Tana Toraja, the Land of the Toraja people, is a small tribal area that stretches over a beautiful green valley in the center of the Indonesian island Sulawesi. Besides soothing long walks over evergreen hills the Toraja Land is reputed for complex, ancient tribal houses and traditional ceremonies around dead family members. And the great thing about it: The Torajans like foreigners to visit and participate in those ceremonies!
Visiting Tana Toraja
As the experiences we had in Toraja were very intense we decided to split our travel report into three parts: This overview article, one article about funerals and one about hiking.
Why are Torajan funerals so interesting?
Although Torajans are officially Christians, they still practice an old animistic cult around their deceased ancestors.
These complex rituals include days-long funeral ceremonies whose preparation can take years. Those funerals are enormous family festivals with a very diverse program.
Every few years the family graves are opened to clean the grave. At this occasion the living family members extract the more or less conserved mummies of their ancestors for a change of clothes and even a family photo session.
It is an intense experience to witness such old rituals being still alive! Read here about our visit of a funeral ceremony.
Why is trekking in Toraja worthwhile?
Imagine Mr. Tolkien would have grown up in Southeast Asia. Tana Toraja is certainly what he would have invented as The Shire, with hundreds of little Hobbiton villages spread over the valley. Of course the barefoot Hobbits might have become wetfoot hobbits due to the many rice terraces, but that is just details – it is just so neat and otherworldly pretty here!
Huge black boulders sit in the midst of neon green rice fields while a water buffalo wallows in a dirt hole. Traditional houses and stone graves of distinct shape are coated with colorful tribal wood carvings, and a short mountain climb gives you a stunning panorama over the whole scenery. Read here about our trekking experience in rural Tana Toraja.
We fly in through the international airport of Makassar, located on the southwestern “finger” of the island of Sulawesi. The best way to get to Tana Toraja is to then take a bus from Makassar. They come in different classes. “Premium” is pretty comfortable. The transfer to the city of Rantepao in Tana Toraja will take about 9 hours. There are day and night buses available. It is up to you if you want to see some of the green scenery on the way or rather save some time and a night in a hostel.
Every company has its own terminal and office which are located pretty much out of the center of Makassar and can only be found by your taxi driver. If you do not speak Bahasa, I strongly recommend getting help from a local when booking. Our hotel staff was very helpful. If you travel in late December as we did, please be aware that it is also the main season for Indonesians to travel and the buses might be fully booked days in advance.
Where to start from?
The city of Rantepao is a good basis for exploring cultural Tana Toraja. There are a handful of relatively cheap hotels with really nice staff, and some restaurants around. A local market takes place every morning where you can do good souvenir shopping (however beware of pickpockets).
I strongly recommend hiring a local guide who will know where and when a funeral or excavation ceremony takes place. He will explain a lot of things to you as the ceremonies are quite complex with hundreds of visitors and uncountable rituals taking place in front of your eyes.
A “guide” will find you before you want to be found on your arrival in Rantepao. It is everywhere the same in tourism, we bring with us this interesting thing called money: Consequently, pretty much everybody who speaks a little bit of English offers himself to be a guide for you.
One trustworthy and knowledgeable guy who refuses to take part in “tourist fishing” on arrival of a bus, is Yohanis (contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org). We paid him 800,000 rupees for one day with a driver and car.
To save us any hassle, we got in touch with him before we arrived. We met up at our hostel then. If you should decide to hire a guide from the street, I would suggest that you quiz him a bit about Indonesian customs before agreeing to join him.
For the trekking part, I recommend taking a bemo, motorbike riksha or hiring a car to get you from Rantepao to Battutumonga. Battutumonga is a small village that offers a touristy hotel with a decent restaurant. A few hundred meters further down the road there are some (much cheaper and much plainer) homestays that include dinner and breakfast, which we preferred as it brought us closer to the local Torajans.
From there you can easily start treks around the countryside. This part can also be done without a guide if you feel comfortable using a gps to navigate yourself cross country through the rice fields away from the roads. Only following the roads can be pretty boring, so if this would be the other option, we would rather recommend a guide. Although speaking Bahasa makes your trip easier you can get along with sign language and English, too: People are curious and nice.
The city of Rantepao
Rantepao is a practical, small and typically Indonesian city. You will find street food stands, cheap accommodation, a lively market and dirty roads.
Visiting the market is worthwhile: As Tana Toraja is popular for its coffee growing you can find several shops selling good quality coffee beans. Also the smaller restaurants around serve a local, quite enjoyable brew even though it is usually a bit oversugared.
Some souvenirs like wood works, bethel nut bags with traditional pearls and machetes are traded for an affordable price.
A highlight of the market is the cattle market: A huge number of water buffaloes is traded here. You will find some of the buffaloes getting special attention from the traders for being albinos. Albino buffaloes are significantly more expensive as they play an important role in funeral ceremonies. They are considered to have special powers in bringing the dead to their place in heaven.
Watching how the pigs are handled is pretty intense, as most of them lie next to each other in long rows, tied to a bamboo construction. They cannot move anymore. Most of them are taking it with ease, but some are squeaking in horror, it is an awful sound to listen to.
Right next to the market there are several “warungs” – small local eateries serving tasty Indonesian food. If you like to try it: some warungs here specialize in dog meat, they do not explicitly advertise it, but you can recognize them anyways: They hang branches of a special needle tree just outside their restaurant.
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