Backpacking Papua New Guinea isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Whenever you tell people you’re on your way to do just that; they either respond with confusion regarding its geographical location (many think it’s in Africa) or even react with pure hysteria.
Then again, the question “is Papua New Guinea safe for backpackers,” is certainly a valid one. It’s not as if it’s the same as considering a couple of weeks in Japan, or a cute little jaunt around Europe’s smallest countries.
Then you have the added bonus that every loser down the local pub seems to suddenly become an off-the-beaten-path travel savant, decrying every single individual of the Papua New Guinea natives as bloodthirsty, heartless cannibals.
Considering that I am writing this piece with all limbs attached, we weren’t used as dinner by the tribe we stayed within Madang. In fact, I look back on my time in PNG with fond and happy memories. But it wasn’t without dodgy moments.
So let’s dissect the big inquiry for the ambitious traveller who wants to go to the next level of adventure; Is Papua New Guinea safe to travel to? Would I recommend the place to backpackers and lovers of all travel budgets? What’s it like?
Before I get my teeth into the issue at hand, I’ll give you the lowdown on the logistics…
Where is Papua New Guinea?
Papua New Guinea is a country on the island of New Guinea, in The Pacific Islands, which is in the continent of Australia!
It’s not in Africa and it’s nowhere near Africa. Apologies if that insults your intelligence but I swear a high proportion of people do assume it is, most likely because of Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, two countries in West Africa.
To confuse matters a little more, the island of New Guinea (the second largest island on earth) is a two-nation island. Even though the people are ethnically the same, Indonesia owns the west side of the island and Papua New Guinea owns the east of the island.
I talk about this in further detail in my post about the tribes of Papua New Guinea (I also write extensively about the indigenous peoples of the whole island of New Guinea).
How To Get To Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea isn’t the kind of country you can just get up and go to from most places in the world. I chose the fastest option, which is to fly from Brisbane, Australia (BNE), to Port Moresby (POM) as Papua New Guinea is rich in certain natural resources and Australians travel there to work in mining.
I paid around $400 USD for a return ticket and flew with Aussie airline giants Qantas.
If you want to take the hardcore option of crossing overland from Indonesia (Jayapura) to Papua New Guinea (Vanimo) then you will have to obtain a PNG visa before you cross by making an application at the Papua New Guinea Consulate General.
It takes up to 10 working days to process your visa and the drive to the border is 2-3 hours with no public busses. Hats off to you if you pull that one off, you earned it!
Transport Around Papua New Guinea
The capital of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, is not linked by road to any of the other major towns and many highland villages can only be reached by light aircraft or on foot.
Air Niugini, PNG Air, MAF and TropicAir are the main domestic airlines, be prepared to pay a surprising premium for flying domestically in Papua New Guinea. For example, a return flight from Port Moresby to Madang via Air Niugini was just shy of $500 USD…I’ve flown London to Bangkok for cheaper than that.
Getting around Port Moresby we used PMVs (Public Motor Vehicles) which are crowded minivans with jungle/reggae music blasting. They can be pretty sketchy, but they are certainly the cheapest mode of travel.
It’s a bumpy ride on the roads as they are broken and unkept and the country is very mountainous with poor systems. Then there’s the vulnerability that the country has to natural disasters thrown into the mix! If you do hire a car you’re best off renting a van or a 4×4 car and that’s not going to come cheap.
Ferry travel in Papua New Guinea is an option, but services only run between cities 2-3 times per week. Online information is sparse on this and the timings change often, so if you’re travelling here without a tour operator you will have to do a lot of on-the-ground planning if you want to experience a Papua New Guinea ferry experience.
If you really like to take a float on the wild side, you can take banana boats to other islands. Prices vary wildly as you are at the whim of the driver as he knows you don’t have a lot of options.
What’s The Food in Papua New Guinea Like?
Your main choices in the main cities like Port Moresby are mock KFC fried chicken places. I can’t even remember seeing a green vegetable in a restaurant although there was plenty of fruit at local markets and you’re never too far away from a yam pressure sale from a street vendor.
In the coastal towns, you will hear the cry of ladies shouting “yellowfin” and they will nearly always have cassava root or sweet potato as a carb source.
Chicken hotpots in coconut cream and starchy pancakes are served all over rural areas. You might struggle for protein options as a vegetarian, but you will still have options as the traditional diet (outside of the tribespeople) is largely plant-based with locals always munching on coconut, bananas, guava and a starchy substance called “sago.”
Is Papua New Guinea Expensive?
After visiting over 100 countries, I can say with resounding (and sad) conviction, that I don’t know many more economies to be as so abused, exploited and screwed up as Papua New Guinea’s. As mentioned earlier on, the island of New Guinea is rich in natural resources including minerals, oil, copper, gold and gas and the locals are obviously suffering because of the mismanagement and trade with other nations.
For example, I found out during my Puncak Jaya climb (the tallest mountain in New Guinea and a Seven Summits entry) that West Timor had the largest gold mine in the world. Their people were living on the breadline while the leader was living like a king and sharing the spoils with an American company.
