Thursday, August 02, 2018

Yap and Palau

From Bangkok we were on route to Yap and Palau via Manila and Guam (really the only way to get there from southeast Asia).  Like my trip to Micronesia and Marshall Islands a few months before, Yap and Palau are expensive flights and best done on a points reward which is what we did.  Yap is served only a couple times a week on a United Airlines flight hopping between Guam and Manila via Yap and Palau.  There are a few other flights from Japan and China to Palau directly.
Because of the limitations in getting to and from Yap, we were forced to spend a full day layover in Manila and had to spend 4 days in Yap and 3 in Palau.  Unfortunately not much time in paradise.
Our day in Manila was mostly uneventful.  Because we had lost our layover there on our way to Asia, this was Sasha's first time seeing the city.  It didn't make a great impression. It really is too big, dirty and smelly for it's own good, though I love the country still.  We were running around in a rough neighbourhood buying bus tickets for when we would come back a week later which didn't help our cause either.  The poverty can be quite shocking.
The following morning we flew into Guam.  We had a few hours of layover and it was a nice day so we walked out of the airport and down the road a couple km to the Ypao beach park on Tumon Bay.  Guam felt very American despite it's proximity to Asia.  You can just tell, from the streets and gas stations to restaurants and people that it is an American territory.  Most of its tourists are from Japan and Korea so there was a lot of signage in those languages for them as well.  It wasn't very busy but it was nice to stick our toes in the sand, take a couple pictures, pick up a subway sandwich and head back to the airport for our flight to Yap.

Ypao beach

Tumon bay

Nice bus shelter

Yap is one of the 4 territories of Micronesia.  I'd been to Chuuk and flown through the other 2 a few months before but Yap is a smaller, more isolated island southwest of Guam while the rest of the country is much further east.  Yap's population is tiny and it's capital, Colonia, is just a slightly more important village with only a few shops and small hotels.  We stayed in a little hotel within walking distance of the centre and spent the next couple days alternating between exploring our surroundings and hiding from torrential downpours.  Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate for the most part, including our one day of snorkeling/diving in search of manta rays and sharks.  We saw one of each so it wasn't a complete waste but the conditions were pretty rough.

The little lagoon in Colonia

The one and only "business centre"

A typical street sign

The most interesting or unique feature of Yap is its stone money and tribal culture that still exists today.  The stone money varies in size from small circles to large circular stones several feet in diameter and weighing tons.  Historically they were valuable because of their size, weight and difficulty to acquire.  The stones were quarried on Palau ~500km away and then brought back by guys towing the stones on rafts with their canoes.  Imagine fighting off hostile tribes to cut a heavy rock and fighting tropical storms in a canoe to bring it back.  Crazy, but impressive.  But then again, most currency systems are totally arbitrary in value and not useful by themselves.  Each stone was unique and has a history of ownership and although the US dollar is the currency of today, the stones are still used in traditional transactions including land ownership changes and other ceremonies.  The large stones are too heavy to move around so they just remember who owns what and there are stone "banks" where they are stored together that you can come across while walking around.
Public transport isn't very good so we contented ourselves with wandering around town and a short hike up to the antenna tower for the views while the weather was good.  We really didn't see anyone else while we were there other than one Japanese lady and the general atmosphere is very laid-back so if you want to really escape from it all I think I found the perfect place...

Open air museum in Colonia with traditional homes and stone money.
Found more stone money

View from the antenna tower

Looking down on the booming downtown Colonia haha
Palau, by contrast, has become quite a popular destination for Asian tourists of late which is starting to put a strain on the country and draw resentment from some of the locals. Our taxi driver was quick to say he wished all the Chinese tourists would be banned!  Palau has a policy of trying to limit tourist numbers through inflated prices, bringing in a higher quality, high-end tourism.  Thus Palau (another former post-WW2 US-territory now independent country) is beautiful but expensive.  Palau is well known among divers for being one of the top diving destinations in the world, and I would have loved to do some diving, but I had something much more memorable in mind.
We stayed in a small, Japanese-run hotel right on the water near the port of the main city, Koror.  Despite a population that is not much larger than Yap's, Palau felt much busier and more industrious. Maybe it's all the visitors, maybe population census results are all lies...  While it is far from a bustling metropolis, there was some traffic, and way more shops, hotels and restaurants.  Our first day was spent getting oriented, planning for day 2 and generally enjoying the return of the sunshine.  You almost don't even have to get wet to snorkel as the water is so clear, even looking down from the road you could watch the tropical fish play.

So clear right on shore

Despite the recent influx of Chinese tourists, historically the Japanese have been the main visitors to Palau (it was their colony until WW2) so unsurprisingly the following day we found ourselves on a tour of the Rock Islands with a handful of Japanese tourists.  The Rock Islands are a protected area of great natural beauty just south of Palau's main island.  They are in essence just a collection of rocks protruding from the sea and covered with vegetation right to the waterline. Like the rest of Palau's rocky shores, the water-level erosion has cut under the base of each stone giving a cool effect. It was a perfect day.  We made multiple stops, for mud baths, kayaking and snorkelling.

Mud people

The water colour is unreal...

It was beautiful, it was warm, everything was great.  It couldn't get any better.  Or could it?At the lunch stop on a little secluded beach I took Sasha for a little walk away from the group, got down on one knee in the water and proposed.  She said yes, phew!  After all the travel abuse I was putting her through it could've gone either way...  The snorkeling was all after lunch.  I don't think Sasha saw any fish.  I don't know if she remembers the rest of the day.  Or the day after.  She was in a little impenetrable bubble of happiness. We didn't get much else done in Palau...

Moments after the proposal. All smiles!



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