Area: 372 km2 (cf. Canton of Schaffhausen 298 km2)
Inhabited islands: Pohnpei main island and 6 outer atolls, each consisting of several islands
Languages: Pohnpeian, Mokilese, Pingelapese, Ngatikese (all Micronesian languages), Nukuoro, Kapingamarangi (bot Polynesian languages)
Around the island: 70 km on a surprisingly good road
The Passport Party
Pohnpei was a tough passport party, by Oceanian standards: I had to queue for 15 minutes, and at the passport check, real questions were asked. I even had to show my onward flight ticket and the officer noted the date of my supposed exit. Apart from that, no troubles at all. Like in Chuuk, upon leaving Pohnpei, an exit fee was due. Here it was 20 USD, and even the Chuukese neighbours had to pay it in order to get their boarding pass.
Pohnpei International Airport
Pohnpei International Airport, as seen from Sokehs Ridge
What makes Pohnpei unique
- No other country in Micronesia has that many sightseeing spots – there is an ancient ruined city in the jungle called Nan Madol, several spectacular waterfalls such as Kepirohi, hiking options and even climbing on Sokehs rock, apart from the usual Oceanian sights: WWII remains, beaches, wreck diving etc. Even the WWII remains were better than elsewhere; as a highlight: A tunnel system of underground tanks on Lenger Island. Spooky place with many bats.
- All over Oceania, local music is very popular – not in Pohnpei. “We don’t sing well”, a Pohnpeian explained. Therefore they listen to the music of other Oceanian countries (Kiribati and Samoa seem to be popular) and just random music from anywhere. They don’t care and they don’t even know what it is. But once a song gets popular, the Pohnpeians listen it over and over again. For two songs, which were popular at the time I was in Pohnpei, I later found out that they were from Cameroon and Tanzania.
- Not unique in Oceania, but unique in Micronesia is the consumption of Sakau – the local toxic drink known as Kava in Vanuatu and Fiji. The brew is made out of the roots of the pepper tree and then fermented – in Vanuatu with the help of boy’s saliva. They don’t do this in Pohnpei, but they add hibiscus instead. See below for more on Sakau.
- Pohnpei has two capitals: Kolonia, a town of 6.000 inhabitants which is the capital of Pohnpei State and the island’s main city. And Palikir, the artificial capital of the Federated States of Micronesia, which is a big and quite beautiful compound of government buildings. Next to it is the University of Micronesia, another compound which houses all the students of the Federated States of Micronesia. However, Palikir has no real town centre with streets and houses and restaurants etc.
Also quite unique in Oceania: Nan Madol, an abandoned historic city in the jungle
My best experience
…was trying Sakau, the local toxic drink. I had a hard time finding a Sakau bar in Kolonia, they seem to be all hidden in the countryside. So I asked around the hotel, and as it turned out, the cook (which had prepared a memorable Tuna Tataki the night before) was about to go Sakau shopping. I gave him some money and an hour later he showed up again with two plastic bottles of mud-coloured liquid. First we had to shake it thoroughly for a couple of minutes. Then I took a first sip – it tasted bitter and the mouth immediately went numb. Its effect however took a while to kick in, but it felt really good: Very relaxing and slightly euphorizing, very much like Khat in the Horn of Africa.
My worst experience
…was the Sakau hangover the next day. Unlike Khat, Sakau produced a hangover which felt like after five litres of beer. I did not sleep well and had no appetite the following day. And I just had half a litre of it – the cook initially had proposed to drink a litre each.
Passport Stamp of Pohnpei State, Federated States of Micronesia.
Pohnpei State Government Building in Kolonia.
The parliament of the Federated States of Micronesia in Palikir.
Did you know that…
…10% of the inhabitants of Pingelap are colour-blind? This is the result of a genetic defect of an elder many generations ago, of which those 10% descend.
…there are border controls between the four Federated States of Micronesia?
…the Pohnpeians have to use English in order to communicate with the fellow Micronesians from other states? Their own languages are not sufficiently similar. Even the municipalities on Pohnpei Island have quite distinctive accents (“Kitty sounds like Texas!”).
…the municipalities of Pohnpei Island are actually all kingdoms? U, Nett, Sokehs, Kitti and Madolenihmw all have traditional kings, which remain very influential in society. They manage the ground property and must be bribed with yams or swine. Most mighty is the king of Madolenihmw.
…as a consequence, the Pohnpeian language has a complicated system of honorific titles for the different degrees of nobility.
Kepirohi Waterfall in Madolenihmw
International transport: Pohnpei is a stop on United Airline’s island hopper service and has up to five weekly connections to Guam, Chuuk, Kosrae, Kwajalein, Majuro, and Honolulu. Once a week, Air Niugini flies to Chuuk and Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea). Air Nauru stopped its Pohnpei flights in late 2019.
Inland transport: On Pohnpei island, the only means of public transport are taxis. They are often shared and charge a rather low fee per person, but might be difficult to handle for outsiders. Unlike in Chuuk, they run late into the night. Touristic boats link mainland Pohnpei with nearby islands such as Lenger or Ant Atoll. Travelling to the outer islands is difficult. Air Carolines apparently does service a couple of them, but no schedules are available. Otherwise, locals travel by boat.
Accommodation: All hotels on Pohnpei Island are located in or around Kolonia. Mangrove Bay is the most expensive, but has still the best value for the money, an impressive setting and a good restaurant. Nearby Hideaway looked also quite inviting. Oceanview has probably the best view, but the rooms look rather shabby. There are several hotels in downtown Kolonia (Yvonne’s, Sea Breeze, Joy, Island Palms, South Park) which are a bit cheaper, but even shabbier.
Food is surprisingly good in Pohnpei, compared to its neighbouring countries: Tuna is very popular, and prepared in various options, among them “Pohnpeian Sashimi”. Reef fish is considered unhealthy and there is a billboard campaign for eating more tuna. There are several good restaurants. I absolutely loved the Tuna Tataki at Mangrove Bay Bar, the Tuna Steak at Oceanview was also pretty tasty. Kolonia also has at least two good cafés: Déjà Brew up on the hill, and One World Plaza Coffee down at the harbour.
Tuna Tataki at Mangrove Bay Bar
Money: Pohnpei uses the US Dollar. Most hotels accept credit card payments. I tried it and it worked. There are ATMs as well. I didn’t try them, but did not look suspicious.
Communication: Foreign SIM cards usually do not offer roaming in Pohnpei, so you won’t even be able to send text messages. It is possible to buy a local SIM card. However, this is not really needed, as all hotels offer free Wifi which is faster than in most other Micronesian countries.