Traditional Festivals and Rituals: Celebrating Culture in Papua New Guinea


Where is Papua New Guinea? A hidden gem in the central Pacific, Papua New Guinea is a vibrant archipelago north of Australia. The people of PNG have a strong connection to the past, with many festivals and ceremonies that are deeply rooted in tradition. Travelling to Papua New Guinea is like taking a journey back in time as you check out a unique blend of untouched wilderness, developing urban life, and strong cultural roots. PNG is also home to hundreds of distinct tribes, many with their own unique language, traditions, and captivating festivals.

Let’s take a look at some of the fascinating festivals and rituals you might encounter on a cultural expedition throughout the frontiers of Papua New Guinea.

A Wonderful Mix of Cultural Celebration

Papua New Guinea’s culture is an impressive blend of tribes with strong connections to their lands and urban societies embracing the winds of change. Among the various tribes that inhabit the vast highlands, coastal regions, and island territories of Papua New Guinea, each one brings a unique flavour to the nation’s cultural landscape. 

The people of Papua New Guinea take great pride in their customs and celebrate this through spectacular festivals. Ranging from elaborate rites of passage to colourful harvest celebrations, each shed light on different facets of their societies, beliefs, and ways of life.

Sing-Sing: What is it?

Colours adorn and headresses sprout from every person in an explosion of feathers, flowers and leaves

At almost all Papua New Guinea festivals, the Sing-Sing is a remarkable cultural experience that brings together tribes from across various provinces. Local tribes adorn themselves in incredible traditional attire and perform tribal dances unique to their province. The clothing isn’t merely for show—it represents the unique aesthetics of each tribe, ranging from elaborate headdresses adorned with bird-of-paradise feathers to body paints made from various natural pigments. 

As the Kundu drums provide the audio backdrop to many of these dancing displays, there is a sense of celebration that can be felt throughout any arena. Sing-sings occur frequently in PNG, with one of the most popular being the Melpa Festival held in Mount Hagen. Importantly, this is a way for tribes to come together and celebrate their unique culture and traditions.

The Sepik River Crocodile Festival: Honouring the Reptilian Deity

The Sepik River Crocodile Festival
Connection between man and crocodile in the Sepik is a way of life

Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River region holds the crocodile as a sacred animal. This reverence is on full display in the annual Sepik River Crocodile Festival, usually held in early August. This festival is not for the faint of heart, as it revolves around a symbolic crocodile scarification ritual. A rite of passage, this ceremony symbolises the transition of boys into warriors. Undergoing this painful process willingly, the boys emerge with crocodile-like skin markings, signifying their bravery and commitment to their cultural identity.

Of course, like most events in Papua New Guinea, the festival also embraces the nation’s love of traditional dance, music, and elaborate traditional dress.

Hiri Moale Festival: Commemorating the Hiri Trade

The Hiri Moale Festival is a large event held in Port Moresby, the capital city of Papua New Guinea. This annual festival commemorates the historic Hiri trade, a significant cultural and economic event involving the exchange of goods between the Motu tribe and their Gulf neighbours. In recognition of the past, Motu history is celebrated, but many other tribes and trading partners also join the event.

Since this historical trading occurred via an often dangerous seafaring journey, there is a strong focus on the lakatoi – a large vessel used by the Motuan people when trading with neighbours across the water. The Hiri Moale Festival is an immersive experience featuring a thrilling canoe race with beautifully crafted traditional vessels, Motu dance performances, and the crowning of the Hiri Queen—an epitome of Motu beauty, grace and knowledge.

The Goroka Festival

One of the biggest sing-sings in Papua New Guinea, the Goroka Festival, is really a sight to behold. More than 100 tribes usually gather to celebrate their culture and traditions at the Goroka Festival, which is held in Goroka each year in September in conjunction with Independence Day. Like all sing-sings, stunning costumes and enchanting dance performances are front and centre.

Goroka Cultural Show - Credit Crooked Compass
Goroka Cultural Show – Credit Crooked Compass

Kenu and Kundu Festival: A Canoe and Drum Extravaganza

Celebrated in the province of Milne Bay, Alotau, the Kenu and Kundu Festival is a cultural treat encompassing music, dance, food and canoe races. It is a tribute to the region’s maritime heritage, symbolised by the kenu (canoe) and the rhythmic beats of the kundu drum. Tribesmen from different communities present their intricately carved and brightly decorated canoes, often carrying more than 40 warriors adorned in traditional dress.

Teams also compete in a thrilling race that sees these traditional vessels cutting through the crystal-clear waters where visitors can also swim. The mesmerising beats of the kundu drums, matched with the stunning performances of the dancers, make this a truly memorable cultural experience for all travellers.

Traditional canoes glide into Milne Bay ahead of two days of celebrations and races
Traditional canoes glide into Milne Bay ahead of two days of celebrations and races

Begin your cultural journey with Crooked Compass

Take a plunge into the depths of Papua New Guinea’s rich culture with Crooked Compass. We specialise in crafting unique, immersive experiences that you simply won’t find anywhere else. Whether it’s experiencing a breathtaking Sing-Sing festival, witnessing the formidable crocodile scarification ritual, or checking out the thrilling canoe races at the Kenu and Kundu Festival, we offer unforgettable journeys that highlight the best of Papua New Guinea’s vibrant cultural heritage. Contact Crooked Compass today to start your perspective shifting journey through Papua New Guinea’s festivals and traditions.