Dan at Volcano Observatory, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea

11 Incredible Things To Do In Papua New Guinea

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Papua New Guinea may be one of the most exotic and off the beaten path destinations for travellers to discover around the world.

The country takes up half of the the island of New Guinea, which it shares with Indonesia, and over 600 islands that scatter around the Pacific Ocean leading down as far as the Solomon Islands. There are more than 800 languages spoken by people living in PNG and hundreds of tribes and ethic groups making it one of the most diverse countries on the planet.

Despite this, travel to Papua New Guinea is tough. Some areas are dangerous with tribal conflicts, nature can get in the way with natural disasters and deep jungles providing different types of challenges. Buses and boats don’t always keep to a strict schedule and flights can be regularly cancelled due to weather. If you want to travel to Papua New Guinea, patience and experience is required.

But don’t let that put you off as I encountered some of the friendliest people I’ve met, incredible scenery and a culture like no other. There is plenty to see and do in Papua New Guinea but it just takes a little more effort, but the results are worth it 100 times over.

If you’ve got a taste for adventure and want to explore the best of what Papua New Guinea offers, keep reading to whet your appetite.

The 11 Incredible Things To Do In Papua New Guinea

1. Hike a volcano

Climbing Tavurvur volcano in Rabaul
Climbing Tavurvur volcano in Rabaul

One of the most incredible things to do in Papua New Guinea (and one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done!) if to hike to the top of an active volcano.

In Rabaul, the Tavurvur volcano quietly sits overlooking the town of Rabaul that was almost completely destroyed when this volcano erupted in 1994. When it isn’t smoking, and the volcano observatory has confirmed it is safe to do so, it’s possible to climb the volcano and look into its sulphur encrusted crater.

The hike takes a couple of hours and must be done with a guide and to pay a kastom fee to owners of the land. A challenging hike up sharp volcanic rocks but the views from the top, as well as the experience of climbing a smouldering volcano makes it a must do.

More information on the volcanos in the area can be found at the Volcanology Observatory which also has impressive views over the Rabaul caldera and surrounding sea.

2. Scuba dive perfect reefs or wartime wrecks

Jetty, Kavieng, Papua New Guinea
This jetty leads to pristine waters beneath

The diving in Papua New Guinea may be some of the best in the world.

With few tourists and a small population that respects the reefs without overfishing, the corals around New Ireland province sparkled with colour in the crystal clear waters. The abundance and variety of fish and corals is what you would expect in an area known as the Coral Triangle.

If you have more of a wreck diving appetite, dives around kokopo and Rabaul offer the chance to dive an abundance of wrecks from fishing boats that were recently sunk to WW2 wrecks in Rabaul harbour.

Kimbe Bay and Alotau also offer incredible diving opportunities when passing through those regions.

3. Explore the Sepik River

Sunset at kavieng, Papua New Guinea

The Sepik River is the longest river in the country and acts as the highway for boats and trade for all the communities that have built their villages and livelihoods in this part of the country.

It is one of the most off the beaten track places you can visit in Papua New Guinea and hence the world. Visit the Haus Tambaran (Spirit Houses) of the villages you pass through, meet local chiefs and see exquisite local dress in an explosion of colours as you pass up the river.

Most people visit the Sepik River as part of a tour that can often run into thousands of pounds/ dollars/ euros. Independent travel can be achieved but a lot of patience, negotiation and a little bit of luck is needed.

4. Visit the Mt Hagen Cultural Show

The Mount Hagen Cultural Show is one of the most incredible things you can see in Papua New Guinea.

Odds are, when you search for Papua New Guinea you will see images of tribal people in brightly coloured paint, feathers in their hair and skin painted in mud. This is more than likley to have been taken at the Mount Hagen Cultural Show where hundreds of people from the surrounded highlands for a singsing – a performance of cultural dress, song and dance.

Taking place in August each year, the Mount Hagen Cultural Show is a must see in Papua New Guinea but another alternative is the Goroka show, also in the Highlands Province in September.

5. Stay in a local village

Local village, Near kavieng, Papua New Guinea
A small home in a village on New Ireland

With more that 86% of locals living in rural areas in Papua New Guinea, there is a chance that when you stay with a local, you will be staying in their village.

I had the opportunity to stay with locals in the town of Kavieng and visited a small village with their family close by. You can read more about that experience here. But visiting a place that so few tourists get to see, with a traditional style houses will make it one of your best experiences in Papua New Guinea

6. Explore WW2 sites

Map of Rabaul, Yamamoto Bunker, Papua New Guinea
A map of Rabaul in Yamamotos bunker

The Japanese occupied a lot of Papua New Guinea during World War Two and some of their structures can still be found all over the country. The famous Kokoda track can be hiked following the path of Australian soldiers but in my opinion, the best place to see these parts of history is in Rabaul.

Perched on top of a hill overlooking Rabaul, Yamamotos bunker as the home to a Japanese Admiral during the second world war. With Japanese writing still on the walls and ceilings of the bunker with detailed maps of the area, it feels like you’re stepping back in time. It is less a museum but more a real life memory.

There are alternative WW2 bunkers surrounding Rabual as well as the aforementioned wrecks that Scuba divers can enjoy. History buffs will be more than happy in Papua New Guinea.

7. Chew betel nut

Betel nut, Papua New Guinea
The betel nut and mustard stick to chew

First time visitors to Papua New Guinea may be mistaken for thinking there is blood covering the pavements and roads. After a while of witnessing smiles of red teeth, you’ll realise that the red on the ground comes from betel nut.

