Tana Toraja, the famed "Land of The Heavenly Kings", lies about 328 km north of Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi Province, in the central highlands of South Sulawesi.
The land of the Toraja people, many notionally Christian but most in practice animist, is above all famed for their spectacular (and rather gruesome) burial rites. After a person's death, the body is kept — often for several months or even years — while money is saved to pay for the actual funeral ceremony, known as tomate. During the festival, which may last up to a week, ritual dances and buffalo fights are held, and buffaloes and pigs are slaughtered to ferry the soul of the deceased to the afterlife (puya). The deceased is then finally buried either in a small cave, often with a tau-tau effigy placed in front, inside a hollow tree or even left exposed to the elements in a bamboo frame hanging from a cliff.
Tana Toraja has unique culture set in stunning scenery. Globalisation and tourism may have impact, but if you venture away from the tarmac roads you will find soon a way of life that may seem to a visitor as if it has not changed much in the last 100 years.
Traditional Tongkonan houses stand proudly in this setting. These intricately decorated houses with upward-sloping roofs are the centre of all Aluktodolo (Torajan religion before the coming of missionaries; the ancestors' belief) rites; from storing the harvest in the carved rice barns, "alang", to slaughtering sacred water buffaloes at funeral ceremonies that last a week or longer. Tana Toraja's beauty is also reflected in its people. Although they are mostly devoutly Christian (there is a small number of Muslims especially in the southern area), they combine this religious belief with magic and mysticism, and welcome visitors to witness their ceremonies.
Tana Toraja is a sleepy rural region cultivating rice, cacao, coffee, and cloves most of the year. Toraja's arabica coffee carries a high reputation and is something that visitors may be interested in trying. During the dry season, from June until September, when children are home from school, the rice is harvested and it's time for a "rambu solo'", a complex funeral ceremony of the ancestors. During the time, Rantepao is transformed into a major tourist attraction for national and international visitors. Nevertheless, the region remains far less touristy than many other tourist spots in Indonesia (such as many places in Java or Bali), perhaps due to the relatively long way to come until there (which includes at least 10 hours of transportation from Makassar).
At 300 to 2,880 metres above sea level, Tana Toraja combines tropical lushness with alpine freshness, with daily temperatures between 16 and 28 degrees Celsius.
Bright green rice terraces, tall limestone outcrops and bamboo graves are set against a backdrop of blue misty mountains.
Toraja is in the UTC+8 time zone (known in Indonesia as WITA, Waktu Indonesia Tengah), same as Western Australia, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, mainland China, Bali but one hour ahead of Jakarta.
When to go
Prime funeral season is after the harvest in July to October.
From the Hasanuddin Airport in Makassar, one can fly to Pongtiku Airport with a 900-metre runway in Tana Toraja. The name of the airline is SMAC (Sabang Merauke Air Charter). The flights are once a week on Mondays. The flight takes about 55 minutes and uses CASSA type airplanes. Be warned though that it is possible the flight could be cancelled last minute due to aircraft maintenance or insufficient passengers.
Lately the government has been constructing a new airport with a 1,900-metre runway in Tana Toraja (Buntukunik Airport), but it has yet to open.
- 1 Pongtiku Airport.
Tana Toraja is a solid 300-km, 8-to-10-hour drive from Makassar. Most companies run both a morning and an overnight bus, with various degrees of comfort. Frequent mikrolets/bemos leave from Makassar to the Daya Bus Terminal and take about 40 minutes.
The buses from Makassar to Tana Toraja come with various levels of comfort. The most expensive are air-conditioned, relatively clean and very comfortable. Routes going further north are generally slower, in poorer condition and far less comfortable.
Famous companies that provide more comfort include:
- 2 Departure point of most buses (main crossing in Rantepao).
- 1 Bintang Prima. 185,000 Rp (as of 2016), departure daily 21h30 from Makassar, and 21h30 from Rantepao, arrival around 6-7am in both directions. The most expensive buses (Scania) are not very clean, but offer almost a bed (including blanket and pillow, though probably not washed often). No Wi-Fi, no electricity, no toilet. The bus stops often near Makassar and near Rantepao, but none in between, so make sure you have water and food (and no need to use any toilet).
- 2 Kharisma. Advertises for free Wi-Fi.
- 3 Litha & co. 200,000 Rp (as of 2016), departure daily 20h30 from Rantepao (arrival 5am in Makassar). Very modern (and fairly comfortable) buses. However note that the air-con temperature is incredibly low; boarding the bus in Rantepao (with an outside temperature of 18-19°) will make you feel like entering a fridge. Be sure to bring tons of warm clothes. No Wi-Fi, no electricity, no toilet.
In principle, buying the ticket a couple of hours prior to departure is enough, except perhaps during busy periods such as Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan).
