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A travel story from Sulawesi, Indonesia

By Kim de Leeuw 

Amazed. In awe. Lost for words. There are so many feelings and thoughts crossing my mind when I walk up towards the burial caves of Londa. The path that is taking you up to the caves already shows some signs of what you are walking towards. Skulls, bones, coffins, it’s all there. It might give you the chills if you do not know about the lives and rituals of the Torajan people, but once you know you will get intrigued. There is so much to learn and discover on this Indonesian island. 

You might wonder which Indonesian island I am talking about. I did so too when I first saw a video about the rituals surrounding the death of the Toraja. In the second year of my bachelor, BSc Tourism, the students go on a field project in South East Asia. In the weeks before the destination reveal,  the students will get several hints of the destination. Up until the last day, my classmates and I had no idea. In fact, we were far off. During the reveal, we were shown this movie about the rituals of this specific tribe as a final clue. My interest was aroused and I hope so is yours!

Sulawesi, formerly known as Celebes,  is an Indonesian island that is one of the largests islands in the world. The majority of the people on the island are muslim, but there are also some Christian areas and regions where they hold on to the traditional beliefs which makes for an interesting mix of traditions. Back in the days, the Portuguese, the English and the Dutch had been based on the island which is still visible in some places. The island is a very interesting destination to visit, as it is not really touristic and therefore you can really immerse in the traditional way of living.



Makassar was the first city that I ever visited in South East Asia. If you have ever visited a large city in South East Asia, you might imagine the cultural shock I experienced. There were scooters everywhere. I remember that we tried crossing the street the first day, but it turned out to be a mission impossible when you politely wait for them to stop. Eventually one of the locals taught us how to cross; you just need to be a bit bold. Anyway, Makassar is a lot more than loud noises and thousands of scooters. In this capital of Sulawesi, you will find some old forts, like Fort Rotterdam, where you can learn something about the history and architecture from back in the days, amazing sunsets from Losari Beach and traditional sailing ships, called Phinsi, at Paotere Harbour. Also the food is really great! Try some local fish restaurants and I can guarantee you that you will not be disappointed. However, the city is not often visited by foreign tourists and therefore we sometimes felt like we were the tourist attraction ourselves. A lot of Indonesian people approached us to take a photo together. This did not only happen in Makassar though, but all over the island.


Rammang-Rammang, Leang-Leang & Bantimurung

Around 40 minutes away from Makassar, you will find Rammang-Rammang, which is a nature area most famous for its karst mountains that were formed by limestone erosion. You can take walks in nature or take a boat trip on which you will also pass some villages with houses on poles surrounded by rice fields. The area is unknown, but absolutely stunning. Closeby, you will also find the Leang-Leang caves with ancient rock paintings and handprints. The oldest handprint is said to be at least 39.900 years old and is the oldest in the world. Pretty cool to visit, right? The last site we visited in the Maros region was the Bantimurung National Park which is known for its great variety of butterflies. Unfortunately, we did not see many of them, but the park’s nature is still really pretty and you can also find some great waterfalls in the park with the most interesting one being the Bantimurung Waterfall. This waterfall is basically a natural slide from which you can slide down if you are brave enough. The park is best visited with a guide who can show you the best places and hike with you to some of the lakes.



We were lucky enough to be able to do our research in Tana Toraja, the land of the Toraja. The Torajans are an ethnic group that mostly live in this region and that are known worldwide for their burial rituals. Staying for a longer period of time in this area, really helped me in understanding how their culture is organised. In Toraja, you can visit many of their burial sites, villages with their traditional houses, and if you are lucky, you can attend a traditional wedding or funeral ceremony. Since we were staying in the region for a month, we were lucky enough to join both. The wedding ceremony was marvellous with folkloric clothing, traditional dancing and delicious food. The entire village was invited and there was a buffet for everybody. I really enjoyed that feeling of togetherness. On the other hand, there was the funeral ceremony that we visited which was also really impressive. The ritual itself is really interesting, and also here you get that feeling of togetherness. Together, the guests mourned and celebrated the dead person. If you are interested in the Torajan culture, I would recommend you to read our Tribal Tourism series about the Torajan tribe or to have a look at this video.


