9 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Papua New Guinea

Roberto Rocha details everything to know before traveling to Papua New Guinea, from trespassing private land and pick-pocketing to personal hygiene and speaking Pidgin.


Raja Marine Reserve Photo © Getty Images/LifeOfRileyDesign

With more than 700 languages, a mixture of unique cultures, challenging treks, and great surf, PNG really is the final frontier of travel. Wrecks from World War II lure experienced divers from around the world, and very few countries can compete with the overwhelming hospitality of Papua New Guineans.

Traveling here can also be dangerous. The warrior mentality hasn't been dulled by 60 years of Western influence, and violent crime is rampant in large cities and parts of the Highlands.

1. Watch Where You Go

In PNG there's no such thing as public land. Every inch of space belongs to the people: to tribes or families. If you go exploring on your own, you might trespass on someone's land and create an ugly situation.

Make sure you know where you're going. Ask where you should and shouldn't go. Better yet, have a local go with you.

2. Get a Guide

The people of PNG respect associations. You could be seen as a strange intruder or a trusted guest depending on who you come with. A local guide will help you make a good impression when you arrive at remote villages, and they will detect subtle signs of danger, steering you to safety.

3. Don't Walk at Night

They're called razkols, and they take to the streets at sundown. They're opportunistic criminals, seeking easy victims to rob. For this reason, avoid walking outside after dark.

4. Watch Your Wallet

Armed robbery is rare in PNG, but pick-pocketing and other opportunistic crimes do happen, especially at local markets. Don't make your wallet an easy grab, hide your belongings well, and don't carry excessive amounts of cash or your passport when it's not required. Keep it safe back at your accommodation.

5. Carry Sanitizer

Personal hygiene in PNG is not exactly up to Western standards. Travelers might pick up on the smell of body odour or notice that locals do not wash their hands regularly. You'll be shaking a lot of hands, so keep them clean with an alcohol-based sanitizer.

Papua New Guinea. Photo credit: iStock

6. Learn Some Pidgin

Even though the language of the media, government and business is English, fewer than 20% of the population went to school to learn it. If you want to communicate within Papua New Guinea, which boasts more than 700 languages, it's through Pidgin, a kind of broken English.

You'll get extra respect from local adults and make children frenzied with laughter.

7. Ask For Help

You can't possibly be fully prepared for PNG. With limited tourism infrastructure, very few regions in Papua New Guinea are connected by roads. With limited information online and no tourist information offices in Port Moresby, the best way to ask for advice while traveling is to chat to a local – or, have a local guide with you to show you around. Don't be shy to ask for suggestions, or for a helping hand.

8. Transport

Getting around Papua New Guinea is a challenge. Flying is the best method of transport, and there are a number of domestic airlines that serve provincial capitals and regional towns, making it easy to get to remote places. If you have booked a packaged tour, flights should be included. Independent travelers should book in advance to get the best price on domestic flights.

Using the much cheaper option, Public Motor Vehicles (PMV), to get around is a great way to see the country via the roads. These are privately owned minivans, trucks or buses.

Book a scuba diving or snorkeling tour to see the incredible dive sites, reefs and marine life off the coast of PNG. When traveling by boat, be aware that pirates are known to operate off the coast, so stay up to date with the news or check with your tour guide for the latest information.

9. Be Alert

If something doesn't feel right, trust your gut. If someone makes an unusual offer, say thank you (politely) and walk away.

About the Author

Roberto Rocha traded a job in technology journalism to a one-year world trip, surrounding himself with fruits and nuts instead of Apples. He's originally from Brazil but has settled in Montreal, Canada, where, miraculously, he still prefers soccer over hockey. He lives and travels with his girlfriend Bianca.

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  • Bee said

    'Travelers might pick up on the smell of body odour or notice that locals do not wash their hands regularly'.

    Jesus Christ, this article... Roberto, anyone with your disgusting superior Western outlook doesn't belong anywhere near PNG. Also, your pitifully reductive article contains several inaccuracies and generalisations. And it's spelled 'raskols', not 'razkols' and they are only a problem in the big cities, such as Moresby and Lae, and usually in select suburbs. At this point, I'm wondering if you've actually ever set foot in PNG.

