Koror, The Republic of Palau

July 19th - 22nd, 2017

I left Guam again on an evening flight on United Airlines. The Guam to Palau flight takes less than two hours and I arrived in Palau at 8:30pm local time. When I got out of the small airport I realized that I probably should have called the hotel to ask for a pick up, as there were no taxis here. But then something happened that only happens in very small countries. The lady from the visitor centre booth in the terminal saw me look a bit helpless and immediately sprang into action. She came out of her booth, asked me where I want to go and organised a local car for me. I stayed at the very nice Palasio Hotel right in the centre of Koror.

About Palau:
Palau is located in the Western Pacific, about 800 kilometers North of the Equator and 500 kilometers East of the Philippines. It consists of over 300 islands, the two largest of which are Babeldao and Koror, which are connected by a bridge. The first human inhabitants arrived about 3,000 years ago probably from the Philippines. The islands were first explored by Europeans in the 16th century. In the late 19th century Palau became part of the Spanish East Indies, but Spain sold the islands to Germany in 1899. The German period only lasted for 15 years until the start of World War I. Following the war the islands were given to Japan, which held them until World War II, during which is was the site of several major battles between the US and Japan. For the decades after the war Palau was also part of the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific under US administration. It decided not to join the Federated States of Micronesia in 1979, and instead aimed to become an independent country. Something it finally achieved in 1994, when it became a full member of the United Nations. Just as Micronesia it maintains a compact of free association with the US, which allows its citizen to live and work in the US. The US provides defense and access to social services, and the country uses the US Dollar as it national currency. Palau has a population of around 21,000 people, which makes it the fourth smallest country on earth (only Tuvalu, Naura and the Vatican have smaller populations).

Palau's economy is based on fishing, subsistence farming and tourism, with a major source of income coming in the form of aid from the US. Tourism activities are largely focused on diving and snorkeling, as these island are famous for being among the best diving sites in the world, because of its barrier reef and the numerous underwater WWII wrecks. Palau is significantly more developed and has a per capita GDP of twice that of the Federated States of Micronesia. The tourism industry is fairly advanced as well, with several large and good hotels and many tour operators offering diving and sightseeing tours. Palau International Airport has direct flights from Guam, Manila, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo.

For my first day I had booked a trip to the famous Rock Islands through a local company called Impac Tours. They picked me up from my hotel in the morning. After paying the tour fee and the $50 rock island permit, we drove to the harbour to get on a small speedboat.

We started seeing the first rock islands after about 30 minutes, and they really were amazing. They are limestone and coral islands, which were created when the sea floor was lifted. They are covered in dense vegetation, which makes most of them look like green mushrooms. The Rock Islands became a Unesco World Heritage site in 2012.

Our first stop was the so-called milky way, which is a small lagoon where the water has a bright turquoise and cloudy appearance due to the very fine white limestone mud that has accumulated here. We went swimming in the beautiful warm water and covered ourselves in the mud, which is apparently very good for your skin.

We then had 3 different snorkeling stops, with a nice lunch at a beautiful beach in between. The snorkeling really is quite impressive here, huge numbers of fish and amazing corals. I could see why this is such a famous spot for diving. Unfortunately we could not see one of the most unusual sites here, the famous jellyfish lake. It is a saltwater lake in the center of one of the larger islands, that usually is teeming with large and colorful jellyfish. However the number of jellyfish in the lake has dropped significantly in the last couple of years, possibly due to climate change. So, the government this year decided to close the lake to tourists in an effort to protect the remaining jellyfish population.

The rock islands consists of over 200 uninhabited islands of all sizes and shapes. Many have the typical mushroom shape, but we also saw this natural arch island and the smiling elephant island.

The end of the trip turned into a little bit of an adventure. The rain which had started during our last snorkel turned into a major storm on our way back. The speed boat was still going very fast, which made the rain drops feel like sharp needles hitting you, and then the swells started to get rather large. The little boat was thrown about quite violently. It turned out to be all safe, but it was quite an exciting trip back to Koror.

On my second day I joined a trip to Peleliu Island. I originally had booked a different trip, which was cancelled. And I am glad it was, because this trip to Peleliu Island was really fascinating. I was picked up again from the hotel and the speed boat ride past the rock islands and the brilliant turquoise waters took about an hour

Peleliu Island is a small island of about 600 people in the Southern part of Palau. It is the site of one of the most brutal and bloodiest battles of the Pacific War between the US and Japan. Over 2,000 US  and 11,000 Japanese troops died here in a gruesome three months fight. However, this battle is not that well known, because at the time the US military tried to keep the information from the media, since the battle was not a success for either side. And it also turned out that there was very little strategic reason for the US to take the island.

Our first stop was the local cemetery. Interestingly some of the graves had propeller wings in place of tomb stones. There was also a small memorial shrine to General Nakagawa, the commander of the Japanese Army, who is still highly revered here, because when he anticipated the US attack on the island, he decided to evacuate all of the 899 local people to Koror. And he thus saved the lives of the parents and grandparents of almost everyone who lives on the island today.

Next we visited the small but very interesting war museum, which is housed inside a former Japanese weapons storage bunker. We spent about 30 minutes in the museum and then drove to the nearby Japanese headquarters building, which was a two story construction, that had two enormous holes in the roof, where it suffered direct hits from US aerial bombs.

The island had an airstrip, which was the main reason US command thought they had to take the island, to support McArthur's campaign in the Philippines. (In effect the battle for Peleliu continued well after McArthur had already succeeded in the Philippines.) There are all sorts of war remnants scattered throughout the island, like small tanks and a totally overgrown Japanese plane wreck.

There were nearly 11,000 soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army stationed here on the island, when the US attack began on Sep 15th 1944. Over the next three months more than 2,000 US soldiers and almost every single one of the 11,000 Japanese were killed, except for about 200 who were captured and 34, who survived here on the island for another two and a half years hiding in a cave. When they were finally found by US troops in 1947, they refused to leave the cave thinking it was a trap, since they didn't know that the war had ended two years earlier. Only when the US contacted a senior Japanese army officer, who flew to the island and officially released the 34 soldiers of their duty, did they come out and returned to Japan.

We also visited the war memorial located at at beautiful spot overlooking the ocean. The Japanese Emperor Akihito visited Peleliu Island to commemorate the fallen soldiers here in 2015. Afterwards we walked to the highest point of the island. From here we had a great 360 degree view across the whole island, and you could see the coastline in every direction. It is absolutely mind-boggling to think that 13,000 young men lost their lives fighting over this tiny piece of land.

After the speedboat ride back, which was a bit wet and bumpy but nothing like the ride in the storm the previous day, I went on a short walk around town. I visited a small night market and saw the rather unimpressive Palau parliament building.

On my last day in Palau, I was able to book a scenic flight over the rock islands. The operator called Smile Air has two four-seater Chessnas for the 45 minute flights. I was a bit taller than the plane.

The weather did not look great when we got to the airport, but they still decided to take off. However after about five minutes into the flight the weather looked worse and the pilot decided to return to the airport, so unfortunately I did not get to see the main part of the rock islands from the air. It was a bit unlucky, but I still got a few nice shots in of the islands near Koror. They refunded us in full, so I basically got a free 20 minute scenic flight. Here are some of the shots of Koror and the rock island nearby:

Palau is an absolutely gorgeous place to visit, even if you are not a diver. And the rock islands are a great natural wonder that is unique to Palau, and a once in a life-time must see. And since I didn't get to see them from the air, I guess I have to come back here some time again.

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