Tana Toraja Indonesia: 12 Things To Do In Sulawesi’s Funeral Land
The remote land of Tana Toraja, Indonesia (on Sulawesi island) is known for having one of the most bizarre and unique cultures in the world.
We spent several days there in 2020, and even managed to visit a traditional Tana Toraja funeral with the invitation of some friendly locals.
Tanah Toraja is a fascinating journey, with its unique cliffside graves, karst mountains, and notoriously unusual funeral customs and beliefs.
This travel guide will explain how to get to Tana Toraja, where to stay, all the best things to do, and everything else you need to know before you go!
Tana Toraja Culture In A Nutshell
The local religion in Toraja is called Aluk To Dolo (‘Way of the Ancestors’). It’s based on animist myths and traditions, infused with some elements of Protestant Christianity brought to Sulawesi by the Dutch in the 1920s.
Toraja culture is focused on death and the afterlife, and you can see this in the famously elaborate funeral ceremonies where they have days of feasting, dancing, and the slaughter of buffalos and pigs. The funeral is central to Toraja culture.
We enjoyed seeing the artistic tongkonan houses with their iconic curved rooftops, and exploring the hundreds of peculiar grave sites carved into the cliffs, caves, and boulders.
Toraja people are very friendly and welcoming to foreigners!
Where Is It?
The Tana Toraja regency is located in the highlands of south Sulawesi island in Indonesia.
The main town of Rantepao sits in a scenic mountain area surrounded by limestone karsts, rivers, and rice terraces, so it’s a great place to explore.
How To Get To Tana Toraja
Tana Toraja, Indonesia can be reached by air, bus, or private car.
You can find more info on each option below. Flying to Toraja is the easiest, but bus is the cheapest. Car is best for groups.
• By Air
All flights to Toraja have to transit first in Makassar (UPG), and then you can fly directly to the new Tana Toraja airport (TRT) which was finished in 2020. The flight from Makassar to Toraja takes 1 hour and costs about 600k IDR ($40 USD).
You can book this flight daily on the Lion Air website, and I would guess other airlines may start doing the route soon too since it was just opened recently.
Once you reach the airport, it’s a 1 hour drive into town, and a taxi will cost about 250k IDR. We asked our hotel to combine our airport pickup with a half day tour of Toraja, so we paid 400k total. This worked out great because we got to see some things on our first day there.
• By Bus
There’s a daily morning or night bus to Tana Toraja from the bus terminal in Makassar.
The bus ride from Makassar to Rantepao takes about 9 or 10 hours and there are several stops along the way. It costs around 200k per person.
The bus departure times from both Makassar and Toraja are 9 AM for the morning bus, or 9 PM for the night bus.
• By Car
A car + driver can be hired to take you from Makassar to Tanah Toraja for about 750k to 1 million IDR ($50-70). This is the most cost effective option if you’re traveling in a group with several people. The drive takes 8+ hours and the road is in good condition.
Alternatively, you can rent a car to self drive from Makassar for 600k, but I wouldn’t recommend this unless you’re already familiar with driving in Indonesia.
How To Get Around
Once you arrive in Tanah Toraja, the best way to explore the area is to hire a car + driver or rent a scooter.
It’s very cheap to hire a driver in Toraja. Our hotel owner was happy to show us around to all the tourist sites for 400k per day.
Best Things To Do In Toraja
The cliff side graves at Lemo are one of Tanah Toraja’s most famous sights.
The first thing you’re greeted by is a row of creepy Tau-Tau statues staring down at you, as if they’re guarding the graves.
Lemo is very accessible. Our hotel owner took us there while driving us from the airport to our homestay in Rantepao.
Londa is a burial ground with two deep limestone caves filled with coffins and bones.
If you follow the caves far enough back, they connect with each other by a series of tunnels. A flashlight will be handy, otherwise you can rent a lantern at the entrance.
Londa is easy to combine with Lemo and other sights in south Tanah Toraja.
3. Kete Kesu
This is a popular collection of Toraja traditional houses (tongkonan) with a cave cemetery in the background.
Personally, I didn’t think the houses at Kete Kesu were as nice as the ones at Palawa (more on that later).
4. Yesus Buntu Burake
Torajan religion was mixed with Christianity after the colonials arrived, and it’s reflected in a giant Jesus Christ statue that stands on the hill above Makale.
It’s the second tallest Jesus statue in the world (after the famous one in Sao Paolo, Brazil), and you can drive all the way up to it from Makale. No hiking needed.
5. Buntu Pune
This is a small group of graves and Torajan traditional houses (tongkonan) that seem to be mostly overlooked by tourists.
6. Bori Kalimbuang
Bori is a grave site in north Toraja with megalithic stones that were stood upright and used as headstones. It’s also known for having ‘baby trees’ where babies were buried if they died in infancy.
