After the exciting island-hopping saga across the pacific ocean, reaching Koror at 11PM, I was eager and excited to check out the night-scene. I had slept mostly throughout my 4 different flights to get here. I could have been jetlagged, but I wasn’t. After all, Palau was just 1 hour ahead of Singapore, where I had started from. And the night was still young. All I had to do was get to my budget motel, check-in, and then go out for a few drinks. Sounds reasonable, right?
My taxi-drive from the airport to my motel lasted about 15 minutes and was entirely through Main street, which was the name shown on Google maps. All that was required to see in Koror was on this main street. And at this time of the night, all of it was closed. Not a single bar that I could see open. I knew my plan had failed. What I didn’t know was that this would only be the start.
We drove through the dark roads, and finally I was dropped off in DW budget motel, and paid the agreed price of $20 dollars which is standard for all airport transfers. This was actually a proper hotel, and I am not sure why they call it a motel. Run by a nice Japanese couple from Tokyo, the DW had gained a good reputation on lonely planet, booking.com and other websites, as one of the cheapest in a country which was not famous for cheap accommodation. With nothing much to do at this time, I quickly went to sleep, dreaming about the jellyfish lake and swimming with those gorgeous, harmless things….
Day 1 – Sunday
…only to be woken up with the sound of rain outside my window. If Guam was hot, Palau was facing the anger of the rain-gods. The rains had a nice smell to it, and with all the greenery around the hotel, I could only be reminded of my home back in Kerala. But then, I remembered that some parts of kerala holds the record for the longest-recorded rainfall. That was not a good thing to remember, especially when you have flown over an ocean and taken 4 flights to get here.
I borrowed an umbrella from the reception, and went out to the closest supermarket. All the restaurants in Koror were built keeping in mind the rich Asians who vacationed here, and there was no way I was going to spend my travel finances eating a burrito for 12 dollars. So, I did what I am really good at. Shop for bread, tuna-cans and apples, which would be my breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next 3 days. That was about 9 dollars totally!
On the way back, I stopped at the Rock Island café, which was run by a bunch of friendly Filipino girls, for a cup of coffee. We chatted for a bit, and I found out about the status of internet connections in Koror. There were 2 telecom companies in Palau – PNCC and Palau Telecom. Both offered internet connections at such high rates, that very few establishments actually offered free internet. Even in my motel, there was a PT hotspot, but I had to buy an internet card to be able to use. A $10 PT card, let me browse for 7 hours, and I could log-on and log-off as I please. The only good thing was, there was a PT hotspot in almost every café and hotel in the island, and I could use the same card for all these hotspots.
Armed with a PT internet connection (not happy about spending that extra $10 though), I came back to my hotel and started searching online for what to do. I mean, I surfed facebook for an hour first, and then I started searching online for what to do. With rain showing no signs of dying down, I had to do something on the land for the day. And the Belau national museum sounded like a good thing. I borrowed an umbrella from the reception, and stepped out.
The Belau National museum is mostly an open-air museum, with a small gift shop that also housed some arts and handicrafts, mostly the work of a Japanese artist called Hisakatsu Hiijikata, who worked with the Palauan storyboard style of art. There was an admission fee of $2, but the beauty of my plan was that it was closed on Sunday! So, effectively I didn’t have to pay the $2, but I was free to walk around the open area. The only area that I couldn’t visit was the gift shop, but hey, did I even look like the kind of guy who would buy gifts?!
There was a small botanical collection in the museum grounds, and a statue of former president Haruo I. Remelik. But what was most interesting, was the giant Bai.
A Bai is a communal meeting centre, that is integral to Palauan culture. Bais are made of interlocking pieces which involve many removable pegs. The carpentry on every Bai is exquisite, and it showcased the storyboard style of Palauan art, that is a key part of their culture. And I was free to walk around, and sit inside one of them, without having to pay anything! Little victories, I say.
The rest of the day went uneventfully. The rain kept pouring, and I returned to rock island café, where I had a couple of beers and smalltalk with the Filipino waitresses. Then, after using another 2 hours of my PT hotspot card, I retired for the night.
Day 2 – Monday
The sky had cleared when I woke up around 8 AM. I have been having a crazy time at work recently, so my sleeping hours were nearly 10. I may not yet be having the kind of fun that I expected, but I was getting the rest which I definitely needed.
Over breakfast –with bread and a can of Tuna which I cooked in the calderata style of Philippines – I went through all the tour brochures available in the hotel. I am not usually the kind of traveller who goes through tour agencies. But Palau gave me no choice. To get to the rock islands – which was a protected UNESCO heritage site – I needed to be in a tour-group and should also get a permit. And if I wanted to visit the Jellyfish lake, which was why I came here in the first place, I needed an additional permit.
A permit for the jellyfish lake cost 100USD, and a 7.5 hour tour that includes the jellyfish lake, some kayaking, and some limestone mud-baths, cost another 120USD. So, all in, I was going to be setback by about 220 USD. But I had no other choice. The best tour-group, recommended on most travel platforms that I check, was IMPAC, whose office was just around the corner. It was already 10 AM by then, so I decided to go over and check out if I could join the jellyfish lake tour.
IMPAC also seemed to be run by Japanese people. And it was not surprising that there was an election propaganda poster just near their office that stated ‘Vote for XXXX – Palau for Palauans!’ (I can’t remember the name of the candidate now). Well, if you thought nationalism was rampant only in Trump’s USA and among the Brexit camp, think again.
