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Trip Report Tana Toraja Trip Report

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Sorry, just getting around to this, but still in time for halloween:

Tana Toraja was one of those places I'd heard about but didn't think I'd have a chance to visit. But as it happened, business took me to Makassar, and from there it's 'just' a seven hour drive to Torajaland.

It was a difficult trip to plan, because the place is not easy to get to, is very spread out, and there isn't much information about it on the web. In the end, I contacted a local tour operator recommended by one of my contacts to arrange everything. What I didn't know at the time was that the operator was a new company and I was in fact their first customer! Having said that, if I was their first attempt, I'd have no hesitation recommending Emerald Indonesia (http://www.go2indo.com) to anyone wanting to visit Toraja. My guide was Torajan and was very knowledgeable about the area, and a lot of the people we met in the market seemed to know him.

Between one day getting there and one day back to Makassar, I had two full days in Tana Toraja. The first day I've decided to dub "Four Dead Buffalo and a Funeral". Funerals are one of the main tourist attractions in Toraja. They last up to five or six days and are mainly held in August and September, during the dry season - the dead body is kept in the house until the family has the money and time for the funeral, which may be two years or more. Their main feature is the 'sacrifice' of many pigs and buffalo to help carry the dead person to heaven. It was for this reason that I delayed my trip until October.

But as 'luck' would have it, on my first day, as we were driving up into the hills to see the traditional villages, the guide found out from someone at one of our stops that a funeral was in progress along our route. He did ask how I was with the sight of blood, and I had to admit being a bit squeamish, but agreed to go anyway.

Fortunately for me, if not for the four buffalo, they had already been killed before I got there, and the process of carving them up was well along. It was still a bit of a struggle to keep breakfast down. The guide and I were still standing near the entrance of the big courtyard when a young man came over to tell the guide we were invited up to the family head's platform to watch the spectical. There weren't many western tourists in Toraja at this time, and when they found out I was American (probably the only one this season), the welcome got even better. Thick sweet Torajan coffee was served along with some sweet potato chips (both of these are growing everywhere you looked).

The funerals are big events, as you can imagine. Family members and close friends stay there for the whole duration, while most of the rest of the village comes and goes. They're good people watching spots but I was relieved to finally be able to politely leave.

Day two will have to be called "I See Dead People." The guide took me to see several of the royal tombs. As with funerals, Torajans don't do burials in a simple small way either. Commoners will be buried in crypts carved by hand in the big boulders that litter the landscape of Toraja. The upper classes and former royalty are entombed in crypts carved out of huge cliff faces. Nearby the tombs, balconies are carved into the rock, and on these are placed wooden manikins representing the deceased.

The guide also took me to a cave that has been used as a burial place by one family for around a thousand years. There were stacks of coffins everywhere, and lots of bones as well. Skulls were placed at the entrance to the cave to 'welcome' you.

Based on the largely misleading description of Toraja in my LP Indonesia book (sorry, there is no Fodors for Indonesia), I was expecting a relatively developed tourist area, perhaps a few years behind Chiang Mai or Ubud. In reality, Toraja doesn't have much of a tourist infrastructure. The central city of the area, Rantepao, has very little in the way of restaurants or nightlife. Almost all of the hotels are resort style places built away from town. I stayed at the four star Marante, which was nice enough and had an incredibly friendly staff. The only other four star property in the area is the Heritage, which I believe used to be a Novotel Coralia.

The people everywhere in Toraja are incredibly friendly. Come to that, even the people in Makassar are among the nicest and friendliest I've met in Indonesia. Now that I've had a taste of Sulawesi, I'm hoping to get to Manado soon. I've posted more details in my journal at http://chiengfa.com and photos in my gallery at http://chiengfa.com/gallery2/main.php?g2_view=core.ShowItem&g2_itemId=268 (not for the squeamish!)

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