The Truth About Kava in Fiji

Before I left for Fiji I heard plenty about kava: that fijians were obsessed with drinking it, that I would make you hallucinate, that it tasted terrible. Some of this was true, some of it was a flat out lie. So I thought I would set the record straight.

Also known as Yaqona, kava plays a huge roll in Fiji’s culture and day to day life. It’s popular across the South Pacific but it is a particularly big deal in Fiji. Here is the down and dirty on Fiji’s “national drink:”

Kava is NOT a Psychedelic Drug

People tend to confuse kava with Ayuhuasca, the hallucinogenic ceremonial drink from the Amazon. Kava on the other hand, is not intended to give you visions or to put you into a trance. It’s effects are mild: one or two cups will make your face numb, a large amount will make you feel relaxed and sleepy. Drink too much and you might fall asleep, but that is the limits of it’s power.

The majority of Fiji islanders drink kava on a daily basis with no ill effects. It might help to account though, for the slow and relaxed pace of the islands and the popular concept of “fiji time.”

Kava IS a plant

Kava comes from the root of the yaqona (piper methysticum) bush, a relative of the pepper plant. The root is ground up and then strained with water into a large wooden communal bowl (or sometimes a plastic bucket, depending on what you have on hand). Simple preparation for a simple drink.

Yaqona is one of fiji’s biggest crops and exports. You are absolutely allowed to bring kava into the US, and can even buy it everywhere, even at the airport!

Drinking Kava Can Be Ceremonial

In Fiji Kava is used as a symbol to bring two groups of people together. When visiting a new village it is essential to bring a gift of kava. The community then gathers and the kava is mixed. There are a lot of words, all in fijian and some clapping . The chiefs partake first (the oldest male in your group can be your makeshift chief) and it is then offered all around in a communal bowl.

My inner anthropologist was buzzing when I was lucky to attend not one, but two kava ceremonies on our trip. When participating in the ceremony it is essential to dress conservatively and sit respectfully. If you are offered the kava it is important to drink the entire cup in one go. Don’t sip it (it’s better to just down it anyways, once you taste it) . Clap once before receiving the cup, drink up and then clap three more times.

Once the ceremony is complete then everyone in the room is now friends and you can get on with the eating and the dancing.

Kava Drinking Can Also Be Very Casual

Similar to how the Argentineans are constantly sipping mate, Kava is a near daily beverage for many fijians. After work, relaxing in the afternoon, pretty much whenever, small groups of friends and family will share kava from a communal bowl.

At our resort it was common to see the boys in the band sitting by the pool, strumming on their guitars and sharing a big bowl of kava.

Kava Does NOT Taste Good

Well, I suppose it does to the Fijians, but I would call it a definite acquired taste. To me, and many of the westerners I spoke to, drinking a bowl of kava feels eerily similar to drinking a bowl of dirty water, In short: it tastes like mud. Bitter, peppery mud.


For me, the ceremony and community surrounding kava is far more powerful than the drink itself. Although it might give germaphobes some pause, I loved the communal and warm aspect of kava culture and the openess and acceptance that goes along with sharing the drink. Even in the quickly modernizing world of Fiji, where you’re more likely to see people hanging out in t-shirts and jeans than traditional garb, this drink holds a powerful and uniting place in society.


Special thanks to Tourism Fiji for inviting us to Fiji and covering our stay.

All opinions are my own.


47 Responses to The Truth About Kava in Fiji

  1. Sarah June 3, 2012 at 12:41 PM #

    Great pictures! Interesting information – I’d only heard of kava in a very vague way, so this is good to know. I’m definitely putting it away in my mental “Future trip to Fiji” file.

    • Richard Ulrich June 19, 2016 at 11:16 PM #

      I recently did several visits to islands in Fiji and was welcomed with the Kava tradition. The taste was somewhat different. but after several cups you mouth was numbed and you did feel relaxed.
      The Ceremony was quite impressive with the drink of Kava and the dance.
      It was just too bad that several of these islands were destroyed by the recent Cyclone of Feb 2016. I visited in June 2016 and the islands were in bad condition and the people were in need of many supplies.
      If you decide to visit be sure to bring some type of school supplies for the children. And a currency donation to the tribes.

