The South Pacific’s Only Monarchy

More than a 1000 years ago, Tongan rulers created a hierarchal system of monarchy very similar to that of European dynasties. The structure included commoners, nobility and above all royalty, with the royal title passed down from father to eldest son. This patrilineal mode of succession continues in modern times. Today’s Tongan monarchy remains an influential and powerful entity in the modern Kingdom, although the present and more contemporary King, George Tupou V, has introduced concessions to accommodate a more democratic state. Historically, one of the most loved and admired members of the Tongan Royal Family was Queen Salote. Her choice to show respect by sitting in an uncovered carriage in pouring rain at the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth made her famous around the world.
About Tonga

The Importance of Family

Tongan society is guided by four core values, all of which combine to ensure a generous and genuine welcome to visitors to the Kingdom; Fefaka’apa’apa’aki (mutual respect), Feveitokai’aki (sharing, cooperating and fulfilment of mutual obligations), Lototoo (humility and generosity), and Tauhi vaha’a (loyalty and commitment). Family is the central unit of Tongan life. Older persons command the most respect and each family member knows their role. A typical family unit may consist of adopted children, cousins and other distant relatives, alongside siblings and grandparents. Everything is communal, from food to sleeping arrangements. Brothers and sisters always sleep under separate roofs in accordance with the Tongan culture of sibling separation and respect. The two biggest occasions for Tongan families are weddings and funerals, both characterised by the giving of gifts including traditional tapa cloths and woven mats. Today, many Tongans still live in villages, especially in the outer islands, and traditional village life has not changed greatly from earlier days. Many traditional practices are still an integral part of village life, making Tonga one of most of the most authentic travellers’ destinations in the South Pacific.

A Nation Entwined With Christianity

Visiting a church on Sunday is a treasured memory for many travellers to the Kingdom of Tonga. Sundays are devoted to church, family and rest. Beautifully clear harmonies, the ringing of church bells, and the rhythmic beat of the “lali” (wooden drums), are all familiar sounds drifting on the tropical breezes. From the days of the early missionaries until modern times, Christianity has been a vital and influential aspect of every Tongan’s life, second only to the respect for family. Extremely modest dress is necessary for both Tongans and visitors, and it is expected that visitors respect Sunday as a day of rest. Businesses and shops are closed by law allowing Tongan families spend the day attending church for a relaxed day of worship and feasting. No flights are scheduled, and business contracts signed on a Sunday are legally void. It is a very respectful day and sports activities are not permitted, even in rugby-mad Tonga.

Learning the local language

Both Tongan and English are taught in schools across the Kingdom, and on the major islands of Tongatapu and Vava’u, virtually everyone speaks English as a second language. Despite the widespread bilingual skills of the Tongan people, they always welcome visitors to the Kingdom attempting to learn and use a few local phrases. Try mastering a few of these phrases, and see the warmth and generosity of the Tongan people quickly emerge.

English Tonga
Hello Malo e lelei
Good morning Malo e lelei ki he pongipongi ni
Good evening Malo e lelei ki he efiafi ni
How are you? Fefe hake?
Fine, thank you Sai pe, Malo
What’s your name? Ko hai ho hingoa?
My name is … Ko hoku hingoa ko …
Where are you from? Ko ho’o ha’u mei fe fonua?
I’m from … Ko ‘eku ha’u mei …
Are you married? Kuo ke’osi mali?
Yes ‘Io
No Ikai
Maybe Maholo pe
Please Faka molemole
Thank you (very much) Malo (‘aupito)
You’re welcome ‘lo malo
Welcome Talitali fiefia
Excuse me Kataki
I’m sorry Faka molemole’iau
Goodbye (to someone who is leaving) ‘Alu a
Goodbye (to someone who is staying) Nofo a

