Capital: Melekeok State (Ngerulmud village)
Area: 459 km2
Inhabited islands: 9
Languages: Palauan, English
Around the island: 78 km (Babeldaob Ring Road)
The Passport Party
The Republic of Palau has only one port of entry: Roman Tmetuchl International Airport. I flew in from Manila long after midnight and I was full of expectation: It was my first time to Oceania. But the weather was windy and we circled a couple of times above Babeldaob island, which was visible in the moonshine. The third landing attempt finally was successful. I wondered what would have been the alternative – the next airport was in the State of Yap, in Micronesia.
Palau’s border was no hassle: Most nationalities enter visa-free here. However, return tickets are thoroughly checked. Upon exit, a 50 USD exit tax is levied. Palau had some of the most beautiful passport stamps in the world, showing a Bai – the traditional assembly hall of the village councils (see below).
Shortly after my visit, however, a new passport stamp was introduced: It’s called «Palau Pledge» and covers an entire passport page. It includes a poem, by which the visitor pledges to protect Palau’s environment. It’s probably the first passport stamp ever that has its own website.
Roman Tmetuchl International Airport
What makes Palau unique
- Palau has the smallest capital in the world. Formally, an entire federal state of Palau functions as its capital, Melekeok. Melekeok has just about 400 inhabitants, one run-down hotel and a restaurant that is open only for lunch. The actual capital is located on a hill called Ngerulmud, about two kilometres outside of «downtown» Melekeok. The recently built complex consists of just three buildings: The National Congress (Olbiil era Kelulau), the government building, and the Supreme Court. Ngerulmud has no restaurants, shops and even no inhabitants.
- Palau can be a ludicrously expensive place to visit. The reason for that is local tradition: All ground is owned by the local community, which is still organized in clans. For “using” it, tourists pay a kastom fee, which can be substantia. This applies for swimming on beaches or visiting sights: Having a glimpse at Airai’s Bai (traditional meeting house) sets you back 25 USD.
A permit to visit the famous Rock islands costs 50 USD – even for a day trip
- Palau has been ruled by the Germans, Japanese and the Americans, and the latter two have left their mark. Japanese food and products abound, and also most tourists are Japanese. On a trip to the Rock Islands, I was one of just two Non-Japanese. As it turned out, the other one was married to a Japanese and fluent in her language. I was happy though about the bento box lunch on that tour. Palau got its independence in 1991 and remains in «free association» with the U.S. At times, it still seems part of it, as most infrastructure is from the other end of the Pacific: Banks (from Guam and Hawaii), post, currency, lots of food imports… Add to that immigrants from many Asian countries (Philippines, Vietnam etc.), the odd Czech-and-Italian consulate and the Micronesian legacy of the locals, and you get a truly unique mixture.
- Palau also imitates the U.S. in terms of state structure: Despite counting only 20.000 inhabitants, the tiny nation is a federation of sixteen states, all of which with own governments and flags. The smallest state, Hatohobei, has only 40 inhabitants. The federal system gets most obvious in the colourful U.S.-inspired car plates, which all sport a state slogan: «Odesangel Pride» for Peleliu, for example. Whatever that means…
- In contrast to all other Pacific nations I visited, Palau belongs to to the first world. It is well developed and the population seems to follow an American way of life. This also means that many local traditions are getting lost. Few locals go fishing nowadays, as the young don’t know how to handle canoes. People live in shabby bungalows which have nothing in common with traditional architecture. But they seem to be happy to retire at the age of 60, as the government pays pensions afterwards, and are aware to be much better off than their nearest neighbour, the State of Yap.
US-style car plate of Aimeliik State
My best experience
…was strolling around the capital complex, Ngerulmud (see photo below), and indulging in its absurdity. Even calling it a hamlet would be an exaggeration, as it consists of just three buildings: Legislative in the middle, flanked by Executive and Judicative. There is no restaurant, no hotel, no shops or whatever else might be expected of a settlement: no inhabitants neither, so it’s officially the world’s smallest capital. The government buildings have been constructed after 2006 in an attempt to fuse Palauan tradition and US classicism. The project was expensive and much debated. No wonder: Most of the officials and employees commute daily from Koror, Palau’s main town and former capital, where half of the population lives.
