Located in the highlands of South Sulawesi, Indonesia is the picturesque mountainous region of Tana Toraja, one of the most interesting places we have visited. What attracts many travellers to this exciting destination are the stories of traditional funeral ceremonies and buffalo sacrifices, which is one of the many things to do in Tana Toraja.
This unique land is home to an indigenous ethnic group known as the Torajan's. Although, mostly Christian and others Muslim, the Toraja people still practice their traditional animistic beliefs, known as Aluk To Dolo.
Being a region so rich in culture, you will find many things to do in Tana Toraja. From visiting boat-shaped houses, experiencing different rituals, to getting lost on the mountain roads, this region will definitely leave you in wonder.
Experience A Toraja Funeral Ceremony
A Toraja funeral, known as Rambu Solo is a ceremony of great importance to the Toraja people. When a family member passes away, they are not referred to as dead but rather as the "sick one" or "sleeping one". During this time, the body of the deceased is kept inside the family home or stored in a traditional house under the same roof. This practice can last weeks, months or even years until the family can gather enough money to hold this unique Toraja funeral ceremony.
During the ceremony, which can last up to ten days, family members along with the entire village gather together in a field. Here they perform traditional rituals of dance and buffalo fighting, before the slaughtering of these buffalo along with pigs. The Toraja people believe, with the first slaughtering, the soul leaves the body and is guided into the afterlife. Only on the last day of the celebration, is the body laid to rest inside a cave.
Witnessing a funeral like this is a rare experience and one of the popular things to do in Tana Toraja. We recommend going with a guide, who will organise the whole day for you. You will find many guides near or around your guesthouse.
Cost: 300,000 IDR / 23$ for a guide if you are by yourself. We paid 180,000 IDR / 14$ each for our guide in a group of five.
Tompangallo is a natural cave located 23 km south of Rantepao, between the villages of Sangalla and Suaya. Surrounded by lush rice paddies this natural cave is one of Tana Toraja's most impressive burial sites, home to the Chiefs of Sangalla.
Entering the cave you will first pass by a stack of human skulls. Further on through the small entrance, the cave opens up into a large area full of decaying wooden coffins and human remains.
High up on the cave walls are rows of coffins and Tau Tau. A small wooden human figure, representing the social status of the dead. Along the lower sections of the cave, you will see rows of human skulls stacked on top of one another.
Cost: 20,000 IDR / 1.50$ entrance fee.
Visit Kambira Baby Graves
One of the things to do in Tana Toraja while visiting Tampangallo is to see the baby graves. Not too far from the cave itself is the small village of Kambira. Here you will find an unusual practice for baby burials.
Unlike adults, babies who die before their first teeth are placed upright inside a tree, hours after their death. A small hole, which is normally carved out of a jackfruit tree is then covered up by a door-like structure made from palm bark. This way, protecting the newborn baby against small animals and insects.
The Torajan's believe the tree becomes the new mother of the baby. Therefore, babies must face in the opposite direction from the family home, in hope another child will not die prematurely.
Over the last few decades, as more Torajan's become Christian, this form of tradition has stopped.
Cost: 20,000 IDR / 1.50$
If you find yourself in Rantepao on a Sunday, be sure to pop down and watch all the local hustle and bustle. Open every Sunday is the Bolu Market, 2 km northeast of the town. Besides the usual fruit and veg market, Bolu Market is highly popular for selling livestock, attracting people from all over. Come and watch as hundreds of dealers compete with each other to buy and sell the best buffalos and pigs. You will also have a great opportunity to see a rare blue eyed albino buffalo. This is a great way to kick of your day of things to do in Tana Toraja.
Kete Kesu is a tiny village 5 km south of Rantepao and probably the most visited spot in Tana Toraja. Nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this village is made up of six long traditional boat-shaped houses.
These beautifully decorated houses have a vertical pole in front lined with buffalo horns, representing social status. Opposite the houses, are 12 granaries for storing rice, which makes up the rest of the Kete Kesu village.
Unfortunately, only after our visit here, we heard about Bukit Bunta Kesa. A cliff face behind the village, with old hanging graves. So be sure to check it out and stick this on your list of things to do in Tana Toraja.
Cost: 20,000 IDR / 1.50$
Lemo Burial Site
11 km south of Rantepao, you will find a large cliff face burial site in the village of Lemo. This huge rock has over 75 different tombs carved out into its side. Some of these carvings are home to families, while others have colourful Tau Tau standing side by side.
For us, this was the best burial cliff site we saw in Tana Toraja. Spend some time exploring around the cliff and take in the beautiful surrounding scenery. We recommend coming here late evening as it's extremely peaceful.
Cost: 20,000 IDR / 1.50$
Wisata Religi Buntu Buraka
Wisata Religi Bunta Buraka is a large statue of Jesus Christ built on top of Burake Hill in Makale. Being Tana Toraja's version of the statue in Rio de Janeiro, this towering statue actually stands taller than Christ the Redeemer. But the actual body of the statue is smaller than of that in Rio.
From the top, you have the perfect 360° view overlooking the whole of Tana Toraja's mountainous landscape. Getting to the top may be a little tricky, as only a third of the road is paved. Once at the top of the mountain, climb the stairs for that perfect view.
We were delighted we decided to take the trip down here after visiting Tampangallo and Kambira baby graves. We happened to be the only westerners amongst the hundreds of Indonesian tourists, and we became more of an attraction than the statue itself.
Every couple of meters, we were stopped for selfies or asked to join in on group photos. This was a great experience to meet and mingle with the locals.
Cost: 5000 IDR / 0.50$
Where to stay in Tana Toraja
We recommend staying at Riana Homestay in the city of Rantepao, which is the main location for travellers coming to this region. This family run guesthouse is great value for money at only 150,000 IDR (12$) a night.
We had a private room with a private bathroom, warm shower, wifi and breakfast included. Although the toilet is not a flush toilet, it is clean and the room is spacious.
The owner of Riana Homestay is also a guide, and we highly recommend him. He was very informative and organised our whole day to the funeral ceremony.
We hope reading our guide on things to do in Tana Toraja inspires you to visit this culturally rich region. If you have ever been to this fascinating part of Sulawesi before, we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.