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Palau: The next Maldives and a mini-Galapagos too

Palau: The next Maldives and a mini-Galapagos too

Published on

07 Aug 2023

Published by

The Straits Times

PALAU – Mention that your next holiday will be in Palau, and some people may ask: “Which island are you heading to?”


That is understandable, since Palau sounds like “Pulau”, a familiar Malay word for “island” in Singapore.


But say it right, because Palau ( is a country of Edenic attractions.


Previously administered by the United States and independent since 1994, visa-free Palau is a sprinkling of some 340 islands in the Pacific Ocean.


Looking out of the aeroplane window, the tuft-covered jungle islands resemble moss-laden stepping stones and the coral islands are framed by dazzling white sand. 


On land, surreal marvels abound. In a hidden lake, I swim with millions of bobbing jellyfish. Without any predators over the years, the jellyfish have lost their sting.


Meanwhile, relics of war planes lie hidden in thick jungle while monolithic stones allude to the culture of ancient seafarers. By the shoreline, saltwater crocodiles laze in the mangrove swamps. 


Farther out at sea, sharks patrol the reefs, spoilt for choice, for they can feast on many of the 1,450 fish species.


And water visibility is as clear as in an aquarium, as far as the eye can see.


Together, this unspoilt scene of natural wonders ranks high on the list for any documentary producer.


Its remote location has kept it under wraps from mainstream travellers who had to bear with long flights over multiple countries and lengthy stopovers.


Certainly, flights are costly too, as the handful of carriers adopt monopolistic pricing. 


But from September, travellers from Singapore’s aviation hub will enjoy direct access to this underrated work of nature when Alii Palau Airlines starts flying.


Clocking in at under five hours, the flight duration is comparable with flying to Beijing, Osaka or Perth.


Here are six reasons this all-season destination may well be the next Maldives, fused with the natural wonders of a mini Galapagos.


1. Marine life on steroids


Lured by dive magazine reports of its consistent top rankings, I made my first trip to Palau in the late 1990s. It was an arduous journey of two days. But once there, Palau rewarded me with mind-blogging marine diversity (


Curious Napoleon wrasses the size of a bicycle challenged me to staring matches. Schools of manta rays performed underwater ballet at their feeding stations. 


I dived into the Blue Hole, an underwater crater large enough to fit an aircraft. I emerged through an opening in the seawall that plunged into the cobalt depths. 


At the world-renowned Peleliu Corner, I frantically finned towards the underwater reef to avoid being blown away by the strong currents that have claimed the lives of lost divers.


I tethered myself to the reef with a hook, fluttering like an underwater flag against the relentless current to watch spellbound as menacing sharks and schooling pelagic fish hunted their prey. 


In wonder, I snorkelled with millions of mesmerising golden-hued jellyfish – it felt like a bath in a cauldron of gelatine.  


In another surreal animal-kingdom moment, on a full moon, thousands of red snapper or parrotfish gathered to mate at their favourite spots. Once fertilised, the eggs would be released into the swirling tides. 


In Palau, I began to appreciate the role of the majestic sharks in the marine eco-system.


Later, as I read graphic reports of Asian fishermen’s cruel harvesting of their fins – where squirming, finless sharks are dumped overboard – I swore off shark’s fin from any menu. Palau educated me with the choices, and I made mine.


Over the years, I have accumulated some 1,200 dives among the iconic dive sites of the world and, last August, I made my third trip to Palau. 


Climate change has taken its toll, and the jellyfish and marine life had diminished in numbers.


Still, this is a world-class marine sanctuary and ranks among my top three favourites. It is on a par with much-touted dive spots of Ecuador’s Galapagos and Costa Rica’s Cocos Islands, half the world away.


With the journey time to Palau getting travel-friendly, thoughts of a fourth trip bounce repeatedly in my head. 


2. Behind the chief, there is a queen of the house


The descendants of Palau are master seafarers who once hailed from South-east Asia. But over time, their culture has become a potpourri of Melanesian and Micronesian influences. 