By taxi or charted vehicle
A chartered car usually costs about 850,000 - 1,200,000 Rupiah one-way from Makassar. It is possible to find one for a few hundred thousand less if you can coordinate with someone who is driving in that direction. If you plan on staying for a few days and would like the return trip as well, a driver with car should cost about 550,000 Rupiah per day.
Please beware that if you are planning to drive your own car, the stretch of road from Makassar, starting from Maros district area up to the town of Pare Pare is currently undergoing a road widening works. You may have to suddenly switch onto the opposite lane, because the lane you are on is blocked for the construction work. Be very careful and watch out for this kind of roadblock, because road signs indicating this is virtually non existent. This problem is made incredibly worse during night time by the absence of proper street light, so exercise extreme caution.
The road from the town of Enrekang to Makele (the town before Rantepao) is a stretch of unlit, small, winding, uphill road, accompanied with some fogging and drizzle at night. Along this road, you will frequently come across big buses going downhill from Makele. Gas station is few and far between, with intermittent local shops along the way. Again, these conditions make night time self driving best avoided.
The best way to go around is by motorbike (about 80,000Rp per day, as of 2016). This said, using public transportation is possible for most sites too.
Most of the spots can be visited without a guide (despite what your hotel will try to make you believe), though a guide may be useful for some of the more distant villages.
Bemo/mikrolet rides run from 2,000Rp for short rides of a few kilometers up to 10,000 Rp.
The Bolu bus terminal is a good way to find public transportation, especially towards the North of Rantepao. To get there from Rantepao, flag down any bemo (5000 Rp).
- 3 Bolu bus Terminal (2km north east from Rantepao).
Although it can be expensive if you are on a budget, a guide can provide a lot of insight into the local practices and customs. A problem is that most guides are not certified, and will not explain more to you than the Wikipedia page on Tana Toraja.
If you still want to hire a guide, the usual base price for one day is 375,000Rp (as of 2016), plus the motorbike (about 80000Rp) if you don't drive yourself. Of course, the prices quoted first may be much higher. A price of 400,000Rp for one day and one person that doesn't drive (and hence that will share the guide motorbike) is considered as a reasonably good price, as of 2016. If more than one person, the price shouldn't vary much, although you may need a longer time to bargain!
Of course, guides will try to make you believe that you should pay a lot of extras (lunch, tax, etc.), but it is a grift. A famous scam is to make you believe you will eat in a good restaurant (for which you had to pay in advance), and then change the schedule at the last minute to go immediately to the funeral (and hence skip the restaurant, which probably doesn't even exist).
It is possible to visit most of the famous sites and funerals on your own, although information can be hard to find from most hotel operators, as they will put a lot of pressure on you to hire a driver or a guide.
- 1 Bolu Buffalo Market (Pasar Bolu) (North of Rantepao. Can be accessed by bemo for 5,000Rp from central Rantepao (as of July 2016)). Every Tuesday and Saturday (morning). Free.
- Bori Parinding (North of Rantepao). The site of Bori Parinding is a combination of ceremonial grounds and burials. The ceremonial ground is an open space used for traditional ceremonies, including rituals for the dead and thanksgiving.
- Buntu Pune. Formerly, the sites of Buntu Pune and Rante Karassik belonged to one integrated settlement.
- Rante Karassik. The site of Rante Karassik is a ceremonial ground on a sloping hill.
- 2 Deri (North of Rantepao. Can be accessed by bemo for 15,000Rp from the Bolu bus terminal (that can be reached itself by bemo for 5,000Rp from Rantepao) You may have to wait quite some time before the bemo becomes full though.). Several tombs in full nature (in particular a particularly impressive forest of giant bamboos). The site is much less interesting than other equivalent ones in Tana Toraja, but the road reaching Deri is very scenic, with many villages as beautiful as Kete Kesu but without any tourist (nor entrance fee) here. Free.
- Kande Api. The site of Kande Api consists of a compound of houses and granaries, ceremonial ground and burial places.
- 3 Ke'te Kesu' (6km South of Rantepao (almost walking distance)). Among the nominated sites, Ke'te' Kesu' is the most complete settlement. The site consists of a compound of houses and granaries, burial place, ceremonial ground, ricefields and water-buffalo pasture. 20,000 Rp.
- 4 Lemo (South of Rantepao, near the main road). Lemo is also a cliff burial site with galleries of ancestor statues. One of the most interesting (and visited) sites. 20,000 Rp.
- 5 Londa (South of Rantepao; best is to take a bemo, and then walk for around 2 km from the main road). Londa is a grave site where two methods of burial are customary. One of the most interesting (and visited) sites. 20,000 Rp.
- Nanggala. Nanggala site is principally a compound of 2 houses (tongkonan) and 16 granaries (alang), arranged in rows and aligned east-west.
- Pala' Toke'. The site of Pala Toke is principally a burial place located on a towering limestone hill, from where a rice field extends to the north, east and west.
- Pallawa (North of Rantepao. Public transportation reach there for less than 15,000Rp.). Pallawa site is also a compound of houses and granaries. In total there are 11 houses and 15 granaries.
