Welcome to life in the slow lane. Here, time dances to the rhythms of the oceans and the sound of church bells on Sunday. In fact, on a trip to Tonga you’d sometimes be forgiven for thinking time has stood still. That’s because, despite embracing many elements of the contemporary world, Tongans still proudly retain their authentic culture and traditions. Couple this with a Polynesian monarchy that dates back many centuries, and you have a country that remains as close to the ‘true’ Polynesia as you’re likely to find.
Many Tongans still live in village communities following traditional customs, especially on the outer islands. The distinctive traditional dress ‘ta’ovala’ – woven waist mats – are commonly worn. Fish and vegetables are still cooked in earth ovens called Umus. And the ceremonial tradition of kava drinking, the traditional Polynesian drink, is a very real part of Tongan life.
This is partly because Tonga is the only Pacific Island nation never colonised by a foreign power. Uniquely, Tonga has also never lost its indigenous governance. After over 1000 years of rule, today’s monarchy and its structure still remain the most powerful and influential entity in Tonga. Tongatapu’s stone trillithon, gateway Ha’amoga ‘A Maui, dating back many centuries, stands as a powerful reminder of the legacy of this ancient and proud royal culture.
In more recent times time, Tonga has also been strongly influenced by Christianity and now probably boasts more churches per head of population than anywhere else on earth. The islands resonate with hymns and harmonies every Sunday, a day of rest by law on the islands, and visitors are welcome to attend the services. Many do and leave with special memories of the experience.
Tongan arts and handicrafts, including bone carving, wood carving, basket making and fine weaving made using techniques passed down through generations of Tongan craftspeople, are everywhere too. Readily available at stalls and markets all over the islands, they make beautiful keepsakes to remind travellers of time spent here. Probably the most famous local craft is the making of Tapa, a decorative bark cloth painted with traditional symbols and designs. Tapa is usually offered as a gift of respect at weddings, births and funerals.
Another vibrant and colourful experience for many visitors to Tonga is the graceful and dignified dancing of the Kingdom. Dancers step their feet and move their arms in intricate gestures, complemented by decoration such as beautiful bracelets, neck garlands and the tekiteki (a feather headpiece), creating another memorable expression of local tradition.
So make sure you pack plenty of memory for your camera to capture these special moments for the future. Because, across over 170 of the most beautiful islands on earth you’ll find people connected by unity and a respect for tradition you simply won’t find anywhere else.