Traditional Tongkonan houses in Lempo village, Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja – Funerals, Sacrifices & Walking Dead

This post was last updated on May 25th, 2020 at 09:51 am


The special region of Tana Toraja is located in the southeast of Sulawesi. The culture in this region is without a doubt unique. Life of the locals here revolves around one thing: death. They have been saving their entire lives to have the best funeral possible for their deceased loved ones. The houses with boat-shaped roofs are also unique and beautiful to see. The landscape of Tana Toraja is also very beautiful. The rocks, terraced rice fields, and the lush greenery make this a beautiful area for a walking tour.

 

Tana Toraja is located about 250 kilometers north of Makassar. Because of the beautiful surroundings and the special culture that you will find here, Tana Toraja is at the top of the list of every traveler who visits Sulawesi. This does not mean that it is very touristy here. On the contrary. It is still fairly undeveloped.

 

Organized tours mainly go to more famous places. And since it is a large area, there are plenty of places that you have all to yourself and your camera.

 

Funerals in Tana Toraja

The funerals in Tana Toraja are so special that you have to experience them. The inhabitants of this region are always concerned with death. Traditional burial ceremonies have been held here for centuries.

 

Although customs have changed over the centuries, it is still an impressive and bloody scene.

 

A lot of money is spent on this; people even save for it all year round. During the funerals, buffalo and pigs are slaughtered (often on the street), for which a lot of money is often paid. There is also a lot of dancing, eating, and drinking. The wealthier are buried in caves or “hung” in one of the surrounding cliffs. These cliffs are guarded by the traditional Tau Tau, life-size wooden statues.

 

There is more than enough food and drinks for everyone who is present and traditional dances are performed.

 

Burial Ground with graves for the Tana Toraja funerals

 

Attending a Funeral

Most funerals are held from July to September. This is also reflected in the number of tourists at that time. However, there are also funerals during the rest of the year. The Torahs are known for their hospitality and it is not strange to be invited to a funeral.

 

A visit to a ceremony is a unique experience. If you want to know more about the background, it is advisable to hire a guide who can tell you everything about the rituals.

 

TIP – Please note that you will see animals that are slaughtered.

 

Most travelers see the funerals as the highlight of Tana Toraja, but there is much more to do. There are beautiful treks that you can walk and nice motorcycle tours. 

 

The largest ceremonies are usually held in July and August.

 

Things to Do in & Around Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja is best known for the quirky funeral ceremonies, but there is certainly a lot more to experience. Below we list the most interesting things to do in and around this beautiful part of Sulawesi.

 

Visit Rantepao

The main entry to Tana Toraja is Rantepao. It is also the “largest” city. Rantepao is the perfect base from which to learn more about Toraja culture. From here you can visit the many different traditional Toraja villages in the region such as Palawa, Pangli, and Sadan.

 

In Palawa you can see the traditional Toraja houses – Tongkonan – in Pangli you will find tau-tau and house tombs and in Sadan you can admire the traditional weaving art of the Toraja. South of Rantepao there are also traditional houses in Karasbik and Buntu Pune and in Kete Kesu you can get acquainted with the woodcarving art of the Toraja and see other tau-tau and tombs.

 

Most travelers come between July and September due to the well-known funeral ceremonies that take place here.

 

Rantepao village with Tongkonan houses in Tana Toraja
The traditional tongkonan houses in Rantepao

 

Rent a Bicycle or Scooter

You can easily explore the region on your own. You can do this, for example, by renting a scooter or mountain bike – even if it is a bit of a search for a rental company. Which places should you go to? We recommend Kamira, Londa, Lemo, Makale, and Suaya. In many places you will come into contact with death. You will see hanging coffins, caves full of graves, and tree graves. The latter concerns baby corpses attached to a tree. Especially in the villages Lemo and Londa you will find many caves with graves.

