Palau car hire



Visitors are drawn to Palau mainly by the prospect of swimming in a lake full of jellyfish and diving or snorkelling around the stunning Rock Islands. Having made the long journey to reach this Pacific island it’s only natural that many will also want to see a little bit more of the country and hiring a car to drive around the main island of Babeldaob appears to be a sensible option. Touring independently by car however is not as simple as it seems, thanks to a level of bureaucracy that appears geared towards deterring any thought of unescorted travel around the country.




Car rental itself is not a problem. Several international agencies compete with local two-bit rental companies meaning that prices remain reasonably competitive. It’s when you set off and leave the main town of Koror that you run into the Palau permit madness.




That a country with a population of only 20,000 is divided into 16 states is strange enough. To then build in a requirement that all visitors who enter any of the states should first register at the municipal office for that state and pay a nominal visitor permit fee (usually $5) is beyond comprehension.




If you drive the 50 mile loop around Babeldaob (the main island on which the majority of states lie) you’ll pass through no fewer than 10 states. According to the Palau Visitors Authority advice you should report immediately at each individual state office, pay for a Visitors Permit and then pay an additional fee (usually $5) for each historic or cultural site you intend to visit. Those travelling with Palauan tour operators will pay these fees as part of their tour price.




I asked the staff at the Visitors Authority what visitors should do if the State Offices are closed (as they are on Sundays and public holidays) and they told me that visitors should not visit states if they cannot register and buy a permit on arrival. In other words, do not rent a car on a Sunday and expect to tour the island legally as you won’t be able to pay your dues to the local administrators.




That the policy is poorly enforced is one thing. We drove around the island over a holiday period (Dec 31st and Jan 1st) and were only asked to pay a fee at one cultural site and never asked to show a permit. We were able to park and take a look around all other sites without anyone seeing anyone around.  If you drive around the island on a Sunday you might well find the same situation.




But consider this. If you intend to observe Palauan law and register at each State Office on your tour of the island, a circuit of the island will cost you at least $50 in state fees. On top of that each person will need to pay out another $50-100 to visit a handful of historic and cultural monuments and places of interest (or most probably, mild curiosity). Worse still, you will take up the bulk of your trip trying to find the State Offices when you cross any state boundary (typically every 5 miles).




The remote states of Palau do have sites of interest that justify taking a car and exploring them at your leisure. How much you choose to observe the letter of the law will determine whether you spend your time actually visiting those sites rather than chasing after the paper trail created by Palau’s bureaucrats.


You can get Palau included in your RTW here


Marshall Islands



Sitting cross-legged on the blue wooden frame only inches above the gentle waves, there is barely a sound as we glide swiftly across the clear water of the Majuro lagoon. This is our first experience in a Marshallese canoe, a distinctive craft with two parallel hulls separated by a wooden bench. These vessels were the transport of choice for many generations before and after the Europeans ‘discovered’ the tiny atoll islands of the Marshall Islands, an isolated nation in the mid-Pacific (around halfway between Honolulu and Manila). The 19th century German and Russian traders who came this way were shocked by the speeds at which these canoes could cut through the ocean.




We are taking a canoe trip with Waan Aelon in Majel (WAM), a canoe-building programme set up by Marshall Islander Alson Kelen. Alson set up WAM in order to keep alive the canoe-making skills that have long been part of Marshallese tradition but that are being lost as western culture creeps ever further into island life. But Alson’s passion, and the importance of the WAM programme, extends far beyond canoe building.




The canoe-makers are young people who have dropped out of school and have no prospect of a job. Many arrive with no social security number and no birth certificate, having been delivered on an outer island beyond the reaches of doctors, midwives and registrars. With unemployment running at well over 50% and a few poor grades in your early school years can write off your academic and professional prospects, the 25 young folks who attend the daily work and study programme receive a valuable opportunity to develop a lot more than canoe-building skills. Classes in English, Maths and a range of life skills have been put together by Alson, who with the help of a tight-knit team of Marshallese and ex-pats has created a valuable programme from nothing.




Funding is always a challenge and much of his work involves persuading potential backers of the value of his work.  Local businesses are all too aware that the training of vocational skills is always non-existent in the Marshall Islands, with very few qualified teachers around to provide education relevant for working on the islands.



