When you drive up to Rantepao, you will be amazed by the beautiful surroundings with it’s rice fields and beautiful boat shaped houses. The city of Rantepao itself has nothing special to offer but it places you in the hart of the true Tana Torajan territory. Growing up in Tana Toraja means growing up with death, in a good way. One of the many things the culture is known for, are the ceremonies that accompany a funeral, that can take up to a week. In Europe, we have to be buried within a few days after you decease. In Tana Toraja it can take years! They keep the deceased person in their house (after a special treatment of the body) and believe that they haven’t really died, yet. They bring them food and talk to them, as if they are still alive and asleep.
Planning a funeral takes time, and they take their time in Tana Toraja. One of the beliefs is that you have to kill at least 1 buffalo at the funeral. When the animal dies, and his soul goes up to heaven, the deceased can travel along with this soul. The more buffalo’s killed, the easier it will be for the deceased to climb the ladder to heaven. This is one of the reasons it can take years before the deceased gets buried. The family has to safe money to be able to buy as many buffalo’s as possible. One buffalo costs around 45 million Rupiah. A bit more special, and about 10 times more expensive, is an albino buffalo.
Another reason why they take their time, is a lot of Torajans don’t live in this area anymore and have spread out to Europe and Australia. These family members can only visit during their summer holiday and you can not have a funeral without a lot of family. Therefore the funeral high season is in July and August. And that makes funerals big family gatherings. Because the deceased, most times already died long ago, the funerals aren’t sad. People are happy that the deceased is finally able to go to heaven. But before they can climb the ladder with the souls of the buffalo(’s), they have to be woken up. One of the strangest things, we have ever seen at a funeral, is that they shake the coffin for several times, singing an shouting, to wake the deceased up.
Fathers bring their little kids to these funerals and tell them they want a bigger and better funeral than the one they visit. Considering you want a few buffalo’s to make it easier to go to heaven, coffins are handmade and expensive, a funeral takes about a week and is sometimes visited by thousands of people which have to be fed, not even to mention the hand carved stone graves they are laid to rest, you can imagine these funerals aren’t cheap. This is a motivation the parents give to their children. When they tell them they want a bigger and better funeral, their kids know they have to make a lot of money and therefore have to study hard and try to be successful in life. This makes death part of their every day life.
We left Sengkang at 8 am and took the scenic route of 200 km trough the mountains which are covered with a green carpet of moss. After 2 pitstops, we arrived in Rantepao at around 3.30 pm. The road is quite good but you can not drive fast because of the curvy mountain roads.
Pa’Piong Ayam is a traditonal Torajan dish and consists of chicken and vegetable steamed in bamboo. It takes about 4-5 hours to make so you have to order in advance and it is something you really have to try! We ate this typical dish at Cafe Aras, a really nice place where locals and tourists sit together and enjoy the life music played on a guitar by one of the locals.
Another nice place to eat, and where they serve a good buffalo steak and Gado Gado, is Dulang restaurant. Both restaurants can be found in the main street. A bit out of town, you can find amazing places to enjoy a nice lunch. You can read more about these places below.
Hotel Misilina looks very nice with his Torajan houses and a swimming pool, but the rooms are way overpriced and the (Western) food is terrible at the restaurant. Therefore we would recommend Pia's Poppies which has clean spacious rooms for about 175.000 rupiah, also scooters can be rented here. Pia's Poppies is close to a tourist information centre where you can hire a guide if needed. Food is a bit slow here.
We spent 3 days here and will tell you all about it so you can copy our program when you visit Rantepao because we saw the most amazing places you don’t want to miss!
DAY 1: STONE GRAVES, A FUNERAL AND A TRADITIONAL VILLAGE WITH HANGING GRAVES
Even though our driver Jemi is from Tana Toraja and knows the best places to visit and eat, we hired a guide that was able to tell us a bit more about the graves, culture and would take us to a funeral.
Our day started at 9.30 am and our first stop were the Lemo stone graves (20.000 Rupiah entrance fee p.p.), about 5 km outside Rantepao. This is the biggest stone grave and very impressive to see. Not only because of the graves, but they are surrounded by rice fields so the death have spectaculair views looking down from their stone graves. Stone graves are big holes, cut out by hand, where the deceased will be put to rest. There are also several balconies with puppets (Tau Tau). These puppets resemble a person and can only sit at the balcony, if they are a nobel person. One extra demand: at your funeral, your family has to kill at least 25 buffalo’s. Knowing one buffalo here costs about the same as a small car, makes this a very expensive balcony. Not even to mention the price of the puppet. Not only christens are buried this way, muslims and other religions bury their deceased like this. Tip: Go in the morning for the best pictures.
