Top 10 traditional cultures in the world

What is travel if not the opportunity to see where and how other people live? Well, we know not all would subscribe to that—after all, we often holiday to escape quite enough living of our own, and the more hermetically sealed our luxury resort from the dirt and poverty and awkward questions outside, the better. Still, for the more adventurous and curious amongst us, learning about traditional cultures while on holiday, or on a dedicated trip, can be the experience of a lifetime. It's a cliche to say that they can teach us a whole lot about ourselves—but no less true for that—and the perspective on life that they help introduce us to can have life-changing consequences. While most travellers skim the surface when examining the history and architecture of a place, the experiences in this category seek out cultural differences in communities where traditional cultures are most prevalent. There are a number of great travel companies that can introduce you to traditional cultures in a sensitive way, in more, or less, comfort. We are collecting the best of them to recommend to you.

Matsés people:

For the 17 Matsés, also known as the Cat People, communities living by the Rio Yavari and Rio Galvez, many changes have been made since contact was first established by Christian missionaries in 1969. There are still no phones or public transportation in these parts of the Peruvian and Brazilian rainforest, but the Matsés are fighting logging and oil companies to preserve an ancient way of life. The ‘Cat People’ (so-named for the 'whiskers' and facial tattoos that adorn the members) are clinging to ancient traditions and methods, their awesome knowledge of Amazonian plants and wildlife as threatened with extinction as the rainforest itself. The community is working to preserve the culture with their grass-roots organisation, the Movement in the Amazon for Tribal Subsistence and Economic Sustainability or MATSES. MATSES was formed by Matsés teachers, who work to preserve the language and culture through the education of both Matsés and tourists.


The Koutammakou landscape in north-eastern Togo, which extends into neighbouring Benin, is home to the Batammariba whose remarkable mud tower-houses (Takienta) have come to be seen as a symbol of Togo. In this landscape, nature is strongly associated with the rituals and beliefs of society. The 50,000-hectare cultural landscape is remarkable due to the architecture of its tower-houses, which are a reflection of social structure; its farmland and forest; and the associations between people and landscape. Many of the buildings have two-storey and those with granaries feature an almost spherical form above a cylindrical base. Some of the buildings have flat roofs, others have conical thatched roofs. They are grouped in villages, which also include ceremonial spaces, springs, rocks and sites reserved for initiation ceremonies.

The Wano tribe:

The Wano people are situated in the basin of the river Mamberamo, an area of outstanding bio-diversity including amazing animals, such as the tree-kangaroo and cassowaries (huge flightless birds). This area was until recently strictly no-go, labeled as unchartered and prohibited territory. Among the only remaining cultures producing stone axes by hand, the Wano are responsible for the ‘stone age culture’ label attached to the inhabitants of the area. As well as employing traditional methods of tool-making, local fashions remain uncontested with women dressing in grass skirts and men donning only the traditional koteka. The Wano men carry massive bow and arrows, which are used to hunt the large river crocodiles. Treks to these remote people cover some of the most unexplored land in the world.

Huaorani people:

Waorani are an indigenous population living in the Ecuadorian Amazon, near the Peruvian border. The Huaorani maintain a largely traditional lifestyle, at home in a jungle, which provides them with food, medicine and shelter. Having lived in the area as semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers for at least a thousand years, the Huaorani were first contacted by missionaries in the late 1950s. The Huaorani have been adapting to the changes time has brought. Many groups relocated after Texaco was given permission to drill their ancestral land, while some fled deeper into the forest and still remain largely un-contacted. With oil companies threatening to destroy the natural environment and Huaorani life along with it many Huaorani have unified; the Nacionalidad Waorani del Ecuador serves to protect their interests. Ecotourism has recently been adopted as a way for the Huaorani to generate income, while preserving both their culture and the rainforest which they call home. Visit the Huaorani on a trip to the Yasuni National Park and surrounding Napo province and stay at the newly opened Huaorani Ecolodge.

Namibian bushmen:

Think of the Namib Desert and its bushmen, and what springs to mind? Spirituality, wildlife, beautiful landscapes? You would be right, and the romance of the dramatic scenery certainly is unforgettable, but to truly understand this closest of human connections with nature you can do no better than to become part of it. The Etosha National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty, is home to a group of people who have lived in symbiosis with nature for generations, and their daily lives are so different from ours that time spent learning from them is an education in survival methods as well as a fascinating glimpse of another culture. Visitors live under canvas for as long as they spend time with their bushmen guides, and will be taught how to forage for food, snare guinea-fowl and hare, track and observe animals, extract water from plants and even sing traditional songs round their campfire in the evenings.

