How to see Tana Toraja
Makale - Lemo - Londa - Siguntu - Karasik - Rantepao - Kete'kesu - Sangalla - Kambira - Suaya - Tampangallo - Bolu - Marante - Palawa - Tinambayo - Lokomata - Batutumonga - Bori
Tana Toraja is one of those destinations people like to visit again to show them to their friends and family. It was no different in our case - Chris came to Toraja Land for the first time many years ago, and the place struck him so much he knew he would come back.
The Toraja are the ethnic group indigenous to the southern part of Sulawesi. Most of them are Christians, but their ancestorial belief system is still widely practiced. The most famous part of Toraja culture is the funeral rites among which the tau-tau figures stand out. The tau-tau are the wood-carved effigies placed in open caves at heights to look out over the land. They are a symbol of social status - each tau-tau represents a Torajan noble or a rich person that passed away. Very characteristic are also the tongkonan - the traditional Torajan ancestral houses built on wooden piles and topped with an arc-curved roof.
This part of Indonesia is worth a longer visit but if you don't have time check our 2-day itinerary. It covers pretty much all the main attractions of Toraja Land. Just bear in mind that to complete the list, you'll have to start early in the morning and come back to the hotel after dark.
We stayed in Hotel Sahid Toraja where, thanks to the great help of the receptionist, we arranged a car with a driver. The driver appeared to be a smart guy and proposed the following itinerary based on our list of places we wanted to see, plus some extra as the suggestions from his side.
Day 1 (southern loop, orange color on the map)
Makale is not a big city, yet big enough to run the necessary errands (like buying the bus tickets or sending postcards) and rush to more interesting places. Check out the Christ Statue in Burake Hills, 3 kilometers from the Makale Pond Roundabout (the main roundabout in Makale, which is the peculiar attraction on its own - see the picture below).
Lemo is one of the oldest burial cliffs in Toraja Land (dating back to the 16th century) and probably also the most famous one. Likely, the first picture of tau-tau figures you have ever seen in your life was taken in Lemo. The spectacular Lemo cliff is considered symbolic of Toraja. Lemo is also one of the places mentioned on the UNESCO Tentative List.
To reach the huge cliff (visible already from the parking lot), take the small path zigzagging through the rice paddy fields. The surroundings are not-from-this-world like, and even hordes of visitors can't spoil the effect.
The famous cliff is not the sole attraction of Londa - to get to the cave burial sides, go further and take the stone stairs.
The small hut near the cliff is the place where the tau-tau maker lives and runs a small shop with souvenir-size tau-tau figures (although the life-size ones are also on display).
Londa is another place from UNESCO Tentative List. In Londa, you will find two natural caves that serve as burial sites, where the bones of the deceased can be seen. At the entrance, a guide with a lamp can be hired for a small fee. You might also visit a cave with a cell phone light, but the experience will be less Indiana Jones.
in 2 days
Siguntu is a beautiful, traditional village with a nearby field full of the menhirs.
Rantepao is the capital of the North Toraja Regency. A bit larger than Makale, for visitors, it serves a similar purpose - as a hub or place of accommodation and food. Talking about food, we had an excellent vegetarian lunch in Cafe Aras.
Buntu Pune is another traditional village where you can peek into the lives of local inhabitants. In the nearby, you'll find an open ceremonial ground full of megalithic menhirs (the place is called Rante Karasik).
W H A T T O S E E N E X T
Kete Kesu is yet another place nominated as a UNESCO Heritage Site and one of those you can't miss on your trip to Toraja Land. It is one of the oldest village settlements in Tana Toraja, dating back more than 300 years. Kete Kesu consists of two rows of traditional Tongkonan (traditional houses), which you can also visit inside. In fact, one of the houses hosts the small museum with Toraja artifacts (ceramics, sculptures, carvings, etc.).
Sangalla is another traditional village full of ornamented houses and fascinated contrasts between tradition and the present day.
In the land of Toraja wonders, Kambira gets the title of the most bizarre places we visited. It is the village with the well-preserved tree graves for babies. The Torajans believe that babies are pure and sinless. Thus, if they die, they have to be returned to Mother Nature. In a literal way. Which means the tree with a wide trunk has to be selected. Then a hole is carved, big enough for a dead baby to fit in. The baby is wrapped in the fern leaves and put inside. After the burial ceremony, the opening is covered with the bark. As time passes, the babies are "absorbed" or overgrown by trees. Some trees accommodate more graves than others, marking sad moments in the life of a given family.
In Suaya, you'll find a rock that is still used as a cave for Tau Tau. At the foot of the rock, we saw the most recent, very realistic, Tau Tau of a deceased, placed behind a glass box. Suaya used to serve as a burial site for the kings of Sangalla.
Tampangallo (Tampang Allo) was one of the most beautiful places we visited in Toraja Land. And even if the word "beautiful" doesn't seem to fit a burial cave, in the case of Tampangallo, it is fully justified. To get to the cave, you have to cross the rice fields and then step onto a little stone bridge. The cave is lit with the sun rays coming through the holes and full of the bird songs coming from surrounding trees. You don't expect to see human remnants in such a place. And yet, look around!
Day 2 (northern loop, blue color on the map)
Although Bolu Market, located near Rantepao, is famous for selling buffalos, you will find a whole range of products here. In fact, the bull market is a rather sad place, and we enjoyed the colorful vegetable market much more. What we liked the most was the preparation for the market. A day before, during our car trip, we watched the bulls on the local farms being washed and pampered to look impressive for the future buyers. Remember that Bolu Market is open only once in 6 days.
Marante is located near Bolu Market. You can even walk here from the market. When you pass the lively school with shouting kids, look up to the rocks on the other side of the street. You will find the caves full of Tau Tau looking at you silently. The contrast between the two worlds can give you goosebumps.
Pallawa is a beautiful traditional village with manicured traditional houses, full of little family stores where you can buy the best souvenirs in Toraja Land. The village is still inhabited and expanding - we witnessed the process of building a new tongkonan here.
Don't plan to make Tinambayo just a stop on your journey around Toraja Land. It is not a regular viewpoint. It is dozens of viewpoints, as after every turn, you're going to stop a car to take more photos. The view of the rice fields located below is breathtaking, so make sure to have plenty of time in the store to admire them.
Just as we thought we had seen everything in Toraja Land, comes Lokomata. It is a colossal burial stone, a boulder really, where the contemporary burials take place. During our visit, we actually witnessed a future grave being carved. The size of the stone is impressive on its own, but the decorative grave doors and the nearby field of ritual menhirs make Lokomata a must in your itinerary.
Batutumonga is going to be the continuation of sighing wows from Tinambayo. In this village, you will find a restaurant named... Batutumonga. The restaurant is mediocre, but with a fabulous view.
Kalimbuang Bori Village was a cherry on a cake. This vast burial side is full of menhirs and grave boulders. The whole area is covered with trees, so the visit here feels like a walk in a park. Near the back exit, you'll find the big baby grave tree. Not to be missed!