    You are a classic example of the kind of lazy Orientalist f*ckwit the Pacific could do without. Stay away. PS, those adults and kids weren't laughing with you, they were laughing AT you. ;)

  • LIKLIK GURIA (small earthquake) said

    I am a 'foreigner' who lived in many areas within PNG for around 9 years.
    Roberto pretty much gets it right apart from a spelling mistake. And some areas of PNG have great hygiene, while in other areas it can be lacking. Yes in a hot humid country, if you mingle closely in confined spaces there may be some less than pleasant odours.... but I wouldn't 'right the whole place off about that'.
    Other than the disputed part of the Article, the rest of the article is pretty much correct. PNG is an awesome place, the average person / citizen are friendly and willing to talk or share their stories.... if you make the effort. Do be aware of the 'raskols', they are there. DON'T BE A MUG, OR LOOK LIKE A POTENTIAL VICTIM. When exploring, don't wear your best clothes, or flash your comparative wealth..... The culture is different from western countries, so please follow the way that locals do things. A little respect gets you a long way!! The people, the scenery and history are great. (PS: IN the main centres, 25 to 60% can talk enough simple english language....... out in the more remote places English literacy plummets sharply..... but there always seems to be someone around who can translate between "ones attempt at crappy 'tok pisin'" and their best attempt at figuring out what you are talking about. Also don't talk too slow as though everyone is dumb.... you will be surprised with some people who are fluent in English and can often speak several of the PNG languages fluently. Never assume anything would be my best advice !!

  • Cornelius said

    'Bee' clearly needs some psychological help if he/she thinks their racist comment is remotely worth consideration.

  • Danny said

    Bee you sound like a horrible human there - mate

  • Gordana Vujanovic said

    There seem to always be comments from people who consider themselves so progressive and "enlightened" that they instantly have to attack any negative remarks and observations others may have made. The writer is stating facts and facts are not always nice and "politically correct". If the same things were said about countries in the more affluent western world these progressives would not blink an eye. I actually do want to know about the good, the bad and the ugly and that is why I seek to read articles and opinions such as this one before I go so that I am aware and prepared to some extent. I am looking forward to a trip to PNG having known a colleague and his PNG wife who are good friends. She was very forthcoming with less complimentary assessments and advice for travelers going to PNG. Another friend of my mother's who went to teach there was ambushed by locals and almost raped and shot. The group was saved by one of the escorts who knew one of the men in the group and let them go. If anyone wants to sugarcoat what one can expect then write fiction and blindside the tourist.

  • Laura Brown said

    So, he didn’t spell it wrong... he is from Brazil and lives in Canada. Brazilians usually learn USA English and that is how they would spell it.
    It annoys me in North America that when I spell everything with an S instead of Z that I am corrected for my spelling mistake. Different part of the world, different spelling,
    But it is NOT WRONG. I purposely refuse to spell things with a Z in North America because I’m an Aussie and thats not how I write English!

  • traveler150 said

    @Gordana Vujanovic it´s because some people have prejudices and as soon some words reach their mind they get sort of "triggered". As they say "the eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend". So yeah. Anyways i recommend the series "goldrush" with parker Schnabel if you're into those gold things.

  • justthefactsmaam said

    Having lived and worked in Moresby and Lae for a decade, the author is 90% correct. Ascociation is key, if you make some key PNG National friends to escort you, it can be a very safe place to live with good nightlife and some great restaurants.

    Here are some extra tips -

    Wear shoes in the shower. The hotel staff use the showers and let their relatives use them. Full shoes, not thongs.

    Run disinfectant through the washing machine before you put your clothes in for a cycle, same reason as above.

    Give the compound guard a 10 kina tip each week to watch out for you and your guests. That 500 kina a year will make him very loyal and he will make sure you are safe.

    When having sex with Nationals, long shower and wash first, inspect for obvious diseases, always use protection. They are great fun.

    Hooe that helps.

    Bottled water only.

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