As part of the WAM programme they spend a few weeks in one of the big Majuro companies (big is a relative word on an island with only 20,000 people). Several have found full-time work as a result of their work experience.




Linton, the young lad in charge of our canoe, says little but after an hour out on the lagoon invites me to take temporary charge. I scramble to my feet, almost falling in while gripping Linton a bit too tightly for his comfort. The gentle movements that look effortless in his capable hands are clearly beyond me and after a few minutes of uncoordinated incompetence I fall back to my seat, relieved not to have landed in the drink.




If you make it out to the Marshall Islands, a visit to WAM and a ride in a traditional canoe will give you a small taste of one of the islands’ most distinct traditions. More than that however, you’ll be supporting a very worthy programme that is giving young people real help in a country where opportunities are few and far between.


 Canoe rides cost $20 per person for one hour.  

You can get the Marshall Islands included in your RTW here

Pacific war


“You’re only the second visitors to see this” Sylvester tells us as he hacks away at the thick branches with his machete to reveal a rusting tank. He shrugs his shoulders when I ask him whether it’s American or Japanese, so I go rummaging through the wreckage and soon find a line of Kanji characters in the fractured metal near the machine gun.




A short while later our boatman stops in the shallow lagoon and we jump in with our snorkel gear, directly over a 1940s commercial Sea Star DC-3 aircraft and the remains of a military helicopter.




Hang out in the Marshall Islands for a little while and you’ll soon stumble upon WW2 artefacts. This was the scene of a fierce battle between the US and Japanese forces which fought to the death for control of the all-important mid-Pacific. The best wrecks can be found in the waters around Bikini Atoll, a place with one of the darkest chapters in 20th century history.




It was on Bikini that the Americans decided to set up their nuclear testing programme immediately after the end of the Second World War. The first bombs were detonated in 1946 and over the next 12 years 67 bombs were dropped over Bikini Atoll and nearby Enewetak – the largest explosion being around 1000 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. During these tests a number of warships were scuttled in the atoll by the US military and have remained in the waters around Bikini ever since.




Visit the Marshallese capital Majuro and you’ll find several signs of the Bikinian legacy. There’s the Bikini Town Hall for a start, located in downtown Majuro and one of the few attractive buildings on the island. Nearby is the office of the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, now just a shell but for a long time the place where displaced islanders affected by radiation from the tests would come to seek some form of justice. Meanwhile a sizeable proportion of those living on the Majuro atoll are there because of the exodus sparked by the bomb tests. Ask a taxi driver or a waiter and the chances are they’ll have a relative or friend who was affected by the nuclear legacy.



You can still go to Bikini atoll and explore some of the world’s most impressive wrecks submerged in its lagoon, including the US aircraft carrier the Saratoga and the Nagato, flagship of the Japanese Navy. Radiation levels are now at levels that shouldn’t give any cause for concern for short-term visits.




Trips to Bikini are arranged via chartered flight and run into thousands of dollars, so are really for the die-hard divers only.  Thankfully for those coming to the Marshall Islands who don’t have the time or money to make it out to Bikini, there are plenty of fascinating WW2 leftovers to explore within the relative convenience of Majuro.


You can get the Marshall Islands included in your RTW here







You’d think I was trying to break into a bank. A trip to a museum should not involve military planning, but getting to the Pacific War Museum in Guam without renting a car is perhaps one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in my years of travel. The guy at the car rental office said it couldn’t be done - $100 each way in a taxi was the only alternative, he told us (Guam has some of the most expensive taxis in the world). The staff at the hotel told us it was impossible – there are no public buses on Guam and the only option is a rental car. Having discovered a mention of a regular bus service hidden deep within the Guam government website, I was determined to try and find it.




The bus did arrive pretty much at the time stated on the rather amateur website, although we were standing at the wrong place, with no visible sign of a bus stop anywhere along the main street. Reluctant at first to open the doors for us, when we tried to board the driver checked that we hadn’t stumbled onto the wrong bus by accident. “This is a public bus you know” he warned us, eventually allowing us to board with the words “at least you’re not Japanese” (implying that they wouldn’t be seen dead on a public bus).  I almost felt compelled to give the driver a password as a condition of entry. We paid our $1, a flat fee that allowed us, if the mood took us, to stay all day on the bus as it plied the roads of Guam.




