One of the elements of the South Sulawesi landscape that really caught my eye were the houses and their architecture, from the curved rooftops of Torajan traditional homes to the stilt houses that line the road around Bira on the … Continue reading
Tana Toraja was my favourite part of South Sulawesi, despite the nine-hour bus journey from Makassar. Arriving in the cool, mountainous region we settled in at our hotel on the outskirts of Makale. The greenery of the landscape and the fresh air were a relief after hot, dusty Makassar, and the sloping roofs of traditional Torajan houses dotted across the valleys were a beautiful sight.
On our first morning in Toraja we took a public car up to Rantepao. These public cars, also called kijangs, ply the Makale—Rantepao road, operating as buses, picking up and dropping off passengers. The 18km journey only cost Rp. 5000 per person and we chatted to the other passengers, including two women who were bringing vegetables to sell at the market.
Rantepao is the main town in the area for tourists, although Makale is the Indonesian administrative centre. With a bustling market selling everything from food to clothes to souvenirs, it was pleasant to walk around the town centre. You can pick up Tana Toraja t-shirts, key rings and other trinkets as well as locally produced fabrics and traditional Torajan cakes. We tried kue jipang, a sweet rice-cake, kue tori, sweet slightly spongy cakes which taste more appealing than they look, and kacang sembunyi, which means hidden peanut.
We hired a motorbike for a mere Rp. 150,000 for three days (including nights) from Lebonna on Jl. W. Monginsidi, just round the corner from Hotel Indra Toraja. Having had problems with an automatic bike on mountainous roads in Bali, we chose a semi-automatic model, which would give us the all-important first gear for climbing those hills. Although the bike appeared in poor condition, it turned out to be able to handle the broken-up asphalt and giant potholes that are a main feature of the roads in this area.
Torajan Funeral Ceremony
We had heard about the Torajan funeral ceremonies, for which this culture is famous, and which visitors to the area are free to watch. Held mainly in July and August, with the dead being preserved with formaldehyde and kept at their home for a period of perhaps months before burial, we were right on time to witness a ceremony.
The woman at Lebonna gave us useful advice: if you see a large pick-up truck full of people wearing black, it means they are probably going to a funeral. Follow the truck and you can watch a funeral ceremony without needing a guide.
We immediately spotted a truck of people clothed in black and followed it. Not far out of town, the truck did indeed lead us to a Torajan funeral ceremony, a spectacular event being held to mark a wealthy and important person’s death, with guests coming and going over a period of days.
Each group of guests waited outside until announced by the MC, when they would process in, led by a singer and a flute player, and sit in the allotted place. Families donated pigs and buffaloes for sacrifice and the air was filled with the stench of killing.
We were allowed to watch, take photos and film the goings-on without any complaints; in Toraja it is normal for tourists to watch the traditional funeral ceremonies. We were pleased to be able to go without a guide, by following a truck, thereby having an independent experience and saving money. When we had any questions we just asked a bystander.