The Tongan Culture
You can get turquoise waters, sandy shores, coral reefs and swaying palms in plenty of places around the world. Only in Tonga can you experience the Tongan culture.
Tonga is a nation with a proud culture, home to the Pacific’s only monarchy and the only Pacific nation to never be colonised. With almost the entire population being Tongan, the culture here is a living and breathing entity where you won’t have to try too hard to be fully immersed in it. Learn how you can experience it as a visitor in this guide to the Tongan culture for travellers.
For more information on cultural customs, see Tonga Etiquette: Respecting the Local Customs.
Ways to Experience the Tongan Culture
- Experience the passion and singing of the locals at a Sunday church service
- Stay in a local guesthouse
- See traditional singing and dancing at a cultural show
- Try local cuisine, like ‘ota ika, lu and keki
- Go to a Sunday Umu feast
- Do a guided tour, which sometimes includes school visits
- Go to a local handicrafts market or shop
- Browse the produce markets and roadside stalls
For more information and ways to experience the Tongan culture, check out the 10 Best Ways to Experience the Tongan Culture.
Tongan Arts, Crafts and Dance
One of the most engaging ways for visitors to experience the Tongan culture is through their arts and crafts, including traditional dancing.
One of the most awe-inspiring things for tourists is the array of handicrafts made in Tonga. Handicrafts are all handmade from local materials, nothing is mass-produced. Visitors can see local women making and/or selling bark cloth (tapa), woven mats, woven bags, baskets, waist mats (ta’ovala), waist girdles (kiekie) and more. Traditionally, men’s crafts include wooden carvings of war clubs and spears and food bowls, but now these crafts also extend to carved pendants for jewellery and ornaments depicting warriors or whales.
One of the most important pieces of Tongan handicrafts is the tapa cloth, which is made from the beaten bark of a mulberry tree. Women’s groups work together to create huge pieces of tapa to gift for special occasions, like weddings and funerals.
Visitors can browse and purchase handicrafts in various handicraft stores and markets across Tonga.
Tongan Song and Dance
Music is an integral part of the Tongan culture where Tongans sing with enthusiasm in churches, have a traditional song and dance and every high school in Tonga has a brass band. Younger Tongans also listen to modern Western music.
A traditional form of dance is the lakalaka, which is either saved for special occasions or performed for tourists in cultural shows, especially on Tongatapu. It involves a mix of graceful dancing performed by women, as well as more boisterous war dances performed by the men.
Beautiful harmonies can be heard ringing across the towns and villages of Tonga during Sunday mass. In larger churches, local school children will also play brass instruments.
Tongan Food and Drink
With a tropical climate and access to a thriving ocean, Tonga has developed its own distinct foods and flavours. Some introduced foods have also become a staple of the Tongan diet.
Being an island nation, much of the Tongan diet comes from the ocean. Crabs, shellfish, an array of different fish and even, controversially, sharks and sea turtles are eaten in Tonga. A favourite seafood dish is ‘ota ika, which is raw fish marinated in coconut milk.
Speaking of coconuts, tropical fruit and vegetables are grown in abundance on the fertile volcanic islands with a tropical climate. Root crops like taro, sweet potato and yams are a core part of the local diet. As for fruits, coconuts, bananas and papaya are available all year round, while summer provides more variety at the local produce markets and stalls with mango, pineapple, guava and more.
Every Tongan feast features a spit-roasted pig. You’ll see pigs roaming the streets in Tonga, especially in Vava’u.
Bakeries are also extremely popular in Tonga which are part of an exclusive group of businesses that can operate on a Sunday (with limited hours, of course). Tongan doughnuts called keki are a must-try.
For a list of recommended foods, check out 6 Unique Foods in Tonga You Have to Try.
The most prized drink in Tonga is kava, made from the ground-up route of a pepper plant mixed with water. Traditionally, men only drink kava, with a woman blessing the drink.
Another popular local favourite is ‘otai, a fruit drink made with water, coconut flesh, watermelon, mango and/or pineapple. It usually accompanies a large meal.
Tonga is also a producer of its own beer and coffee. Find out more about the drinks in Tonga in 10 Drinks in Tonga You Have to Try.
The Tongan Language
The official languages in Tonga are Tongan and English. Most of Tonga have the same dialect, with the exception of Niuafo’ouans who speak with aspects of the Samoan language.
Tongan Language Pronunciation
Some rules regarding Tongan pronunciation include:
- All letters are fully voiced
- Each syllable ends in a vowel and has one consonant
- Macrons indicate long vowels and count as one syllable
- Consonant clusters are not in the language – “ng” is not a constant cluster because it always represents just a single sound, acting as one letter in itself
- Stress falls on the second-to-last syllable of a word with two or more syllables, except for when the last vowel is a long vowel then the stress falls on that.
Learn more about the Tongan language here.
Religion in Tonga
Religion plays a major part in the Tongan lifestyle and laws. Almost the entire population of Tonga worship a denomination of Christianity where going to church on a Sunday is common practice.
It’s also religion that influences Tonga’s Sunday laws, such as not conducting business or playing sport on a Sunday. Sunday is reserved for church, feasting, family and rest. Tongans also dress conservatively in line with religious beliefs.