Palau: a trip away from everything but the geckos

Morning view at the North Beach Cottages.

February 10, 2006—It looked like the blue had been poured out from a bucket of paint. It was like a painting someone drew with every sort of blue known to man, from pale blue to ultramarine to azure to indigo, with a touch of bright emerald. Blue sky hit blue ocean. Only a boat rocked by quiet waves and a couple of white birds darting about let me know which way was up and which was down.

This was the Palau I found in the morning, only a minute’s walk from my bungalow in Ngaraard State, northern Palau.

In late January, I flew to the Republic of Palau, an independent island nation, seeking a nice beach where I could lie down, read a book or take a nap on a hammock under the sunshine. It was a nice short trip: It only takes four-and-a-half hours from Incheon to Koror, the capital of Palau, and there’s no time difference.

Palau, traditionally called Belau, is located between the Philippines and Guam. It consists of 586 islands, but only eight are settled, with a population of 20,000 inhabitants ― about the number of undergraduate students enrolled in Seoul National University.

When I arrived at dawn at the international airport in Airai State, it was drizzling. I wondered if rain would fall all day. But the driver who picked me up said it’s typical for rain to fall at night before the sun comes out and scorches everything. He was right: That morning it was so hot that even some residents walking on the street were carrying something overhead to shade themselves. Palau’s annual average temperature is 27 degrees centigrade (81 Fahrenheit) with an annual average humidity of 82 percent, with most of the rain falling between July and October. It’s not irritatingly hot and humid, though, thanks to Pacific breezes that sweep the island.

Koror is the jumping-off point for trips to the Rock Islands or other sites for snorkeling, scuba diving or kayaking.

On the second day, my friend and I left for the Rock Islands tour with Impac, a Japanese local agency. In Palau, there are over 400 islands, all mushroom-shaped limestone rocks. Only 10 are open to tourists, who must purchase a $15 permit when visiting them in order to fund natural protection efforts.

I found myself surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of jellyfish.

During the trip, we stopped by five places: Paradise Corner, Jellyfish Lake, Inoki Island, Milky Way and a marine lake.

Once on the speedboat, we were greeted by countless nameless islands. Because the rock islands are made of limestone, waves erode their bases, which accounts for their mushroom shape.

After World War II, Palau became a U.N. Trust Territory administered by the United States. It gained independence in 1994, though it still has close connections to America. It’s no wonder that its currency is still the dollar and the official languages are both Palauan and English.

Mr. Yamaki stopped the boat out in the middle of the ocean and told us to start snorkeling. “Welcome to ‘Paradise Corner’,” he said.

The underwater scene was amazing: Shoals of multicolored fish, from florescent blue to yellow to zebra-stripes. Fish of all sizes, from the length of my arm to the length of my thumb, swam in and around red and white coral.

After about 30 minutes of snorkeling, we headed for Jellyfish Lake. After parking the boat on the island that houses the lake, we hiked up a steep, rocky hill, walked through a jungle to the crest and descended the steep slope to the lake ― there was even a strong rope on the way in order to prevent tourists from falling. It’s not an easy hike, but it’s worth it.

After walking for about 15 minutes, the green lake rose before my eyes. As I began snorkeling slowly in the lake, I cheered with excitement upon finding my first jellyfish. But soon, I found a couple more, then dozens, then hundreds and then thousands of jellyfish, some as big as my head and some as small as pin, dancing around me.

Don’t they sting? Apparently, no: after living in an isolated lake for centuries, the jellyfish species lost its bite, so to speak. At least, that’s what I was told.

After having lunch at an island called Inoki (named after a Japanese wrestler), which was also a collage of blue and emerald water, we headed for Milky Way, where the dense coral powder sediment on the 3-meter-deep (3.3 yards) ocean floor turns the water the color of milk. Mr. Yamaki told us that using a mudpack made from the coral powder makes you look five years younger. I just applied the milky mud on my arms. You can use your imagination ― we won’t be printing “before and after” photos.

A boat moored in front of Inoki Island, one of the Rock Islands.

The last stop on the Rock Island tour is the marine lake, which is used for kayaking. I felt like I had become a jungle explorer, passing through swamps bordered by forests of mangrove trees, which grow out of the sea. Birds chirped and warbled.

After kayaking to the middle of the lake, we stopped rowing just to listen to the sounds of nature. Lying down in the kayak, it was so peaceful listening to the water flowing and birds singing while trees danced in the breeze and the sun beat down on my face. I came to envy Mr. Yamaki’s courage; he flew to Palau six years ago, after getting sick of the stress of working at the Tokyo Stock Exchange for seven years.

After finishing the tour, my friend and I moved to North Beach Cottages in Ngaraard State, which has Babeldaob Island, a volcanic island and the largest in Palau. It took about 90 minutes to get there over a bumpy road. Daewoo Construction started the 85-kilometer “compact road” project connecting Babeldaob Island to Koror in 1995, aiming to complete it in five years. But the project is far behind schedule due to heavy rain and land slides over the past 10 years and is still under construction, according to the Palau Visitors Authority. I didn’t see any Palauan workers on the road. According to Lito, our driver and guide from North Beach Cottages, the workers were mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. Once the paving was finished, it would take far less time to get to the cottages.

North Beach Cottages is a place for people who are seeking isolation. (Interesting fact: a season of the U.S. TV show “Survivor” was filmed here.) There are only four wooden cottages, accompanied by nothing but a white sand beach with three hammocks strung between the trees. Because the seawater is so clear, it’s easy to discern the black spotted white fish from the white sand water floor. It’s also very shallow, so you can snorkel far out from the beach to find coral and various sea creatures, including black and white sea cucumbers, cobalt blue starfish and other tiny and big fish swimming around in schools.

At night, the sky was so clear that it looked like the stars were pouring down from the heavens. Lying on a hammock, I was reminded of “The Importance of Being Idle,” a song by Oasis: “I don’t mind as long as there’s a bed beneath the stars that shine?”

It was so peaceful, I didn’t even mind when a gecko fell down on my friend’s face while she was sleeping.

(Note: I wrote this for the Korea JoongAng Daily.)

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