Since we started diving, we have a shortlist of the places around the world that we would like to go scuba diving. A couple of years back, when we where living in Malaysia and not diving yet, our friends went scuba diving Palau on a liveaboard ( the Palau Siren) and brought back fantastic photos. It has been on the bucket list ever since.
As I met more and more divers in our past trips, I managed to get information on how to get there and if possible on a budget.
In the end, we resigned ourselves that it will not be a cheap holiday but that it was worth it anyway. What attracted us were the fantastic diving of course, but also that Palau is one of the major place for World War II wrecks and there was also some historical tourism to be done there, especially on Peleilu island where the famous Bloody Nose Ridge battle happened. As a bonus you also have the endemic jelly fish lake, which is unique to Palau !
To add to the complexity of budgeting and planning such a trip, the flights available to get there are not many. From Asia you have the choice between Narita airport, Seoul or Manila. There are only 2 flights a week from each of these airports respectively. From the US there are more flights from Guam. Knowing this, you become a captive public and these flights cost a small fortune !
The cheapest and shortest way for us, from Bangkok, was through Manila. Since we knew this airport was a nightmare and we had to change terminal, we decided on using the national carrier ( Philippines airline ) and a comfortable 5 hours in between flight to transit stress-free. Even with all these precautions, this will remain until today one of my worst and stressful travel experience ! With only 2 flights a week and no refund on our diving package, missing the flight to Koror was out of the question...
It started with a 2 hours delay at Bangkok, where on the way to take off, the plane experienced some issues and we were parked waiting with little to no information. We arrived in Manila with less than 2 hours to our next flight already very very stressed. I ended up being the rudest passenger ever and cut the queue at the transfer counter/ service counter that Philippines airlines set up for this flight. We then had to wait 45 min for our luggage to come through.... On a good note, Philippine airlines staff were helpful - we got their internal bus to change terminal but arrived after the check in counter of United were closed. United staff was quite standoffish and unwilling to assist until I became very close to being an aggressive monster ( I was already very stressed out by that point - we were 30min before flight departure ). Lucky for us I guess, I had checked in online - and after a very passive aggressive conversation with the check in staff, we managed to get our luggage checked in.
Philippines airlines staff did help us fast track immigration and security check and accompanied us all the way to the gate to make sure we got our flight. Which we did, with just a couple of minutes before they started boarding ! This is still the only time I had to run to my gate.
Once in Palau and this ordeal behind us, all was very smooth. We like the liveaboard experience but couldn't afford it, yet I did want to see a maximum of dive sites. I found Palau Dive Adventure to be the solution, they have a one week program where you stay with the same group of 10 divers. This enables you to not repeat dive sites (unless requested) and to be with the same group all the week, you get to know and meet your fellow divers better: this is always more fun.
They picked us up at the airport when our flight landed and drove us to the DW Motel for the night - we agreed to meet the next day late morning to get the dive briefing and better introduction. Since the flight arrived a little after midnight and with the stress, sleep came very easily.
DW motel was recommended by the dive shop as their cheaper proposal and it was simple and clean. All amenities you could need from a solid guesthouse ( kitchen to cook, washing machine, diving gear closed drying section, towels and a comfortable bed ). A nice common area with coffee/tea. Of course this being Palau each night cost 80 USD !
Koror is small and can be walked through quite easily, we did the aquarium and the Bai in the afternoon on foot. (beware of the sun !) And ended up in the center where the 2 "department stores" are located browsing through the few shops there. The selection of swimwear was quite impressive ( much better than in Thailand or Malaysia ) so we did some shopping.
The following days were done diving and Palau lives up to its reputation. Amazing amount of sharks, beautiful fish and under water scenery. Seriously strong current, we did invest in a reef hook ! Our favorite dive sites: Silas tunnel, blue hole, blue corner and German channel ( although I liked the Ulong channel as well ). Not much macro life however ( where were my nudies ! ) - we did see a massive 5m wide manta ray and sharks of unbelievably big sizes !
Due to bad weather we couldn't go, dive and visit Peleilu island as no boat was going there. Neither could we go to visit the jelly fish lake, as due to global warming their population had drastically reduced and no tourists were allowed to let them recover. Never mind, diving was all we needed to distract us. The shipwrecks were impressive, so big that in one hour diving you have barely time to go its full length. Some had still large missile casings in their half destroyed cargo holds & large guns were on deck.
A small shallow dive that was interesting as well was the Jack Seaplane wreck, but 40 min is enough as there is not much around to see and the plane is very small.
Chandelier cave is worth doing as well, easy dive and each chamber is open to air, so as a first initiation to cave diving ( to see if you are into it ), it is definitely worth trying.
In the last 2 days, we had planned for visiting the museum, renting a car to visit the big island and also doing a one day kayaking tour for the milky way and see the rock islands. It was a great way to relax and get to know more what Palau had to offer.
We rented from the hotel a car and went on our driving tour equipped with a map of the war vestiges to see. Needless to say finding these war vestiges was like a treasure hunt and if the roads were quite OK, there were times we were happy with the 4 wheel drive feature of the car. Some of these vestiges are at the end of a dirt road with no indications and sometimes are nothing more than an indescriptible rusted piece of metal. The interested elements to see were the Bai in Arai, the Japanese telecommunication centers ( there is one is Arai and one in another state quite big along the side of the road ). The pineapple canning factory as well as the stone monolithe up to the very north. We also went to the last point of the island ( to have a feeling like we were at the end of the world ! ).
We passed by the capitol hill... what a disappointment ! Appart from this giant empty building, there was nothing else. Finding places to eat on the big island was difficult. We ended up snacking from small convenient stores by lack of finding anything looking like a restaurant along the road.
The kayaking tour was interesting, the milky way is beautiful and we did play with the clay to cover our faces and laugh with the other tour mates ( mainly Japanese ). The kayaking itself was the best part, in the lagoons with cristal clear water we could even see squids swimming under us and stingrays at the sand bottom ! There was tropical birds flying and utter silence. A small section of paradise ! Our local guide was a fun fellow telling us stories of his fishing and teenage years in the rock islands and we had a great time.
A small note on the food : the portions are largely oversized, I was impressed that one main dish could feed two of us. Once, we orders a starter to share and then a full grilled fish for two - The waiter forgot about our fish and luckily ! After the starter we were stuffed and couldn't eat anything anymore.
We were expecting some local delicacies but realized that Palau being strict on its national parc policy, fish wasn't as much available as we though and was very expensive. Local fares were based on taro roots, fish & fruit bats. Most restaurants were a mix of American steak / fried stuff and Japanese bento or sushi style. We did have good Japanese food there and American diner style food. On the unusual stuff we managed to try was giant clam sashimi - it is not always available, it depends on what the fishermen bring.
We very much enjoyed our holiday in Palau - the return travel was uneventful to Bangkok. In hindsight, I would go again but this time with a liveaboard to do the further away atoll and dive sites. We were highly recommended the Palau Siren. So until next time Palau !