The Afterlife and Times of Tana Toraja

  • Overlooking a verdant corner of Tinimbayo Valley from the mountain crest at Batutumonga.

    Overlooking a verdant corner of Tinimbayo Valley from the mountain crest at Batutumonga.

  • Sacrificial buffaloes sell for a small fortune in Rantepao's Bolu market.

    Sacrificial buffaloes sell for a small fortune in Rantepao's Bolu market.

  • The towering cliff of Londa, a centuries-old burial site whose rocky face is hung with coffins and inlaid with hundreds of tau-tau.

    The towering cliff of Londa, a centuries-old burial site whose rocky face is hung with coffins and inlaid with hundreds of tau-tau.

  • Spinning organic cotton thread in Sa'dan, a Torajan village known for its woven textiles.

    Spinning organic cotton thread in Sa'dan, a Torajan village known for its woven textiles.

  • A church amid the paddy fields of Sa'dan.

    A church amid the paddy fields of Sa'dan.

  • In Rantepao, performers ready for a Ma'randing war dance, traditionally performed on the second day of funerals.

    In Rantepao, performers ready for a Ma'randing war dance, traditionally performed on the second day of funerals.

  • Cooking pork at a Rambu Solo funeral feast.

    Cooking pork at a Rambu Solo funeral feast.

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As I take in one place after another, I can’t help wondering why Toraja isn’t packed with tourists. At the village of Sa’dan, known for its traditional weaving, I wander past a few women who seem to be lost in their own thoughts, buy a ticket, and write my name in the guest book. The last entry was from two weeks ago. “This village used to be so filled with tourists that I didn’t have time to eat,” said one of the weavers, Aminah.

On my way back into Rantepao, I find myself in need of a pick-me-up and stop by Hotel Pison, known for having some of the best coffee in town. The manager’s uncle, Elifas Pongrekun, is the founder of Kaana Toraya, a coffee brand that has gained a cult following. He introduces himself to me as Eli and explains how he grows the beans on a plantation in the highland village of Awan and then brings them back to process in the roaster just across the hotel’s garden from the guest rooms. “It’s better to let it settle in the cup for a moment,” he suggests as he sets a steaming cup in front of me. “Like washing a new shirt in a bucket, let it steep until the water has absorbed its color.” I follow his instructions, and unlike my favorite Gayo coffee from Aceh that jolts the system, his drink ignites a melancholy calm, as if trying to persuade me to grab a book and lie down.

But to lie down would be to squander another of Toraja’s assets: outdoor adventure. There are whitewater rafting expeditions led by a number of outfitters down the Sa’dan River, which provides both scenic paddles past riverbanks teeming with wildlife and thrilling rides through grade-five cascades. Trekking options range from pleasant day hikes to multi-night excursions with stops at village homestays along the way. There’s even some rock climbing to be had, though burial cliffs are of course off-limits.

Or, for travelers like me, a motorcycle and a map can provide pleasure enough. One morning, I drive up to the top of Batutumonga, a small peak that looks down over Rantepao. The road is full of potholes waiting to swallow my bike, but it’s hard to pull my eyes from the surrounding panorama of paddy fields where bamboo-hatted farmers are starting their days. Finally reaching the top, I turn off the engine and take in the view—a swath of bucolic scenery that recalls the landscapes of the colonial-era Mooi Indie (“Beautiful Indies”) school of artists. For a land that has dwelled so long on death, it certainly has a beautiful life.

THE DETAILS

Getting There
Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi, can be reached from Singapore on Silk Air, from Kuala Lumpur on AirAsia, and from Jakarta and Bali on several Indonesian airlines. A number of bus companies serve the nine-hour route from Makassar to the Toraja’s capital city Rantepao, but Makassar-based Primadona (62-811/449-7212; no website) offers some of the most comfortable rides. Buses leave from Makassar at 9:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. daily.

When to Go
The dry months of June through August are when most funerals are held, making it the best time to visit if you want to witness one of these bloody spectacles.

Where to Stay
In addition to its 134 charming rooms laid out in traditional tongkonan houses, Toraja Heritage Hotel (62-423/21-192; doubles from US$81) in Rantepao offers a swimming pool and tours to surrounding sights. Just outside of town, the 98-room Misiliana Hotel (62-423/21-212; doubles from US$78) sits on eight hectares with two pools, a restaurant, and a spa.

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Land Apart)

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