Discover Tribal Culture in Papua New Guinea

People & Culture

Colourful Tribe, Papua New Guinea

Attracting thrill-seekers, adventure junkies, and culture-vultures, Papua New Guinea (PNG) might be the most enticing outpost of the South Pacific. Geographically, it’s an eclectic landscape of active volcanoes, tree-laden peaks, sultry rainforests, and white sand beaches edged by clear topaz waters. Culturally, it’s even more diverse: with over 700 tribes scattered throughout the island, including groups completely unknown to the west before the 20th century, PNG remains a stronghold for traditional ways of life. Discover tribal culture in Papua New Guinea. Immerse yourself in their customs by attending one of the regional heritage festivals or “sing-sings”, held throughout the country each year.

Competing Over Customs
Papua New Guinea gained independence in 1975, but prior to this, the island was an administrative domain of its southern neighbour, Australia. The cultural festivals can be traced back to the period of Australian rule. In 1957, patrol officers (known in local dialect as kiaps) organized the first sing-sing as a tribal competition in Goroka, capital of the Eastern Highlands province. By setting the tribes against one another in a spirited, celebratory festival, the Kiaps hoped to determine how well the regions were organized.

Today, the sing-sings provide opportunities for PNG’s assorted tribes to show off their traditional dress (bilas), stage warrior dances, share ancient stories of the spirit world, and perform their ancestral songs. The annual shows, held during summer and autumn, see tribes travel from distant corners of the island to showcase their talents and traditions for the assembled crowds. There’s still an element of competition, but to the casual observer, that’s hardly the point. These amazing gatherings are folk festivals at their very best, and there’s no more valuable way to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Goroka Mudman, Papua New Guinea
Goroka Mudman

Mount Hagen Cultural Show
Daily life in Mount Hagen has changed significantly since 1961, when the city’s cultural show was established to promote peace and cooperation among local tribes. Now an important commercial hub, the picturesque city of Mount Hagen exemplifies the “modern” Papua New Guinea: traditional dress is reserved for special events, and industry necessitates a quicker pace of life. Still, the annual sing-sing held at Mount Hagen is one of the country’s most important events. It draws representatives of over 100 tribes, mainly from the Western Highlands Province and the Highlands Region, which makes it one of the largest and most diverse cultural festivals in the country.

With so many tribes gathered in one place, the show is a riot of colour and noise. Painted and attired in traditional garb, participants may appear shocking. One group is adorned in head-to-toe black paint, with white bones drawn on like living skeletons. Another tribe hides behind macabre porcine masks – their bodies exposed but for chalky streaks of paint or clay, and a loincloth of short green leaves. Many look the part of warriors, heavily muscled beneath their brightly-painted breastplates and brandishing spears. You’ll spot children with shaved heads and braids, and old men with curved bones or large round disks set through their noses.

Black painted tribesman, Papua New Guinea
Black-painted tribesman

The Mount Hagen Cultural Show takes place over two days – in 2016, it’ll be August 20-21. Ensure your place among the vibrant costumes and passionate dances by booking onto a Papua New Guinea festival tour, which will also provide local insight and opportunities to explore the more remote corners of this largely untouched island.

Little drummer boy, Papua New Guinea
PNG’s little drummer boy

Kenu & Kendu Festival
Celebrating its thirteenth year in 2016, the Kenu & Kendu Festival is a relative newcomer on the sing-sing circuit. The event takes place on the shores of Milne Bay in gorgeous Aloatau. Proximity to the sparkling water is essential.  Kenu is the local word for canoe, and boat races are the main highlight of this festival. These canoes aren’t your average cottage rental. They are elaborately carved, painted, and decorated with grasses and feathers, and resemble works of art. So too do the drums, or kendu, played by bare-chested men and women in grass skirts and feathered headdresses during their tribes’ ceremonial displays.

Tumbuna Show
Tumbuna is the local word for ancestors and the name given to one of the island’s most intimate sing-sings. Over 15 tribes are normally represented at this festival in Paiyagona Valley, and some travel from afar to reach the village where it’s held. As a participant in one of the Tumbuna Festival tours, you’ll have the opportunity to observe tribespeople preparing for the show, painstakingly applying body paint, and dressing in their bilas. Embrace local hospitality and get involved in the singing and dancing. This is an immersive experience few visitors on a Papua New Guinea tour ever get, and an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the mythology that underlies the island’s fascinating traditions.

Papua New Guinea - Tribe in Yellow Paint
Tribe in yellow paint

Suggested Itinerary:
12-Day Discover Papua New Guinea – Holiday of a Lifetime

Our Discover Papua New Guinea – Holiday of a Lifetime vacation package is an exclusive 12-day Pacific adventure delivering an intimate, personal vacation experience. Holiday of a Lifetime tours feature perks and privileges, such as full luggage service, sumptuous welcome dinners, riverside picnics, and travel amenities including a neck pillow, luggage tags, travel wallet, and flight bag. Only two departure dates are being offered for this culturally-rich holiday of a lifetime – September 13th, 2016 and April 11th, 2017.

This Papua New Guinea tour includes luxury touring coaches and First Class  accommodation – specifically chosen by Barbara Norton, our experienced Groups Travel Manager, who has explored Papua New Guinea extensively.