Palau Rocks. Pun intended.
I’m not sure why Palau works, but it does. If you look at other Pacific nations with similar populations, they are pretty much basket cases politically and economically. Palau has managed to create a country with a standard of living higher than its neighbors (save for Guam) and a stable government. To give you an idea of where Palau is at consider some of the following fun facts:
- I saw three newspapers for sale in Palau. I only saw one in both the Marshalls and in FSM, which have populations 3-5x greater than Palau. All three papers weren’t dailies, but there were three papers nonetheless.
- In the newspapers and on the public access TV channel I saw many ads for job openings. I can’t recall seeing one anywhere else in the Pacific.
- The roads here are paved and well maintained. They even have the reflector thingies in the median.
- Driving through this island, I saw most people with real houses. Even the few shacks I saw seemed to have plumbing coming out of them.
- Palau is divided into 16 states. I thought the use of the term “state” would just be another way of differentiating different areas or districts. There actually seems to be a strong federalism in Palau, despite its small size. States issue their own license plates. You need diving permits issued by respective states, not from the Palau government. A park I went to had porta-pottys with “Property of Koror State Government” on the side, not the government of Palau. Some of the states have as few as 40 people.
- Some Palau businessmen tried to start an airline to compete with Continental in Micronesia. They picked the worst time to start a new airline with fuel prices, but they gave it a shot.
My experience in Palau is pretty much around the urban area of Koror so I’m sure as you get farther away it gets less developed. Still, what Palau has achieved for a micro-state is impressive. They might not be a full blown first world country, but neither are they a third world country. I don’t’ know what the secret sauce is. It could be the luck of geography, being a beautiful place with reasonable flights from Japan. They people seem entrepreneurial, mores so than anywhere else in the Pacific.
There are some skeletons in the closet here. In the 80s, they had a president assassinated and one commit suicide. Overall, however, Palau has a lot to be proud of.
I always here of people saying “X has the best diving in the world” but I am not really sure what constitutes “best”. However you define “best diving”, Palau is probably near the top of the list.
I did my dives through Sam’s Tours, which seems to be the best dive shop in Palau. There are probably more dive shops in Palau than anyplace I’ve been so far. On each dive I had in Palau we ran into other dive groups. It is an odd experience to be swimming along 50 feet below the surface and run into another group of people going the opposite way.
I did a total of four dives in Palau and went snorkeling in Jellyfish Lake. On my dives, I saw manta rays, sharks, sea turtles, giant clams, tuna, enormous bump headed parrotfish, soft coral, hard coral, and schools upon schools of fish.
One thing we did that I had never done before was use reef hooks. A reef hook is just a piece of metal with a rope attached. You hook the metal on a dead piece of coral then float on the line like you were a kite in an area with strong current. We were at a corner of a reef wall with a strong current and were able to observe sharks moving around all the fish that were there. It was really fun.
What Palau is best known for are the jellyfish lakes. Before I arrived in Palau, I thought the lakes were in volcanic islands and were made out of freshwater. I was wrong on both counts. There are 55 lakes in the rock islands in Palau, five of which have jellyfish. “The” jellyfish lake is just the only one which is accessible to the public. All of the lakes are linked to the ocean. The limestone in the islands are porous which allows water to enter and leave the lake. However, the pours are so small that nothing else other than water can pass through. The jellyfish in the lakes got stuck there hundreds of thousands of years ago and, in the absence of any predators, have lost any nasty singer they once had. I was told they still have a mild sting, but I had hundreds of them touch me and didn’t feel anything. Hundreds of people snorkel there a day without incident.
Swimming with the jellyfish is sort of surreal. Normally when you are in the water, fish will move away from you. The jellyfish can’t see you and don’t know any better, so they will just bump into you. Also, jellyfish are….well….slimy. The first time one touched me I flinched sort of violently. After a while, I just got used to it.
The jellyfish are about the size of your fist or outstretched hand. Occasionally you would see tiny ones the size of your fingernail. They spend the day moving around following the sun across the lake. Their only source of food is the algae inside of them (called zooxanthellae).
My trip was part of a dive, but there were other tours there that just came for the jellyfish. A big boat of Chinese tourist was there and they all had life vests and Styrofoam boards to hang on to. In addition to the diving, there are lots of kayak and snorkeling tours for people who don’t dive. The water is clear enough that you probably don’t need to dive to see some spectacular coral.
On my second day of diving, we stopped on one of the beaches along the rock islands for lunch. The State of Koror has set up what is the equivalent of waysides in the rock islands for people to eat. Palau has really thought some stuff through. The rock island waysides is just one example. Like I saw in Kosrae, they have permanent mooring buoys near the reefs. That way you don’t have to drop anchor and knock off chunks of coral. Palau also seems pretty clean. I never noticed any litter, which is yet another data point in Gary’s Law:
Gary’s Law: The amount of litter you see in a place is inversely proportional to the amount of prosperity that place has.
I really enjoyed my time in Palau. I wish I could have done a bit more, but the weather didn’t cooperate the last few days. The food is pretty cheap compared to the rest of the Pacific, but not super cheap. The diving is a bit more expensive than some places. I liked it so much I even purchased a t-shirt here, which is something I hadn’t done on my trip so far. There are some high-end resorts, but you can also find some very affordable accommodations.
Oh yes, Palau also won the gold medal in baseball at the 2007 Pacific Games….