One feature stands out: It is a matriarchal society where land and houses are inherited through female lineage.


While society and culture have evolved, with elected men in public office and leading business enterprises, the women still make key decisions and control the purse strings.


Like most Pacific islanders, the men are expert craftsmen and weavers. Look out for the locally handcrafted story boards, filled with intricate motifs that depict scenes from ancient folk tales and parables.


Seafood is bountiful, peppered with strong influences from Japanese and Filipino cuisines. But fed on a carbohydrate-rich diet of taro, cassava and processed food, the original lithe Asian frames of their forefathers now approach American sizes.


3. Twisting labyrinth of life


Palau is half the size of Singapore at 320 sq km. Its land mass is 75 per cent covered with native forests and mangroves.


Within this natural expanse, some 1,400 species of plants, reptiles and amphibians thrive. Many are endemic species.


Immerse yourself in the verdant environs.


Take a hike through jungle paths or ride a bicycle to explore traditional villages. Listen for birdsong and spot rare birds. End the day with a dip in one of the refreshing waterfalls. 


Along the 1,500km coastline are hundreds of deserted bays and dreamy lagoons.


Take a slow boat ride among the mangrove tidal forests, natural nurseries home to juvenile sharks, crocodiles and timid fish that seek refuge there before reaching adulthood. 


Join a kayak safari camp. Take a hot shower while the tents are set up. Then watch the sunset, with a glass of wine in hand, as waves of fruit bats flutter out to hunt (


But this rich smorgasbord of wildlife did not happen by chance. Rather, Palau is a world leader in environmental protection. 


In 2009, Palau created the world’s first shark sanctuary – prohibiting all forms of commercial shark fishing. 


Then, in 2015, legislation was passed to protect 80 per cent of the country’s waters. This represents the largest percentage of protected marine territory of any nation in the world. 


Today, some 500,000 sq km of its exclusive economic zone – the size of France – bans commercial fishing and mining activities.


4. Wrecks galore and a dark history


During World War II, Palau saw some of the bloodiest fighting between the Japanese Army and Allied Forces. About 60 shipwrecks and planes lie in its watery graveyard, overgrown with corals and home to abundant fish life. 


Within some wrecks lie scattered ammunition, rifles, gas masks and the odd sake bottle – but no souvenir hunting, please (


On Peleliu Island, a one-hour boat ride from the capital, history and military buffs will have a field day exploring parts of its honeycomb network of bunkers and pillboxes, punctuated by rusting hulks of amphibious landing vehicles and a tank.


Its museum of artefacts provides sombre reminders of the 15,000 soldiers – from both sides – who perished on that 13 sq km rocky outcrop in the middle of the ocean.


Many years after the guns went silent, ageing veterans and relatives from both sides started visiting the site on commemorative days to exchange mementos and emotive stories. 


Heroic tales are repeated of those fierce defenders who would rather die fighting than surrender, and the brave attackers who fought relentlessly until they ran out of ammunition and resorted to throwing coral rocks (


5. Floating luxury resorts, water bungalows and budget hotels


Wake up at dawn, grab a quick coffee, gear up for scuba diving and, by 8am, you will be in the deep blue. 


After the dive, get back onto the main boat, take a warm shower and tuck into a buffet breakfast. Repeat this two to three times a day – with naps in between. 


No arduous one-hour bumpy boat rides from the shore, no bobbing on the water surface between dives.  


Known in the fraternity as live-aboard diving, such “eat-sleep-dive” trips offer maximum adventure time layered with chill time. 


Offering this lifestyle is the M/Y Black Pearl (, a new luxury boat with an office in Singapore.


Built like a James Bond movie villain’s boat, the compact superyacht is probably the most extravagant of the 20-odd live-aboards I have experienced over two decades.


Offering large cabins with quality finishes, spacious toilets and a family-size outdoor whirlpool, it even provides face masks to soothe your tanned face.


