Living Your Best Death

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July 9th 2019
Published: July 9th 2019
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Dodo and IDodo and IDodo and I

At breakfast in his kitchen.
If you followed my Midlife Crisis Flashpacking trip two years ago, you may recall that I chose not to travel to Tana Toraja after traveling overland through Flores because I couldn’t handle the prospect of yet more crazy winding mountain roads. So, I opted to chill in Bali instead. Last year, my friends Ryan and Anthony announced they would be getting married in Bali this July, so I decided to check off another bucket list item - Tana Toraja - before heading to Ubud. As an added bonus, my friend Trixie - you might recall her from my various blogs from Australia two years ago - was going to the wedding as well, and so we planned to spend eight days exploring Bali.

Getting to Tana Toraja

My initial plan was to arrive in Makassar on the evening of July 6th, stay at a hotel near the northern bus terminal, and then bus it to Rantepao (the main travelers’ hub in Toraja) the next morning. While researching how to get from Makassar to Tana Toraja, I could not find any buses scheduled for Sunday morning from the northern terminal. I tried looking at the various travel and bus companies’ sites but
Eddie and IEddie and IEddie and I

Eddie met me at Makassar Airport, drove me to Dodo’s, stayed overnight there (I could hear him snoring in the next room), and took me to the bus station the next morning.
I only got conflicting information. As I was on a tight timeline with little room for error (a sad consequence of once again being a gainfully employed adult), I decided to seek help from Dodo Mursalim, a freelance guide who came highly recommended by the Lonely Planet. Dodo responded to my email promptly, and he confirmed my suspicions that there were limited Sunday daytime buses from the northern terminal. He offered to pick me up at the airport, put me up in his homestay, and then send me to the bus company that did run Sunday morning trips, all for a very reasonable price. I gratefully accepted his offer.

I arrived exhausted at Makassar airport on the evening of July 6. Dodo’s friend Eddie was waiting for me. I gratefully hoisted myself into his car for the ride to Dodo’s homestay. The initial drive on the toll road was very pleasant, but that soon ended once we exited the toll road onto a gridlocked road. This being Indonesia, there were few traffic lights and lots of traffic going in all directions. I have spent enough time in this country to not be fazed. As we approached our destination, I noted
At the Bus StationAt the Bus StationAt the Bus Station

This scene greeted me when I was about to board my bus. Not exactly inspiring confidence.
the number of mosques in the vicinity and groaned inwardly... this was going to be an early wakeup.

At his homestay, Dodo greeted me, showed me to a simple room, and bade me good night. I slept well that night, but, at the expected hour (4.30am), multiple calls to prayer woke me up. Arrggh. It has been a while since I’ve been in a Muslim city.

I had a difficult time falling asleep again. At 6.30am, I joined Dodo and Eddie for breakfast downstairs. Dodo, not surprisingly, turned out to be quite a character; warm, friendly, full of surprises. He even performed a magic trick.

After leaving Dodo’s, Eddie drove me to the Bintang Prima bus station and bade me goodbye. There, I purchased a ticket for the 9am bus. The bus was large and it had recliner seats, which is a huge step upwards compared to most buses in Indonesia. While waiting, I saw the staff tinkering with the rear wheel well and I momentarily fretted about departing late, then I reminded myself: (1) this is Indonesia; and (2) the journey matters as much as the destination. The bus departed a few minutes late. On the
Scenes From the BusScenes From the BusScenes From the Bus

En route to Rantepao, while we were still in the lowlands.
manifest, handwritten next to my name was “(Bule)” (translation=Caucasian). Haha. I guess in this context I might as well be a white guy.

Remember my saying that the journey matters as much as the destination? At one of the stops on the northern edge of Makassar, a bule boarded the bus and he was directed to sit next to me. He greeted me and I immediately knew he was American. What were the chances of that? Charlie had lived in Indonesia for four years and he had a furniture business and a coffee business. He was on his way to Tana Toraja to take care of his coffee business. He was stoked to have a few hours of conversation in English with someone with a close cultural connection. A fellow expat like me, I could tell his views about pretty much everything had evolved, a natural consequence when your life straddles two worlds and things get complicated. He was excited and nervous about his upcoming trip to the States... I could so sympathize with that. He was good company and he made a long journey pass faster.

The bus made a lunch stop at Pare Pare. The restaurant where we
More Bus ShennanigansMore Bus ShennanigansMore Bus Shennanigans

We stopped twice to fix problems with the bus.
stopped offered a simple meal of rice, fried fish, and satay. I looked around helplessly for utensils, and then I saw Charlie and the locals starting to eat with their hands. Eating with my hands is a skill I never mastered, but I shrugged and did my best.

