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Palau: Babeldaob bai

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Babeldaob bai | Palau | Oceania

[Visited: January 2016]

After having seen the bai at the Belau National Museum, which is a well done replica of the real bai, we saw several bai, or traditional meeting houses, on the biggest island of Palau, Babeldaob. The first one was the most important: Airai Bai in the far south of the island, not too far from the international airport. We are led there by a friendly guy from the park office, who takes us over an old stone path to the clearing in the forest where the bai stands. The steep leaf roof and the raised platform on which the bai stands, already make the building stand out, but it is when you get closer and take in the bright paintings on the facade that your eyes get glued to the building. The background colour is white, and on the pyramidal space between the lower beam and the top of the roof, can be found lines of decorative painting representing scenes from daily life in Palau.

Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): Melekeok bai in the opening in the forest

Men and women are clearly depicted, in acts of hunting with spears, dancing, on boats, fishing, working nets. Then, there are boats, bais, tropical fish, and sharks. Money is painted as circles with a cross inside. Above the front entrance is a black fruit bat with red tongue, asking for respect for whoever enters. The many beams inside the bai are also all decorated with paintings, with the same subjects as the outside decorations. The bai were used by the elders of each village, to negotiate, find solutions to problems, receive visitors from other places. It was in bai like these that the Yapese negotiated their permission to mine for stone money on Palau, giving produce from Yap in return - it might even have been Airai bai itself, given its proximity to the stone money quarries of Palau.

Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): Melekeok bai: beams with rich decorative paintings

One morning, we walk up a wide stone trail through the forest at Melekeok on the east side of Babeldaob. The hike is beautiful in itself: old stones marking the trail through the dense forest from which we mostly hear birds sing without seeing any animals and through which a frail light filters. On top of the hill, we find the bai of Melekeok, yet another great example of a traditional bai. Sturdy red beams support the entire building on stone blocks on the platform. The painting on the frontside is quite different from the bai in Airai: it is dominated by a woman with big breasts, probably a referral to the matriarchal society of Palau. Two slim persons, one female, the other male, with snake-like bodies and money depicted. As in all bais, the corners are marked with cocks, which refers to the legend that the roosters announced daybreak, meaning that the gods working on ancient temples had to stop since they could only work at night. Later that day, after seeing the old terraced landscape on the other side of Babeldaob, we come across the bai of Aimeliik, just before sunset. The background dof the decorative paintings here is yellow, and the same themes, people and fish, recur, although in a different way. As was the case with the other bai, there is no sign of elder people: all bais we see are empty inside.

Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): Melekeok bai: painting with snake-like figures and tropical fish
Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): The bai of Airai is painted with people and fish
Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): Aimeliik bai with painting of woman on yellow background
Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): View of Airai bai, one of the prominent bais of Babeldaob island
Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): Bat above the entrance of Melekeok bai
Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): Airai bai: fragment of paintings depicting people and fish
Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): One-eyed monster tearing a shark apart, as depicted on the bai of Melekeok
Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): Roosters painted at the corners of the Melekeok bai
Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): Lower side of Airai bai with roosters at the side poles, a bat guarding the entrance, and more decorative paintings on top
Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): Face with red eyes painted at the top of the bai of Melekeok
Picture of Babeldaob bai (Palau): The bai of Aimeliik with rays, sharks and a woman prominently on top

Around the World in 80 Clicks

Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Babeldaob bai (Palau). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Babeldaob bai.
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