  2. Kristen - A Gypsy's Love June 3, 2012 at 5:57 PM #

    I suppose mud-flavored water would be better if it gave you hallucinations and feel-good vibes. 😉

  3. Ivy June 3, 2012 at 6:46 PM #

    Hah, thanks for the insight! I have a massive thing for cultural get-togethers with strange beverages. Concerning the taste of mud… As a child, I said pretty much the same thing about coffee, so… 😉

  4. Kaylin June 3, 2012 at 8:37 PM #

    I agree with all of this! It is very interesting to take part in a Kava ceremony (I also had to do so when in Fiji) and I hated the taste of it too. I agree that it tastes like dirty water. But the ceremony itself, which often involves really awesome Fijian singing is great. I would do it again just to do the ceremony, despite having to drink the muddy water again.

  5. Dylan June 3, 2012 at 9:34 PM #

    I’m not even going to begin describing how much I LOVE kava…

  6. Kristijan June 3, 2012 at 11:33 PM #

    Kava brought me here since in Croatian language kava is word for coffee.

  7. Chrystal McKay June 4, 2012 at 1:43 AM #

    I’d never heard of Kava – this was a great read. And incredibly lucky you got to partake in 2 ceremonies! How interesting! Do the Fijans use Kava for medicinal purposes or are there any uses for it other than uniting communities?

  8. Ali June 4, 2012 at 12:20 PM #

    Very interesting. I didn’t know anything at all about Kava before reading this. It doesn’t exactly sound good, but I guess you kind of have to try it when you’re there.

  9. Waegook Tom June 4, 2012 at 11:08 PM #

    Great post and photos, Steph. The description of kava at the end isn’t what I wanted to read while I was eating my breakfast though haha! Interested about the face numbing properties. New botox, perhaps?

  10. Amanda June 11, 2012 at 7:34 PM #

    Thanks for the great lesson on kava! Not sure I’d want to try it now that I know it tastes like mud… haha. What happens if you really can’t stand it? Is it incredibly rude to refuse the bowl?

    • Steph June 12, 2012 at 9:20 PM #

      Well at the ceremonies I went to you can opt out beforehand, but if you’re in you’re in for the long haul!

    • Mikaele Ilaisa Buaserau December 27, 2013 at 3:31 AM #

      No its up to you if you dont wanna drink its up to you…but if you are in a welcoming ceremony all have to have a bowl cant refuse..but the second bowl..its up to us ..they wont force you..

      • arthur kotoisuva March 3, 2015 at 6:46 PM #

        if you refuse a second bowl they will put you in a lovo (earth oven)…just kiddin

  11. Emily June 12, 2012 at 2:13 PM #

    Ick, that does not sound tasty. But glad to know more about kava–I’ve seen supplements for it at some health food stores, but it’s probably not as potent or face-numbing. Very cool that you got to participate in some of the rituals for it. I wish we had something like that here in the States.

    • Gabriel Coggins March 19, 2015 at 1:21 PM #

      I’m actually opening a Nakamal (kava bar) in Greenville SC in the coming month. We’ll be serving kombucha, organic herbal teas, fair trade coffee and of course traditionally prepared kava along with kava infused drinks. If you have time give The Kava Konnection a look and stop in if you are ever in the south east.

  12. ally November 19, 2012 at 1:43 AM #

    great pictures

    • Mosese Davetawalu February 8, 2016 at 9:00 PM #

      Kava is sort of relax after a long day work or school…but not to the extent it will spoil your body.

  13. chris January 16, 2013 at 2:08 AM #

    its great to know that most of us apparently know what mud tastes like “)

    • Angeline May 6, 2016 at 9:29 AM #

      yeah its great, i love the buzz like you do too .( except this is better mud)..

  14. TED August 6, 2013 at 11:37 PM #

    I have drunk kava until i can barely stand up to much of it can get you very relaxed but the truth is you will only crawl into bed and fall fast asleep infact i plan to take some kava extract on my long flight to Austrailia just so that i can basicly fall fast asleep for most of the flight, my best friend is from fiji and his cousin drunk kava every weekend and i joined in often and afterwards we would eat the best curry in the world, two thumbs up to KAVA KAVA

  15. Matt December 7, 2013 at 6:08 PM #

    I’ve been drinking kava for a few years, and I absolutely love it. The taste doesn’t bother me all that much, and the effect is positively awesome.

