Palau and the Rock Islands

Palau and Yap are pretty close to each other, considering how spread out the rest of Micronesia is, but Palau is its own little island country. Historically, Palau and Yap are also very connected, but Palau has become a melting pot of Micronesian, Chinese and Philippino people catering to a huge tourism market, while Yap remains a quiet, traditional island with very few visitors.

My favourite snorkel spot in the Rock Islands

My favourite snorkel spot in the Rock Islands

Palau is to mainland Asia, what Mexico is to North America, a nearby tropical paradise for the masses to go on vacation. Technically, Palauan and English are the official languages, but I saw and heard more Chinese and Japanese than English, and barely a word in Palauan, during my whole visit. The tourist shops and tourist information are all catered for the Asian market, and I only met other Asian tourists except for one Norwegian anthropologist, and a handful of US Navy divers (the marines come here on vacation from their job posts in Guam or Kwajalein).

There’s only one backpackers on the island, and many locals are still confused about the difference between a brothel and a hostel, so the majority of tourism stays with the big hotels and resorts and packaged tours. But at Ms. Pinetree’s Hostel, her 14 beds were fully booked a month in advance, and all of her guests’ business stayed within the family. Her uncle was the shuttle service to and from the airport, her brother lived in the hostel, and her brother ran private tours to the Rock Islands in his personal little speed boat. She didn’t have a bed for me either, but I slept in my hammock on the balcony and gave her brother some business instead.

a limestone cave

a limestone cave

I went on his boat with the Norwegian Anthropologist and her boyfriend to the Rock Islands, the main tourist destination in Palau and a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s a huge lagoon scattered with rock islands of all shapes and sizes, a cluster of tree-covered, mushroom-shaped limestone. Noone lives on these islands anymore, but they were heavily bombed in WWII when the Japanese and American used to hide among them, and before that, the Yapese used to harvest their stone money from these islands. We saw the wings of a bomber plane washed up on one beach, and a sunken ship sheltered in one bay just a meter below the surface.

silica mud bath

silica mud bath

Like me, hundreds of tourists come to the Rock islands not only to see these strange formations of land, but to dive and snorkel the underwater world. I’ve never seen so many bright and varied corals and fish in perfectly clear water, colourful clams the size of a couch, and one lake filled with thousands of sting-less orange jelly fish. The Milky Way is a silica-mud bottom lagoon where the seawater turns from turquoise clear to milky blue, and it was a joy to dive down to the bottom and scoop up some mud, plaster it all over, dry off in the tropical sun, and then dive back in to the bath-warm water to scrub it all away and emerge with babysoft skin. It was probably more expensive than the Blue Lagoon back home, since you have to pay a $100US park fee to go to the Rock Islands (including Jellyfish lake), and another $100+ for the day tour. But I guess it was worth it, one of those once-in-a-lifetime places that people will continue to pay whatever it costs, which unfortunately keeps driving the price up.

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