If you keep following the path, there’s a peculiar looking giant grave stone with more than a dozen tombs in it. I thought it was one of the most fascinating sights in Toraja.
7. Mount Sesean
Mount Sesean is one of the high points near Rantepao, and it has some of the best natural scenery in the area, with rice terraces for miles.
Hiking to the top from Batutumonga takes about 2 hours one way. The trailhead is pretty easy to find, and when you reach the top you get 360 degree views of the Toraja valley.
The peak of Gunung Sesean is 2,100 meters (6,900 feet) in altitude, and it’s one of Toraja’s most popular sunrise spots!
8. Loko Mata
This is a giant burial stone on the main road near Batutumonga and Mount Sesean.
It’s probably the biggest boulder we saw in Toraja, and it has dozens of tombs carved into the rock on all sides.
Very interesting, but I thought the grave stone at Bori was better.
9. Palawa Houses
Palawa has some of the best traditional houses we saw in Toraja.
These tongkonan are well preserved and super photogenic, with rows of water buffalo horns decorating the front.
10. Limbong Lake
This is a lake near Rantepao with limestone karst mountains and water that changes color in the seasons. If you come in the rainy season, they said the water turns a nice blue color.
11. Tana Toraja Funeral
One of the most important events in Tana Toraja, Indonesia is the traditional funeral ceremony. These are extravagant, usually last several days, and involve the gory slaughtering of pigs and buffaloes as a gift/honor to the family of the deceased.
Toraja culture revolves around funerals, and it’s a big draw for international tourists too. Foreigners are very welcome to attend, but as a guest you’ll be expected to buy a small gift for the family (usually a few packs of cigarettes).
If you want to witness a Tana Toraja funeral, the best thing to do is check with your hotel and/or tour guide about when and where the next one will happen. Funeral season is generally July to September.
12. Ma’Nene Ceremony
Toraja’s most shocking and infamous tradition by far is the Ma’Nene ceremony that happens every year after the harvest season.
This is when the relatives’ corpses (dead bodies) are brought out of their graves like zombies, cleaned, and dressed in fresh clothes.
The locals don’t find this disgusting. In their culture, it’s loving and respectful, and they want to stay connected with their lost relatives. Keep in mind it’s an ancient tradition.
Most tourist sites in Tanah Toraja have entrance fees, which for foreigners tend to be about 30k IDR ($2) per person. You pay this at each tourist site.
It may not sound like very much, but it starts to add up if you visit 4 or 5 places in a day tour. Just remember to keep some cash handy.
Where To Stay In Tana Toraja
Most Toraja visitors stay in Rantepao, which is the main town area.
Accommodation is pretty basic, consisting of homestays and small hotels, but the quality and value is surprisingly good.
Here are some of our top picks:
- Rosalina Homestay – Free breakfast/WiFi and the owner was very helpful arranging our airport pickup & Tanah Toraja tours – 200k IDR ($14 USD)
- Manubackpacker – Outstanding value for a twin room with private bathroom – 150k IDR ($10)
- Toraja Lodge Hotel – Superior king room with WiFi & breakfast included – 300k IDR ($20)
- Tongkonan Layuk Lion – Free dinner and breakfast with a village atmosphere and traditional Tongkonan houses – 750k IDR ($50)
These prices may fluctuate from time to time, so just keep an eye out for a good deal.
- Credit Cards: Everything in Tanah Toraja is cash only. That includes hotels, restaurants, and entrance fees for tourist sites. So keep cash handy.
- ATM: There are plenty of ATMs in Rantepao with standard withdrawal limits. Foreign cards work fine.
- WiFi: Hotels in Rantepao generally have decent WiFi, and it’s quickly improving.
- Cell Service: Our SIM cards from Telkomsel had great reception in the Rantepao area.
- Restaurants: The streetside warungs in Rantepao didn’t seem great, but you can find good food if you look around. Two of our picks would be Raja Babi Waroenk and Monika Cafe & Resto.
- Apps: Grab and GoJek aren’t available in Rantepao, but taxis and food delivery aren’t too hard to sort out if you need them.
Best Time To Visit
Tanah Toraja’s climate is quite a bit cooler than the rest of Sulawesi, with average temps around 73 F (23 C) all year.
If you want to see the Toraja funerals and Ma’Nene ceremonies, the best time to visit is from July to September (and especially the month of August).
Otherwise, any month is fine for visiting Toraja, although it’s more rainy from November to May.
How Long To Stay
You can see the highlights of Tana Toraja, Indonesia in 3 days.
With that said, Toraja is a big area so you could easily stay longer exploring all of the mountains and waterfalls if you wanted.
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