Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi – The Land of Kings

Submitted by indohoyindohoy on 2 November 2008   •  Itinerary

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November, 2008

After visiting many beaches of Indonesia, I thought a change of destination would be nice. Fortunately, a very good friend of mine, Epan, seduced me in to visiting a place that was on my ‘to do’ list. It’s a land that celebrates death. Now there are a lot of places that celebrate mortality all around the world, Africa, South America, and other Asia countries, but why chose them when there are so plenty in Indonesia. (And I can’t afford to go there anyways hehehe) Besides Bali with its ‘Ngaben’ (a cremation celebration), there is the land of kings… Tana Toraja.

Tana Toraja

No kidding… It is the land of royalty!

In the local language, Tana means Land, To means People, and Raja translates as Kings. So, it’s literally translated as the Land of Kings. This area is said to be where the Kings use to live when they were prosperous. There are still many of their descendants but they’re undetected in the modern world radar. Yet they exist amongst the locals and you can probably see these ‘important’ people in traditional events for sure!

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A particular symbol of this area is the Tongkonan. People mistake it as the traditional house of Toraja, when in fact it’s a storage place for rice during the year. Traditional houses are similar but the grand ones are for the rice storage. The more Tongkonan a family has, the wealthier they are, because they produce a lot of rice. And Tongkonan is no ordinary structure. I failed to see any ordinary Tongkonan, every single one is decorated beautifully, even though some show deterioration, with the specific patterns of the area showing how pricey they are.

Londa- Exposed graveyard

After having our complimentary Toraja coffee, Epan and I decided to take the advice of one of the guides at the motel. We headed to Londa, a place where they bury the dead exposed within a cave.

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To reach the area, you need to walk about 20 minutes from the gate on a small path. It’s a great walk because it’s all green and has a great view of rice paddies. At the gate you would have to pay Rp 5,000/person to enter. We saw an albino buffalo!! … just an intermezzo, it can be worth hundreds of million rupiah. If I have known this, I would have run away with it when I had the chance.

Tana Toraja

At Londa, we were approached by Pak Silo. He was one of the guides offering touring services and rented out the petromax light. Renting the light was about Rp 20,000 with an extra guiding service. Pak Silo seemed pretty nice, so we thought we would spread some of Jakarta money anyways. Pak Silo, and all the other guides, comes from the surrounding village. He bare foots since shoes and sandals always tend to hurt his feet severely. A trade a modern world hardly sees and made me wanna barefoot.

The ancestor apparently had already predicted the problems about cemeteries. Pak Silo said that putting the dead in the caves saves burial area and doesn’t contaminate the soil. I don’t think he had any knowledge of what our urban culture experience with cemeteries. Now how cool are our ancestors??! When somebody dies, they are kept well until the family has enough for a proper burial. After a big ceremony, according to the wealth and prestige of the deceased, they are then placed in a slot somewhere in the cave. Inside you could see coffins and bones of the dead, not to mention remains of the deceased clothes. Strangely, it doesn’t smell anything like corpses. I was amazeeedddd to be amongst dead bodies but not fill the chill of it.

At Londa, the higher and wealthier you are, the higher you are placed in the cave. They have graves reaching about 50 m or more. Now how on earth do you get a grave up there? A temporary wooden structure would the trick, but seriously beats the hell out of me! Only the local people from surrounding villages are placed here, and Pak Silo said he will be too… that part actually creeped me out, feeling how strong the tradition is and this is still a practice that will go on and on.

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Bori – prehistoric choice of burial

Bori is another graveyard we visited. Different to other areas, here they present Menhirs as a symbol of the dead. The bigger the Menhir, the wealthier and prestigious the person is. It was a memorial of the person dying. Now I thought this was a practice long left, but turns out that they still have these Menhirs around. I have nooo idea how they can carry such a huge rock from one place to another,… I’m not sure they can rent a crane or something to pick it up… I wonder?

Bori and is a tourist attraction located in a remote peaceful area surrounded by beautiful rice paddys and Tongkonan are spread amongst the houses everywhere you see… it’s not just a symbol. When heading back home, through the villages, you could see more recent Menhirs, so it’s still an ongoing practice. The modern Menhir which was seen in villages as you pass, have pictures of the deceased reminding people who it’s dedicated to.

