Papua New Guinea Culture & Traditions: Bougainville Reeds Festival
The Reeds Festival, held in Arawa town on the remote Bougainville Island of Papua New Guinea, is the unique opportunity to experience the rich culture and traditions of the island. The festival is an excellent occasion to admire dancing, singing, and beautiful traditional costumes of Bougainville region.
Papua New Guinea festivals: Bougainville Island
Our descent to Bougainville was slowly opening the stunning views over the crystal clear blue waters and giving us a taste of what is to come. Our feelings were probably much close to those of the French explorer Louis de Bougainville, who has first discovered this beautiful volcanic island about 250 years ago and has named it for himself.
Despite its location in the remote corner of Papua New Guinea, the name of Bougainville is widely known. Even those thinking Papua New Guinea is an African country confusing it with Guinea in the West Africa, have heard about Bougainville war for independence, better known as Bougainville Conflict, the largest conflict in Oceania since the end of World War II. But Bougainville is also known for its unique culture and traditions, which have much in common with its close neighbour, the Solomon Islands.
Arriving in Buka, we were greeted with large smiles of the friendly charcoal-faced locals looking as if they have rubbed oily black paint into their skin. Although people from Bougainville look very different from the natives of other provinces in Papua New Guinea, they have something in common. They all share their unconditional love for buai, or betel nut, which grow in giant sizes in Bougainville, the highly praised “Buka buai”.
Having attended Papua New Guinea festivals in the Highlands on several occasions, with the tribes distinguished by colourful and eye-catching costumes and body paint, and huge headdresses made with the birds’ feathers, here, in Bougainville, we found a very distinctive traditional attire.
The Reeds Festival originated as a way to display and protect the vibrant and unique culture of Bougainville.
The support from sponsors, passionate about the PNG culture, made the Reeds Festival a regular bi-annual event held over two days in Arawa town, in the south of Bougainville island. The venue, located near the beachfront, has beautiful views of Pokpok Island, or Crocodile island, the name given to the island due to its shape in the form of a large crocodile. The name pokpok is derived from the Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin word for crocodile – pukpuk.
The name “Reeds” Festival comes from the reeds, the bamboo panpipes used as a musical instrument. The reeds are the unique style in making music, which is practiced in the villages of Bougainville as well as in the Solomon Islands for ceremonial and ritual occasions.
Attending the Bougainville Reeds festival is a great way to see the traditional attire of Bougainville people.
Gone are those days, when people were wandering around in grass skirts. Nowadays, you won’t see people dressed in traditional clothes on a daily basis. Although the locals eagerly adapted the Western style clothes, for special occasions, such as the Reeds Festival, they don their most beautiful traditional costumes.
The Papua New Guinea festivals are always a colourful affaire. Traditional clothing in Bougainville is very similar to the one found in the Solomon Islands, which isn’t surprising given the proximity of the islands. The common attire is grass skirts and tapa cloth made from tree bark and dyed with natural colours. Traditionally, both men and women leave the upper body unclothed and cover only the lower body and the thighs, and decorate themselves with different kinds of traditional jewellery such as necklaces, belts, armbands, and hairbands.
String bags, called bilums, are also part of the costume. On a daily, the bilums are used basis to carry everything, from firewood to babies. If in the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea, the bilums are now often made of wool-based bright and colourful yarns, the bilums in Bougainville are still made using woven plant reeds.
The Bougainville Reeds Festival is the unique opportunity to experience the diverse culture of the island as it attracts the performing groups from all over Bougainville.
Bougainville possesses a unique and rich culture, which is kept alive in the form of ceremonies and elaborate rituals still performed today for such important events as birth, death, marriage, tribe reconciliation and young boys’ initiation.
The people of Papua New Guinea are ethnically Melanesian but the country is home to more than 800 tribes characterised by their own distinct cultures and languages. With its 23 languages spoken throughout Bougainville, the island possesses a wide range of tribes, and the culture varies from region to region.
If for tourists, the Reeds Festival, with its dancing and singing, is a great opportunity to experience Bougainville rich culture, for young Bougainvilleans the festival is the opportunity to learn about their culture and be part of the performing groups. Hopefully, having the younger generation interested in its origins, the unique culture of Bougainville will survive.
The festival is starting soon, and the performers are getting ready.
Similar to other Papua New Guinea festivals, with the first sounds of music, men and women start performing their captivating dances.
With gracious movements and broad charming smiles, the women in traditional grass skirts are swaying their hips to hypnotic sounds of music.
Dynamic music definitely gives a tone to a festive and cheerful atmosphere.
While waiting for their turn to perform, men and women watch the others dancing and playing music.