Before departing Makassar, I took one motion sickness pill. Up until lunch, the road had been flat, but I knew we would soon turn inland and go up some winding roads. Out of an abundance of caution, I took a second pill after lunch. Bad mistake. By 3pm, I was zoning, and trying valiantly to stay awake to enjoy the brilliant scenery.

The bus rolled into Rantepao - the tourist center of Tana Toraja - around 8pm, a full 11 hours after departing Makassar. I was exhausted but I was cognizant enough to spot a sign for Pia’s Poppies, my hotel for the next three nights. It turned out to be a cute place, and an amazing bargain for the price I paid.

Other bloggers on this site had all reported that there were guides waiting for them when they arrived. I didn’t encounter any, but maybe that was
Rantepao in the MorningRantepao in the MorningRantepao in the Morning

This scene greeted me as I stepped out of my room, after being awakened by a cacophony of roosters and a call to prayer.
because I disembarked from the bus before the usual stop in town where tourists disembark. So, while eating dinner, I WhatsApped Dodo, and wow what a miracle worker this guy is. Within a few minutes, a guide named Ritha came looking for me and we negotiated a two day itinerary for a reasonable fee.

I rarely make public recommendations, but anyone who needs a fixer in Makassar shouldn’t hesitate to seek Dodo out. According to Eddie, Dodo manages to set up just about anything for his guests. Don’t expect luxury if you stay with Dodo. What you can expect, though, is a warm man who will treat you like an old friend. He can be contacted via WhatsApp at +62 812-4129-913.

Bumpy Roads, Take Me Home

As Ritha was already committed to a different client for the first day, she asked her associate Anto to take me around. Our itinerary today took us on a circuit south of Rantepao. After a good breakfast, I met Anto, climbed onto the back of his motorbike, and off we went. Anto turned out to be a fun and engaging guy. The roads were in poor condition, though, his bike was a

Tau tau on the cliffside. Some have hands turned upwards, which symbolize requesting for blessings, and some have their hands turned sideways, symbolizing protection.
little on the decrepit side, and I’m not exactly in the lightweight category. This led to some bumps, which in turn led Anto to adlib “Bumpy roads, take me home”. At one point, after a particularly nasty bump, his rear tire got a little flat and things got a little dicey when he had trouble controlling it. I winced every time we bounced as it felt like the rim was hitting the road. We looked around for a repair shop, found one, he pumped the tire back up, and things were fine for a while. But, by the end of the day, it was pretty flat again.

Rather hilariously, my Fitbit recorded many of those bumps as steps. I clocked 19,000 steps that day.

WARNING: The next two sections include descriptions of animal sacrifice and other practices that may be considered cruel from a western perspective. I’ve taken care to place photos depicting animal sacrifice after the main text. Depending on which browser you use, they should begin no earlier than on Page 3 of the photographs. Do not read on if you might be offended. But, know that animal sacrifice is an integral part of Torajan
Tampang AlloTampang AlloTampang Allo

Tau tau with hanging graves.
funerals as they are believed to convey the deceased to the next stage.

Living Your Best Death

The Torajan people are best known for the rituals around death. I’ve always wanted to come here just to see and experience their funerals. I don’t think I’m gifted enough of a writer to adequately describe what I saw and learned, much less what I internalized, but I shall try. Scrolling through my photos and reading the secondary text may yield additional insight.

Our first stop today was the village of Lemo. At this village, we explored some limestone cliffs where the dead are buried in holes dug into the stone. At the front of the dug out holes were tau tau, which are wooden effigies of the dead. It was odd to see bottles of water and packets of cigarettes at the graves. Anto explained that these were offerings. At this village, there were a few preserved traditional houses called tongkonan.

Our second stop was Tampang Allo, which had a cave with “hanging graves”. Hanging graves are coffins that are placed on platforms inside caves. This isn’t practiced anymore. The graves we saw were in various stages of
Tampang AlloTampang AlloTampang Allo

Baby burial tree. Each patch on the trunk indicates where a baby was buried.
decay, and bones and skulls were visible.

Our next stop, also in the same village, was probably the saddest of all. Infants who die before their teeth come out are still considered pure, so they are buried inside a tree. A hole is carved into the sacred tree, and the baby’s corpse is brought out there in the middle of the night so it does not find its way back easily to its mother. This particular tree is selected because it has white sap that resembles mother’s milk. The baby is buried in the tree and then it becomes part of the tree.

