“Death is the greatest of all human blessings”
I suppose these words by Socrates mirrors what Toraja people believe in, whereby death is the ultimate goal. From the grand departure tradition of the dead called Rambu Solo to the ceremony of changing the deceased’s clothes called Ma’nene, there is no wonder Toraja is much-publicised for having one of the most bizarre funeral customs in the world.
However, upon my visit to this Land of Heavenly Kings from Makassar, organised by the Republic of Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism for The Most Unforgettable Experience Familiarisation Trip (Makassar-Toraja Overland), I learned that Toraja is more than just one-of-a-kind tradition. The land is surprisingly rich not only with unique culture, but also charming natural wonders that add to many reasons why this land should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Toraja at Glance
- Toraja is a mountainous region in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. It also refers to the indigenous ethnic group.
- Rantepao is the capital city of North Toraja; Makale is the capital city of Tana Toraja.
- Toraja, in Buginese language (To Riaja) means the place where northern people lived.
- Majority of the people is Christian while others are Muslims and animists (the animistic belief is called Aluk To Dolo)
Getting to Toraja from Kuala Lumpur
- Air Asia (www.airasia.com) flies directly between Kuala Lumpur (klia2) and Makassar (Sultan Hasanuddin Airport) four times weekly.
- Trans Nusa (www.transnusa.co.id) flies between Makassar and Tana Toraja (Pongtiku Airport) daily except Sunday.
- Alternatively, there are several daily morning and night bus services linking Makassar and Rantepao.
Tip: It is recommended to book your ticket early during holiday or peak season (June-August) because the buses between Makassar and Toraja would be fully-booked by then. You can book your ticket through www.indoglobaltours.com or get assistance from your tour guide.
My odyssey began as soon as we arrived at Sultan Hasanuddin Airport Makassar where I was greeted with a warm welcome by the team from Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism. We were then brought to the four-star Aston Makassar Hotel, right in the heart of Makassar.
Since the night was still young, my media friends and I decided to walk around the city, accompanied by our friends from the ministry. It was heartening to see Makassar vibrant night life. We also savoured popular local food like pisang epe (flattened, grilled bananas with palm sugar syrup), bakso bakar (grilled meatball), coto Makassar (soup with beef and seasoned broth from ground peanuts and spices) and sara’ba susu (a ginger-based drink with palm sugar mixed with milk), which travellers must try.
After breakfast, we began the 10-hour bus ride to Toraja. Though it would take us one day to reach our destination, I was so looking forward to what the journey holds.
After riding for an hour, we arrived at our first stop which was the Rammang-Rammang at Maros. Nothing excites me more than knowing that the place I was about to visit is Asia’s second and the world’s third largest karst area. To explore the place, we rode on a small boat passing through nipa palm trees in mangrove swamp that overlooks the mountainous limestone rock formations. 30 minutes later, we arrived at Kampung Berua, a small village populated by 20 families. This village is so calming – with serene view of paddy fields surrounded by verdant stone forest – that all travellers should make it a point to set foot here. Though Rammang-Rammang is reachable by land, I recommend that travellers use the river route to appreciate the area’s unmarred beauty that are bound to leave them speechless along the way.
Then, we continued the next two hours of our journey to Bukit Kenari Hotel and Restaurant in Pare-Pare for lunch. The dishes such as fried fish, squid coated in powder and barobbo (corn porridge) were downright satisfying, especially when they are accompanied by beautiful sea-view that can be seen from the restaurant.
We proceeded to Pare-Pare’s iconic religious attraction, located not far from the restaurant. Masjid Agung Pare-Pare, is a huge mosque built in 2010 and has since become a tourism attraction due to its pulchritude characterised by stunning architectural design topped with five shimmering three-colour large tiled domes.
The journey onwards was about traversing mountains and hills. It rained earlier on but as we began our ascent, the rain slowly stopped. The magnificent transition between city to highland view that can be spotted from the bus window kept me awake. I was lucky that suddenly I saw a huge rainbow between the gigantic mountain ranges. It was perhaps the most spectacular rainbow I ever witnessed.
We stopped by at Rumah Makan Jemz Gunung Nona at Bambapuang where we were welcomed by refreshing coffee, fried bananas and the exotic view of Gunung Nona (Nona Mountain). Well, I assumed that ‘exotic’ is the suitable adjective to describe the mountain as the geographical structure is probably something you might not see anywhere else in the world; it resembles female private part. The name Nona means ‘virgin lady’. There are myths and legends about the mountain that relates to its formation and name but I prefer to appreciate it for its breathtaking panorama. Locals also believe that Gunung Nona is the gateway used by the Toraja ancestors to descend from heaven to populate the earth.
As we arrived in Toraja, it was already dark, so we directly checked in at Toraja Heritage Hotel for dinner and rest. The hotel is said to be one of the best hotels in Toraja, located 700 metres above sea level. Built in a green, garden-like setting, the hotel offers 160 accommodation units, some of them housed in buildings similar to traditional Toraja style house called tongkonan.
Our first visit in Toraja was to the Rantepao morning market. The market is where locals buy fresh, raw food including fish, meat, vegetable and the famous Toraja coffee. Everywhere you go, you will be able to see tongkonan inundating the surroundings. However, to witness more authentic tongkonan in a real Torajan village, head to Palawa’ in the district of Sa’dan, about 12km north of Rantepao.
Tip: The locals are very friendly with tourists and they can understand simple English. So, if you want to buy things at cheaper price, bargaining is recommended!
To the people of Toraja, tongkonan is more than just a simple abode; it is a small universe. Derived from the word ‘tongkon‘, which means ‘to sit together’, the house consists of the main building, smaller ones for family members and an alang (rice storage). The main building is where the body of the departed is kept before the burial ceremony called Rambu Solo is held. Because the ceremony is costly, it could take months, or even years before the body is finally interred.
