Palau: The World’s Best Kept Secret

DAVID BARBELER, The West Australian

May 25, 2010

From the gut-wrenching bowl of fruit bat soup that grins back at you, to a lake that feels like it’s filled with equal parts water and stingless jellyfish, Palau is a tropical paradise packed with uniquely odd traits.

Where in the world is Palau you ask? Well, the Republic of Palau is a series of more than 250 limestone islands bobbing their heads up out of the Pacific Ocean 800km east of the Philippines.

Virtually untouched by tourists, a new flight from Brisbane operated by Pacific Flier has just opened a direct passageway for the first time. So to whet your appetite, here are eight little known quirky facts about a country you’ve most likely never heard of:

1. The national culinary delicacy is fruit bat soup

When people get asked what a particular animal tastes like, most reply “chicken”. However fruit bat soup tastes nothing like chicken. The closest it comes to is a faint resemblance of quail, without any aesthetic presentation whatsoever. Basically they drop a whole fruit bat into a broth, boil it, and then pull it out only to have its face still grinning back at you. Only scarier — as if it’s just daring you to try and eat it. I gingerly peeled off the fur/skin surrounding its legs and managed to eat that. However a Palauan who saw me having trouble decided to rip open the rib cage and devour its guts, insisting that because of its fruit diet, it was the “sweetest part”. I kindly let him eat the rest.

2. Matriarchal society

While many females are the unofficial household bosses in many a country, the women in Palau formally run the show. The appointed Chief of each region is generally the nephew of the previous Chief, allowing the lineage to run through the women’s bloodlines. However if the nephew is not a suitable option, the women in the tribe will not hesitate to appoint someone more suitable. Women also control all the money their husbands make. My guide Steve told me that if he wants a pair of sunglasses, he has to ask his wife to buy them. “One time a Japanese tourist gave me this Japanese cap,” he told me while cheerily pointing to his head, “My wife didn’t believe me and demanded to meet the tourist to know for sure.”

3. Dance floor musical chairs

I learned the hard way that you just don’t get up and bust out a Marky-Mark move on the dance floor in Palau. Everyone first asks a member of the opposite sex to join them before strutting their stuff under the disco ball. Fortunately, because Palau is a matriarchal society, women don’t hesitate to ask you. I was asked to dance six times in two hours. That’s six times higher than my record. It’s also important to not get too heavily involved in a dance trance. About 30 seconds before each song ends, everyone on the floor scatters and sits back down. Almost like an adult’s version of musical chairs. But don’t worry, the fun starts up all over again at the start of the next song – which is normally of the slow rock variety.

4. It was a fierce battleground during WWII

The presence of approximately 11,000 Japanese troops in Palau in WWII made it a major target for the allied forces. It became the scene of intense fighting during the Battle of Peleliu (aka Palau) between September and November 1944. Survivors call it “The Forgotten Battle”. Before the Japanese surrendered, the battle claimed thousands of lives on both sides. To this day, divers and snorkellers can visit many underwater wrecks from the battles — a real must-see.

5. American Influence still lingers

Because Palau remained under United States administration until 1994, it has adopted several of its customs – as well as keeping many of its own. Despite having their own native languages, most Palauans speak perfect English. Other influences the United States has had on Palau includes their currency, high population of Christians/Catholics, dress style and baseball. Rest assured, however, that despite all these US influences, there is almost not a single annoying American tourist to be seen on the entire island.

6. It has its own Stonehenge

When you think of gigantic mysterious stone formations, Palau doesn’t exactly spring to mind. Easter Island? Yep. Stonehenge? You bet. But Palau? Well most people haven’t even heard of it. The Badrulchau Monoliths are located on Palau’s largest island, Babeldaob. They consist of two columns of refrigerator-sized volcanic rocks which have sat there and stumped locals for many a century. All the rocks in the formation are so big they would have been virtually impossible for a primitive tribe to transport overseas. The great mystery is, however, that Palau is made up of limestone, with no volcanic rocks anywhere in sight. Aliens, meteorites and supervolcanoes were just a couple of the wild theories tossed about during my 30 minutes wandering the site. My guide Steve told me they recently paid “a lot of money” for an archaeologist to study the rocks for nine months. Steve: “He walked around looking very serious and holding his chin for a lot of the time. At the end all he could tell us was the volcanic rocks were not from this island. We already knew that!”

7. World’s first and only shark sanctuary

Last year, President Johnson Toribiong proudly announced to the world at a UN General Assembly that Palau would be home to the world’s first shark sanctuary in a bid to save more than 130 sharks and rays fighting extinction. Of course, the government finds it difficult patrolling an area more than twice the size of Victoria with a single patrol boat — let alone paying for its petrol. But the Palauans hope the gesture will be respected by shark fin poachers from nearby countries and that it will inspire other countries to follow suit.

8. Jellyfish Lake

Cut off from the main ocean at the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago, Jellyfish Lake is home to 13 million jellies. As a Queenslander who has spent a lot of time with the deadly stingers up north, I can honestly say the first 10 minutes of swimming through the lake scared the hell out of me. But because the thick blanket of jellyfish that inhabit the lake have been isolated for so long, they’ve had the luxury of no natural predators, and thus, no need to develop any toxins. Up your boardshorts, in your hair, down your snorkel — the alien-shaped creatures feel like they’re invading every crevice of your body. In fact, Jellyfish Lake just about sums up Palau as a whole. Both are isolated, harmless, and jam-packed wonders. And while they can take a little while to get used to, you can rest assured it’s a unique and untouched experience that you won’t forget.

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