At 11 am we visited a traditional funeral, which is very rare this time of year, so we were lucky. We went to the funeral of 2 family members: Grandpa who died 3 years ago, and his son who died 6 months ago. We visited the funeral at the first day and this is one of the best days. When we arrived Grandpa’s coffin was outside and the family was finishing the coffin by painting it and applying swords to it. The son was still inside the house. Following our guide we entered the reception room. It is quite hard to explain but on the open field, they built lots of bamboo huts where visitors could sit and get some coffee, tea and cake. This was a big funeral because there were at least 15 special bamboo huts. Visiting a funeral, it is expected to wear black clothes and bring a gift for the family like sugar, tobacco or money. We gave the daughter (and sister) of the deceased 200.000 Rupiah. After our tea and cake, we witnessed the killing of the first buffalo. After that, grandpa, lying in his coffin of course, was taken for a walk while the people where singing en shouting. The coffin was accompanied by several buffalo’s, women holding a red ribbon in the air en kids walking with flags on large sticks. During this walk, they were shaking grandpa to wake him up because he had to travel along with the buffalo’s soul to heaven. A strange sight for us Westerners, but we were a strange sight for the people attending the funeral as well. You would not expect this at a funeral but a lot of them wanted to take pictures with us.. After the first killing and the shaking of grandpa, we left the funeral. But looking at all the buffalo’s and pigs that were waiting to be killed, it was going to be a bloody day. A good thing however is that they divide the meat of the killed animals amongst the villagers. At least they don’t die for nothing. The buffalo’s horns are cut off and will be attached to the house of the family
After leaving the funeral, we first passed the traditional village of Ke’te Kesu, driving a bit further and take a left, passing the rice fields, you will find Salebaju restaurant, which is situated near two white traditional houses. The view when eating lunch is fantastic overlooking the hard working people in the green terraces. After lunch we drove to the village Ke’te Kesu to visit the Tong-Konan (traditional boat shaped houses) and the hanging graves (entrance 20.000 Rupiah p.p.) On the front of these Tong-Konan houses you can see buffalo horns hanging, the meaning behind this is the more horns hanging the higher the family Toraja ranking is, because of the buffalo’s killed at funerals. Behind these houses there are graves hanging besides the rock wall. Reason for the hanging graves is to prevent that big animals could open the coffins and eat the deceased. Some of the coffins fell down and the bones and skulls are sticking out. A bit creepy to see.
DAY 2: CATTLE-MARKET AND MORE GRAVES INCLUDING BABY GRAVE
Our second day in Toraja country started at the big cattle-market called Pasar Bolu, this market is held every six days. On other days there is still a market but much smaller. Here they sell buffalo’s, pigs and roosters besides the traditional fruit, vegetables and fish. Hundreds of buffalo’s, sometimes with horns of over 1 meter, are placed on a big field as big as a soccer pitch. Where the albino buffalo’s can cost around the price of a small house. When you see how the animals are treated, this is probably not the place for the people who fight for the rights of animals.
After buffaloing our way trough the small market streets we left to visit another famous stone grave called Londa (20.000 Rupiah entrance fee p.p.). For us it was not as impressive as the Lemo stone grave but the Tau-Tau puppets here are much more real. It almost felt like they where watching us instead of us watching them. Also you can find a coffin lying around here and there. From here we drove to Kambira to see the baby graves who are made inside a big tree (20.000 Rupiah entrance fee p.p.). After that, our driver Jemi treated us with a tour trough a beautiful landscape with rice fields and traditional houses scattered around the route.
DAY 3: TRADITIONAL VILLAGE, STUNNING VIEWS AND MEGALITHS
Our first stop on the last day in this impressive part of Sulawesi was the traditional village of Pangli Palawa. The people here stil weave underneath their house in the traditional way. From there we headed into the mountains in the north called Batutumonga. Driving around, there are many panorama Canon moments of rice fields covering the side of the hills, strolling down the mountain. Near the top of Season mountain at 1450 meters high we visited a big stone grave, situated near Lembang. On the way down we ate at Mentirotiku restaurant and continued to Bori to finish our trip with a visit to some strange freestanding rockpillars called megaliths.
Tana Toraja country is impressive!