Within Bori, heading up the stairway, you see huge rocks carved with squares to place the dead inside. In front of the graves, you’ll find items that are the dearest to the deceased. Sitting amongst the graves again didn’t bring the spooks… but that was probably because I was with a friend and it was day time hehehe…

Tana Toraja

My favorite part of the area is the baby grave. It’s located in the far back. They say that when a baby died not long from its birth or when it hasn’t been born yet, it’s then buried within the bark of the tree so that it lives with the tree spirit. I don’t know if they still use this practice. It’s so touching to see the grave and imagining small babies inside taken cared by the trees. And

Nanggala Village… our calling!

Before heading to Toraja, we heard that there was going to be a huge ceremony in the Nanggala village. People often say it’s hard to get a ceremony in Toraja. So, Nanggala was the reason we came, but turns out that ceremony is quiet often here, especially around the school holidays, in July. So, no worries about the ceremony. If you spend 1 week here, you definitely get a ceremony in one of the villages.

At Nanggala, there sure was a big party, but it has been going on for some time. The day we were there, a buffalo match was to start. Since a good friend of ours, Risang and Marissa, were way friendly and became family instantly with the people that held the party, we were allowed to join the watch. We watched from a built stage on the hill, looking at the rice paddies which were the battle field. Sometimes the buffalo fought, most times one of them ran away and got chased by their opponent. There wasn’t much action, but we loved the festive ambience anyways. And like any other party… no rain stopped anyone hehehe….

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Tinibayo – the mini Botutumongga

Everyone will definitely recommend you to head out to Batutumongga. This is a high area which shows you the whole area of Toraja all the way to the coast which is about up to an hour drive. They said it’s a great scenery… they say? We didn’t go there hehehe… we chose Tinibayo, a smaller area with a great view. It’s located on the way to Batutumongga. It was enough to take my breath away, and it wasn’t so commercial. There is a small café here showing the extensive rice paddy all the way down hills with scattered rocks from a volcano blast long long time ago. The air was crispy and we had instant noodle with a non instant chilly paste. One of the best combinations I’ve ever had. And of course… the coffee…

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Suaya Village – the grave for Kings

Suaya is not much different to Londa. But it is said to be the grave of the local kings. But since this is the land of Kings and people are buried according to their home village, it’s probably the grave for the kings of the area. The difference probably is the statues of the dead which were older and more apparent than Londa. We got there about too late in the afternoon, hence there was no more activities left.

I think a grave was just put in

The ojeg driver to this area actually said something funny, he said his life is really strange. He needs to collect money for his dead mother in law. That cost about 5-6 million rupiah which is really hard for a ojeg driver. He said “Kita memang aneh, kok kita hidup buat yang mati?” translating to we are weird, why do we live for the dead? I guess you can’t choose your blood and your traditional ancestors???  

This was our last venue. We eventually went home the next morning, enjoying half of the scenery (half the time I was asleep hehehe). It was a great change of ambience for a while. Being so light amongst the dead definitely changed my view of death. Although not altering it to be something you should celebrate, but I understood death as something you have to accept as a part of life and not taking it too much as such a tragedy. And those dead are just around us and not to be spooked about. I hope it would give the same meaning to those that visit yet have a hard time to let go of the deceased.

It took us about 5 days there. We didn’t see everything but we didn’t force it either. We were on vacation no? A week would be great the highlights of the area. Add another week and I think you can cover the whole area. Hey, that means I need another week there *wink*!

Coto Pangkep – Not local but yummo

The majority of the locals are Christians. Since Epan and I happen to be Muslim, we had to find something that didn’t contain any pork and such. A restaurant that was ‘halal’ or kosher was at a Coto Pangkep on the main road not far from the main monument. Coto Pangkep is not a specific traditional dish of Toraja but is specific to the south Sulawesi area. You could eat the soup and rice and choice of fried chicken or fish for about Rp 26,000/person. It was really good especially after we were soaking wet from the rain.