With a massive length of 48m, the boat is very stable but less manoeuvrable in the shallow channels, thereby limiting direct access to certain spots. But the superlative comfort and great service from the largely Indonesian crew make up for it. A seven-night trip starts at US$3,465 (S$4,650) a person. 


Hard-core divers, however, may want to stick to the dozen or so older, smaller boats that are fully focused on the best and most challenging dive sites. 


Given the competition, some boats offer money-savings specials.


The American franchise Palau Aggressor (, for example, occasionally offers a 40 per cent discount on selected trips, with a seven-night trip starting at US$2,121 a person (slashed from US$3,535).


For those willing to splurge for more thread count, over-the-top service and five-star hotel offerings, check out the Four Seasons Explorer (, a luxe yacht that was recently repositioned from the Maldives to Palau.


Billed as a cruising resort, it offers full flexibility to hop on and off. A one-night minimum stay with full-board meals and diving starts at US$2,800 a cabin.


On the mainland, the Japanese operate four-star resorts such as Palau Pacific Resort (rates start at US$390, and Palau Royal Pacific (rates start at US$295, Both resorts have beach or sea frontage.


In the town centre, the three-star Taiwanese-operated Palasia Palau Hotel ( provides good value, with room rates starting at US$160. It is popular with businessmen and visiting dignitaries.


Budget accommodation is plentiful as well.


Motels provide air-conditioned private rooms from US$55 a night – functional for those who plan to relish the great outdoors and just need decent accommodation for the night.


Most dive shops and tour operators offer pick-up services to their marinas, and then it is an hour to the outer islands.


6. From Palau, explore its exotic neighbours


If time is on your side, extend your trip to visit exotic destinations in the neighbourhood.


Guam (, a two-hour flight from Palau, is a major hub for Micronesia. Home to an American strategic airbase, it is the most developed tourism destination in Micronesia and a mini Hawaii of sorts.


Popular with South Koreans and Japanese, it has heritage sites, a raunchy nightlife, blocks of international resorts and duty-free shopping. 


From there, explore gorgeous Saipan (, which offers great vistas of the sea from cliffs and hidden grottos.


A sobering Peace Memorial marks the area where entire Japanese families perished as they jumped off the cliffs when the American forces battled onto the island.


More laid-back and dependent on the Chinese market, Saipan suffers from a lack of direct international connections while its casinos have taken a toll on its image.


A standout is the island of Yap (, where travellers can get a fascinating insight into the traditional islander culture.


I visited Yap in 1999, drawn by its famous “Stone Money”, where doughnut-shaped stones larger than cartwheels are traded as legal tender. Hauled from distant islands, the value of the stone relates to the number of lives lost during the hazardous journey. 


I was baited by a hotel advertisement that guaranteed manta ray sightings on every dive or I get a free stay.


Yes, the manta rays showed up without fail. Today, I no longer see that ad.


In Pohnpei (, which I visited in August 2022, I was awestruck as I waded through tidal streams and hopped on wobbly stone slates at the site of the “lost city of Nan Madol”.


Largely unknown to the outside world, this sprawling, ancient megalithic site with a core the size of 10 football fields was created with a platform of stones on top of some 90 coral islands, linked by a maze of canals. The entire archaeological site is a staggering 18 sq km.


Built 800 years ago by dynastic rulers as a political centre, it was also used for ceremonial activities. There is an eerie stage for human sacrifice and also a mortuary.


Devoid of tourists, it is like a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.


Despite an offer to triple his fare, my local taxi driver-cum-guide refused to take me back at dusk for sunset photography and I could understand why.


The pace of the Pacific is slower. The islands are less developed, but awash with cultural gems and natural wonders.


With the convenient new air link from Singapore to Palau, these frontiers will be more accessible. Pack the sunscreen and US dollars – and go before the masses do. 


  • John Tan enjoys off-the-radar exploration and wildlife encounters. After some 160 countries, he muses that travelling may be better yesterday, and today is likely better than tomorrow. He now adds a caveat that shorter flying times can re-balance such thoughts.



Source: The Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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