Chinese and Japanese tour groups as we were leaving—Palau is a popular holiday destination for Asian travelers, and most of them travel in packs, so when they descend on a site they really make an impact (both on land and in the water).    

The Pacific islands treat has been modernized!
The storm didn’t amount to much in Palau, though it did cause significant damage and at least 200 deaths when it got to the Philippines. By evening it had mostly passed through our area, so our kayak trip the next day was ON. Yay! It was interesting to see day-to-day island life in Palau, but our interest was quickly running out.

And then we got what we came for: 3 fantastic days on and in the water. 

On the first day there were 6 of us on the boat, plus our guide Lewis, a couple of guides-in-training, and the boat captain. The boat brought us and the kayaks to some amazing kayaking and snorkeling sites, including lagoons with calm waters—perfect for both kayaking and snorkeling. The corals were gorgeous—purple, green, orange, white—and in all kinds of varieties. The fish were equally colorful. I can’t list them all, so I won’t list any; suffice it to say that what we saw on our 3 snorkeling runs that day was 10 times better than the best aquarium we’ve ever been in. Maybe our favorite was the Harlequin Sweetlips—dark brown with big white spots and fluffy fins. But there were so many others! The colors of the water ranged from milky blue to turquoise to all shades of blue-green. 

We boated into a big cave, and John and the 2 other guys climbed up to the top of the cave’s opening and jumped into the blue-green water below (I stayed on the boat that time, to take pictures). The kayak portions of that day were the best we’ve ever experienced. Awesome.

The next day we went out with Sam’s again, this time on a snorkeling tour with 2 other people (U.S. Navy guys from Guam), further afield in the Rock Islands. We snorkeled 5 times—one was at the edge of a reef wall where on our right side the corals and fish were again amazing and on our left side the trench along the Philippine Sea was unfathomably deep. 

Our kayaks ready and waiting
Another place was the unbelievable Jellyfish Lake, an interior marine lake that we reached by hiking up a steep coral path and then down an equally steep slope to the lake—fortunately there was a sturdy rope on one side that we could hang on to to keep our balance as we climbed up and down. The walk was worth the effort, though, because at the lake we had our own personal National Geographic moment: snorkeling with thousands of pulsating orange jellyfish, some bigger than my hand spread wide, all of which have evolved with no stingers since they have no predators in the lake. We were able to touch and hold the jellies but had to be careful not to lift them out of the water because that would have been harmful to them. We were lucky because our guide timed our visit perfectly to sandwich us between two big tour groups—one leaving just as we arrived, the other arriving just as we left—so the 4 of us we had the lake and its resident jellyfish all to ourselves while we were there. Stunning!   

Who are these people?
Another fun stop on that snorkeling tour was the Milky Way, a protected lagoon in which very fine, white mud accumulates on the bottom and makes the water a milky blue. Our guide, Loren, dove down to the bottom of the lagoon and brought up a pile of mud, which we plastered all over ourselves for an impromptu mudbath. (The same mud sells in one of the expensive hotels in Palau for $100 a bottle.)

We had so much fun on both the kayaking and the snorkeling trips that we decided to do yet another kayak/snorkeling combo today. Yes, we saw more awesome sights and got more great exercise. At the first snorkeling stop we snorkeled over a place called Darwin’s wall, named for all the brain corals and other colorful corals that line the wall. At the second snorkel stop we saw a black-tipped shark patrolling less than 10 yards from us as we swam. We kayaked in a quiet marine lake that we got to by doing the limbo on our kayaks under an low opening in the wall; by the time we left the lake the tide had begun to rise and we had to really flatten ourselves against the kayak tops in order to get through. We also did a lengthy, slow paddle through a beautiful mangrove channel to an inner lake where we saw devil rays gliding below us. What a great day—too bad I didn’t have a water camera! Or maybe it’s good—I was able just to enjoy what I saw and take a mental picture.

For meals we’ve had bento boxes arranged by Sam’s Tours (not great, but they keep the hunger pangs away), and dinners at Fuji (Japanese), Little Italy, Taj (Indian), and a Thai restaurant whose name I’ve forgotten. Nothing memorable—food is definitely not one of Palau’s highlights. However, one of our guides highly recommended Carp Restaurant for local food, so we’re going to try that before we leave Palau.

Tomorrow we get a break from all the physical activity: we’re taking the $5 state ferry 2.5 hours south to the Palauan island of Peleliu, where we will stay in a seaside cottage for 3 days of laying in a hammock, doing a little more kayaking, and otherwise relaxing before we say good-bye to Palau and fly on to Pohnpei, farther east in the Pacific.  

1 comment:

  1. This all sounds magical, wish we were there with you! Love the image of those jellyfish.