- Tumakke. The site of Tumakke displays a distinctive traditional house built on a raised terrace.
There are many walks (1-3 hours) that pass by many different types of grave sites, including the most popular sites. Most can be reached by short bemo rides from Rantepao and do not require guides.
Attend a funeral
If you come to Tana Toraja during the funeral season (peak is in July and August), attending a funeral is certainly a must-do. Funerals (entrance fee 20,000 Rupiah) are public events and served by public transport. Avoid offers by guides, telling you that they are private or difficult to access!
Your hotel probably will not help you to locate the funeral, claiming it is hard to find by yourself (it is not). In summer, (fake) guides might tell you that you are a lucky person because there is a funeral exactly the day you came. In fact, during the funeral season (July and August), there are funerals virtually every day except perhaps Sunday.
To go to a funeral, simply spot the pick-ups loaded with people with (more or less) black clothes, that go throughout Rantepao all day long. Just flag one down, and they will certainly be happy to have you on board.
The custom is to bring a present for the family of the deceased; most guides will tell you to bring (several packets of) cigarettes, but tea or candies for children can also do.
There is no official tourist information in Tana Toraja, but you may go to Tora Tora Primitive Art Gallery, which has a very friendly English-speaking owner who provides free maps of the area. It is on the main street in Rantepao. Beware of every offer that may look suspicious, though.
There are some restaurants in Rantepao and Makale. They serve menus of Indonesian, Chinese and Western food. Torajan specialties, such as pa'piong (chicken/pork or fish cooked with vegetables in bamboo tubes), are also available and usually must be ordered in advance (usually at least 2 hours).
See the Rantepao page for restaurants in Rantepao. Some restaurants in Makale or along the road between Rantepao and Makale:
- Wae Rumbang, Main Road to Makale, Pao Rura
- Idaman Restaurant, 28 Merdeka St. , Makale
- Rama, Main Road Makale - Rantepao
- Flamboyan, Main Road Makale - Rantepao
- Sallebayu, Ke'te kesu' st.
- Damai, Main Road Makale - Mengkendek, Makale
Local Torajan palm wine, ballo', is easily found. Buy it on the street. The darker, the stronger but be warned, it can be very strong.
The Tana Toraja region is famed for its coffee. In your local coffee house it will cost a small fortune. Drink the real thing here for a fraction of the cost. There are many places to drink coffee (see the Rantepao listings).
Besides Makassar, Tana Toraja is the only area in the Province of South Sulawesi which owns several star hotels. Some widely known star hotels in Tana Toraja are Toraja Heritage Hotel , Toraja Misiliana Hotel , Toraja Prince Hotel and Toraja Sahid Hotel and Tongkonan Layuk Lion .
There are also a number of non-star hotels, home-stays and local residences available for accommodation.
Most of the hotels provide standard facilities such as single and double bed, hot and cold water, telephone line, entertainment, meals while some provide additional ones like sports facility, spa and massage, laundry and others.
Do not get fooled by the relatively more comfortable temperatures than in Makassar (the temperature hardly goes above 28°, and nights tend to be cool): the sun is dangerous here, and you will use a lot of sun screen. Also bring a pullover for outdoor evenings or nights.
It often rains in Tana Toraja, even during the "dry season", and much more than, e.g., in Makassar. As a rule of thumb, it tends to rain more often in the afternoon or evening than in the morning.
There is a low risk of malaria in Tana Toraja. Contact your favorite tropical doctor before departure to decide whether you need a treatment. In any case, try to avoid mosquito bites, as the region is also infected by dengue.
Avoid contact with dogs and other animals that may carry rabies.
The air quality along the main road of Rantepao (along which most touristic facilities are located) is extremely bad, and bringing an N95 mask may be of great help.
International phone operators: 101. International Direct Dialing prefix: 001, 007, or 008.
- 108 (if using a cell phone locally dial 0423 108)
The 3G connection is overall bad (and often non-existing) in Tana Toraja. Only parts of Rantepao have 3G, the rest only getting a slow edge network. Most tourist sites (Lemo, Londa…) won't be connected to any Internet network, and sometimes not even to any phone network.
- Ambulance: 118.
- Police stations:
- Polres Tana Toraja, Jl. Bhayangkara, Makale. Tel: 0423-22100
- Polsek Rantepao, Jl. Budi Utomo, Rantepao. Tel: 0423-21358
- Army Headquarter:
- Kodim 1414 Tana Toraja, Jl. Pong Tiku, Rantepao. Tel: 0423-21255
- Lakipadada Hospital, Jl. Poros Makale - Rantepao. Tel: 0423-22118,22023,22264
- Fatimah Hospital, Jl. Nusantara. Tel: 0423-22058
- Elim Hospital, Jl.Jend. Ahmad Yani. Tel:423-21258
- Marampa' Childbirth Hospital, Jl. A.Mappanyukki. Tel:0423-21036