Sulawesi: Indonesia Destination for the Adventurous

There is an island called Sulawesi that sits right in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago. Yet, it often goes unnoticed because Borneo overshadows it to the West and Bali to the south. Traveling from north to south, you will have covered the same distance as the United Kingdom. The island is shaped like the letter "K," with four peninsulas divided by a hilly center. Consult an Indonesia travel guide if you want to make the most of your time on this magnificent island and learn about its hidden beauties. 

Many of the island's settlements have developed in isolation because of the island's complex geography, preserving the island's pristine underwater ecosystems and allowing visitors to see Torajan funeral practices that are unique to the island.

Regarding infrastructure and travel times, this is more of a "rough it" kind of place. My first journey to Sulawesi was in 2013, and on my most recent trip, I found that virtually little had changed since then.


Rice paddies, Toraja

Situated in the hilly northern region of South Sulawesi is the province of Toraja. The Torajans are the indigenous people who have inhabited this area since at least the 9th century. Dutch missionaries brought Christianity to this Muslim nation in the 16th century. Still, the locals also practice a kind of shamanism based on animal sacrifice called Alik To Dolo (way of the ancestors).

A hundred colors of green, Toraja is a landscape of rice fields, deciduous woodland, clusters of jungle, and ferny cliffs. Taking a guided walk or bike ride around the area allows you to see more and stop whenever you choose.

Small towns dot the terrain, and dusty roads link them together. Houses in each community have distinctive saddleback roofs. The Torajan people's original dwellings, tongkonan, look like this. The huge thatched roofs and elevated platforms of these dwellings are supposed to mimic the hulls of the boats in which the first Torajans came. The more horns on the post decorating the entryway, the more prominent the family.

In one instance, I was invited into a tongkonan and asked if I would want to meet the household matriarch. My Western sensibilities had a momentary lapse when I realized she had been deceased for a while. In Toraja, it is essential to spend time with the departed before the funeral. For months, even years, relatives continue to feed and talk to their ancestors who have passed away.

When asked how they preserved the bones, my guide hushed, "Herbs, spells, enchantments, plus an injection of formaldehyde." Only when all the far-flung relatives had come can large funerals take place.

Even though many people today live in more comfortable, contemporary homes, some families still use tongkonans as their primary residence (I saw one with children's toys and a TV inside).

The neighboring communities gather twice weekly at the Boku livestock market to sell buffaloes and pigs. Toraja people place high importance on the color, shape, and features of buffalo due to its significance in funeral rituals. The only albino buffalo I know is for sale by its owner. After two months of trying to sell it, he informed me there were still no takers. However, he assured me that the money from the sale would provide for his family's needs for many years.

Attending a funeral in Toraja

Bullfighting ritual at a Trajan funeral

Families plan and save for funerals their whole lives. Depending on one's social standing, this may need spending as much as one would on an excellent automobile in the West on a prize buffalo. Even if it makes them feel uncomfortable, overseas visitors are allowed to ask questions. Your presence is a testament to the value of the family unit.

You may be driven to a covered platform if you are attending the funeral of a renowned person. Many individuals came to sit with me while I watched one particularly grand event and inquired about my nationality.

Funerals are more common in the summer months, but making plans to attend one may be challenging. Sundays and the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter are off-limits. I recommend exploring Toraja with a local driver and guide who is up-to-date on the latest happenings and can adjust your itinerary appropriately. Most mourners wear black attire, so I attempt to follow suit.

The community celebrates the Ma'badong ceremony by chanting rhythmic poems. When two buffalo engage in combat, much of the village gathers to wager on the result at the more elaborate funerals. The ritual also includes sacrificing many animals, most often buffalo or pigs but sometimes other species, depending on the household's wealth. If you want to prevent this situation, your guide will know what steps to take and in what sequence.

Torajan burial sites

Indonesia Sulawesi Culture of the Tana Toraja 

The Torajan people have elaborate funerals and equally intricate burial rituals. Family and cultural background may determine a wide variety of customs.

An orderly stack of skulls marks the entrance to the cave tomb of Tampangallo. Narrow wooden coffins with lids shaped like a boat's bow are placed in nooks around the cave. A carved wooden figure stands vigil in front of various caskets. Tau taus are wooden sculptures depicting the dead, sometimes adorned with the departed's clothing and accessories (such as sunglasses, jewelry, and caps).

A family with tau taus is likely to be very prosperous. Graves at the Suaya burial site are cut into the sides of a limestone cliff, with wooden figures perched on little balconies above them, staring out over the countryside. The royal family of Sangalla, a dynasty that has since declined, is buried here in large numbers. Every few years, families re-dress their tau taus in an elaborate ceremony, and some wear strikingly contemporary apparel.

Getting to Toraja

From Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and many other Indonesian islands, you may take a flight to Makassar, the region's primary airport. Multiple domestic flights departing from Makassar bring you closer to Toraja. The most significant source of up-to-date information is your expert since schedules are subject to change.

