Exploring the sights of Tarawa, Kiribati, country 173 on the Pacifying the Pacific adventure.
Coming from Samoa, I had a layover in Nadi before my flight to Tarawa, Kiribati. I found the country was also pronounced “keer-ə-bahss”. Previously a British territory, it gained independence in 1979 so most people speak English well.
From the air, this small strip of an island reminded me of Tuvalu, though it was quite a bit larger in terms of landmass. The country is made of 33 atolls and reef islands covering an area of 1.3 million square miles passing the International Date Line!
Landing right next to the sea, I went through immigration. Like the other island nations, it was a breeze and I had my new entry stamp making country 173 official!
I met with the team from The George Hotel where I would be based to explore the sights of Tarawa.
Top Sights of Tarawa, Kiribati
Tarawa is home to half of the country’s population of 100,000. The atoll is the center for the government and commerce while Christmas Island is the country’s main tourism destination. That doesn’t mean that Tarawa lacks interesting sights!
Here are the main sights I visited which can be explored in a couple of days.
Betio is the largest and most populated ‘city’ of the country. Though people live near each other, it is only crowded if you compare it to other small islands. The city is not that attractive with a port and plenty of cars driving around.
I did visit the Visitor’s Authority here to ask about the main sights to see. They were friendly and very accommodating, helping me with information and contacting some people.
There are several restaurants, hotels, and bars that make the area exciting at night. The George Hotel also had a bar and a lively nightclub which was packed on Friday and Saturday.
I walked into the club at around 11 p.m. to find a funny mishmash of visitors in smart casual dress and locals in very causal dress (some even barefoot). Everyone was having a good time dancing to a mixture of club and island music. The club even had lighting effects! I definitely did not expect to see this in the small nation of Kiribati.
Tarawa WWII Tour
Tarawa was occupied by Japan during World War II. The Battle of Tarawa is one of the bloodiest battles in US Marine Corps history. The Japanese basically fought until the last man and inflicted heavy casualties within the 76 hours it took the US to capture the island.
Remnants of the war are visible all over the island.
The George Hotel took me on a tour of the WWII sites which included several Japanese guns on the beach, tank remains on the reef (both US and Japanese), ships, bunkers, the Japanese Headquarters, pillboxes and even the Japanese and US airstrip that now has become a road and sports field.
There are also the beaches where battles were fought, Red 1, Red 2, etc.
What was interesting about the Japanese guns was that they were originally British and sold to the Japanese before the war. You can find both the English markings and Japanese seal on the base of the guns.
The US Memorial is located in the stadium. There is also a Japanese Memorial and New Zealand Memorial in a cemetery by the sea.
I entered the Japanese Headquarters which is riddled in bullet holes and unfortunately used as a toilet, dump, and possibly a homeless den.
While photographing a Japanese tank on the reef, children crowded around me to show me fish that they were catching. One even dug out a bullet from the sand and gave it to me. Wow.
Sticking out halfway on the reef was a fairly well preserved M4 Sherman. There were also many other ship wrecks though only a few seemed to be from WWII. The rest were from the cyclone that hit the island a few years back.
Culturally the long South Tarawa is interesting to drive through. Near the airport are the embassies and the National Museum. Further south is the Parliament House which has a unique design. Australia Aid was funding a project for a new road.
Taiwan Park is a small park for picnics on the side of the road. Check out the statue of a man feeding a baby, which the locals destroyed because they found it insulting.
There is also a mall which seems to be the largest building on the island with some small shops inside. A sports field is in front of the President’s Residence.
On my last day I visited the North Tarawa. About an hours drive from Betio, the north does not have road access all the way to the tip. The roads are quite poor and one area can only be crossed at low tide with an SUV. I walked across this channel not wanting to destroy the car the hotel lent me.
On the other side is a small resort, Tabon Te Keekee, where I had a great lunch with a view of the ocean. I also met a swiss couple who have been traveling their entire lives.
This side of the atoll is a lot more relaxed and undeveloped. It is also quite deserted and has more of the island feel one would expect from such a remote area.
The next morning the hotel dropped me off at the airport and I caught my flight to Nauru.
Tarawa was a great surprise. Having read how crowded, dirty, and busy the island was, I was delighted to find it friendly, not so crowded, and full of interesting history and culture. This is definitely a Pacific destination for a traveler looking for adventure and a unique experience.