Tuareg people:

These nomadic people are the Sahara’s main inhabitants and have been travelling the desert in their camel caravans for over 2000 years. Their lands once spread out across most of central north Africa and they protected it fiercely from invasion, but their way of life is now in decline. Travelling with them offers a total emersion into the regal grace and silence of their desert traditions.

Papuan Tribes:

Papuan people are reputed to be ferocious cannibals but, during a 3-month long caving expedition I was treated with kindness and generosity. In 2005, the NGS supported Untamed Rivers of New Britain Expedition explored new caves in the Nakanai Mountains of east New Britain. The area is sparsely populated with various tribal groups including the Kol. These people originated in New Ireland to the north of New Britain and steadily migrated southwards. Although they are a fairly warlike people, this is a function of territorial protection. They tend to keep to themselves and don't travel very far. Any animosity is directed towards tribes from other areas who they may see as a threat. We had direct experience of this when the cook we had employed from a village 6-hours walk away ran away and returned home during the night. However, as far as the expedition members were concerned, they were wonderful simple people who always helped us with a smile and readily shared what little they had with us. One of the expedition objectives was to preserve this unique environment by protecting the jungle from logging, a battle which is being lost all around the world.

San People:

Described as the 'Louvre of the Desert', the magical Tsodilo Hills in Botswana’s Kalahari are home to one of the largest concentrations of Bushman rock art in the world. The area, visited by few, is respected by the San people of the Kalahari as a place of worship by ancestral spirits. Over 4,500 paintings have been found. This place is best avoided when it’s too hot (i.e October/December) and best out of the rains as it is effectively a walking camping trip.

Longhouse Culture:

Loagan Tasan is an Iban longhouse near to Marudi on the Baram River in Sarawak. In June the Ulu (upriver) tribes or Dayaks all over Sarawak celebrate Gawai, equivalent to a harvest festival. During this time family members gather at the longhouse and party. Celebrations include a communal meal on the veranda, which stretches the length of the longhouse, often followed by games and singing. The Iban people are traditionally great drinkers and in the evening the games turn to traditional dance or ngajat induk. These dances simulate hunting with the women performing the part of the hornbill (the national bird of Sarawak) and the men hunting them by simulating the mating dance of the cock. Each dancer, on completion of their performance, is expected to down a glass of rice wine or tuak. Failure to finish the drink or spillage results in the glass being refilled for another try. Visitors to Sarawak longhouses are often treated to a performance like this but are usually expected to join in.

Gion and Geisha:

Gion is the most famous of Kyoto’s geisha districts, the narrow roads between bamboo fronted teahouses (ochaya), restaurants and traditional residences (machiya) dating from the late Edo period (circa 1800) have been well preserved and retain some of the bustle and colour of the geisha districts of old. Stone pavements, graceful pedestrian sized bridges and cherry trees add to the impression of a time warp. Traditional music, played by geisha can be heard wafting from the ochayas by the best kept streets around Gion Corner, and their colourful garments glimpsed through the windows give the area life.

The most common misconception about Gion and other geisha districts is that they’re akin to red-light districts; geisha are primarily entertainers not prostitutes. Geisha numbers have dwindled over the last 100 years but the area is being preserved and the traditional skills of the artists are still highly respected and quite popular. Now instead of performing for samuri or generals, geisha perform for businessmen—either way you need to be wealthy to afford their company, but then they spend years learning how to be the perfect companions, learning to dance, sing, tell jokes, serve tea and alcohol in a graceful way, so the cost is justified.

The most famous geisha dance still held in Gion is the Miyako Odori also called the ‘Dances of the Old Capital’ or the ‘Cherry Blossom Dances’, held to coincide with cherry blossom season in April, this is an excellent way to make sure you see geisha and tickets start affordably at around 2,000 yen. Another good time to visit Gion is for Gion Matsuri in July. If you can’t afford to frequent any of the same places as the geisha or maiko there are condensed tourist-centric performances of the tea ceremony and traditional music and dance held daily at Gion Corner.

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