Wed, Jan 19, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Paradise in Palau closer than you think

Palau is less than four hours away and for many Taiwanese it is a favorite destination because of its beauty and colorful history

By Graham Norris  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

PHOTO: GRAHAM NORRIS, TAIPEI TIMES

Legend has it that Palau used to consist of just two islands. A woman from one of the islands gave birth to a boy named Chuab who grew at an incredible pace into a giant and consumed all the food and some of the other children in his village.

The villagers became concerned about Chuab's appetite and decided to kill him. They built a bonfire, telling him it was in preparation for a special meal and tricked him into standing in the middle of it.

The fire quickly engulfed him and killed him. Then, he fell into the water, and the parts of his body that protruded from the sea became the more than 300 islands that now make up this South Pacific paradise.

Traditional -- if somewhat bizarre -- stories like this, as well as stunning scenery are attracting increasing numbers of Taiwanese looking for something unusual but not too far away.

Taiwanese have been visiting Palau for government and business purposes for many years, but in the past few years, Palau has experienced a flood of Taiwanese tourists.

Palau is a lot closer than other popular destinations such as Bali, Thailand and Singapore. The convenience, along with the lure of azure waters and stunning natural scenery, drew more than 40,000 Taiwanese last year, nearly half the visitors to Palau.

Next week, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) will become the most high-profile Taiwanese to have made the three-and-a-half-hour flight.

For many Taiwanese, Palau might have been just another tiny country in the South Pacific they've never heard of were it not for the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1999 and the introduction of direct flights.

The main attraction for many visitors is the diving. Palau is a volcanic peak poking up through the sea, and one of the most famous of the more than 50 diving locations is the Big Drop-Off, a 300m underwater cliff that offers divers amazing sights of colorful corals and reef animals. Those without the relevant licenses or inclination for diving can still enjoy Palau's fascinating marine habitats by snorkeling around the Rock Islands, numerous coral islets that host a wealth of colorful wildlife.

Of course, most Taiwanese join tours, which usually include Palau's most famous sights. Hou Chi-chuan (侯啟全) and Deng Hsin-yi (鄧欣怡), for example, went to Palau for their honeymoon.

"We chose Palau because it seemed like a beautiful and relaxing place and a little more exotic than Europe," Hou said.

Deng said her favorite sights in Palau were the Big Drop-Off and Jellyfish Lake.

Hundreds of years ago a few jellyfish became trapped in a lagoon that was cut off from the sea. With no predators trapped with them, the jellyfish gradually lost their ability to sting, and tourists can now enjoy a surreal swim among thousands of their descendants.

Michael, a Taiwanese tour guide who has lived in Palau for the past two years, said Taiwanese like coming to Palau for the scenery and clear waters.

"People know that there are beautiful islands here and the water is very clear," he said. "It's very good for swimming and snorkeling."

People also come to find out about different cultures. Traditional Palauan culture was matrilineal, to a point. Men held the top positions in society, but they were all chosen by women. The Council of Chiefs was the main governing body in any village and they met in special halls called bai. The bai are one of the few places where Palau's history was recorded, in paintings on the beams.

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