The Magical Experience of South Sulawesi

Warning: There will be no Harry Potter in this post nor about anything related to Cinderella. You won’t even find any word about Pinocchio, not even anyone from Lord of the ring. My magical stories are about the rare opportunity to meet Ammatoa and the other 26 members, see the making of the majestic phinisi with its legend, take a picture with a half billion rupiah buffalo, crossing a four colors sea, and see the cliff stone graveyard.

My journey to South Sulawesi started on Saturday, 23 March at 3 AM in the morning. That was my first experience using first flight and I don’t want to do it again! The flight will depart at 5 AM since it’s connecting flight to Jayapura, Papua. And the taxi driver who supposed to pick me up at 3 AM was lost when finding my house and we just left BSD at 3.20 AM. As the taxi driver feels guilty for being late so he turned to be a reckless driver with 100 km/hour. Thank God, I haven’t eat anything yet!

A misty mountain and scattered cloud welcomed me to Sulawesi, the land of Celebes. Finally…touch down a letter “K” island when safely arrived at Sultan Hasanuddin International Airport at Makassar. I went to explore South Sulawesi with my other 5 friends. Only 2 people in the same flight with me, the other 2 were using flight which depart from Jakarta at 4 AM (some people did wake up earlier than me 😛 ) and the last person landed at 8.45 AM. If you have enough time and dare to feel the real backpacker experience, you may use public transportation to explore South Sulawesi. As we are 6 women who not ready to deal with a very challenging trip, have limited leave days, don’t like to think what bus should we take from one city to another, prefer to bring luggage instead of backpack (except me!), and want to stop for a while to take picture along the road, so we decided to take a tour. Luckily, we chose the right tour guide, they are very recommended ( see their webpage). We picked the route which accommodate all participants’ interest: sea, Toraja, landscape, and its local food. Our  route will be Makassar – Bira – Kajang – Sengkang – Palopo – Tana Toraja – Pare Pare – Makassar in 6 days 5 nights.

I was impressed by Makassar. I never thought the city has been developed rapidly. Indeed, this city is a gateway to east Indonesia. The airport located in Maros, outside Makassar. To reach city center, there is a highway with distance almost 17 km (20 minutes drive). Before proceeding to Bira, we decided to explore Makassar. The first pit stop was Fort Rotterdam. Yes, it’s a Dutch Colonial’s legacy and FYI, they still pay for the maintenance until now. Actually, this fort built by Gowa Empire, but then restored by Dutch. This turtle fort (it’s like a turtle from above) is the cleanest fort in Indonesia (look whose pay for the maintenance). You will never find any trash not even a cigarette stub. This fort also the place where Pangeran Diponegoro (Indonesia’s national hero) jailed for 21 years. According to Dutch version, he passed away after released. However, his family said Pangeran Diponegoro died in prison.

We tried our first local food for lunch, the menu called Pallubasa (the famous one located Jl. Serigala). It’s like Coto Makassar, very delicious, full of meat, coconut and raw egg. You can skip the egg if you don’t like.

After having pallubasa, we stopped by at Pantai Losari, the famous beach in west Makassar. Usually this beach full of people who like to see sunset but when we arrived, no one’s there, the place is ours. FYI, we arrived at 12.15 PM. The sun was shining so brightly at that time.

The royal family in South Sulawesi always put “Andi” as their first name. For decades, most royal families work for government while the middle class family mostly do business for living.  The different between Bugis and Toraja people about their origin: wherever Bugis people go, they will put their heart in new place and try their best to develop that place. While Toraja people will come back to their hometown and spend their money for the development.

We left Makassar for Bira via Jeneponto, Bantaeng (famous with their seaweed) and Bulukumba. We stopped by at Tanah Beru village, the only place in Sulawesi where Phinisi boat constructed.

Do you know how much the price of the majestic phinisi boat? It’s almost IDR 1,000,000,000 (the cheapest one around IDR 700,000,000) and it will take 2 years to finish. The construction time also depends on material availability which come from several types of wood, such as Jati, Bayan, Biti, and Ulin. Phinisi boat usually made for cargo and luxury cruise. The villagers already made this boat from generation to generation and they still continue doing what the myths said. One of the myths tells that machine and sail should not assembled in the land, but in the middle of the sea. Once upon a time, a Frenchman did not believe about the myths and insist to install those at the workshop, few minutes after leaving the jetty, the boat exploded. Another rule requires to put gold at the center of the boat. The way they construct the phinisi boat also unique, they made the interior of the boat prior the ship’s hull.

