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Indonesia

With new flights from Makassar to Palopo, it’s time for travelers interested in the strange to try Toraja. That’s why it’s one of our Dozen Dream Destinations for 2020. 

Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia, is a land of great contrast: tropical forests blur into fresh alpine peaks. The highland area of Tana Toraja is the capital of this region and home to the Toraja people, practitioners of burial ceremonies in which pigs, horses, and especially water buffalo are sacrificed in order to buy a swifter, safer passage from the living world.

ABOVE: Albino buffalo at a Torajan funeral. (Credit: Jay Tindall)

This practice of mass sacrifice has earned Torajaland a reputation as one of the darker cultural events travelers may witness in Southeast Asia, and the funeral rites of the Toraja get more interesting from there. Some Torajans preserve the corpses of the dead, and after ceremonial singing and dressing of the bodies, the corpses are laid to rest in cliffside graves set at different elevations according to the deceased’s social status. Wooden effigies called “tau tau” are placed at the site to guard the dead up to some 30 meters off the ground. And what’s more, at the yearly ma’nene festival in August, bodies are removed from their tombs for cleaning and at times even paraded through the streets.

Witnessing this ceremony is of course not for the faint-of-heart, but those who can look past the outwardly grim events will see Sulawesi in the raw. From the shape of the traditional homes to the giant Jesus Buntu Burake statue, the largely Christian Torajaland is a world of contrasts that can expand the mind.

Where to Stay

ABOVE: Traditional Torajan tribal homes. (Credit: Jay Tindall)

“The sacrifice is only one part of the intense funerary rites of this land. There are also dirges, occasional cockfighting, and the cleansing of the bodies. Death is important to the Torajans, as it is to everyone.”
– Remote Lands Co-founder and COO Jay Tindall

Like everything else in the world these days, the spectacle is open to tourists. For now, visitors can respectfully observe these rituals, but be warned: it can be macabre.

Visitors to Southern Sulawesi are in luck when it comes to quality accommodations, as the Toraja Heritage Hotel prides itself on staying true to local Indonesian culture while also offering high-end comforts. The Toraja Heritage’s architecture follows the style of traditional Torajan tribal homes, with a unique roof design modeled after a ship’s prow. Located 2,300 feet above sea level, this hotel looks out over one of Indonesia’s largest mountain ranges, Other highlights and features include a flying ropes course, two outdoor swimming pools, a spa, and a bamboo bar.

Torajaland is a world away from tourist hotspots like Manado, but there is still a level of comfort to be had for those booking in advance.

What to Do

TORAJALAND FUNERAL
Locals save for months, or even years, to give their dead loved ones the best chance in the afterlife. Keeping a respectful distance, travelers can experience some of the most intense funerary rites in Southeast Asia.

COFFEE PLANTATION
Anyone will tell you that Indonesia makes some of the best coffee in the world. While on your cultural trip through Sulawesi, travelers can learn about the local means of production and cultivation and take a little taste of Torajaland back home.

HANGING COFFINS
After experiencing the funeral proceedings, travelers can visit the famed hanging coffins of Torajaland, the final resting place of the Torajan dead. Perhaps the most-famed of these sites is that of Lemo, where the still, carved faces of countless wooden “tau tau” statues look down from above.