 

But you don’t just see “death” during your trip, because when you drive past the small villages, the locals greet you enthusiastically. Kete Kesu is a traditional and well-known village, where you can also view the inside of a traditional house. Another attraction worth visiting is Batutumonga. Here it is all about a magnificent view over the rice fields and beautiful nature. The view becomes even more beautiful the higher you go. Nearby you will also find Loko’Mata: a large rock in which all kinds of burial chambers are made.

 

Go on a Walking Tour

It is great fun to do a walking tour of a few days here, including overnight stays. You walk past rice fields, small authentic villages and you come across the graves hanging from the rocks. Use the village of Rantepao as a base for your walking tour.

 

Visit Batutumonga in the North

If you like beautiful views and nature, Batutumonga is an absolute must-visit. It was our guide who gave us this tip since she lives in this beautiful village. Once you’re at the top, you get a wonderful panoramic view of the rice fields as a reward. Rice fields that are bright yellow in color with a bit of luck.

 

So, grab a scooter or mountain bike and enjoy the breathtaking surroundings. The higher you go, the better the view. The route alone is already worth taking. Nearby lies Loko’Mata, a giant stone with more than 20 burial chambers and some Tongkonans in miniature form. It’s a very interesting sight to behold

 

TIP – Walk from Batutumonga to the top of Gunung Sesean in the early morning to watch the sunrise. You don’t need to climb anything but the walk takes about three to four hours. Camping is possible.

 

Lush rice terraces in Batutumonga
Gorgeous rice terraces in Batutumonga

 

Drink Delicious Toraja Coffee at Kaana Toraya Coffee

Are you a coffee lover like us? Indonesia has numerous coffee plantations, each with its own distinctive taste. This is also the case in Toraja. The “problem” is only the way it is prepared: coffee powder in a glass and then stirring with a spoon. The result: watery stuff with sludge.

 

Fortunately, there are a few shops in Rantepao with machines and filter specialties. One is Kaana Toraya Coffee. The variation is large, so you can even opt for “Vietnamese drip”. Our favorites: the double espresso and the Toraja filter coffee.

 

The place is not very easy to find. Just ask at your accommodation or a local and they will kindly show you the way to this cozy place.

 

Another coffee shop that is closer to the Rantepao center is JAK Coffee. This place has good reviews, although it was closed for seven days when we came by.

 

TIP – Interested in more coffee facts? Check out our article on Sulawesi Coffee.

 

Visit a Tongkonan Village

We already mentioned the word “Tongkonan” a few times in this article. A Tongkonan is a Toraja house with a typical saddle-like roof. Or a roof in the shape of a boat, depending on how you see it.

 

Anyway, it is nice to meet the local residents who live in such a Tongkonan village. We went to Tongkonan Rante in Bolusu with Liber, a local from Makassar. A very nice experience. For example, he showed us the inside of such a house and we got to know all the residents. Among them were some shy children who spontaneously started singing in a group after a while.

 

The locals invited us to spend the night in the late afternoon. However, since they are sleeping on the ground here, it didn’t seem like such a good plan.

 

You can also take a look at the village of Palawa, although in our opinion, it is much less special. We feel it is more of a tourist attraction. For example, you pay an entrance fee to gain access to a home and there are various souvenir shops with somewhat pushy salesmen.

 

Kete Kesu, a traditional tongkonan village in Tana Toraja
Kete Kesu, a traditional tongkonan village in Tana Toraja

 

Experience Ma’ne: a Bizarre Ritual

Now we know that judging is generally wrong, but when we label Ma’ne as bizarre, we don’t feel like we’re saying anything wrong. You’ve never seen anything like it before.

 

Ma’ne is the ritual in which mummified corpses are dried, changed, and dressed up. The next of kin with the deceased walk in a straight line through the village. This straight-line forms the path of Hyang and has a spiritual meaning. It is believed that the soul of the deceased person should cross over to connect with Hyang, a supernatural force.

 

Ever seen a “walking” mummy with sunglasses? In Toraja it is certainly possible.

 

Tana Toraja - Mummies Walking in the Street
It’s honestly pretty creepy but very unique

 

Is Pasar Bolu Worth It?