Food tip: Pa’piong. For this dish, meat is mixed with spices and other ingredients and then wrapped in Miana leaves. These leaves will be inserted into pieces of bamboo and then cooked above an open fire. Another interesting dish is buffalo steak. The buffalo is sacred to the Toraja and they are sacrificed during the funeral ceremonies. The meat from the buffaloes that are slaughtered are divided amongst the family and villagers, and the leftovers are being sold to the restaurants.

Konjo People

Bulukumba, South Sulawesi, is the home of the ethnic Konjo People, also known as the Kajang Tribe. The Konjo are led by the Ammatoa, which translates to Old Father, who receives instructions from their God to lead the tribe. The Konjo live a simple life that has not adapted to modern technology and follows the rules of their animistic belief. Agriculture and plantations provide the tribe with food and some of the women weave at home. The Konjo people hold on to the Patuntung belief which cherises the sustainability of forest ecosystems. When we visited the tribe, we had to be dressed in black (which is the colour of sacredness) like the villagers, walk barefoot to the village and we were not allowed to take any photos. All our focus was on the learning experience and listening to the stories of our local guide. If you are interested in this tribe, I would recommend watching this clip.


Sleeping in a floating house on Lake Tempe

One of my favourite experiences on Sulawesi must be our overnight stay at a floating house on Lake Tempe. The lake itself is massive, it covers around 350km2 and is one of the largest in Indonesia. To get to the floating village, a longtail boat will bring you to the floating fishing village. The trip will take around half an hour and on the way you can enjoy the serenity of the lake whilst manoeuvring through the water plants. The houses in the village are made of all kinds of materials that are built on bamboo rafts. Don’t expect luxury as the houses do not have electricity, running water or toilets. The lake is your toilet and your bed will be a thin mat with a mosquito net around it to protect you from mosquitos. However, do expect to meet great kindness and warm people. Oh, and good, traditional food for dinner and breakfast. It might have been back to basics, but I am entirely grateful that this local family welcomed us in their house and gave us the opportunity to experience their way of life.



Bira is a popular beach destination on Sulawesi because it has some beautiful beaches. It is mostly the Indonesian people themself who visit this small beach town which gives the destination a local feel. In Bira, you can rent a boat and go snorkeling or diving along the coast line. With the boat you can also go to Liukang Loe island which is off the coast of Bara Beach. You can find many beautifully coloured fish in the water, as well as sea snakes (be aware as they are poisonous) and sea turtles. Another thing you can do in Bira is visiting East Beach and Tanetang village. Here you can see how they make the traditional Phinsi boats by the Bugis People. The Bugis people are the dominant ethnic group on Sulawesi and they are originally from the south. They are known for their maritime skills and for centuries they were responsible for inter island trade. Lastly, I want to recommend you a great place to stay, which is called BaraCoco Bungalows from which you have an amazing view over the beach. The bungalows are located at Bara Beach, which I actually found prettier than the Bira beaches, and with low tide you can walk from there to Bira in 20 minutes.



Malino is a calm mountain village that is a 2-hour drive away from Makassar. As the village is located in the mountains, the temperature is much cooler than in most other parts of the island. What makes this area a must visit are the rice fields, the mountains and the waterfalls. There are also some tea plantations that you can pay a visit to. Malino is a great place to be active so I would advise you to go for a hike or a mountain bike ride and to enjoy the beautiful scenery to its fullest.


Bonus: Bunaken

We have only travelled the west side of Sulawesi, but I did not want to end this travel story before telling you about Bunaken National Park which is the biggest tourist attraction of the island and with good reason. Bunaken is an island that is part of Sulawesi where you can find some of the best diving spots in the world. I have seen some photos of classmates and they are absolutely breathtaking, so make sure to leave some days in your itinerary to discover this marine park.

All of these sites are situated at the (south)east of Sulawesi. Can you imagine how much more there is to discover on this one island? I hope to have inspired you to visit Sulawesi with its breathtaking nature and inspiring ethnic groups. I will definitely try to go back one day to explore the rest of the island because Sulawesi has intrigued me and stolen a spot in my heart.


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