Tongan Food & Feasting

Expect to be very well fed on your travels. Traditional Tongan favourites to try include ‘ota ‘ika (raw fish marinated in lemon and coconut cream), and lu pulu (corned beef and coconut milk wrapped in taro leaves). Food and feasting are an integral part of Tongan society, and the feasts of the Kingdom are renowned throughout the Pacific for their size and diversity. In a Tongan feast, up to 30 different dishes are served on a pola, a long tray made from plaited coconut fronds. Traditional food growing and the gathering of seafood is still an important way of Tongan life. Delicious meat and seafood may include spit-roatsed suckling pig or steamed fish, chicken, beef, and octopus, and the freshest of local vegetables including yam, taro, sweet potatoes and cassava. Starchy fruit like plantain and breadfruit are also eaten like vegetables, often boiled with delicate coconut cream, and a popular local custom is to wrap vegetables in banana leaves for cooking or for serving. A special memory for many visitors is to experience a traditional earth oven or umu. Food cooked slowly and carefully in an umu retains its flavour, and also develops a delicious smokiness.

Kava Time

Not everyone goes back for a second helping of this murky and spicy liquid, but drinking it at least once is an essential experience for visitors to Tonga. Usually drunk from a coconut shell, kava quickly relaxes the body and makes your tongue and lips go numb. The ceremonial drinking of kava is an ancient custom undertaken across all of Polynesia, and still an integral part of life in the Kingdom of Tonga. The homegrown product is renowned across the Pacific, with the finest Kava-Tonga reputedly being produced from the fertile soils of the volcanic islands of Tofua in the Ha’apai group and Tafahi in Niuatoputapu. Most Tongan villages have at least one kava club (kava kulupu), and they’re popular after dark venues for local men. Kava is also drunk before and after church on a Sunday, during the conferment of nobility, and at village meetings. It’s definitely worth trying, and if a few sips makes you slightly too relaxed, a shady beachside hammock is never far away.

Tapa Making and Painting

Made from the bark of the mulberry tree (broussonetia papyrifera), known locally as hiapo, tapa cloth is of great cultural significance in the Kingdom of Tonga. It’s a very important traditional gift, and no Tongan is born, marries or dies without being presented with metres of tapa cloth. All tapa is still proudly handmade, and the sound of wooden mallets beating out lengths of tapa cloth is one of the Kingdom’s most familiar sounds. From early morning until sunset, women gather in their homes or at the fale kautaha (the village’s communal tapa house) to assist each other in tapa making. Every piece of tapa is uniquely different, making for an extremely authentic souvenir.

Tapa mat making


Like tapa making, mat weaving is an everyday part of Tongan life. Women gather in small groups weaving, and sing or talk together to keep themselves inspired. Mats are the most treasured possessions in Tongan households, and are traditionally presented at births, weddings, funerals and other special occasions. Tongans also wear mats known as ta’ovala around the waist, the most respectful form of dress in the Kingdom. This custom originated in ancient times when men returning after long voyages at sea, would cut the mat sails of their canoes and cover their naked bodies prior to appearing before their chief. Finely woven ta’ovala are particularly treasured, and are handed down from generation to generation, some dating back hundreds of years.

Tongan family life
traditional Tongan dance

Tongan Dancing

Make sure you pack plenty of memory for your camera. A vibrant and colorful experience for many visitors to Tonga is the dignified and graceful dancing of the Kingdom. Complex arm movements visually enhance subtle melodies of sung poetry, culminating in a style of dance that is uniquely Tongan, and quite different from the vigorous tamure of Tahiti and the Cook Islands or the swaying hula of Hawaii. Tongan dance is also a spectacle that demands the involvement of spectators, and a gift of appreciation or fakapale is a local tradition to reward a dancer. Once these gifts were tapa and mats, but in modern society money is now more common. Tonga’s traditional dances include the Me’etu’upaki, ‘Otuhaka, Ma’ulu’ulu, Ula, Tau’olunga, Kailao and Soke, and most famous is the Lakalaka, a dance practised throughout the Kingdom. Expressing stories of Tongan history and legends, the Lakalaka is performed by both men and women, sometimes in spectacular groups of up to several hundred. Dancers step their feet and move their arms in intricate gestures, and decoration includes beautiful bracelets, neck garlands and the tekiteki (a feather headpiece). Wearing of the tekiteki enhances the dancers’ head movements and is considered one of the most important actions in the Lakalaka, a graceful Tongan art form that’s been recognised by the United Nations as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.

Tonga traditions