Everyone is in high spirits. Women hardly finished their cheerful and hypnotising performance when men start their distinctive dances, including warrior dances traditionally performed for different occasions, such as to welcome chiefs from other tribes, before starting a war or after the war has ended.
All of a sudden, rhythmic and energetic sounds come from a corner. A gang of men are hitting the end of a stack of bamboo pipes …. with their flips-flops producing an incredibly dynamic music! Traditionally, coconut husks were used for beating the bamboo pipes but the modern influence made a quick re-adjustment. In any case, coconut husks or flip-flops, the famous music from Bougainville, their trademark, remains very lively and contagious.
The Reeds Festival attracts many locals coming to see the performance, have fun, and meet their relatives and friends.
Some cannot resist from dancing and joyfully join the performers.
If the locals coming to the festival will find their extended family or friends to chat and exchange gossips, the tourists will find beautiful handcraft for sale – various kinds of bilums, hand-made jewellery, pottery etc.
At the time, when traditional cultures are rapidly declining worldwide, the festivals, such as the Bougainville Reeds Festival, provide a way to conserve the traditions for future generations. More importantly, they preserve the culture, something that makes us all unique – our differences.
Dates: The Reeds Festival is a two-day event held every two years, usually in July. To find the exact dates of the festival, you can contact
- Bougainville Travel website
- Bougainville Tourism Office website
- Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority website
- Local hotels as they are usually aware of any events happening around.
It’s always a good idea to double or even triple-check the dates with different sources prior to buying the plane tickets!
Location: The Reeds Festival is held on the island of Bougainville located in the north-eastern part of Papua New Guinea. Bougainville Island is part of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (AROB), which comprises of two main islands, Bougainville and Buka as well as some small islands and atolls. The Reeds Festival takes place in Arawa town located in the south of the island of Bougainville.
How to get to Bougainville: While geographically isolated, Bougainville is easily accessible by plane or even by boat. Bougainville has two main airports, Buka airport located 5 min drive from Buka town and Aropa airport in Keita, located 30 min drive from Arawa.
- By plane:
Air Niugini, Papua New Guinea national airline website offers daily flights to Buka and three flights a week to Aropa from Port Moresby. There are also flights to Buka from Rabaul.
PNG Air, ex-Airlines PNG website offers flights three times a week to Buka from Port Moresby (via Rabaul) and connecting flights from Buka to Aropa.
HeviLift website offers charter services.
- By boat:
The Chebu Shipping Company website operates a passenger ferry on a regular service to Buka from Lae via Kimbe and Rabaul.
How to get to Arawa:
If you arrive to Aropa airport in Keita, Arawa town is just 30 min away.
If you arrive to Buka as we did, the main arrival point to Bougainville island located about 135 km from Arawa town, there are few options:
- By bus:
PMVs (Public Motor Vehicles) are an easy and cheap way of travelling around. Due to bumpy roads, PMVs connecting Buka with Arawa are 4WD Toyota Land Cruisers, which take as much passengers as they possibly can. Our travel was quite comfortable, and the lack of space was more than compensated by cheerful and talkative locals. For the return journey, the PMVs depart Arawa to Buka around 3 am! This schedule was established in the past to meet the outbonding flights. Since then the flight schedule has changed but the PMVs remained faithful to the tradition.
- By boat:
Banana boats (fibreglass open boats) also connect Buka and Bougainville islands. They can also be easily hired for half-day or day trips to the nearby islands.
- By private car:
Vehicle hire, through a specialised car rental or a hotel, is an option for getting around although it’s prohibitively expensive in PNG. Many companies also offer a driver.
Where to stay and eat: Buka town has a greater variety of accommodation but there are also several guesthouses in Arawa providing simple but comfortable accommodation, ranging from simple fan rooms with shared bathrooms to self-contained air-conditioned rooms. However, everyone’s requirements and expectations are different. We cannot personally advise on any guesthouses, as we were very lucky to be invited to spend a few nights with a family of volunteers from New Zealand working in Bougainville.
Bougainville Travel website provides a list of accommodation options.
Good information about accommodation options can also be found on the website of Bougainville Chocolate Festival.
Homestay can also be arranged by friendly locals, sometimes involving negotiations with the village chief.
Many guesthouses, if not all, offer meals. While Buka has a selection of restaurants, Arawa is a sleepy town, and the best option is to eat at your guesthouse. PNG is definitely not Asia!
Written by ANYWAYINAWAY
Olga and Errol are the Swiss-Russian couple behind ANYWAYINAWAY. Passionate about unique culture and traditions, they decided to take career breaks and explore the world with the intention to expand awareness and provide new perspectives to the understanding of ethnic minority people, customs, traditions and culture. They also show the beauty of our planet and try to find something interesting in the ordinary.