Coming to Sulawesi, my main focus was visiting Tana Toraja – fascinating land of death. Thinking what to see in Toraja, I was looking for places connected with culture as well as natural wonders in the region. If you plan on visiting Tana Toraja by yourself, this post will cover all the highlights as well as some useful travel tips.
Above all, this destination is famous for unique tradition of keeping the body after death and the biggest funeral ceremonies in the world that I have already covered in the article about funerals in Toraja. However, apart from the funerals there are stunning natural sites as it’s a mountain area with green rice terraces, caves and sunrise view points. I came to Tana Toraja in the end of April, when was the season of planting rice. The rainy season was ending and rice terraces became lush green. The landscape was so beautiful, and I enjoyed going around, sometimes without destination as the journey itself was simply beautiful.
Is visiting Tana Toraja by yourself possible?
The guides business is huge, as I have already mentioned in the previous post about funerals in Toraja. But don’t listen to what they say, you can go everywhere by yourself, even for the funeral. Some places are hidden, some don’t have a sign but GPS signal is fair and in my opinion you can get everywhere by yourself. The region is not so big and Google Maps or Maps.me app help a lot. Otherwise, you can always ask some locals on the way.
Public transportation in Toraja is not reliable, and you will not get to most of the villages counting on the minibus. Therefore, you will have to rent a motorbike. Most probably, you will stay in Rantepao, the capital town of North Toraja. Near the main square, there are a few spots where you can rent a motorbike for 100 000 rupiah per day. If you give it back before 4 pm, the price can be 80 000, and if your want to rent for a few days, you can also try to make it cheaper. Take your phone with GPS and let’s go to discover Toraja!
What to see in Toraja?
Seeing the highlands of Toraja was memorable. Not only shocking traditions but also beautiful culture and lush green landscape. As I mentioned it’s a mountain area, therefore on the higher attitude you get to feel cool and nice, not like in the exotic parts of Sulawesi, like the paradise islands and beaches. I made a list of what to see in Toraja that includes stunning landscapes as well as places connected with culture such as burial caves or megalith sites.
Boat-shaped houses of Toraja
Houses of Toraja (Tongkanan) are iconic, and I was fascinated about their shape. If you are also wondering why the shape is so particular, here is what I found. According to the anthrolpologists there were people from an island near nowadays China who came to Sulawesi by boat. As they came a long way by primitive boats, associated the boat with their home. That’s why they started to built boat-shaped houses as a sign of their ethnicity.
Traditional houses in Toraja show the direction from the south to the north with the boat-shaped roof. It’s to remember the ancestors which came from the North to South. Houses belong to communities, which would rather built few of them next to each other when the community was growing. On the opposite side of the houses, Torajans built their majestic rice barns which are the icon of Toraja. Rice barn is rich in decorations and put on a cylindric stilts to protect mouses from climbing up. The building is a symbol of prosperity, so each time the community will have money to afford new rice barn, they will build it. The more rice barns the better, as it shows their high status. It doesn’t matter that most of them are empty and they don’t need so much storage.
Every traditional house is covered with carvings, which are not only decoration but also symbols considered to be equal with the holy book for Torajans. The carvings are handmade and originally painted with natural paints. They are not readable as hieroglyphs in Egypt but have symbolic meaning. For instance, the most popular picture is the buffalo symbolising prosperity.
Boat-shaped houses in Toraja have horns nailed to the front stilt, that are memories of all the funerals held in this village.
Interesting fact is that similar boat-shaped houses like in Toraja, were also built by Batak people near Lake Toba, the biggest lake in Indonesia, on Sumatra Island. Some scientists even say that Lake Toba has its name from TO-raja and BA-tak tribes. What’s more, boat-shaped houses can be also found on Borneo Island, that shows how wide the incomers from oversees spreaded.
There are hundreds of traditional villages in Tana Toraja, where you can still see magical boat-shaped houses made out of wood. However, there are a few that are the most precious, beautiful or well-preserved. From what to see in Toraja, the most popular among to visit is traditional village in Kete Kesu, which is the UNESCO site. Many big ceremonies are held in Kete Kesu and it’s known for Tongkanan houses in their most authentic form. Just next to it, there is a megalithic site, with a long vertical stones memorising funeral of high class people. The touristy traditional villages in Toraja will usually have a fee of 20-30 k rupiah per person.