Standard, ‘budget’ one-bed dorm rooms in a hostel average at around a whopping $300 USD per night. Street food isn’t so bad, but restaurant prices are a joke.
The accommodation prices are so high that it’s impossible not to spend an extortionate amount during a visit there on accommodation alone.
Transport is cheap in a PMV if you’re feeling brave, we used it a lot. What we saved in money; we made up for in cortisol.
If you decide to go backpacking in Papua New Guinea just manage your expectations and prepare to spend like you’re travelling in Switzerland… just without the fantastic systems and safe travel.
The prices don’t match how underdeveloped the place is and I don’t know how the locals survive, apart from turning to crime. This brings us to the elephant in the room…
Is Papua New Guinea Safe For Backpackers?
It started off as an innocent adventure. But looking back, I cringe at our naivety. It was around dusk and we were in Port Moresby walking around one of the most dangerous, crime-laden cities in the world, with expensive cameras dangling around our necks. In our defence, from the very first warning from worried locals; we started making our way back to our hostel.
“What are you doing out here at this time? The Raskols! The Raskols are coming!!”
‘The Raskols’ are ruthless, violent street gangs who are no strangers to robbing, raping and killing on a daily basis. British TV Presenters/Tough Guys Vinnie Jones and Ross Kemp recently recorded documentaries on these people, looking overwhelmed and far out of their hard-man depth, although Ross does really well here.
If this was not staged, I think Ross handled this incredibly well. I would’ve needed to change my pants.
While we waited for our PMV back to our hostel and were told time and time again that we shouldn’t be there at that time – we were surrounded by a gang, who was high as a kite and asking us questions whilst edging closer. I think we did a good job of not showing how petrified we later admitted to being.
Very far from the above Ross Kemp levels though.
Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve handed over everything I had over including the shirt off my back in order to not get stabbed or worse, but I guess adrenaline kept me alert. The PMV turned up and some locals ushered us into the van and out of trouble. They warned us yet again, to stay away at night time and from certain areas.
Genuinely thought I was going to die.
A few days later (during the day) we met a guy who turned out to be a policeman he informed us that we were being tracked by Raskols. He reassured us, “Don’t worry, my job is to break Raskol’s legs and hands!”
Madang was more of the same, but Port Moresby was a different level of scary and the capital city was the main concern when I was backpacking in Papua New Guinea.
One day in Port Moresby we witnessed two fruit sellers have a disagreement. Without hesitation one guy smacked the other in the face, knocking him to the ground. But he wasn’t done there, dragging his unconscious body into the busy road so that he could get finished off by a moving vehicle on the busy motorway.
The most shocking thing about this was the reaction from the locals or lack thereof. Presumably a case of “same shit, different day,” I guess. The place has a palpable feeling of threat that is impossible to ignore.
Backpacking Papua New Guinea: A Reality Check!
Yes, I came back unscathed and yes there was that innocuous, negligent moment with the cameras, but to use the word “safe” and “Papua New Guinea” in the same sentence would be pretty oxymoronic when speaking in relative terms to safety on the road.
I went there fully aware of the dangers and I lived to tell the tale. The gangs in PNG are absolutely unforgiving, cold-blooded, high on drugs and out only for their gain.
I was constantly on edge over there and it kept me on my toes. Readers should know what to expect if they’re considering a visit. I did have a fantastic time though (especially when I met the elusive cuscus animal) and I’m glad I went, but the potential danger there is definitely on another level, so it’s best, to be honest with this topic.
Women Alone Backpacking in Papua New Guinea?
Ladies, forget about it!
Sorry, girls. I’d be pissed off too and I also don’t like being told what to do.
Yet here I am, placing a limit on your potential experiences based solely upon your gender. I hate fear-mongering and I have nothing but respect for solo female travellers who have the boldness to travel in such hardcore countries like this.
But I live in the real world and sadly there are just different kinds of evil awaiting women, so I have no time and zero patience for idealism and exceptions to rules when it comes to this subject.
Look no further for ‘risky for women’ than Papua New Guinea. Domestic and sexual abuse against women is rife over there, quite literally among the highest in the world and women are simply second-class citizens.
I’d like to tell you that horrific cases like this are isolated events, but they’re not. It’s commonplace. Ladies, I don’t mean to sound condescending or demeaning, but out of your best interests and my good intentions; Papua New Guinea is not the place for a woman.
That being said, it’s not a utopia for a man either but the sex-related crimes over there are a major red flag and too big to ignore.
Then again, to play devil’s advocate with my own words; men are statistically more than likely to be a victim of stranger danger violence from other men – I have unfortunately been on the receiving end of this grim data more times than I’d like to remember, however, this still did not prevent me from visiting PNG.
I don’t deal in sensationalism, just keeping it real and I’d much rather any men or women who do venture out there have a slightly less good time due to being hyper-vigilant if the result is them coming back unscathed from backpacking Papua New Guinea and its wild, beautiful, untrodden path.
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