Sitting on the bus it was as if we had entered a secret club. Passengers smiled knowingly as Teddy the cheerful Filipino driver, began to chat to us and asked how we’d heard of the bus. An American man told us that the bus is a closely guarded secret and none of the hotels and tourism businesses acknowledge its existence, pushing their guests to their own transport services running along the same route at vastly inflated prices.




According to Teddy it’s possible to circle the whole island for $3, although with only a couple of buses a day along each route you wouldn’t have the chance to get off much if you wanted to get back to your hotel by nightfall. Mind you, he’d probably have waited for us to stop and take a few photos if his attitude to the other passengers was anything to go by. He turned the bus around for one lady who had arrived at a bus stop seconds after we pulled away and made a second sweep of the busy street, collecting the grateful passenger before continuing on his way.




We picked up an old man outside the hospital who could politely be described as eccentric. Inevitably he was soon chatting to me and when he asked me where I was from and I replied that I was British I was met with a blank stare. When I mentioned London his face lit up and he said something about snow, before adding cheerfully, “I went to Iowa once. I hated it”.




The Blueline 1 service may have saved us a few dollars, but more than that it provided an entertaining snapshot of life in Guam beyond the glitzy façade of the tourist bubble that keeps the island’s economy running.


You can get the Guam included in your RTW here


Pohnpei High


Our driver Arlo winds down his window for the fifth time in as many minutes and spits out another blood red jet of liquid onto the road before returning to our conversation. He’s clearly well skilled at soaking the roads of Pohnpei with his projectiles, as the deep unsightly stains on his front teeth testify. They’d look bad on a 70 year old, but Arlo is a fresh-faced young lad barely into his twenties.





Chewing betel nut is a national pastime in Pohnpei, the main island of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Until around 50 years ago betel nuts were hard to come by and were considered a luxury import, with no native betel trees on Pohnpei. Then someone had the idea of planting the trees on the island and within a few years local supply was plentiful and the price of betel nuts plummeted. Now Pohnpeians can buy 40 nuts for a dollar and as a result you’re unlikely to see many people lighting a cigarette, with most adding a few shreds of tobacco and a pinch of lime to their betel nut and leaf and chewing the concoction on an almost non-stop basis, pausing briefly to emit their jet of coloured saliva onto the island’s red-stained pavements.




The betel nut has a harsh, bitter flavour and most first-timers will spit the mixture out long before any of its magic powers are released. While the betel itself acts as a mild stimulant (“It makes me feel alive” Arlo tells me with a broad smile), it is the tobacco in the mix that ensures that Pohnpeians are well and truly hooked on their betel nuts. I ask whether he could go a day without chewing betel and Arlo confesses that he did have to manage without once when taking a flight to a neighbouring island. Chewing a steady supply of tobacco leaf got him through the day.




If betel provides a caffeine-like buzz, Pohnpei’s famous home-brew is an altogether more potent beast. Driving along the island’s pot-holed main circuit (Pohnpei has few roads beyond the 53 mile loop that hugs the island’s coast) a coolbox with a bottle full of murky brown liquid is a common sight. This is sakau, another essential element of local culture and a fairly potent sedative with hallucinogenic potential. While traditionally used by elders to get themselves into the right frame of mind to tackle difficult issues (the potential for a sakau bar in the British Houses of Parliament should be explored), the mud-like drink is now enjoyed at all levels of island society. Business is frequently conducted over sakau and it is around the sakau table that the island’s bush telegraph system plays out.




The potent mixture is made by grinding the roots of the sakau tree and passing them through shredded hibiscus bark, which gives the substance its slimy texture and its earthy (as in muddy) consistency. Rituals surround every stage of the sakau process, as I discover on a hike through the rainforest. As we descend a steep muddy slope we pass two men coming up the hill carrying a fairly large tree, roots and all. A villager explains to us that they only use the roots of the tree for sakau and discard the rest as soon as they reach the village several miles away. To carry only the roots and not the whole tree into the community would be seen as showing serious disrespect to the elders.




If you come to Pohnpei you can choose whether or not to dabble in these local vices. Whether you encounter sakau and betel nut as a casual observer or a willing participant, you’ll no doubt discover just how important they are to the way of life of the ordinary Pohnpeian.


You can get the Pohnpei included in your RTW here