  16. Angela A April 16, 2014 at 7:19 PM #

    BULA, I vIsited the pacific coast this past January and while I was in Fiji I had the pleasure of participating in several ceremonies that required me to drink Kava. The first time I only let it touch my lips. My lips was num for a few minutes. On the second occasion I sipped a little bit more than the first, and it really looks and taste like dirty water. This caused my whole mouth to be num for about 30 mins. Then on the third and final occasion I drank the whole bowl. Results – my mouth was num and my body felt very relaxed for about an hour or two. The bad thing about Kava is the taste. I don’t think I would want to drink it as much as the Fijian do. I do respect their culture and drank it out of respect. Had a BLAST!!!!! BULA

  17. jane June 10, 2014 at 11:08 PM #

    Great info here. I have a layover in Fiji (12 hours) and read somewhere there are places near Nadi airport where you can participate in a kava ceremony, but not can’t seem to find it. Any suggestions? Thanks.

  18. Ryan Biddulph August 1, 2014 at 6:25 PM #

    Hi Steph,

    I’m about to have a kava ceremony on our porch here in Savusavu in a few hours – or just a little meet and drink – so your post is super helpful.

    Thanks so much 🙂


  19. kyrstin October 10, 2014 at 6:13 AM #

    I’ve had the pleasure of drinking kava often due to the fact that my boyfriend is Fijian and came to America when he was eleven years old. It’s definitely an interesting concept to me since the practice of drinking it is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It is done by eldest to youngest… or by who is most important in family line due to respect… I’m always last since I am a female. Women don’t particularly drink it… but that doesn’t mean that they don’t. I wouldn’t say that two cup fulls will make your face numb… I’ve drank kava over thirty occasions… but, it also depends on who makes it and how strong the particular kava root is. It’s always been interesting to me that its not drank together like say when you take shots and drinking kava takes hours and hours to complete. Also, never drink it while you eat (unless eating snack foods to get the taste out of your mouth) always eat after drinking because it will make you sick. Drinking alcohol with kava will also make you sick as well. The taste is definitely not great, it most definitely tastes like muddy water… but, I feel like if you can drink alcohol… Drinking kava isn’t bad. Over time, it has gotten more and more easier to drink. You can also buy it all over the place… Plant shops or from relatives is where we usually get it. If you’re trying it for the first time… My recommendation is to make it weaker so it’s not so bad. Also, we always keep it in the refrigerator or the freezer… I’ve never asked why though. It does however give you the best sleep of your life and you wake up super refreshed… Not groggy (grug is another term Fijians use for kava because it makes you super groggy when you’re drinking it) like other sleep aids.

    • Steph October 10, 2014 at 11:47 AM #

      Thanks for the insight!

    • sheri June 5, 2015 at 10:24 AM #

      sorry reply got rearrainged some where….
      Thank you Kyrstin. I really enjoy Kava after a long stressed out day of work. My husband cannot stomach the taste, but the effect for me over rides the taste. I returned to the US with 6 pounds of kava (note, the kava sold to many tourist has more than just the root in it as ‘filler’, purchase from a Fijian that knows who sells the pure root). Before kava, i had a chronic pain in my shoulder that doctor said would never go away without surgery and another doctor said it would take deep message therapy for a long period of time to feel better, the pain is gone after two weeks of kava therapy! Is this a coincidence or has the muscle relaxation worked out the pain causing lump in my shoulder?

  20. Joe October 26, 2014 at 10:18 PM #

    Tried it on the Big Island. Bring it to the drinking water on the mainland!

    • Gabriel Coggins March 19, 2015 at 1:24 PM #

      I’m opening a Nakamal in Greenville SC in the coming month. Stop by to see us at The Kava Konnection if you are ever in the south east. Bula!

  21. Honolulu November 8, 2014 at 1:58 PM #

    I used to live in Fiji and work there in my late 20s. I am female from Hawaii and I worked in the Fiji Government. I headed up a government program and had to write curriculum,books and produce educational videos. Every afternoon, the Fijian and Indian guys in the office would invite me to join them for a bowl of kava or (yaqona). I would glady take part and learned drink kava. (I would also pitch in and help pay for the bags of kava) We would talk about issues and I would learn a lot about what was going on politically. We would then go back to our desks and work. I could focus and write and create. It was amazing. I visited Fiji last week after not being there for over 20 years. My 15 year old daughter wanted to try kava. We bought some at the main market in Suva and later on we went to a resort off of the Mamanuca islands and took part in a resort type kava ceremony. When I worked in Fiji, 20 years ago, I went to many “real” kava ceremonies in the villages and for weddings and other celebrations. I’m going to try it next week to help me focus on my writing and creativity at work.

