Sunday, 1 March 2009

Palau

Located about a two hour flight from Manila, the Republic of Palau is generally considered to be the number one scuba diving spot in the world. Among the myriad islands and the lush tropical greenery stands a genuine natural wonder, the blue corridor, where divers can be amazed by a stunning variety of fish and coral. Of course, neither me nor Alex knew this when we booked our trip, which is why we only spent 24 hours on the island, unable to do anything except miss out on one of the world's great treasures.

Which isn't to say we did nothing. Palau may be a diving hotspot, but it has a wealth of other sights to enjoy. Our tour took us round some of the best areas to see beautiful coral, incandescent fish and white-tipped reef sharks, which allow other fish to swim mere millimeters in front of their mouths without coming to harm (can't think what the fish are thinking, I kept my distance despite the dubious claims of 'safety').

The undoubted highlight was swimming in the Jellyfish Lake. The experience was more than a little queer, not to mention terrifying. These jellyfish may not be able to sting you, but what they lack in threat they make up for in number. Snorkelling away from the shore, spotting the first miniature orange blob quivering towards me through the lake's murky green clouds, I felt a minor wave of panic. This was the point at which I realised I was more than a little scared of jellyfish, a creature I associate in my mind with disturbing tentacles and large amounts of pain. As more and more of the buggers approached me my panic grew, and I started to contort myself in increasingly frantic ways, desperately avoiding another orange blob as it calmly sauntered past. I was pushing on blindly now, just hoping to get past the wave of creatures, and each messy thrash brought me deeper and deeper into a dense web of them until, with a shot of pure terror, I realised that I could no longer move without being sure of touching one. I seized up, icy cold in the warm salty water, and stared around me. I realised that I was completely trapped, encircled. I surfaced and turned to our guide, panic writ plainly all over my body. She looked at me reassuringly. "Just touch one, you'll see they're fine" she said, and picked up a quivering lump in her hand to show me. So I looked back down and gingerly - oh so gingerly - touched the smallest, most innocent looking baby I could see. It felt like firm jelly. No sting, no blinding pain, nothing to worry about. Still, I wasn't quite yet ready to be won over. I made my way cautiously, experimentally prodding jellyfish of increasing size, each time sure that this one, being larger than the last, was the killer I was sure was lurking in the depths. Finally, with that euphoric feeling of released fear, I was able to appreciate what was around me, a gently shimmering neon orange universe that spread as far as I could see. Without the threat of intense pain, jellyfish become quite sweet to look at. In the dark, moody water they acted as beacons, making the depths seem brighter and prettier. We swam around for half an hour, admiring the colour and the movement, and when it came time to swim back I felt a pang of regret to be leaving.

Despite missing out on the scuba diving, I wasn't sad to leave Palau. Yes, it's incredibly beautiful. Like a lot of places that reach a certain point of popularity with tourists, however, there was a sense of being part of the tourist economy, rather than just a visitor. The tour guides, and a lot of the workers around, were not Palauan but Filipino, brought over to provide cheap labour, and their focus was on making money rather than sharing the beauty of their country. Like parts of Thailand, Bali and Manila, we came away with the definite sense of having been ripped off, prices a lot higher than they should be and the locals all with a keen eye on how to get a bit more cash out of you. Normally I'd say avoid these places - I'd avoid returning to Bali for instance - but even with the cynical attitudes Palau is definitely worth the trip.

5 comments:

www.ourexplorer.com said...

It's a bit sad to have a tour guide with his/her mind focusing on making money only. Good guide, as a window of the destination (even the country), shall have the passion to share with traveler the place they are living in.

OurExplorer - Tour Guide & Tourist Guide
local guides, local wisdom

Bluegreen Kirk said...

Sorry about the horrible guide but a least you are doing what you want and traveling. I wish I could do more of it.

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