Along the way, Anto provided me with various snippets of information on Torajan culture. Key highlights included:

• Spaces for the dead and spaces for the living are kept strictly separated. Nothing from the deceased persons’ spaces may be brought into the living persons’ spaces. I saw a papaya tree next to some graves, and I asked if the fruit could be consumed. Anto replied to the affirmative, but they had to be consumed at the grave area.
• The west is associated with the dead and the east with the living. Funerals typically don’t
The FuneralThe FuneralThe Funeral

The two tau tau were placed atop the slope during the funeral procession, as if they were watching it.
start before noon because the sun is in the west after noon.
• People now tend to bury their dead in little houses.
• The cliff graves must be chiseled by hand. Lots of scuff marks were visible in those graves.
• Torajan society is stratified and rituals vary by social class.
• The Torajans are very much connected with their past and their lineage. They visit their deceased in their graves, and every few years they take them out, change their clothes, and perform other acts of care.
• Traditions aren’t typically written down; they’re passed down by word of mouth. This, of course, leads to confusion.

Our next stop was the one I had been anticipating the most: there was a big funeral going on that day! Anto first drove us to a funeral that looked pretty modest. He quickly ascertained that we were at the wrong funeral, and we made our way to the correct one. This was a sizable funeral for two siblings - one male and one female - of noble birth.

Here is a rough sequence of events while we were there:

• I was introduced to a representative of the family and I
The FuneralThe FuneralThe Funeral

The funeral houses going down the slope. They had to turn back around and go down a different slope because they were too high to clear a gantry.
handed him a white envelope containing a note that Anto wrote introducing myself, along with a cash offering. I wanted to at least ask him the names of the deceased, but my Indonesian failed me at that moment.
• The foreigners were led to a platform and provided with lunch. We ate with our fingers. Lunch was rice, a pork dish, and anchovies tossed with shaved coconut and chilies. It was a really good meal.
• A parade comprising of some relatives carrying a long red cloth, the coffins of the two siblings (each housed in a small custom built funeral house), and finally the widow of the dead man and another woman who were both carried on sedan chairs. Whoever built the burial house did not account for their height and so the procession had to double back and go down another slope when it could not go under a gantry.
• The tau tau of the two deceased were moved to a vantage point to view the procession.
• The procession came back not long after. The women at the front of the procession seemed to be engaged in a water fight.
• One buffalo was sacrificed. Anto told me we needed to
The FuneralThe FuneralThe Funeral

Kids in traditional Torajan garb.
be a respectful distance from this sacrifice as it was the most significant sacrifice.
• The deceased persons’ genealogy and life achievements were read out.
• The coffins, the lower platform of the funeral house, and the tau tau were hoisted up a shaky bamboo bridge onto the main ceremonial tower. As each coffin got into the structure, the bearers jumped up and down. It was a little scary to see the floor of the temporary structure sag under their weight.
• Two more buffalo were sacrificed. I was close to this sacrifice. They took an agonizingly long time to die.
• Various guests then formed several processions, divided by family. The first clan was preceded by three men doing a war dance. They paraded their gifts of two buffalo (one a highly prized albino with a suspicious blond mop on top; I called him the Trump buffalo). The second family sang a mournful tune with flutes. A third group came, formed a circle, and performed a chant called ma’badong while moving slowly anti clockwise. The circular movement represents the circle of life, and the chant memorializes the dead.
• Throughout the procession, the sacrificed buffalo were efficiently skinned and sliced up in the background.

Coffin and coffin housing being hoisted up a rickety bamboo structure onto the main funeral tower. Once the coffin is there, the bearers jump up and down. This tower was a temporary structure. We could see the floor starting to sag under the weight of the coffins and the people on it.

We left while the third group was performing their chant.

Wow. Words fail me when I try to describe what I saw. It is, obviously, hard to watch any sentient being die, especially one that is culled while in its prime. As westerners, we are far removed from this as our meat comes in sanitized little packages that discourage us from thinking about where it really came from. Apart from the three buffalo, a number of pigs were killed and then immolated. I wasn’t anywhere close to where that happened, but I could hear their screams. It was stomach churning.

