Palau: Scuba Sites And Wwii Relics

October 14, 1990|By Ann Owens Gilliland

Nobody ends up in Palau by accident.

It's not on the way to anyplace. It has no great museum of art. No Eiffel Tower. No Roman Colosseum or Westminster Abbey.

It's even hard to find on a map, since locally it's called Belau. Lying about 700 miles southwest of Guam west of Micronesia, this tropical chain of islands seems to be in the heart of nowhere.

The U.S. Marines of World War II know about it. In a brutal battle, the 1st Marine Division stormed the beach on Sept. 15, 1944 -- and was virtually wiped out -- down at Peleliu, one of Palau's southwesternmost islands.

Scuba divers know about it. It's no accident they go there, for Palau is recognized by a society of marine scientists, CEDAM, as the premier underwater wonder of the world. Thick schools of painted fish, sharks and barracuda besiege virgin coral reefs. Intense aqua waters lap hundreds of rock islands, eating away the bases so the islands look like a scattering of big green mushrooms. On the reefs grow pretty anemones as large as two washtubs and giant clams that Hollywood could film for horror movies.

What's more, the brilliant ocean around Palau is a graveyard for Japanese Zeros, ships and other relics of World War II that are prized scuba and snorkeling sites. Even more lie undiscovered, say those who live in Palau.

No, Palau is not a place one wanders into accidently, and if you should, threre's hardly anything to do--unless you count the Crocodile Lounge. Up front is's aa regular bar, but the wooden windows in the back section push out to reveal crocodile pepns below. Knock on the door and for 50 cents a skinny Japanese man will take visitors aaround back to see the pits. He'll even spray a garden hose on them -- it makes them open their mouths in mock attack.

The Palauan crocodiles, which strangely survive in both freshwater and saltwater, are found mostly in mangrove swamps, and they hardly ever eat people. The last time was in 1965, when a 14-foot crocodile ate a fisherman. Not to worry: They rarely come out in the day.

No, there's nothing to do: not a movie house, no all-night disco, no shopping to speak of. No reason to feel guilty if you do nothing more substantial than fill a spot on the beach or putt around the multitude of rock islands.

There's no Greyhound tour bus and hardly any roads. Only four islands -- Koror, Babeldaob, Malakal and Arakabesang, which are connected by causeways -- have paved roads, and these were built only in recent times. The rest of the 200-odd islands can be reached only by boat or light aircraft.

Continental Air Micronesia brings in the only flight daily from Guam, an event that draws residents for a look-see.

"Palau is definitely not the place to do exciting things," says Judy Hack, a Canadian who works as recreation director at the Palau Pacific Resort. "Everything runs on its own island time."

This, perhaps, is Palau's most endearing feature.

Lying only 400 miles north of the equator and with almost daily rain, Palau's air is hot and heavy. Little wonder, then, that much of the undeveloped area is a thick jungle of lush greenery and that more than 75 species of orchid thrive.

Among Palau's treasures are the friendly people who live simply in concrete or tin houses with little furniture save grass mats (called pandanus) thrown on the floor for sleeping. A popular, if nasty habit is the chewing of betel nuts that turn their teeth red.

But you can rent a car -- and mind the 25-mile-per-hour speed limit -- for an island tour. A half-day will do nicely.

Babeldaob, Micronesia's largest island, is only 10 miles wide and 24 miles long. With little natural beach, much of it is covered by mangrove swamp. Go beyond the airport, beyond the paved part of the road, and watch for the bombed-out concrete buildings on the left. The one nearest the road was a Japanese communications center. The one behind it, also World War II stock and equally battered, is a makeshift garage. Between the two are a couple of anti-aircraft guns and across the road is a tank. All are rusting, sitting in hip-deep weeds.

Farther down the road is a new bai (pronounced "by"), a colorful A-frame building decorated with crude paintings and carvings depicting Palauan legends. Traditionally bais were meetinghouses for the elders -- men only -- and the centers of all their activities. Every village had one.

Today only one old bai, built in 1890, has survived wars and typhoons. It is directly across the road, about a five-minute walk into the jungle. Look carefully for the footpath between the two houses and follow it around the bend.

Back past the airport the road leads to a causeway linking Babeldaob to Koror. Since there's a midnight curfew in Koror, underneath the bridge on the Babeldaob side is a popular beer joint where Palauans gather. Once midnight comes, they have to stay until morning or chance being arrested. One of the best restaurants, the Osel, used to be under the bridge but was moved to downtown Koror.

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