The alternative is a two-day, 320-kilometer (198-mile) drive, including an overnight stop at Sengkang. Along the way, you might stop in Makale, the administrative center of Torajan, where a massive Jesus statue (more giant thanBrazil's Christ the Redeemer) watches over you.

Where to stay in Toraja

Toraja Heritage Hotel

The tongkonan style is reflected in the Toraja Heritage Hotel's superior and deluxe suites, which include hardwood roofs and woven panels. Interior upgrades include hardwood flooring and a balcony with views of the hills, making some units seem more like a hotel suite. The service and cuisine will differ from Bali or Lombok, but it's the finest in the area.

North Sulawesi

In the 16th century, when the Portuguese arrived on Sulawesi, they mistook the island for an archipelago due to its confusing topography. Since then, local and international aircraft connections have made it much simpler to visit both northern and southern Sulawesi simultaneously.

The natural landscape and fauna of the north beckon visitors with its fumaroles, lowland rainforests, and marine parks boasting some of the world's most fantastic diving.

Bunaken Marine Park

Bunaken Marine Park

Bunaken Marine Park is a cluster of five islands just off the northern coast of Sulawesi. These are volcanic tufts covered with rainforests that protrude into the Celebes Sea. On the calm tropical island of Siladen, you'll find the wooden villas of Siladen Resort & Spa, nestled among fern-covered gardens. The beach, with its silvery-taupe sand, is only steps away from several houses.

You may enjoy a kayaking tour down the shore, go dolphin watching, or just lounge by the saltwater pool at Siladen. However, the true marvels lie under the waves. You are smack dab in the middle of the coral triangle, the oceanic biodiversity epicenter. A five-star on-site PADI school includes everything from guided snorkeling trips to advanced diving certificates.

The coral reefs of the water cover the walls. The current gently sways a diverse community of soft coral, hard coral, sea fans, and sponges. Reef sharks, turtles, eagle rays, and a humphead (or Napoleon) wrasse that dwarfed me were just some of the marine life I saw on a single dive.

Most of your dives will be drift dives, and there are over 50 dive sites in the area. You may snorkel in the shallows where coral is flourishing by just walking down the shore for a few minutes.

You may either dine at the seashore restaurant, which serves all your meals, or go hungry. The local band played in the background while I sat with a martini last night and watched the sun set behind the cone of Pulau Manado Tua Volcano.

Lembeh Island

Clownfish, Lembeh Island

Lembeh Island is where you should go if you want to dive without any distractions. Lembeh Resort is in a quiet cove just around the headland from Bunaken Marine Park, providing access to over 60 diving sites in the Lembeh Strait. The resort's cottages and cabins are hidden in the island's thick forest, which rises steeply from the inky depths of the ocean. The beach is tiny and slopes gently.

Chatting with some of the diving workers, I learned that the typical tourist to Lembeh had notched up over 800 dives. Muck diving is the main draw for the world's best divers to visit the island. Dead coral, coconut husks, and other trash cover the black volcanic sand (thus the name), making this a prime location for muck diving. Pygmy seahorses, octopuses, juvenile fish, and the nudibranch, the crown jewel of marine curiosities, may all appear.

I saw several scuttling nudibranchs when I looked down at the seafloor, which was relatively featureless (making it easier to view these macro-creatures). Ribbons, frills, and horns make these colorful sea slugs seem like something out of a cartoon. While I was watching them, a whale shark – the biggest fish in the ocean — swam up from the depths to check out the action.

Marine biologists who are also on hand to help identify any mysteries visitors may encounter during their dives train the dive guides at the Lembeh Resort. A professional underwater photographer provides classes to help you hone your photography and videography abilities.

The diving center offers several different classes, including those aimed at first-timers. One of the most incredible locations for a freshly certified diver to attempt muck diving is here since many dive spots are relatively shallow.

How to get to North Sulawesi

A variety of domestic planes land at Sam Ratulangi International Airport in Manado. From here, you may take a car to Siladen's dock and then a boat to the island in approximately half an hour. It takes around three hours to travel to the Lembeh jetty from the airport and another ten minutes to take a boat there.

The islands work nicely together as a whole. You may take a boat from Siladen to Lembeh, with several diving stops along the route.


Gunung Lokon Volcano

Staying at Tomohon, a village nestled below Gunung Lokon Volcano, about three hours from Manado's airport, is the best way to get a feel for Indonesia's volcanically produced geography.

A boiling crater separates the twin mountains of Gunung Lokon and Gunung Empung. A dried lava flow has carved a path down the mountainside, making it possible to walk up to the crater. Climbing this dark-gray, glossy gulley that stands out against dense, waist-high grass took me almost two hours to reach the edge. From the peak, you get a great view of the surrounding area and a chance to see the crater.




A local guide can show you around some of the other beautiful sights in the vicinity, such as Lake Linow. The chemical makeup of this volcanic lake varies, causing the water to range in color from a deep blue to a crimson or a green that rivals the intensity of the Northern Lights. All along the lake's edge, you may see geysers and fumaroles exploding.

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Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.