Rimiko Restaurant – another café to help the stomach

Fair enough, it was a great place to hang out. Besides it had your needs of beer, it has traditional and modern dishes decorated with a dim and woody atmosphere. It is also located on the main road passing.

According to a backpacking mailing list, one of the places recommended for backpackers is Indra Hotel Indra Toraja. I can assume that it’s within foreign backpacker budget. A room cost about Rp 180,000 for two beds not including 20% sevice tax. They also have rooms with queen and king size beds. This hotel is located near the main market, left turn from the central monument when entering the city from Makale. It’s quiet big and located on the left side of the road. A lot of people know this area so you could ask around.

Tana Toraja

Wisma Maria 2

Since we thought  there must be other places that are more affordable, we decided to look around. It was 10 pm but safe to walk around even though definitely looking like tourist. We then tried another recommended place called Wisma Maria 2. This motel is located not far from Indra, just turning left at the corner of the hotel and is a walk away. A room with 2 single beds cost Rp 80,000. Just right for our pockets. Rooms can extend up to Rp 120,000 with variations of amounts and sizes of beds. And all bathrooms are inside the room. To our surprise, the next morning showed us how really nice this motel was. It had a great scenery, it’s clean, sufficient white sheets, and great coffee… Toraja coffee!!! We were more then satisfied to stay at this small humble motel.

Tana Toraja

Hostel view

This motel also provides guiding services. I can’t remember the guys name, but there is one guide that’s still pretty young and good looking that was nice enough to recommend us some places for free. Guides could really help you since this area is full of historical and traditional values.

To Get To Royalty

Reaching this royal land, you will have to start from Makassar. If you intentionally would like to visit the area, take a plane ride from Jakarta to Makassar. Regular, non promotional tickets will start from about RP 650,000 per pax. It can go pretty high depending to the typical holiday scenario.

Once reaching at Makassar airport, Hasanuddin International Airport, there are alternatives to reach Tana Toraja. The fastest way is taking a plane to Tana Toraja. It would take about half an hour to get there but for the time being we’re not sure about the schedule and price. You can ask Merpati airlines for this since they are the only ones flying in. A more certain scenario is to take the bus. A very recommended way to get anywhere, because one thing you can see is the change of architecture of the traditional houses. It’s a 10 hour bus ride.

There are a lot of busses leaving Makassar to Tana Toraja. Most of them start in Daya bus terminal. Here, you can find executive busses, economy busses, and public looking cars taking you to Tana Toraja. Most of the executive busses also start from Makassar city but it depends on what line you’re using.

Since the terminal is not too far from the airport, we decided to head straight to the terminal. You can take a taxi which would cost about Rp 60,000 or do the adventurous way. Take the airport shuttle from the base floor. It starts from 6 am to the afternoon, and runs about once every 20 minutes. After reaching the main road, don’t cross the road. Just take the ‘pete-pete’ or public transportation to the city which would cost Rp 2,000/person. Ask the driver to drop you at the Daya terminal, and it’s a walk away.

Daya terminal

A helpful tip that we got is once you get to the terminal, you should say that you have a reservation with Litha bus company to anyone asking. Enter the terminal by buying a Rp 500/person for retribution and head straight to the Litha ticket booth. It’s located in the main corridor.

Tana Toraja

An executive bus is fairly cheap. It cost about Rp 80,000/person for any bus line and about Rp 100,000 for a public car. The bus facilities include AC, reclined comfy seats for a small person like me (155 cm or 5’2″ ), but no toilet. Don’t worry, the bus makes stops for meals or to nature calling needs. Busses leave as early as 9 am, and as late as 9 pm, and there is about 3-4 busses a day.

Tana Toraja

You will then reach Makale, the main city of the area, after a 9-10 hour bus ride. This is an alternative city you can stay in. We didn’t choose to explore this city because we had limited time. But Rante Pao is definitely the tourism base for those that really wanna see Tana Toraja. So don’t hop off just yet. Another hour from this area you will reach Rante Pao at Litha’s base, located on the main vain of the city. Quiet convenient!