Anto provided me with the following information about funeral rites:

• Physical death isn’t viewed as an abrupt event. Rather, it is one step in a journey. Before the funeral, the deceased’s spirit is still wandering. After the funeral, (s)he reaches puya, and watches over their descendants and over their harvests.
• Funerals are multi day affairs. This one was in its first day; it most likely ran for five days. More buffalo would be sacrificed later. For a noble family like this one, at least 24 are sacrificed.
• It takes years to save for

I called this the Donald Trump buffalo due to the weird blond mop on his head. This buffalo is a pricey one because of his white face, whitish eyes, and blond mop. He wasn’t sacrificed that day.
a funeral. When someone dies, the body is often kept in the house - sometimes for years - until enough money is saved. At this funeral, the man had been dead for over a year, while his sister died a few months ago. A white flag is hoisted at the front of the house while a dead relative is kept there. During their time there, they are considered sick, not dead.
• Many of the structures were temporary, built for the funeral. After the funeral, they are demolished.
• Each buffalo costs upwards of US$3,000; albino buffalo (like the Trump buffalo) cost much more. People sell land, beg, borrow, or live frugally until they have enough for the funeral. To our western-oriented minds, this is hard to fathom. I wouldn’t be surprised if some kid’s college fund disappeared with one strike of a machete at a buffalo’s throat.
• Relatives are obligated to provide sacrifices and other gifts, and the horns that decorate the front of the traditional houses are testament to that. It takes years to pay off the debt, sometimes never. Anto’s own family had to sell land to cover the cost of a funeral.
• But, this is all adat. Adat,
Kete KesuKete KesuKete Kesu

This was the only overtly tourist-focused site we visited on the first day. Here, we see preserved traditional tongkonan on the left, and rice barns on the right. Tongkonan always face north. The west side is associated with death, and the east with life. Torajans always sleep oriented north or south; to sleep in any other direction invites nightmares.
which loosely translates into “custom”, is easily the most incomprehensible word to a non-Indonesian. The western equivalent would probably be “it is what it is”. Adat is rarely questioned. Every act in Indonesian culture has meaning, and adat is infused into everything. The Torajans believe that by observing these rituals, their ancestors will watch over them. Failing to observe the rituals could lead to bad harvests, etc.

Here is a video of the highlights of the funeral. The gory part starts at 2:08. View at your own risk.

Our next stop after the funeral was a scenic spot to view some rice fields. After that, our last stop was Kete Kesu, which features some preserved tongkonan and another hanging grave. This was the only touristy spot I visited in the area.

Anto deposited me back at my hotel around 5pm. My butt was sore from riding his bike on the poorly maintained roads. My mind was spinning from all I learned and saw. But, this was easily one of my best travel days ever.

Buffalo Culture

My guide today was Ritha. We hired a driver - oddly named Minggu (Sunday)
Bolu MarketBolu MarketBolu Market

This is a pricey albino. He might fetch up to US$50,000.
- for the day. My sore butt thanked her for doing this. The roads in this area were in really poor shape.

Our itinerary today was to do a circuit north of Rantepao. Our first stop was Bolu, a town just north of Rantepao famous for its twice weekly buffalo market. Ritha led me into a market with hundreds of the beasts. She explained to me what factors contributed to the asking price of a buffalo - size, coloration, length and shape of horns, etc. The more prized ones can fetch tens of thousands. Albinos are the most prized. They should have white patches, whitish-bluish eyes, and blondish hair on top. Long horns are also highly prized because they look impressive when displayed after sacrifice. Apart from the buffalo market, we also walked through the pig section, the rooster section, and then we walked around the labyrinthine market looking at produce. One interesting thing she pointed out me was that palm leaves placed in front of a warung (food stall) is code for dog meat. I recall in other parts of Indonesia that the code is “RW” or “rintuk wuk” on the menu.

During our walk around the

Graves carved into a large boulder. The lowest one in the center was recently carved out; you can see the tailing beneath it. If there is a fancy door, the grave is occupied. A few simple planks across the entrance mean it is not occupied.
market, and during our after lunch hike through rice terraces and villages, Ritha regaled me with information about how buffalo are treated. Here are some key snippets:

• Male buffalo are treated very well as they are the ones that are sacrificed and bring prestige. They are taken from the fields at the end of each day, washed, and then housed in special barns for the night. Ritha called them one star hotels. The owners don’t want their precious male buffalo to get dirty.
• Many farmers don’t plant rice on part of their fields, choosing instead to dedicate that area to growing special elephant grass to feed their male buffalo. Many people hand feed this special treat to their buffalo.
• Oil is massaged into the hides of the most valuable ones. Their teeth may also be brushed.
• Female buffalo, by contrast, are only as good as the (male) calves they produce. Little value is placed on them and they’re just left in the fields to graze and get as dirty as they like.

So, basically, male buffalo are pampered and they live a good life, until it is time to sacrifice them.