My worst experience
I intended to visit a WWII seaplane airport. Instead I first discovered the Pacific Islanders’ obsession with ground possession. The airport was on the premises of a luxury resort on Arakabesang Island. Its unfriendly guards were absolutely unwilling to let me enter as a non-guest. Or else: They offered me to buy a one-day entry pass for 99 USD («you’ll love it!») – a bit expensive even for Palauan standards. They however confirmed that I might use the pool bar without paying that (obviously, as long as I would consume), but in case I would try my luck and just walk over to the airport area, security would immediately escort me out of the hotel. That quite reminded me of my travel to North Korea, and I told them so. The guards were a bit offended and insisted that it was really worth the entry – «if you just would see it!» – «Which is exactly what you are not letting me do!» – «Go and see!» In the end, I got in that way and the more reasonable reception staff even allowed me to see the airport. I have to confess that I indeed loved the place a lot and ended up drinking several Red Rooster beers at the pool bar.
Passport Stamps of Palau.
Flag of Palau.
The parliament of Palau in Ngerulmud, Melekeok State. To the left is the Supreme Court, to the right the government building.
Did you know that…
…the whole Republic of Palau has the postal code 96940? The code belongs to the U.S. system, and Palau is treated like a village in the United States. 96941, the post office that once served Palau’s capital Ngerulmud, has been closed.
…Palau has its own beer? Red Rooster is a craft style brew that comes in five types – of course, there’s a Pale Ale too. Unfortunately, outside of Koror only deplorable U.S. brands such as Budweiser are available.
…Palauans use the imperial measurement system? I wasn’t aware that it’s in use anywhere outside the U.S. and Liberia. But the employees at the car rental office in Koror couldn’t even tell how much a gallon was in litres. This was relevant since I wanted to calculate if one tank fill is enough to drive around the island of Babeldaob, which has no gas stations. It turned out to be enough, probably even for two such drives.
…Palau has a rather ridiculous speed limit? The maximum speed on Babeldaob’s ring road is 30 mph (approx. 50 km/h) – even though the road is in an excellent condition and far away from any settlements.
…only four traditional assembly halls (Bai) exist? Traditional architecture has a tough standing in Americanized Palau.
Bai in Belau National Museum, Koror
International transport: Palau can only reached by air. Roman Tmetuchl International Airport has regular connections to Manila, Seoul, Tokyo, Guam and Yap (Micronesia).
Inland transport: There are regular ferries to Peleliu (2 per week, 16 USD one way) and to Angaur (1 per week) from Koror’s harbour on Malakal Island. There is no public transport by land, so you’ll relay either on taxis or rental cars (no motoscooters!). Some accommodations in Koror also rent out bicycles. A taxi from the airport into town costs 20-30 USD.
Accommodation: There are plenty of hotels – most of them rather expensive. Almost all hotels are located in Koror, the only town. I was quite happy with DW Motel, a modest and clean place in downtown Koror for about 65 USD per night. Babeldaob, the biggest island, has only one option: Palau Beach Bungalows in Melekeok, the tiny capital. Peleliu Island has one modest hotel at the port and two more expensive places in the only village, Kloulklubed.
Food: Fruit bat soup is the national dish: Traditionally, an entire bat is cooked and served in that soup. Elder locals also eat all of it, except for the bones. Restaurants rarely serve the fruit bat. Instead, American and Asian classics are readily available; and a great craft beer that comes in five variations: Red Rooster. I liked most Kramer’s Café at Koror’s harbour on Malakal Island. Outside of Koror State, there are very few restaurants, so plan accordingly or bring your own food. The only restaurant on Peleliu Island is OK café, which is closed on Mondays.
Money: Sadly, Palau has no currency. Instead, the US Dollar is used. Palau also has no own banks, but the Bank of Hawaii and the Bank of Guam both have ATMs.
Communication: Due to the lack of roaming agreements, foreign SIM cards do not work in Palau. Palau Telecom in Koror sells local SIM cards. Alternatively, two companies sell Wifi access cards. PNCC is cheaper (10 USD for 10 hours), but I found their hotspots only in Koror. PTCC charges 5 USD for 4 hours, but has hotspots also in smaller places such as Peleliu or Melekeok.