Dispatches: Exploring Palau, Micronesia

Micronesia’s micro-island-nation of Palau may be hard to get to but punches well above its weight in sustainability credentials and otherworldly marine beauty

4 mins

"Alii!” The customs officer greeted me with a huge smile and a different kind of welcome message: “Enjoy pristine paradise Palau and please don’t disturb or harm the natural environment around you.” Then, instead of the usual passport entry stamp, I got a stamp with the ‘Palau Pledge’: a world-first, where every visitor to this tiny Micronesian country has to sign a declaration as a commitment to future generations that they will preserve and protect the Palauans’ beautiful and unique island home.

Just five hours earlier, I had taken off from the urban chaos of Tokyo. Descending into Palau, the vista from my window couldn’t be more different: a truly paradisiacal landscape with a turquoise lagoon dotted with hundreds of rocky islands covered in lush foliage. I’d been drawn to the country by the dreamscape of Chelbacheb, the legendary tales of close encounters with marine wildlife you’d normally stay well clear off (see Jellyfish Lake belowe) and the headline-grabbing initiatives on tourism sustainability.

Indeed, this little island nation of just 18,000 people has been cautious about its approach to tourism; it has limited flights from mainland China (for a brief period, visitors inundated the island and its infrastructure) and has launched a number of initiatives to protect its precious environment from the impact of tourism. Still, a lot remains to be done to build towards a truly sustainable future for its tourist industry, particularly around waste management and food supply.

Koror, the main settlement, is a quiet, laid-back town with a disproportionate number of marine and dive centres. I was lucky that my first evening coincided with the Friday night market full of dance performances, food and crafts stalls. It felt like the entire country joined the fun, while all visitors, myself included, were treated like part of an extended family. It didn’t take long before I was being offered the inside intel on ‘secret’ spots for hiking, snorkelling and diving.

It is the world-class diving that attracts most visitors to Palau and its wall dives have an almost mythical status. On my short trip to the Ngedebus and Ngermenis Walls (some of the finest dive sites are a mere 60-90 minute boat ride away from Koror) I was lucky to see the chambered nautilus, a rare species found only in Palauan waters, and some of the largest, most colourful gorgonian fans that I have ever encountered.

Cruising along the incredible coral walls, we also spotted Spanish dancers, dog-tooth tuna and grey and white tip sharks. In 2009, Palau became the world’s first national shark sanctuary, ending all commercial shark fishing. Further still, a large part of the lagoon remains off-limits to visitors, with Chelbacheb becoming the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012.

No matter where I went, with every activity I took, with every local I met, the nation’s tourism mantra was reinforced: ensuring that all that makes Palau the pristine paradise it is today, will last for generations to come.

When in Palau don't miss...

Bai longhouses in Palau (Shutterstock)

Bai longhouses in Palau (Shutterstock)

The Bai Traditionally, every village in Palau had meeting long-houses called bai. While present throughout Micronesia, the Palauan bai er a rubak is highly elaborate; they are built of fine hardwoods and ornamented with traditional designs and colours. The bai served as community hubs and also hosted the meeting of the governing elders; inside, there are no dividing walls, no furnishings and only two fireplaces to break up the expanse of the hardwood floor. There are four fine examples to visit spread across Palau  – a reconstructed bai at the National Museum in Koror, and in Airai (the oldest, dating back two centuries ago), in Melekeok and in Aimeliik State.

Prisoners’ art for sale For visitors to Palau, the wooden storyboard has become one of the most sought-after keepsakes. The practice of carving these storyboards was revived on the island in the 1930s by Japanese artist and folklorist Hisataku Hijikata. Palauans have traditionally carved the interiors of bais with mythical, erotic and humorous stories. In the last few years, demand has skyrocketed, especially with growing exports to other Micronesian nations. Inventively, the local prison inmates joined in the action: one of the best places to buy storyboards is Koror Jail, where a dedicated shop is well stocked with the creations of Palau’s incarcerated artistic souls.

Jellyfish lake, Palau (Shutterstock)

Jellyfish lake, Palau (Shutterstock)

The Million Jellyfish Lake Palau’s Jellyfish Lake is a unique curiosity in the island of Eil Malk. Through a quirk of evolution, jellyfish in this isolated marine lake have lost their sting, enabling snorkellers to swim amid clouds of the astonishingly harmless invertebrates. Scuba diving is forbidden and visitors have to wash thoroughly before swimming in the 12,000-year-old lake, while use of suncream is prohibited to protect the population of more than one million jellyfish. The jellyfish underwent a massive decline in 1998 but their population has been steady in recent years, with local authorities enforcing the strict conditions for entry. Once you’re in, it feels like an experience on another world.

Palau National Marine Sanctuary In 2015 Palau passed a law creating a ‘no-take’ Marine Sanctuary covering about 80% of the country’s territorial zone, with the view of not only shielding Palau’s vulnerable marine resources but also at protecting declining global tuna stocks. The tradition of managing fishing waters sustainably goes back many centuries; the practice of bul has preserved the livelihoods and strengthened food security of the Palauan people for generations. Many of the diving and snorkelling sites you are likely to visit will be part of the Sanctuary. Knowing this will hopefully make you feel better when confronted with the steep fees required to access the sites.

Badrulchau Stone Monoliths, Palau (Shutterstock)

Badrulchau Stone Monoliths, Palau (Shutterstock)

Badrulchau Stone Monoliths A scenic drive to the northernmost point of Babeldaob Island brings you to Palau’s enigmatic megalithic site of Badrulchau. Dating from approximately AD160, archaeologists believe the existing structures were the foundation for a larger bai-style building. However, there are plenty of questions still left answered, including why a number of the 52 basalt monoliths possess human-like facial features. Palauan legend ascertains construction of the site to eight gods; the spectacular setting and vistas towards the aquamarine lagoon are certainly fit for one.

Need to know

Diving in Palau (Shutterstock)

Diving in Palau (Shutterstock)

Best time to visit Palau’s dry (and high) season runs between December and April. This is also the best time for diving, with clear, calm seas. June and September are best avoided with the possibility of rough sea conditions and lower visibility.

Currency & costs These days, the US$. In ancient times, Palau was the ‘mint’ of Micronesia, and the location where the infamous Yapese Stone money were quarried. Palau is overall an expensive destination.

Getting there & around Limited choice when departing the UK/Europe; Taiwan, Tokyo and Guam offer the best connections. Book early. Palau is a federation of 16 states, most connected by road or a short ferry ride. Consider renting a (hybrid) car, while most excursions to dive/snorkelling sites and islands can be easily organised with local boat owners.

Accommodation Palau Visitors Authority's website has a number of options; the country is still short in terms of eco-lodges and has mostly hotels catering for group tours and/or divers. The most high-end place to stay – with excellent sustainability credentials and arguably the best sunset spot in the country – is the Palau Pacific Resort.

Related Articles