The friendly Japanese owner at the reception tried to show me all the trips that they had on offer. I listened patiently, and then told him that I wanted to join the jellyfish tour. His face dropped.
“We don’t do the jellyfish tour nowadays”, he said.
What? Why? Hell no!!
“The El Nino this year was too strong. Most of the jellyfish in the jellyfish lake are dead now, and there are very few remaining. We tried a few trips, but the tourists were disappointed that they did not see any jellyfish. So, we don’t do the tour now until the population is back to normal”.
He had genuine angst on his face. And I realized, so did I. I had spent 1200 dollars and had been through the most convoluted flight plan to try and see this place. On the other hand, he had lost countless customers who had tried to do the same thing. I should have been hopping mad, but somehow I appreciated his honesty. He could have taken me on a trip to see nothing, and fleeced me off 200 dollars. But he didn’t, and told me upfront about the current state. One part of my brain was shut down from the disappointment, but another part thanked him in silence for not disappointing me more.
He gave me a few other options. Most of them involved snorkeling, but if I just wanted to snorkel, I would have gone to the cheaper snorkeling spot in Koh Tao, Thailand or Cebu, Philippines. I wouldn’t have come all the way to Palau to snorkel for 100 dollars. I turned down the snorkeling options, and asked him about land treks.
There was a trek to the Ngardmau waterfall that interested me. Ngardmau was a different province, about 30 minutes drive from Koror. There was no tour today, but there was one tomorrow, he said. Only problem was that it was with a group of Chinese tourists, and even the tour-guide was Chinese. Was that a problem for me? If I get lost, I could scream in any language. So, I said ok. I will join the tour-group next day. It was 80USD, but atleast my trip would not have been for nothing.
I spent the rest of the day, walking through Malakal. Malakal is a separate island, which is connected to Koror by a small bridge. This is Koror’s industrial hub, and has a commercial port too. I had a simple plan for Malakal. I may not be able to go to the Rock islands, but atleast I could climb to the top of Malakal, for a view of the rock islands. Many guidebooks promised me that this was an awesome view. So, I walked there.
After walking all the way down to the ice-box park – named after a Japanese icemaking plant – I was to find a bushwhack path to go up to the top of Malakal. And I did. There was only one problem. The rains over the last day had left the path extremely muddy and slippery. I tried climbing a few steps, got mud all over my sneakers, and figured out that there was no one in the vicinity. Even if I fell, I wouldn’t be able to attract any attention to my plethora. Given that I am 10 years older than 22, when I would have tried all these crazy tricks, I gave up. Maybe tomorrow is more drier? I could come back, right?
I went back to beers at Rock Island café, for a second consecutive evening. Not before I made a quick stop at the Ngarachamayong cultural centre. And just like the rest of my trip, it was empty here too, with no events planned.
Day 3 – Tuesday
I checked out early in the morning, around 6 am. I had a flight leaving Koror at 2.30 AM on Wednesday. Given that I had to be in the airport by 12, there was no sense in me paying another 70 dollars for a night’s stay. I could just leave my backpack at the hotel and go for the waterfall trek instead, and pick it up in the evening before leaving to the airport.
That was the plan. But as you would have noticed, nothing went my way on this trip, and neither did this plan.
After checking out, I prepared a quick breakfast – bread with a tuna can, in Mechado style of Philippines – and read some facebook news using my PT internet connection. I was to be picked up by IMPAC around 8.30 am.
And around 7.30, when my breakfast was almost finished, it started raining. Not raining, it started pouring buckets. To the point that I was beginning to get worried about my flight later at night. But I had other pressing concerns to take care of.
Around 8.30, when I should have been picked up by the tour-group, the rain showed no signs of slowing down. I was still ready to go trekking in this rain. I did see some rain-coats in the IMPAC office, didn’t I? So, I asked my hotel owner, a lovely Japanese lady, to make a call to Impac and find out.
After a few lines of ‘hai, hai’, along with a lot of other Japanese words that I don’t understand, my hotel owner put the phone on mute and spoke to me.
“The other Chinese tourists cancelled because of the rain. So, there is only you going. If you want, they can continue with the tour, but the price will not be 80 dollars. You will have to pay 200 dollars, which is the minimum for any tour-group”
Fuck. F-U-C-K. Fuccccckkkk.
Nothing was going right for me on this trip. I didn’t see the jellyfish. I didn’t even see the rock islands, not even from afar. And now, there was one waterfall which had nothing special, but I could have used to get a little bit of dignity back in my trip. And I had to pay 200 dollars for that?!
I said no. And then, I borrowed an umbrella again from her.
And walked to the rock island café. At 9 am in the morning, I had my first beer. And that number came closer to double digits, by the time I left the café in the afternoon. I took a quick stroll to the Etpison museum, which turned out to be more of a shop selling local handicrafts. And then spent my whole evening in the only coffee shop with free wifi in all of Koror, aptly named Coffee Berry. All the way until they closed. And then I took a dejected cab to the airport.
This was the end of my Palau episode.
To rub some more salt into the wound, they charged me 50 USD on exit at the airport later. That is 20 for the non-Palauan passport, and 30 for environment fee. Yes, the very same environment that I could NOT see!
Further Reading: Palau did showcase a little bit of their culture through the exit stamp. Check this link for 5 of the most interesting entry and exit stamps on an Indian passport, which includes Palau.
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