Another traditional Torajan village worth visiting is Buntu Pune. It’s a very quiet place and tourists rarely go there. You can explore it for free, enjoy the silence and climb the hill above. Don’t miss the graves belong the cliff, there are quite interesting.
Bori Kalimbuang megalitic site
The funeral of a person from the high class was commemorated with long vertical stones. The biggest megalithic site is in Bori Kalimbuang, 5 kilometers from Rantepao. There is one traditional village with several beautful houses, and megalithic site just next to it. You can still see boat-shaped towers, where the dead was “sitting and watching his funeral party”. There are also plenty of platforms to carry the coffin, because according to the tradition it has to be left until it decomposts itself.
Up the stairs, I saw plenty of graves in the stones and a big tree with a baby grave. On the top of the hill, there is one traditional house with the biggest amount of buffalo horns I have seen in Toraja. These families must have lived here for a long time and performed many funeral ceremonies. Ticket to Bori Kalimbuang costs 30 000 rupiah. Continue up the road to see rice terraces view point.
Loka is a huge rock with graves carved on it. Man-made holes are all over the high cliff and people say that the higher the person is buried, the closer to the heaven. Obviously, only people from the high class could afford it, that’s why on the higher levels you can see the replica statues of the dead (tao tao), which are typical for the high class. Ticket to Loka is 30 000 rupiah.
Burial cave the closest to Rantepau, you can reach it within 15 minutes by a motorbike. I was surprised how high is the cliff with graves all along its height. The higher, the better. Underneeth, there is a burial cave with plenty of skulls and coffins of different age. It looks quite messy inside because locals bring to their relatives’ grave plastic bottle of water and cigarets, like in our culture we would bring candles. Of course, before plastic, when everything was decomposable, it wasn’t an issue.
There are plenty of figures of dead sitting up high on the cliff as well as hanging coffins, which I have seen so far only in Sagada, Philippines. This unique tradition originates in China, where hanging coffins can be found and some of these tribes migrated to the islands of the Philippines and Indonesia.
If you are interested in seeing more caves like that, you should definitely visit also Tampang Allo burial cave.
Lo’ko Mata – burial site
Lo’ko Mata is an interesting cliff wall in which there are plenty of graves with Tao Tao sculptures. It looks really impressive as all the graves are condensed in a one place one next to another. Lo’ko Mata is not far from the Bamboo Market, I am going to mention later, so it’s worth to connect these two attractions in one trip.
Kambira Baby graves
From what to see in Toraja, baby graves are ine of the things you shouls cover. There is particular type of a tree which juices are white like milk. Torajan tribe believes that babies which die before they grow teeth, should be buried on the tree like that, to drink milk from the tree after death. You will see a big tree damaged by lightning. Several baby graves are tied to it like a tiny brown boxes made out of wood. The fee is 20 000 rupiah.
Lolai – land above the clouds
This view point is popular for a sunrise view as often in the morning the clouds are down above the valley and slowly rising up. From there you can see green rice terraces all over the hills. It reminded me of ancient rice terraces in Banaue, Philippines which were also wide spread along the hills. Instead of coming by bike, you can also hike there, but this looks like an organised 3 days trip with a guide and all the things provided.
Waving workshops – Sangkombong
Thinking of what to see in Toraja don’t forget about supporting local artists and getting yourself some original souvenirs. Sangkombong is a place where weavers demonstrate their work and sell for tourists. From blankets to scarfs with traditional motives and bags – you will surely find something unique.
Buffalo market in Pasar Bolu
Buffalo market is nothing else than a square with a herd of buffalos for sale but in fact, it’s the biggest buffalo market in the world. It’s because only here, in Tana Toraja, buffalos are so precious and symbolic. There are 24 buffalo types in Toraja, and their prices can be horrific! To understand more, please read the post about funeral in Toraja. For security reasons, you cannot enter the buffalo market, just see it from the road. However, they will charge you for the skin color 10 000 rupiah, when you are just being near the market.
