The Tongan Culture, Customs and Traditions
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.
While you’re here, make sure to bookmark our guide to the Tonga Etiquette: Respecting the Local Customs.
8 Facts About the Tonga Culture
Do you just need to know a few brief things about the culture in Tonga? Check out these quick facts, then scroll down for more context.
- Handicrafts are a core part of the Tongan culture, with one of the most important pieces being the tapa cloth. It is made from the beaten bark of a mulberry tree.
- A traditional form of dancing is called lakalaka.
- Every high school in Tonga has a brass band.
- A favourite seafood dish in Tonga is ‘ota ika, which is raw fish marinated in coconut milk.
- Most of Tonga have the same dialect, with the exception of Niuafo’ouans who speak with aspects of the Samoan language.
- Almost the entire population of Tonga worship a denomination of Christianity.
- In the Tongan culture, wearing all black means that you are in mourning.
- Sunday is a day of rest in Tonga, where it’s illegal to do business transactions, to play sports/exercise and to do most chores.
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.
Tonga has an awe-inspiring array of handicrafts. 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. Alternatively, see how to learn to do Tongan handicrafts yourself in Where to Learn Tongan Handicrafts.
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 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. See which churches to visit in the 10 Best Churches in Tonga for Tourists.
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. For a list of recommended foods, check out 6 Unique Foods in Tonga You Have to Try.
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. Learn more about each of these fruits in the 10 Exotic Fruits in Tonga You Have to Try.
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.
Dive much deeper into the ins and outs of Tongan cuisine in The Guide to the Food in Tonga.
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 the 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 language in The Guide to the Tongan Language.
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. Visitors are welcome to experience a Tongan church service, especially at the 10 Best Churches in Tonga for Tourists.
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.
Finally, when visiting Tonga, be aware of the local customs in order to respect the locals. The most essential Tongan customs include what you can wear in public and what you can do on a Sunday. See our complete guide on the Tonga Etiquette: Respecting the Local Customs.
Clothing Etiquette in Tonga
While it’s acceptable to wear just about whatever you want in tourist accommodation, be mindful of how you dress in public. Respectful dress is important to Tongans, so try to avoid wearing revealing clothing. Wearing all black means that you are mourning in the Tongan culture, so try to avoid wearing all black if this is not the case for you.
Swimwear should be confined to your accommodation’s beach or swimming pool. Tongans swim fully-clothed so cover up swimwear with a T-shirt/rash vest and shorts when on public beaches (and especially when not swimming).
When going to a church service, both men and women must cover their knees and shoulders. It’s also respectful to wear more formal clothing, such as a shirt for men or a dress for women. You should not wear a hat in church.
Sunday Etiquette in Tonga
Sunday is a day of rest in Tonga, where it’s illegal to do business transactions, to play sports/exercise and to do most chores.
This means that most of the country shuts down on a Sunday, with the exception of essential services like hospitals and bakeries, as well as very particular tourism businesses such as resorts, including their restaurants and activities. That’s why you find that some of Tongatapu’s outer island resorts put on more day trips to their resort on a Sunday.
If you are not staying in a resort or are outside of a tourist area, note that it is not acceptable to go swimming, do kayaking, do laundry, go running, etc. This also will mean that you won’t be able to buy food from stores, so prepare in advance. There are no public travel services operating on a Sunday.
Learn about some things to do on a Sunday in 5 Things to Do in Tonga on a Sunday.
The Ways to Experience the Tongan Culture When Visiting Tonga
In conclusion, Tonga is a country where immersing in the local culture is effortless. Here are just a few ways travellers can experience Tonga culture when visiting the islands:
- 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 on each experience, check out the 10 Best Ways to Experience the Tongan Culture.
More About the Tongan Culture
That’s it for the complete guide to the Tongan culture for travellers. If you want to learn more about Tonga culture, check out the following guides:
- Who are the People of Tonga?
- 10 Tongan Words You Need to Know When Visiting Tonga
- A Brief History of Tonga