Betel nut, or buai, is chewed by nearly all men in Papua New Guinea as a mild stimulant similar to coffee. The nut is broken open and the fruit inside is chewed continuously. You then dip a mustard seed stick in lime (a type of crushed up coral) and bite off the end to alleviate the bad taste of the betel fruit. You keep chewing, causing you to produce more and more saliva which is then spat out in a hunk of red gunk.

The first time I tried it, I didn’t feel any effect. But the second time, I chewed it for a lot longer on the advice of my friends and I did feel a slight buzz, similar to have a couple of beers on a warm lunchtime.

8. Visit local markets

PNG market papua new guinea
A local market selling their fruits and vegetables

Everywhere I travel, I enjoy going to local markets to see how regular people live their lives away from the tourist hoardes.

In PNG, there are an abundance of markets to shop for local fruit and vegetables from villagers than trek into the nearest town everyday to bring home precious cash for their community.

Apart from helping local people, the markets are an explosion of colour, sound and scent that gets you to experience the heart of Papua New Guinea. Notable markets include the ones in Port Moresby and Rabaul but each major settlement will have its own market and busy days.

9. Enjoy island time

Kids in village near Kavieng, , Papua New Guinea
This kids have island time everyday

Island time will be familiar to those that have been to other relaxed islands in the South Pacific or Caribbean. If they say the boat or bus will leave at 10am, the only guarantee is that it will leave at some point after 10am. When? Well nobody quite knows. When the driver arrives? When he can be bothered? When there are enough passengers?

I spent an entire afternoon sitting in a hammock relaxing with the owner of my hotel whilst he chewed betel nut and discussed the regional politics, environmental issues and local cultures. Did it matter? Not really.

It was a nice experience to relax, take in life, learn about culture and to do what the locals do.

If you like things to be punctual, don’t go to Papua New Guinea. If you’re happy to go with the flow, have a happy go lucky experience and take life easy, then it is the place for you.

10. Visit the National Museum in Port Moresby

Statue, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

With so many distinct cultures and languages spanning such a vast area of geographical locations, the country’s national museum has a lot to cover.

Fortunately, this museum in Port Moresby, close to the airport, has artefacts from 22 provinces of PNG dating back hundreds of years. To understand every culture would take a degree in anthropology, but the museum has maskes, totem poles, drums and costumes from a varity of cultures from all over the country giving an over view of what makes this country so special and diverse.

11. Forget about the world on forgotten islands

Little Pigeon Island, New Britain, Papua New Guinea
One of the more secluded islands in Papua New Guinea

With more than 600 islands off the coastline of Papua New Guinea, it’s possible to find some islands where you could be the only ones there. Whilst perfectly secluded islands may be harder to get to without tours or guides, some are easy to stay at for a small slice of island paradise.

The Duke of York Islands off the coast of New Britain island can be spotted when travelling from Rabaul to New Ireland. The Trobriand Islands near Alotau became famed after the book “The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia” was released giving men dreams of being seduced by sexually open tribal women during the yam harvest but remains a popular destination today for other parts of their culture.

Or for those looking for something a bit more upscale, Nusa Island Retreat off the coast of Kavieng offers overwater bungalows made from locally sourced materials on its own private island.

Getting to Papua New Guinea & How to Get Around

Almost all visitors to Papua New Guinea fly into Jacksons International Airport in the capital Port Moresby. There are regular flights from Singapore, Sydney, Brisbane and the Solomon Islands on a few international airlines, but mostly using two local airlines, Air Niugini and PNG Air.

Travel around the country is tough and slow. To travel any appreciable distance, you will have to fly on one of the local airlines with both have expansive networks across the country. From local knowledge, Air Niugini is the more reliable option.

Once on the ground, boats are possible to skip between islands (such as what I did between New Britain and New Ireland province) or for short distances between towns PMV’s (Public Motor Vehicles) work best. Ask at bus stations when you see people milling around and you will be directed to the next available bus leaving. You pay the driver directly on the minibus.

Costs of travelling in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is NOT a budget destination. Despite being close to South East Asia, prices here are a lot closer to Australian prices. Meals can be purchased in locally owned restaurants for affordable prices. But many restaurants are much more expensive.

Accommodation is also not good value for money. Budget rooms can start at £30 per night if you’re very lucky, but I paid £60 for a very basic room with a fan in some places. Airport hotels in the capital can run to the hundreds of £’s’ per night.

Transport on local PMV’s and using local market for freshly grown fruit and vegetables can be very affordable, but beware if you want to purchase anything that is imported. I saw boxes of cereal being sold for £6-7 which I’m sure are more expensive in recent years.

Fish meal in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Meals in a restaurant like this can quickly increase the cost of travel (despite how delicious this was!)

Safety in Papua New Guinea

Many travellers worry about safety in Papua New Guinea. Whilst there are causes for concern in some places, as a single traveller mostly basing myself in New Britain and New Ireland provinces, I never felt unsafe. I walked around towns by myself and nobody batted an eyelid at me.

However, Port Moresby and Lae have reputations for danger and where law and order isn’t as forthcoming as you would hope. In these cities, it is wise to not to go anywhere after dark. Travelling on some of the roads between towns in the highlands has also been known to be fraught with danger.

As with any destination, common sense, pre-planning and local knowledge is most important. Ask at your guest house or hotel for tips on where to go and where to avoid. Try to avoid staying out after dark. And if possible, get a trustworthy local to help with some travel planning or to take you to high risk areas.

Tavuvur volcano, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea

I’ve made a list of incredible things to do in Papua New Guinea as I truly believe it is a fascinating destination with very little information out there. Papua New Guinea quickly became one of my favourite countries after I visited due to its incredible nature, friendly people and the challenge of travelling the vast country.

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