Pasar Bolu is a market just outside the center of Rantepao. And not just any market. The largest income here mainly comes from the sale of water buffaloes, which are purchased for sacrifices during funerals.

 

We didn’t think it was very interesting to see, and frankly, it looked quite sad for the animals. Sad, because they are tied with a string through their nose and have little room to move.

 

Besides water buffaloes, pigs are also offered. Furthermore, of course, the usual vegetables, fruit, and local coffee. Coconuts are also dirt cheap there. Only 5,000 to 7,000 IDR. In USD this means a maximum of 45 cents.

 

Dolls in a stone wall in Lemo village, Tana Toraja
Some creepy dolls in Lemo village 😉

 

Tana Toraja Food

In Sulawesi they eat absolutely everything from buffalo, snakes to even dogs. If you prefer to skip dogs, always inquire about the dish. If you want to explore Tana Toraja, it is best to stay overnight in Rantepao. This is a small village where you will find many accommodations, a few restaurants, and some shops. Although it is not bursting with hip hotspots here, we have 2 nice dining tips for you.

 

  • Restaurant The House: If you want something different, go to The House. A super hip restaurant with delicious (even Western) food and great Vietnamese Egg Coffee. The Gado Gado was also very good.
  • Restaurant Aras: On the menu you will find many traditional dishes. Here they serve Pa Piong, among others. A traditional Torahian dish. In a bamboo stick, meat is cooked over the fire along with herbs and rice. You must order the dish a day in advance.

 

Transport

If you have not been able to arrange a scooter, you always have these 3 options:

 

Public bus: Costs about US$0.20 but they only drive up to 6 hours and it is quite difficult to recognize. Some help from locals is often required. But then you’ll have a cheap way to your destination.

Ojek: Costs about US$1. If there are some men with scooters next to the road, they can often take you to your destination. Unfortunately, you cannot recognize them that well. However, if you look a bit lost next to the road, they often recognize you 😉

Tricycle: Costs about US$1.50. Always nice, a tricycle. Our favorite, but unfortunately not always the fastest option.

 

Where to Stay

Most accommodations can be found in Rantepao. This includes a few guesthouses. In general for a good price, but in July and August, the prices do rise considerably. On Booking.com you will find the largest offer of accommodations and you can easily book a room or bed.

 

How to Get There

Rantepao is the gateway to the region. You can get there by bus. Long-distance buses run to Rantepao and often at night. Since most travelers come from Makassar, this is also the cheapest and easiest route. A ticket costs about 100,000 IDR (around US$7) and the journey takes 8 hours. Try to book in advance, especially in July and August.

 

Other destinations to and from Rantepao are Mamasa (100,000 IDR, 12 hours), Palu (170,000 IDR, 20 hours), Poso (150,000 IDR, 12 hours), and Pendelo (100,000 IDR, 8 hours).

 

We went from Makassar to Rantepao (Tana Toraja) by bus (Manggala Trans, 9 a.m.). They say it’s a seven-hour drive. However, expect nine to ten hours of travel time. Buses depart from Terminal Daya, where you can easily get by using a Grab bike.

 

TIP – Walk to the ticket counter yourself and do not accept the “help” offered at the terminal. As soon as you let someone guide you to the ticket counter, you pay commission. For example, our ticket was 180,000 IDR instead of 130,000 IDR. Quite a fat commission, at least in terms of percentage.

 

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Tana Toraja depends on your own wishes. The best season in terms of weather is the months of June to September because they average the least rainfall.

 

In addition, you have the best chance to attend a ceremony in July and August. Keep in mind that prices will also go up slightly in these months. The rainy season runs from October to February. In the table below you can find the average weather per month.

 

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
30°C 31°C 32°C 32°C 32°C 32°C 32°C 31°C 31°C 31°C 30°C 30°C
140
mm
185
mm
105
mm
145
mm
180
mm
135
mm
150
mm
185
mm
225
mm
270
mm
245
mm
205
mm

 

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