One of the tongkonan in Palawa’ is majestically festooned with dozens of water buffalo horns to indicate status – more horns equals higher position.
Since water buffalo horns indicate status, then the most valuable animal in Toraja is the water buffalo. The expensive type of buffalo is called Tedong Bonga, considered rare with a combination of black and white pigment on its body, which commands up to ten times the price of a normal black buffalo, setting back the buyer up to hundreds of million of Indonesian rupiah! However, the price could drop significantly if a slight defect is detected on the buffalo. There is no wonder these buffaloes are treated so well – massaged, hand-fed and bathed – before being sold.
And where is the place to buy this prized animal in Toraja? It is at the northern edge of Rantepao called Bolu Market, the largest livestock market in Toraja, where money is most circulated. Buffalos are notably important to them especially during Rambu Solo ceremony. From five to staggering hundreds, buffalos are sacrificed as offerings whenever there is death in Toraja. The horns of these buffalos are then placed on the bereaving family’s tongkonan as status symbol.
Our venue for lunch for the day was at Sallebayu Restaurant near Ke’te Kesu’. This alfresco restaurant serves many local dishes, among them is pa’piong burak, a chicken/pork or fish-based dish added with chilli and special ingredients then cooked in bamboo tube. While savouring the popular local dish, I was taken in by the area’s serene, bucolic and heart-warming surroundings not easily attained elsewhere – rice terraces that define the landscape, flock of birds flying freely, a group of children playing joyously with several modest houses in sight…
Visiting Toraja is never complete without visiting the community’s traditional burial site. After all, it is one of Toraja’s main attractions. So we went to Tampang Allo, a cemetery cave filled with piles of skulls and bones of departed commoners. The noblemen, however, are laid to rest inside coffins, each with its own tau-tau (well-dressed effigy placed closed to the grave of the deceased). The type of wood that the tau-tau is made from is based on the deceased’s social status: bamboo planks for the lowest, kapuk for the middle and jackfruit (locally referred as nangka) tree trunks for the highest.
After visiting the cemetery cave, we walked around 15 minutes to Sarappung, where we encountered the Tarra tree specially used as the grave site for babies who died before they grew teeth. The people of Toraja believe that babies are innocent and sinless, thus need to be returned to the ‘womb’ of Mother Nature. The babies are laid to rest inside the tree, uncovered and eventually merge with the tree. The reason Tarra tree is chosen is because its white sap resembles mother’s milk. Another famous place to visit the baby grave is in Kambira, which we were told is dying, hence better for travellers to visit the one in Sarappung instead.
We then headed to Lemo, one of the oldest burial cliffs in Toraja. This place is extraordinary; the bodies of the departed are laid to rest inside giant boulders with crevices, accompanied by their respective tau-tau that can be seen amid the steep rocks, evoking the sense of wonder yet eerie at the same time.
There are also a few shops in Lemo selling local crafts. Travellers would also be able to witness the making of tau-tau and even buy a replica of the effigy to bring back home.
Tip: Ask the locals whether there is any Rambu Solo taking place during your visit. If there is, consider yourself lucky and do not miss the opportunity to witness the ceremony!
My media friends and I woke up as early as 3:00 a.m. to visit Kampung Lolai, famously known as the Land Above the Clouds. Getting there required us to tolerate a bumpy, rocky ride for one hour and a half from Rantepao. By the time we reached the peak of Lolai, it was covered in white fog, cold and misty since we were at 1,400 metres above sea level. Unfortunately, we did not get that marvellous view of the clouds and the sun that we were hoping for due to the unusually thick fog. After having coffee and hot instant noodle, we came down disappointed.
As we were descending, the morning turns brighter and clearer, and the clouds began to appear. Everyone became excited and our driver agreed to turn around and head up again. This time, we stopped at Paralayang Hill, not far from Lolai. From up here, the clouds did seem like white fluffy cotton. Due to weather, the clouds are not as much as I have seen on the Internet, but the view still left me in complete awe. The whole experience was indeed memorable nonetheless.
Going downhill, we went straight to KAA Coffee Shop to taste an item so invigorating that it once sparked the epic ‘Coffee War’ back in 1890s when the Buginese tried to colonise Toraja – it is none other than Toraja coffee, the pride of the Toraja people. The land where the Toraja people inhabit is both geographically and nutritionally perfect for growing two of the widely grown coffee plant species called Arabica and Robusta. The coffee grown in this area has distinctive taste unlike any other coffee in the world so much so that Toraja coffee is now under the Geographical Indication Protection (GI). Coffee lovers and addicts must make way to Toraja at least once in their lives for this very reason!
Another must-try is the Deppa Tori’, traditional cookies made from glutinous rice, palm sugar and sesame. This sweet snack is normally served during Toraja traditional ceremonies. It also serves well as gift or souvenir.
We, then proceeded to Makale, the capital city of Tana Toraja where there is a huge statue in remembrance of the great ancestor of Toraja, Laki Padada. This huge statue is easy to access since it is located right in the heart of the town.
Our last stop in Toraja is the 40-metre tall statue of Jesus in Buntu Burake, about five kilometres from Makale. The statue is said to be the second tallest in the world after Christ the King in Poland (52.5 metres). The statue is located at an elevation of 1,100 metres above sea level, higher than Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Jenairo, Brazil, located at the peak of the 710-metre Corcovado Mountain. The statue is now deemed the highest Jesus statue in the world. Inaugurated in 2015, visitors can also witness the magnificent view of Makale city from the peak of the hill.
Gaya Travel Magazine expresses our heartfelt gratitude to the Republic of Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism for making our writer’s journey to Toraja a reality.