Remote and exotic, Papua New Guinea is a challenging destination where it's difficult to just wing it. Careful pre-trip planning, from deciding which part of the country to focus on, to booking accommodation and weighing up transport options will make travel in PNG more rewarding.
'Westernised' handshakes are common, but so is the clasping of hands. If meeting a chief or bigman, it's customary to bow and keep your head below theirs. Smiling and nodding at people you meet goes down well; standoffishness and refusing to engage with locals does not.
Never take photos of a haus tambaran (spirit house), sacred objects or people without getting permission first.
- Public Behaviour
While holding hands between friends of the same gender is common and acceptable, public displays of affection between couples are seen as vulgar and crude.
PNG folks live on 'Melansian time', so lateness is very common.
- Dining out
Top restaurants in Moresby enforce a dress code. If staying in a village community, sharing your food is the appropriate thing to do and it will be gratefully received.
Gender equality is not a fact of PNG life, so solo female travellers in some cases may not be treated with the respect they're used to.
- Strong language
Most PNG residents are very religious and swearing or blasphemy is punishable in the courts of law.
Travel to PNG is all about being outdoors in the elements and there's an incredible wealth of activities to choose from.
Get Flights & Visas
- Visitors from Western Europe, the Americas, New Zealand and all Pacific countries are eligible for a free visa on arrival.
- Visas are valid for up to 60 days.
- Citizens of Australia and all other countries must apply for visas well in advance.
- Visas on arrival may be obtained at the airport in Port Moresby. Gurney Airport in Alotau is due to start offering visas on arrival in late 2016.
Flying into Papua New Guinea for the first time is a culture shock, and spending a night in the capital is largely unavoidable, since it's the main travel hub. Don't panic.
- Most PNG hotels have a poor track record of responding to emails, so make a reservation by phone in advance.
- Pick the part of town depending on how long you're planning on staying and what you're after: Town and Boroko for easy dining options; Waigani for proximity to the National Museum and Parliament Haus and lodgings near the airport if you wish to avoid Moresby altogether.
- You probably don't have to worry about running the gauntlet of taxi drivers outside the airport; most Moresby hotels offer free pickup and their shuttles loiter outside the international terminal.
- Worried about communication while in PNG? Don't be. In the international arrival terminal you can pick up a local Digical SIM card for your digital device; it offers the best coverage country-wide.
- It's always good to have backup cash, since credit cards are not widely accepted in PNG. There are ATMs at the airport, in Boroko and Town, and you can take advantage of the money-changing agency inside the international terminal and change your foreign cash into kina.
- Getting around town in the evenings can be tricky; get your lodgings to call a taxi and hold on to the driver's number.
Getting Around PNG
PNG is a country with few roads, an extensive coastline, and difficult-to-get-to destinations only reachable by plane. Travel around PNG is expensive and can be time-consuming, so it's best to pick a part of the country that you're particularly interested in, or else risk drifting into insolvency.
PNG is covered by an extensive network of flights, from scheduled ones between towns to charter flights in tiny planes to remote airstrips.
You're in luck. Booking flights to most parts of PNG no longer requires you to queue at some dusty shack in the boondocks (though changing your flight does). You can book flights with Air Niugini (www.airniugini.com.pg) and PNG Air (www.pngair.com) online, while Travel Air is still developing its website.
Internal flights within PNG are expensive and largely unavoidable. Book flights as far in advance as possible to secure the cheapest fares.
If travelling to particularly remote destinations on the islands and in the interior, remember that flights by small plane are particularly weather-dependent, and that delays and cancellations must be taken in one's stride.
Unless you come to PNG on a cruise, you'll find that local boats are not designed for comfort. The myriad crafts that ply coastal waters tend to be 'banana boats' or dinghies (small boats with motor) or larger cargo boats. All tend to be overloaded with passengers and cargo.
Boat safety records leave a lot to be desired, and unless you've brought your own life jacket with you, you're not likely to find one here.
Some coastal routes, such as Madang to Wewak, are plied by large, infrequent cargo ships with seats for passengers, while rivers are navigated in motorised and paddle canoes. Boats (and market-bound river canoes) operate according to a loose schedule at best, so you need plenty of time at your disposal.
Sturdy 4WDs are available for rent in Port Moresby and other major towns. However, unless you're a very confident driver and know where you're going, hiring a car is not hugely recommended. Car jackings are not uncommon and it's extremely unwise to attempt driving outside the urban areas without a local accompanying you.
PMVs (public motor vehicles) are ubiquitous wherever you have roads in PNG and are the most common form of road transport for locals. PMVs are typically either battered minibuses or converted trucks with wooden benches for passengers in the back. They are not hugely comfortable and can be slow going, as they stop for frequent pickups and dropoffs, but they're cheap and travelling in a PMV is a great way to meet locals. Safety can be an issue, since occasional armed robberies along PNG's few roads are a fact of life.
Tours to PNG
If you have a specialist interest (birdwatching, military history, diving, surfing, indigenous culture…), arranging an all-inclusive trip to PNG with a specialist tour agency led by experts is the easiest way to get what you came for. It's the most expensive way to 'do' PNG, but it removes logistical hassle and ensures that you make the most of your time on the ground.
To name but a few, recommended companies include:
Intrepid Travel Varied itineraries that incorporate a whole range of activities.
Battlefield Tours Caters to travellers with a particular interest in military history.
Solomon Islands Dive Expeditions Arranges live-aboard boat trips for serious divers.
Sol Surfing Targets surfers on a tight schedule in search of empty waves.
Trans Niugini Tours Offers high-end cultural and birding excursions along the Sepik, in the Highlands and the Western Province, along with accommodation in its own luxury lodges.
Local Tours Within PNG
Whether you want to climb Mt Wilhelm and meet the Asaro mudmen in the Highlands, go diving in the Solomons, organise a river expedition up the Sepik or hike the Kokoda Track, it's entirely possible to arrange tours on the ground with local operators. However, finding a guide when you're already in PNG can be fairly time-consuming.
How to find/contact a local guide:
- Forums such as LP's Thorn Tree (www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree) and Tripadvisor are not a bad place to start.
- Ask expats and other travellers for recommendations. Asking locals is likely to trigger the wantok system and see you directed to a cousin.
- Even one-man operations usually have a contact number and email address; some have websites.
- Phoning is the quickest and most reliable way of getting hold of an independent guide; emails are usually answered but replies can take awhile.