Pohnpei and the Ruins of Nan Madol

The Federated States of Micronesia,

July  16th - 18th, 2017

I left Guam just before 8:00 pm on the United Airlines island hopper, which is a thrice weekly flight between Guam and Hawaii with intermediate stops on five different islands along the way. Pohnpei is the second stop from Guam. We had a brief but slightly chaotic stop-over in Chuuk. There was quite a bit a confusion since several people who were getting off the plane couldn't find their carry-on bags, but it was all friendly and in good spirits. It also seemed like everyone knew each other. All the people leaving the plane in Chuuk shook hands and said good bye to almost everyone who stayed on. We landed in Pohnpei at 1:00 am local time (there is a 1 hour time change from Guam), and despite the middle of the night arrival, the little airport was packed with people waiting for their relatives. I was picked up by a guy from the hotel for the 10 minute drive to Kolonia, the largest city on the island. I stayed at the South Park hotel, which is a bit basic but very nice and in a gorgeous location right by the bay.

About the country:
When you hear the term Micronesia it can either refer to the country of the Federated States of Micronesia (or FSM as everyone here refers to it), or the much larger region of the Western Pacific, which includes the Marinaras, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the FSM. Micronesians are one of the three main ethnic groups of the Pacific (the other two are Melanesians and Polynesians). The Federated States of Micronesia  is a very small country that covers a vast area of the Pacific Ocean and is comprised of over 600 islands. Its total land area is only 700 square kilometers (about the same size as Singapore), but that is spread out across almost 2,700 kilometers from East to West. It has a population of just over 100,000, of which about 30,000 live here on Pohnpei.

The first people settled in these islands more than 4000 years ago. Portuguese Explorers were the first Europeans who reached the Island in the 16th century. Spain established a number of outposts in the 19th century, but following the Spanish-American war they sold the area to Germany in 1899. Germany incorporated the archipelago into the colony of German New Guinea, but that did not last very long. It was captured by Japan in World War I and following World War II almost all the islands of the Western Pacific became part of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific under US administration. The FSM became a sovereign country in 1986. but it retained its close ties to the US by becoming a so-called US associated state, which allows its inhabitants to live and work in the US and to join the US military. It also uses the US Dollar as its currency.

Pohnpei is the largest island and one of the four states making up the FSM. The other three are Yap, Chuuk and Kosrae. The capital of the FSM called Palikir is located here on Pohnpei. English is the official language, and even though people speak mostly in their local language, many people speak English fairly well, so it's easy to communicate. The economy of the country consists largely of subsistence farming, and the main source of foreign revenue is financial assistance from the US. Despite its spectacular natural beauty, the tourism industry is not very well developed anywhere in Micronesia.

The primary reason why I came to Pohnpei, were the ruins of Nan Madol. I had read about these large and mysterious ceremonial structures that had been built about 800 years ago by a civilization, we don't know very much about. I had tried to book a tour guide online prior to my trip, but that wasn't possible (the tourist facilities are really rather limited in Micronesia). So, I asked the hotel manager in the morning if I could get either a tour guide, or just pay a taxi to drive me to the site. But she said she would take me herself for $100. Her name was Sue and she had spent more than 10 years working in the US, before returning to her home island a couple of years ago. We briefly went back to her house, so she could change, and then we spent almost the whole day together driving around the island.

Pohnpei is one of the wettest places on earth. It is quite rare to have a day without rain. And that combined with the volcanic soil makes it also one of the greenest and lushest places I have ever seen. Every inch of this island is covered in thick green vegetation with beautiful flowers blooming everywhere. And the rain is completely unpredictable. It literally can change from bright sunshine to torrential downpour in a matter of seconds.

The drive was much longer than I had expected. It took about an hour and a half to get to the other side of the island, but we also stopped several times along the way so I could take pictures of the beautiful landscape. Just before we got to Nan Madol we stopped at this beautiful waterfall, which was a short walk from the road.

And then we finally arrived at the Ruins of Nan Madol, and it turned out to be one of those sights in the world, that completely blew me away. Although I already had high expectations, it exceded my expectations in every way. It was one of the most incredible archaeological sites I've ever seen.

The site is located on the eastern side of the island. The city, which is believed to have been mainly a ceremonial centre, was constructed in a lagoon. It consists of small artificial islands, which were connected by tidal canals. The whole site covers an area 1.5 km by 0.5 km wide and it contains nearly 100 of these artificial islands.

The structures and the whole complex were much bigger than I had anticipated. They are the remains of temples, tombs, palaces and residential buildings all built between 1200 and 1500 AD. They were constructed using huge and finely carved stones that had been transported from the other side of the island. Some of the stones are so large that it must have taken hundreds of people or fairly advanced tools to lift them in place. It is absolutely incredible to imagine the level of organisation and sophistication required to construct monuments like this. The civilization that built Nan Madol is called the Saudeleur dynasty, but not a lot is known about them, nor is it clear what caused their decline and the reason Nan Madol was abandoned in the 17th century

Nan Madol is considered one of the great archaeological enigmas in the world, it is also sometimes referred to as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" or the "Venice of the Pacific". Just an unbelievable sight in one of the most remote places in the world.

Nan Madol become a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016.  Unesco cited in their decision "The huge scale of the edifices, their technical sophistication and the concentration of megalithic structures bear testimony to complex social and religious practices of the island societies of the period."

This was truly was on the most remarkable and amazing archaeological sites, I have ever seen. I think the only reason Nan Madol is not as famous as Machu Pichu or Stonehenge, is due to its extreme remote location and the difficulty in reaching it. But then again the fact that it is so remote is a big part of its appeal. It had an almost eerie feel to it, because it was so deserted. We spent about two hours walking around and exploring the huge constructions, and except for Sue and myself there were only 3 other tourists with a guide there. I felt incredible privileged and lucky to be able to see such an amazing monument, that very few people in the world have visited.

On the way back we briefly stopped in the capital and saw the presidential palace and the parliament building, which looked more like a holiday resort surrounded by well manicured gardens.

Based on a recommendation from Sue I had dinner at a beautiful restaurant called Cupids which was located on the very top of a hill. I had a lovely dinner while enjoying stunning views of the bay beneath, the sunset and the evening thunderstorms rolling in.

On Tuesday, I finally got a chance to sleep in after my very early mornings the last three days. I had a nice pancake breakfast overlooking the bay, and then went on a walk into town, which predictably here ended in a torrential downpour. There are a lot of churches on Pohnpei. Everyone is Christian here, but there is a wide variety of Christian religions from Catholics to various Protestant groups to quite a few Mormon churches.

Pohnpei is really not for everyone. It has very limited tourist infrastructure and it's a long way to get there. You definitely have to change your attitude and expectations as a traveler a bit. But it is also perfectly safe and the people are very friendly. And whatever it takes to get there, it is worth it. Nan Madol is truly one of the great wonders of the world.

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