Tana Toraja, Indonesia

Tana Toraja is a beautiful and fascinating place, known for its gory and dramatic animist traditions, chiefly hosting multi-day funerals that involve brutal animal slaughters, and cost so much that the dead is sometimes kept preserved in the house for months while the family raises funds. There are also elaborate burial sites, where coffins are accompanied by wooden/wax effigies of the deceased known as ‘tau tau’. And that’s without mentioning the baby graves and traditional boat-shaped ‘tonkien’ houses! It’s quite a unique place, unlike any other, and even now I’m itching to get back.

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Unfortunately for us, we were both quite poorly in our time there, so we got off to a slow start. I was bed-ridden with a flu for the first day there, then once I’d recovered I became nurse to Sam who developed a dreadful (and quite serious!) infection on his foot (we think from a coral cut) that meant he couldn’t even walk to go to the bathroom until he’d had two full days on antibiotics.

Consequently, as all the sites are accessed by trekking (or riding a scooter, which we’d already ruled out in Thailand!) we had to squeeze a lot of sites into a small amount of time, and looking back we could’ve spent a bit longer here, as Malaysian Borneo was pretty pants, but hey ho!

We’d teamed up with fun Danish couple Laura and Theis and spent a delirious 20 hours travelling to Tana Toraja with them on the the notoriously hard route that involves a boat then lots of winding around bad roads through the night, and we were bonded by Celine Dion singalongs and a shared love of high-calorie snack food.

We attended a funeral together in Tana Toraja, which was a pretty fascinating affair. We knew it was going to be pretty unique when, as we disembarked from our ‘bemo’ (shared 4×4, the local transport) we were led down a small path and could already see pigs being slaughtered and their hair being burnt off with blow torches, fresh meat hanging in trees and lying on the ground cooking in giant sticks of bamboo. There were no other tourists there, and it was a pretty small affair, due to the deceased being a fairly low-class older lady, so they’d rushed the funeral through so the village didn’t expect a huge party.

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We were welcomed in warmly by the host family, all dressed in black but beaming with smiles and incredibly grateful to receive our gift – a carton of cigarettes – which we’d sorted with the help of our local guide. We were plied with lots of food, from snacks to the local dish of herby bamboo-cooked pork. One of the older ladies, beautiful and sweet, even offered us betel nut, which I tried. A mix of red betel nut plant and powdered snail, the mix fizzed and exploded with sourness in my mouth, and stained my teeth red for the rest of the day! It was pretty fun though, and the family seemed to like that I’d tried it.

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We shook hands with the whole family and spoke English with the younger family members, taking breaks to ask our guide about the local customs, and we even got to see the last pig being slaughtered close-up: a gory experience, as they stab the pig in the throat until they bleed out, which was pretty horrific to watch towards the end! The animists actually have great respect for the animals, and see this sacrifice as aiding the spirit of the deceased into the afterlife, but it’s easy to forget this when confronted with the brutal end of life!

The family were even hospitable enough to let us see the deceased’s body, which was a surreal experience, as we were led into the house – and the grandma’s room – by giggling grandchildren. Seeing a dead body for the first time in real life was bizarre. We paid our respects then got the hell out of there!

We were also given quite a lot of palm wine and cigarettes from the family and village, as well as lots of kopi, so we had fun cheers-ing the family and chatting away with our guide. We feasted on the traditional funeral food – fresh pork cooked with herbs in bamboo tube, served with rice and veggies. It’s pretty expensive (relatively!) to eat this in touristy restaurants so we were chuffed to be trying it in authentic surroundings with local people.

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Out guide pointed out the heads of the village sitting by the ‘rice storage’ – a central part of the traditional Tonkien houses. After a while things started winding down, and as it wasn’t a huge funeral there wasn’t a buffalo to be slaughtered (apparently a white buffalo costs the same as a new house!) so we headed back.

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We also managed a day of trekking in our time there, with Sam and I exploring the local area via bemos and on foot. We had a great day, walking through rice terraces and farms, with local kids shouting ‘HELLO!’ at us, discovering hidden gems of burial caves and stunning views. Firstly we visited Tampangallo, trekking around ancient Tonkien houses grouped together into little hamlets, past baby graves hanging in trees, and eventually to the burial ground itself.

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We almost missed Tampangallo as it’s pretty hidden away, but once inside, we were really awestruck by the madness of hanging coffins, skulls, and tau tau (the wooden effigies) scattered around the cave. Morbid and uplifting in equal measures, the smiling, primitive wooden tau tau (who’s clothes are regularly changed to preserve the dignity of the spirit) stare out over the coffins, protecting the spirits that live inside.

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After trekking back to town, we took another bemo North to Batutumonga, which is famed for having the best views in the area, but as luck would have it – after sitting in traffic for nearly an hour, crawling up the rice terraces – we arrived, and a HUGE rainshower came down almost simultaneously! The whole vista clouded over as we frantically tried to find some affordable accommodation. We’d been recommended one place, which had once been a homestay, but had obviously been converted, and was now super spenny! However, it did have the advantage of being a collection of TONKIEN HUTS!

So after some fighting, stressed out by the expense, and some negotiation with the hostel lady, we settled down to a night sleeping in the absolute darkness of our Tonkien hut. We awoke for sunrise – absolutely stunning over the wide arc of rice terraces dotted with traditional huts and lakes. We waited for the sun to rise, and after giving up hope of catching a bemo (we were pretty far out of town!) we started trekking down the terraces, taking in stunning view after stunning view.

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Locals passed us on buses and cars, honking and shouting hello, until eventually we were picked up by a super friendly bunch of young students who gave us a lift to our destination – a local bull fight! We’d been tipped off about the big bull fight by a local, and it was really an experience! Within the first ten minutes we’d nearly been hit by a bull bucking his way out of the arena, fully branded by his local team logo, and surrounded by jacketed team supporters.

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We watched the fight for an hour or so, as bull pairings had at each other, but they were stopped from ever really hurting each other – instead using horn-locking as proof of success. After an hour in the extreme heat we were boiling so hot-footed it back to town on a bemo, where we fit in once last burial grave – Londa – which holds the most modern, lifelife waxwork tau tau, jutting out from a shelf of coffins, alongside the obligatory skulls and bones from older coffins.

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Now raining again, we trekked back to our hostel for a treat of local Torajan coffee from Toraja’s verdant hills (DELICIOUS!) and waited for our night bus to Sulawesi’s capital Makassar, jumping-off point to the fantastic Komodo National Park!

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One note on Tana Toraja: although it feels like somewhat of a hidden gem currently, it’s becoming more touristy every year, so if you like the sound of it, I’d recommend going in the next few years as it’s already starting to feel a little strained by tourism. I’d definitely recommend going and I plan to go back as soon as I can to Sulawesi as it has so much to offer and was by far our favourite part of Indonesia. Now, onwards and upwards, to Komodo!