Makula Hot spring
Climate in Toraja is cool, especially when it rains a lot. One rainy day my couch surfing host took me to the hot spring and it was a great idea! The hot spring doesn’t really look original, it’s just a man-made swimming pool with a hot water from the source. However, as I am a fan of the hot springs, I loved the experience. The entrance ticket is only 10 k and you can sit there as long as you want. Only locals go there, because hardly any tourists know about the place. We were totally alone. Always remember to take care of yourself when traveling to keep strong and healthy. After a long day such a SPA treatment was a blast!
Tilanga – natural swimming pool
If you are not a big fan of a hot pool or coming to Tana Toraja in a very hot season, you can deep in Tilanda. Natural cold water pool is surrounded by trees, and it’s a great place to relax, of course if you will be lucky to have it all for yourself.
Bamboo market – traditional market with no waste!
Bamboo market is an eco-friendly initiative that gathers local communities in Tonga Riu village around one hour drive from Rantepao. To’Kumila Bamboo Forest is a stunning forest on the top of the hill, very photogenic and calm. Local association started Bamboo market not long time ago, in order to promote ecotourism and support local communities. As I am a fan of responsible tourism, I had to come there, and it was definitely one of my favorite spots in Toraja. From what to see in Toraja, I would put this on the top of the highlights.
Bamboo market is tiny, local artists can sell their hand-made crafts, ladies can sell their rice cooked in the bamboo and there is absolutely no waste there! You can get there fresh vegetables and fruits from local farmers and surely no plastic bag will be given to you. All the foods are either wrapped in banana leaf or cooked in bamboo stick. You can get there unique souvenirs like straw bags, bamboo mugs, wooden kitchen accessories or traditional curvings of Toraja. I couldn’t stop myself getting some hand-made crafts.
Bamboo market is not just shopping. There is a little scene for traditional dance and music performances. Local kids play on the bamboo flute which fits perfectly to the place and it’s so peculiar. Women wear their traditional clothes and perform dances from Toraja. The whole thing is just beautiful: the crafts, dances and also the bamboo forest. I highly recommend checking it out as it can be the best place to get some unique souvenirs for low prices. At the same time, you support local initiatives and responsible tourism in Toraja. Bamboo market does not happen frequently. Please check the dates in the tourist information.
What to see in Toraja? Coffee fields! I have to mention that coffee from Toraja is often seen as one of the best in the world. Mountain area and hot, yet humid climate is perfect to grow coffee. You will certainly see Arabica coffee growing when you travel around by a motorbike. Don’t forget to try some and maybe you will want to get a package home.
How long you should stay in Toraja?
Somehow, all of the foreign visitors I met in Toraja stayed there only for 3 days or shorter. In my opinion this unique region deserves more than that, as long as you are interested in the culture. I would recommend staying for 5-7 days to get to see the beautiful spots in the region and explore the culture deeper. Moreover, slow travel decreases your carbon footprint.
Responsible tourism in Toraja
I loved to see how simple life in Toraja is. You can still discover how locals use natural materials for building constructions, preparing food and other daily activities. I had the impression that the period, when Torajans were fully sustainable passed not a long time ago. People used bamboo plates, put on it banana leaf and food, so in the end there is absolutely no waste. Now, instead of banana leave, there is paper covered with not leaking layer on one side.
The traditional houses are made out of wood, and painted with natural paints. I just cannot imagine how beautiful this region was, before people started to use concrete and metal constructions. I am glad, that even though the tradition is slowly vanishing and absorbing more of the Christianity rules, some people still keep it, build new traditional houses, rice barns and burry in the wooden coffin, without metal decorations.
In the region of Toraja, there are plenty of local markets, with the biggest in Rantepao and the most eco-friendly in Tonga Riu – the Bamboo market. I just love to buy hand-made crafts from locals. I am an artist myself, and even though normally I don’t bring any souvenirs, in Toraja I couldn’t stop myself when I saw the hand-made goods.
If you like cycling, you can rent a bicycle in Rantepao and cycle all the region. That could be your pledge for the environment.
The Bee is a nature lover and tea addict. Loves the idea of slow life and responsible traveling, constantly trying to improve to bee more eco-friendly. Appreciates old cultures and traditions, loves to immerse with locals, listen to ethnic music as well as taste regional food and drinks. Her favorite spots while traveling are family houses and street markets.