  22. Honolulu November 8, 2014 at 2:09 PM #

    When you buy kava in Fifi at the open markets in Nadi or Suva, make sure you buy it already crushed up as powder. You usually only buy the roots when you are going to visit a village. Also, I am a very light drinker and it would take about 6 bilos (coconut bowls) to make me even feel a little woozy. However, if you go to the South Pacific country of Vanuatu, you will find kava there that causes hallucinations. It’s stronger for some reason, I think it is because of the way they prepare it or it could be the variety of plant. Not sure.

    In Fiji, you can buy kava in the souvenir shops. I saw it at “Jacks.” But if you can go to an open market to buy it, you can get it a lot cheaper and you buy it in larger quantities. I heard last week that you can take home 2 kilos per person on the plane. You might want to check with customs on the information.

  23. isi February 2, 2015 at 10:22 PM #

    Bula nivaka ,aloha,kiorana. kiora.malo.and fefehake.welcome to the land down under

  24. Una Naivola February 19, 2015 at 4:46 PM #

    im currently doing my bachelor of law at university here in fiji . For my english unit i was given a topic for a 10 minute presentation and it was ”KAVA CONSUMPTION” . So since my family does not drink kava at all..i had to do research to find more info, and this definitely helped! thnx Steph! =D

  25. Kolin March 2, 2015 at 12:16 PM #

    Why the UN etc etc etc waisting millions and millions of tax payers money to bring two bodies in good terms rather than use kava.

  26. Jordan April 6, 2015 at 2:57 PM #

    I want to move to Fijji

  27. uddy April 7, 2015 at 9:23 PM #

    Kava in the past is used to call demons from every four corners of the world. Physically, i noticed this by its muddy color and its taste. However…,imagine when you drink a cup of water or tea, does it fill up your stomach..? yes… but what about kava? it doesn’t …isn’t it ? that’s how i define kava……..absolutely weird…..

    • Mosese Davetawalu February 8, 2016 at 8:55 PM #

      Sorry is a plant made by GOD in the beginning and for your information all living things are made first and the last is you and me(people)..Please read the Bible great stories are there for everyone on this earth. I am not say that Kava is good, everything that is excessive is bad to the Body can name it..ha!!ha!!1ha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  28. susy April 9, 2015 at 5:39 PM #

    I’ve been in Fiji for 3 season in ouer sailboat i try kava and did not like but that is there tradition and i respect that. We Enjoy our time in fiji sailing surfing n fishing. Fijian are good friendly people
    if u never been there, fly to Fiji for a week

  29. Kristoffer June 20, 2015 at 5:15 PM #

    ..but u never experience the effects of it working, did u? I can tell, better keep drinkin’

  30. Shelly Rosen January 16, 2016 at 7:50 PM #

    In2002 I was in Fiji and loved the people and their Kava ritual. Last week, Jan 2016, I found a Kava Bar in West Palm Beach, Florida. Amazing to see. If Ur closer to Fla. Than Fiji, stop. In and try it.


  1. 5 best locations for your career break - Team Nomad Travel Blog - December 4, 2014

    […] miss out on: watching the brave locals fire walking, drinking copious amounts of Kava or crab hunting on the island of […]

  2. Where Was She Wednesdays | dustyjournals - October 21, 2015

    […] kind of way. If you’re curious you can learn more about it on this actual 20-something blogger’s travel site.  She describes the ritual […]

  3. Joe B. | Ave ja Ahto. Elu ja Eufooria. - December 2, 2015

    […] rääkis, kuidas pühade ajal kõik joovad kava – traditsioonilist Polüneesia jooki; aastavahetusel kõik tantsivad ja kui juhtub, et keegi […]

  4. ABC Cruisin’ with Capt. Ben | American Bocce Blog - April 7, 2016

    […] the day before. He took me into his small shop, asked me take off my shoes, and sat me down for a Kava tea ceremony. Needless to say, I bought the bracelet—it was beautiful and it made a lovely gift for my sister. […]

  5. BULA! Kava, Fiji and culture | Digital Asia - September 27, 2016

    […] Kava is not a psychedelic drug in any way and will not give you warped visions that allow you to see different things. The common […]