Papua New Guinea maintains some of the oldest continuing cultures on Earth. There are over 800 recorded distinct tribal groups, each with a unique cultural heritage. Experiencing the Pacific island through authentic cultural festivals is one of the main draws for travelers visiting PNG.
This remote country is truly one of the world’s last frontiers and offers intrepid travelers a memorable experience by visiting tribes that have yet to adopt modern life. Additionally, the economic impact of tourism is significant as travelers have spent a total of $205.9 million last year visiting Papua New Guinea according to the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority.
When making your trip there, attend a sing-sing to truly experience the beauty of the variety of tribal customs. Initially the cultural festivals were performed to forge peaceful relationships between different tribes by showcasing their customs. The events are an integral part of communicating PNG’s tribal history.
Fables, historical accounts, and spirit world folklore are passed down generation to generation orally and are performed at the events. Brilliantly-plumed tribal people gather in bilas and traditional regalia to perform their ancestral dances and songs with kundu drums. The performances replicate the customary rituals that took place during important village events, including ceremonies to commemorate war victories, weddings, and more.
The shows weren’t intended for tourists when they began, but today all are welcome to come and enjoy the festivities. Tourists can attend the sing-sings from July to November when people come together to celebrate and showcase their traditions.
Tumbuna Show in May
On Kum Mountain in Mount Hagen, the Tumbuna Show (also known as Tok Pisin) is a celebration dedicated to pasin bilong tumbuna, meaning the way of the ancestors before colonization. 300 tribespeople from 15 highland and coastal communities gather for the small festival. Due to the intimate setting, foreign guests are often invited to join the groups and learn ancient dance steps in order to partake in the event.
National Mask Warwagira Festival in July
This sing-sing is held in Kokopo at the Ralum showground and is one of the most colorful in the country. The event celebrates the mask-making traditions of tribal groups that live in the East New Britain province. The 2019 National Mask Warwagira Festival was dedicated to youth empowerment and was the 25th anniversary of the event. You’ll find people from all over Papua New Guinea, including the Toali, Baining, and Pomio tribal groups. During the sing-sing, you’ll witness many cultural displays such as traditional tolai shell money exchanges that are used to open the festival. The show is popular among travelers, who come from all corners of the globe to watch the spectacular Baining Fire Dance.
Sepik River Festival in August
The Sepik region has one of the longest rivers on the planet and is one of the most remote areas of the country. Villagers who live along the Sepik River have been presenting their traditions annually since 2007 at the Sepik River Festival held in the East Sepik province. This is the only sing-sing where you can witness people who’ve undergone the sacred crocodile initiation ceremony in which their skin is cut so it leaves scars that look reptilian.
Mount Hagen Show in August
The biggest sing-sing is the Mount Hagen Show in its namesake highland outpost with around 2,000 participants. Because it’s one of the most popular sing-sings, tickets tend to sell out at least a year in advance with usually about 400 foreign guests and 18,000 locals attending–every year more tribes attend. In 2019, the Simbu people walked for two days in order to be there and perform for the first time with their spectacular headdresses adorned with iridescent green insects. Traditional kundu drums set the tempo as members from over 100 tribes gather and display their unique cultures and traditions. Costumed performers are clad in intricate face paint, spectacular feathered headdresses, and clothing provided by nature including shells, grass, and tree fibers.
Goroka Show in September
The Goroka Show is the oldest sing-sing in PNG and one of the larger festivals. The event takes place in the remote highlands and usually has over 1,000 performers. The colorful festivities began in 1957 as a competition to determine which tribal groups had the best performances. It was also developed to encourage cultural exchanges between the groups so they can leave behind long-held tribal differences. Today, the gigantic gathering occurs during the nation’s Independence Day celebrations. One of the most celebrated performances is the eerie, ghost-like Asaro Mud Men wearing masks that can weigh over ten pounds.
Kenu and Kundu Festival in November
The lesser-known Kenu and Kundu Festival is even more immersive and intimate than some of the popular events. This smaller festival is spectacular to witness since it incorporates canoes used by the Milne Bay people. The wooden canoes are still carved with the ancestral methods. They don’t use modern tools in order to make them, and they continue to be used for trade today–though they’re no longer used for warfare. War canoes are on display during the event and are used in high-energy canoe races which are not to be missed. The event doesn’t attract many foreign spectators, so it’s an intimate experience to attend.
Egna Cultural Show in August
The Egna Cultural Show is the easiest to attend as tickets can be booked directly online rather than through a tour operator. The festival began in 1982 to preserve the unique Engan culture. Today, the sing-sing includes events such as ritual offerings and spell casting. A famous ceremonial dance is the Mali, which is a social dance performed by both men and women. Shangai is another wonderful dance typically performed after a village man is initiated.
Attending a sing-sing in Papua New Guinea is an amazing travel experience–the array of colors, sounds, and sights will surely make a lasting impression. As PNG is a bit off the beaten path and tickets are limited to the cultural festivals, it’s best to plan your trip at least a year in advance. Once you arrive, you’ll find that performers are eager to share their customs with foreign attendees. Be sure to respect local cultural norms—avoid wearing revealing clothing and always ask permission before taking a photograph.
Have you been to any cultural festivals on your travels?
Header photo by Trevor Cole.