Thursday, October 6, 2011

Rantepao – Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

We landed in Makassar early in the morning, but because of the sleepless night we had the night before, we found a hotel room and went straight to sleep.  We didn’t allow ourselves the luxury of sleeping too long because we knew it would mess up our sleeping schedule, if we did.  We went to find something to eat around noon, which probably wasn’t the best idea since the sun was high in the sky and it was blazing hot.  It didn’t help the street names in the Lonely Planet guide were different to the actual street names.  While we were walking we saw a sign “KFC, 5 minutes” with an arrow pointing straight.  We were very excited as for the past month all we had eaten was fried rice or noodles.  We kept walking looking for the KFC.  And walking, walking, walking.  We knew the sign was directed at car traffic rather than pedestrian traffic, so we knew it would take more than 5 minutes, but after 25 minutes we had reached the end of town and we knew KFC was not there.  We started walking back, and then I realized the street we were walking on was one way, in the direction we were heading, which meant the way we had come had been against traffic.  That meant traffic heading that way, must have turned somewhere and that is where KFC must be.  We started walking back, and finding the correct flow of traffic that was supposed to take us to KFC, but after another 15 minutes we still hadn’t found it.  Finally I asked someone, and they pointed us in the right direction, and we finally found it!  Unfortunately the signs directing us to KFC were a little misleading and without having someone tell us how to get there, we never would have found it following those signs.

We had some lunch, and then walked around town.  There wasn’t much to see except a large shipping port.  People were very friendly however, and everyone yelled out hello to us.  Even from passing cars and trucks.  That night we went to bed early and woke early the next day to catch our bus to Rantepao, which is the capital for the Tana Toraja area.

Sulawesi is a large island of Indonesia but it’s not as popular with tourists as other islands of Indonesia.  Mainly due to the distances and how long it takes to cover those distances.  The next morning we had to take 3 different bemo’s to get to the bus station, and once we got there they made us pay 1000 rupiah (around 10 centes) just to enter!  I thought it was crazy that to enter the bus station, we had to pay!   A few men ran at us to try and get our business but the prices they were shouting at us were a lot more than we wanted to pay and the buses weren’t leaving for a few more hours.  My gut feeling told me something was not right, and sure enough, I kept walking and found the public side of the bus station.  It turned out we were on the tourist side.  We walked over to the public side and were able to pay half the price and leave right away.  We settled in for the 9 hour ride.  On the bus we met the only English speaking local, and it turned out he worked for the Sulawesi government with the teachers.  Not really sure what his exact role was, but we think he made sure all the teachers were paying their taxes.  When we stopped to eat he helped us order and spent some time talking with us.  The bus wasn’t full so we were able to spread out and nap.

We arrived in Rantepao and found a hotel room.  The first thing we noticed was how much cooler it was because we were in the mountains.  We ate some food, but mostly we wanted to sleep.  The next day we didn’t get out of bed until 1pm.  We spent the day just hanging around.  The following day we rented a motorbike and went to explore the area.

The area of Tana Toraja is known for their elaborate burial ceremonies as well as the unique way they bury their dead.  The ceremonies are so elaborate and cost so much money sometimes the funeral doesn’t happen until 4-12 months after the person has passed away!  Our goal was to see one of these ceremonies while we were there.   That day however, we went to see the burial sites of the dead.  In the past, the Toraja people used to hide their dead, in their coffins, in the cliffs surrounding the region.  The main reason was to deter people from stealing the burial offerings.  These days it’s a tradition rather than fear of items being stolen.  In addition, life size statues are sometimes built of the person who is buried there to stand and watch over the coffins.  Their families are obligated to change the statues clothes, on a regular basis.  It’s a very eerie feeling when you enter one of these caves.  They’re very accessible and the area is known for this so a lot of the burial sites are marked on a map.  The first thing I noticed when we walked in was all the human skulls and skeletons lying around disintegrating coffins.  Luckily all the deceased were dead for at least 100 years so there was no smell.  You have to walk into the dark cave with a flashlight and everywhere you shine your light you see a coffin squeezed into a small space.  Some of the coffins have the statues standing over them fully dressed, which gives it a more eerie feeling, and others are just crumbling apart with, perhaps, a thigh bone sticking out.  And they coffins are not only on the ground, they are also above you.  I was constantly afraid one of them would fall on top of me.  Andrew went deeper into the cave than I did, as I was very spooked by being in a cave with hundreds of corpses.  And even though this is a big tourist attraction, I still felt as if it was a little disrespectful to gawk at these dead people.

We visited 3 or 4 more of those burial sites that day and each one was filled with disintegrating coffins and each one was just as spooky.  In addition to looking at the different burial sites, we were admiring the architecture that can only be found in Tana Toraja.  The houses are built with the roof shaped like a boat (it’s to resemble the buffalo horns) with the roof rising at each end.  They also always pointed north-south.  These homes are called tongkonan houses, and were traditionally used as 3 room homes.  1st room was used for cooking, the 2nd room was used as a living area and the 3rd room was used as a sleeping area.  The homes were fairly small back then, but the modern houses are built much larger, some with 2 or 3 storeys but all with the boat shaped roof.  They are very beautiful and it’s beautiful to see whole villages with only these types of homes.

We wanted to see one of the elaborate funeral ceremonies which are specific only to Tana Toraja, but because we were trying to get to the Togian Islands in the north, and the ferry schedule is very specific and we would miss the ferry if we stayed for another day, we opted to miss this.  Luckily we would come back through Tana Toraja later and would be able to see one of those ceremonies.  That evening we purchased tickets for the bus ride to Poso, which would be our first stop on the way to the Togian Islands.  We woke up the next day and went to wait on the side of the road by our hotel, for the bus to come and get us.  This is what we were instructed to do at 9am.  At 9:15 we saw the bus and started waiving at it, only for it to ignore us and drive right past us.  We were afraid it would get away so we got an ojek and told him to drive fast.  I guess that the 2 of us with our backpacks weighed a lot more than his motorcycle was used to, and we went very slowly.  I was ready to strangle the driver.  Luckily the bus office was only 2 km away and after a 10 minute drive, we arrived there only to see the bus driving away.  We grabbed our bags and started running after it but it just ignored us and ran away.  I was livid at this point and we stormed into the office telling them the bus didn’t stop to pick us up and now it just drove away.  They all smiled at us pleasantly and told us it was not our bus, but a different bus.  Our bus hadn’t come yet but we could wait at the office for it.  To say we were stunned was an understatement, but I was pissed off.  Mainly because we looked like fools waving at the bus and running after it while the whole time it wasn’t even our bus!  I was also pissed off because all the buses from that company look exactly the same and don’t say the destination anywhere so it’s very easy to assume you’re waving at the right bus.  It would have been nice for them to tell us this when booking the tickets.  Our busy finally did arrive, after 10am.  It was only an hour late.


  1. i like tana toraja ... wants to be there every single day. thanks for writing about it ...

  2. Dear All,
    Find your holiday in Sulawesi of Indonesia /

  3. Dear All,
    Find your holiday in Sulawesi of Indonesia /