This tongkonan had over 200 horns! The buffalo at the bottom is carved from stone.
next stop was Bori, which featured a large circle of megalithic stones, and a large rock with graves carved in it. Megalithic stones are apparently more common north of Rantepao because the rocks are more easily available there. After Bori, we went to Palawa, which featured tongkonan and rice barns, but in a real lived in setting - the villagers lived in more modern houses with proper utilities behind the tongkonan.

Our next stop was Batumonga, where I had lunch at a scenic spot. Ritha recommended I try buffalo meat. I‘m not much of a meat eater, but I reluctantly agreed. Buffalo turned out to be chewy, and just a little gamey. It wasn’t that bad actually. After lunch, we went for a short one hour hike through some rice fields and villages. Here, I got to see the abovementioned buffalo care in action, along with real, lived in villages, and graves. Graves in Toraja are scattered everywhere. The padi fields are littered with large boulders, so there were carved out graves everywhere, as well as modern house graves. North of Rantepao, stone tau tau were common.

Tana Toraja exceeded all my expectations. This place is an

View from my lunchpoint.
anthropologist’s wet dream. Ritha suggested that I return in the future to observe the following: a ceremony to inter the coffin in the grave, visit a house with a “sick” relative who hasn’t yet had their funeral, and, finally, visit in August when various villages bring out their deceased from their graves, clean them up, give them a fresh change of clothes, and conduct other rites. I am certainly interested in doing this someday.

What was more significant about this place, though, was that pretty much nothing is put up for tourists. What you see is death - and through that, life as well - laid bare. Unadulterated. Uncurated. Not bundled into palatable little packages like our meat at home. This doesn’t happen much anymore.

Reminder: if you can handle it, do read the text with my photos as additional information can be found there.

Travel Tips: It is rare for me to hire a guide, but they’re practically indispensable in this situation because they have inside knowledge about what is going on. Ritha and her associate Anto are both highly recommended. Ritha can be contacted via email at

Additional photos below
Photos: 97, Displayed: 37



On the bottom, you’ll see a spot where a new burial chamber is being carved into the cliff. Machinery is not allowed; it has to be carved manually with the aid of tools - you can see strike marks in the rock. In keeping with the ritual of separating the dead from the living, the carver cannot wear his carving clothes back home. As carving in a specialized skill, at some places a saw little huts next to partially carved caves. The carvers are housed in these huts while they work on the rock.
Lemo Lemo

Look at the little structures in the middle of the photo. These are modern graves. They are little houses used to house the dead. As this area is predominantly Christian, there are crosses on the structures.

10th July 2019

Very Fascinating
This is far removed from anything I can remember experiencing, It would be interesting to go there and see this for myself one day, even though I might ethically disagree with some of what's happening at least it's more honest than what we do here in the west. Thank you for this write-up, when/if I do this myself I'll use this post as a reference point. =)
10th July 2019

Life and Death Laid Bare
As westerners, much of what I saw and experienced is hard to fathom. It is hard not to judge. I was mildly surprised how few likes my video got when I posted it on social media. I thought more of my friends would welcome this insight into a unique culture, but maybe it was simply too much. Tana Toraja is amazing. It showcases death - and through that it showcases life as well - unadulterated, uncurated. Not in neat little packages like the meat we get at home. Go if you have the chance.
11th July 2019

Nice blog
The reason we travel is to understand life, family and rituals around the world. It is great you got to be a part of this.
11th July 2019

The reason we travel
You nailed it. Thanks for reading my blog entry.
15th July 2019

Fantastic! Great to see you travelling and travel writing again Siewch. I really enjoy your blogs. I have never read anything about travelling in Sulawesi until now, what a really fascinating place. What differences between the culture you encountered and our western one. Mind boggling I imagine, it would probably have taken me a while myself to digest it all...!
15th July 2019

“Mind Boggling” Doesn’t Even Begin To Describe It...
Thanks for your compliments, Alex. This was one situation where I really had to set aside my own values and preconceived notions and try to see things for what they were. It really helped to have a guide.
8th March 2020

It stays with you, doesn’t it?
Well written, bro. I’ve traveled many places but tana Toraja will remain one of my most intense, best trips. It’s really hard to understand what this place really feel like to other, you know? Travel on, man.
12th March 2020

“Intense” certainly describes Tana Toraja
Nine months on, I still think about the amazing time I had in Tana Toraja. It certainly ranks as one of my most intense travel experiences. Thanks for your kind words. Incidentally, your blog on Flores inspired me to explore that island back in 2017. I look forward to reading about your onward travels in Java. Happy Trails!

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