To here and there

The main road is called Mappanyuki street. There is a Tongkonan monument on the road which is basically the center of the city. It would be easy to use this monument as a center point of your journey.

There are no taxis in the city. So to travel around, you can use a professional guiding services, or… do the backpack way, you can get around by public transportation. Most convenient is a Sitor. This covered up motorcycle will cost Rp 5,000 within the main city, and you would have to bargain the higher price offered if you want to use it to further places, which is possible such as Bori and Nanggala.

Tana Toraja

To reach Londa, we walked to the main monument, and took a public transport, looking like a private car, that was heading to Makale. We stopped at the entrance gate and paid Rp 5,000/person for the ride. You could also reach the area using a sitor.

The main public transportation terminal is Bolu. It cost Rp 3,000/person from the main road of Rante Pao to Bolu. Ask around and people will show you where to head. Better yet, ask the policemen that has a station just across the street. From Bolu, you can basically can get to anywhere from here.

– To Tinibayo or Batutumongga, take a mini bus located in the north west part of the terminal. You would have to wait until it’s full. This would cost about Rp 15,000 / pax

– To Bori you would have to take the mini bus from the center of the terminal; Rp 6,000/person

– To Nanggala, you have to walk outside of the terminal the area and get a car from the main road. This cost about Rp 5,000/person

Tana Toraja

An exception was to Londa and Suaya. These areas are located in the south part. It’s a bit more tricky to get to Suaya. Head for the Makale bus terminal and take a public car to Sanggala village. It will cost you Rp 5,000/person. If you tell the driver that you heading for Suaya, he will drop you off at the Ojeg station. From there we took an ojeg cause it was more convenient, because it is quite remote in to the villages. So sorry, but I really forgot how much it cost to get there.

Tana Toraja is a small hidden area located in the north part of South Sulawesi, with Makassar as the capital city of the province. It is a mountainous terrain, with cliffs and walls that are used for rock climbing activities. An option for those interested. Although located in South Sulawesi, it is much different than the other ethnics in this part of the province. This is probably due to their isolation in to the mountains. And the chill cool air is probably also the reason they don’t wonder far from their beds at home… I would imagine so for me 🙂

Tana Toraja Goods: Distribute Your Money

Shopping around Toraja is quite rich. There a lot of places you can spread wealth. A great place to get traditional weaving cloths is at Tedi’s shop located not far from the Litha bus pool on the main road. Not much to see on the ground floor, but peak in to the next floor to see a great shopping ambience and a great range of cloths to choose from. They are really beautiful, trust me! If I was filthy rich I would stupidly buy the cloths in this shop. And Toraja is also known for its specific patterns that are also embedded in the patterns in the weaving.

Tana Toraja

There are also souvenirs and antique shops on the main road that sell goods that is traditional and old. Some antiques were really good and extremely expensive for us… hence we usually leave the shop torn to pieces since we weren’t rich enough… hiks… oh the envy!

An interesting thing was we went in a shop that also sells bulauanor jewelry. The jewelry was just put in the glass cupboard with the door open and was placed in a mess. Turns out it cost about Rp 800,000 for one of the small necklace, since it was covered with gold. I’m curious if they’re just careless or really believe in Karma?

Tana Toraja

The market is always a choice to see what goodies the area stores. Besides of spices and daily necessities, markets in Toraja also provide ground coffee. The area is very famous for its Robusta coffee, and the coffee you find in the markets are as good as the ones you find in restaurant, not to mention it’s cheaper… way cheaper!

Other interesting things to see are the detergent they sell. They sure like to name them with expressions 🙂

Tana Toraja

Since we were there on a Sunday, Bolu market was filled with Buffalo for trade. Buffalo is a huge trade here, they even bring many of them from outside of the area due to the demand. More prestigious a person is, the more buffalo must be killed on their burial day. We heard a royal family can slaughter more than 100 buffalos because of the demand of their position in the society. Pigs were also sold here and tied up pretty bad, and baby pigs were sold in bags… a sight no animal rights activist should see!

Tana Toraja


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[…] also got me thinking about the caves of Londa in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi. Within the cave and also scattered around the cave entrance were coffins and also […]

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