Tana Toraja: Death in the Jungle

Indonesia surely has to be the centre of adventure tourism. If you are not climbing up active Javan volcanoes or exploring the depths of the dense Sumatran jungle, you could still fly to lands anew in Sulawesi for some extreme off-road driving to experience the strange cultures on display at Tana Toraja.

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In the land of the Torajan People

Although I was expecting things in Sulawesi to be very different from the tourist traps of Bali and Yogyakarta, I still didn’t think it would as much of a challenge as when I backpacked Sumatra. I discovered that leeches were the most annoying thing, but the drive from Makassar to Rontepao in the centre of the island was probably even worse than the aforesaid experience from Medan to Bukit Lawang, but at least we got there safely, and the scenery along the way was sensational, as we passed by coastline and through mountains.

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The Toraja People here in the central highlands of Sulawesi still adhere to age-old rituals, beliefs, and traditions, although nowadays they have considerably modernised and even embraced Christianity. In that regard, the Toraja People are different from the majority of Indonesians who are practicing Islam. The Toraja People were quite isolated from the outside world for centuries and have only really been on the tourist trail for the past few decades or so. This isolation enabled them to sustain their unique beliefs and traditions, although now the area of Tana Toraja is actually a thriving community. One thing that remains though is their love for buffalo slaughter.

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One of the main traditions of the Toraja People is to celebrate life and death through the ritual slaughter of animals. While this is not really something I would normally enjoy watching, it was certainly unique from my travels in Indonesia. Another thing Tana Toraja is noted for is its incredible funeral processions, which can involve entire villages. I was lucky enough to see one during my visit, and I understand that there is very little way of knowing in advance if there is one planned (the funerals are not spontaneous; they are segued with the agricultural seasons), so I was well chuffed!

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For such a culture entwined with the rituals of life and death, it should as no surprise to learn that other attractions in Tana Toraja include the presentation of skulls and bones, and gravestones. I noticed that many of these graves were Christian-inspired, and as macabre as it may sound, it is always interesting to observe well-preserved skulls and bone remains.

Funeral procession in process

I would recommend a 2 night stay in Tana Toraja to everybody, but you must consider the time and effort it takes to get there. You wont have any internet, and I highly doubt there are any ATMs (I didn’t actually check, as I had cash), and the drive from Makassar up to Rontepao, which is the nearest major city to Tana Toraja, can take up to 8 hours I am told. These are the things you must consider when planning a trip to intrigue yourself with the Toraja People. I do not regret one moment of my time there, and I would love to go back again with a first-timer, to be able to watch them learn what I learned!

For some amazingly detailed information on Tana Toraja and their funeral rituals, check out this blog post from Jakhongir Shaturaev! And for an alternate perspective on this amazing and unique culture, you will enjoy this piece from Miliberty!

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8 thoughts on “Tana Toraja: Death in the Jungle

  1. Hi Lee…
    The nearest major city in Tana Toraja is Makale. It’s about 20 km before you reach Rantepao. And don’t worry, ATMs are available at both cities.

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  2. Toraja can be reached via numerous bus companies from Makassar.
    It takes the whole
    day to reach Rantepao the city where tours can begin from.
    In rantepao there
    are numerous hotels and guesthouses to choose from.

    There are several western restaurants and excellent local markets to
    walk around and explore.
    You can rent a motorbike or car. We offer cultural and trekking tours
    in this special area of Indonesia.

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