We stayed at Bira Beach hotel..just in front of the bira beach. The room build like traditional house in Sulawesi, rumah panggung (stage house). In the next day, we’re crossing from Bira to Liukkang island, a small island within 20 minutes sail. Between bira beach and liukkang island, you will see the colorful sea where they have 4 gradation colors! Started with light blue to dark blue to crystal clear blue to cyan! It might depends on the sea depth and what under the sea level. The sand in the liukkang island also unique with red grain which estimated affected by the coral (Tata gave us a quick briefing since she is a geologist).

Like most travel destination in Indonesia, Bira has “clean” issue. What do you think if you welcomed by a giant trash mountain? Yes, there is landfill in front of beach entry gate! Come on guys, seriously?!?!?!?!!? I did some chit-chat with a man who sell drink in bira beach for the last 10 years, he said the “tax” for own the stall will be IDR 7000/week. Quite cheap? If it’s on peak season (usually May – August) yes..but in low season where no tourists come, it will be the hardest time for them to survive.

On the 3rd day, we drove to Kajang Village, a village where a unique tribe lived. They ruled by a chief called Ammatoa. If you want to enter the village, you have to wear everything on black. We are not allowed to take pictures inside their house which they believe it can kill them. The village has no electricity and they really preserve the village environment (you can compare it with deforested area in their neighborhood).

They are 2 Kajang tribes, Kajang dalam and Kajang luar. Like Badui dalam tribe, Kajang dalam is very isolated from the modern world. They weave their own clothes, only use brown sugar for tea. However, Kajang luar already mingled with modern world. Some of the families have a car and work for government. However, if Kajang luar want to meet Ammatoa, they still have to wear everything on black. The Ammatoa selected from several candidates with a mystical election. They have to show their supernatural power through animal. For example, if he can make chicken comes to him, or make his buffalo/chicken wins the duel then he will become the Ammatoa. The Ammotoa also should comes from the royal family and committed to not accept any modernism. The unique thing is the current Ammatoa has a son who is going to college in the city (?). Kajang tribe don’t trust in God, they belief is animism. Some of Kajang luar families are moslem which taught by Datuk di tiro (there are 3 people who taught Islam in Sulawesi: Datuk di tiro, Datuk Sulaiman, and Datuk Ribandang). Before marriage, man and woman in Kajang village live separately, they only can meet in the wellspring and market.

Before entering the Kajang village, we stopped by at neighborhood village to change the clothes. We have to park our car in entry gate then walk for almost 2 km to reach Ammatoa’s house. It’s a rocky trail with up and down track, crystal clear river on the right side and wellspring. That day, we’re so lucky because we can meet Ammatoa and other 26 members. They were about to have a meeting. Our tour guide said usually it’s hard to meet Ammatoa or even those 26 people. Entering the Ammatoa was another magical experience. It’s a stage house which lower level used for storing woods, food supply or stall for the buffalo and chicken. The floor is woven bamboo. No lamp inside the house and only few windows opened to light the living room. We had a small chit-chat with them using interpreter (our guide actually). Yes, they can’t speak bahasa and we can’t speak their language.

We continue our journey to Sengkang via rubber plantations, Tanete village which famous with their fruit, cow farm (FYI, the cow coming from Bali), Sinjai, and Bone. We welcomed by a river, which look like Amazon (in small version) when entering Sengkang. Sengkang is a small city which famous with their weaving of traditional Bugis silk clothes. In Sengkang, there is a giant lake called Lake Tempe.  The lake is very beautiful, it’s kind of trip to wildlife. You may find a lot of birds and lotus ( and the most important thing: no crocodiles). Actually Lake Tempe lies in 3 regions, not only Sengkang. To explore Lake Tempe and see the daily life of Bugis fisherman who live in floating house, a “kayak” was used. Small boat for 3 – 4 people (consider the safety and comfortable issue) with limited space in the side. Usually almost 10 people can fit into that kayak, how come? see told’s “interesting”, isn’t it?

To reach Tana Toraja from Sengkang, we will pass Palopo city and Palopo peak (1200 m above sea level). FYI, Palopo is the oldest empire in Sulawesi and you should try Pisang Hijau, the famous local food. What does the peak look like? It’s like a place where the Cullens lived, the Edward Cullen’s playground. Pine trees everywhere. Live happily ever after with misty mountain and picturesque valley. After 2 hour drive with amazing view, we arrived at Tana Toraja.

Tana Toraja located 800 m above sea level. Tana means land, Toraja comes from Tau (people) and Raija (height). Originally, people of Tana Toraja came from Indochina and by the time, they moved to the highland after the Bugis people came. There are 2 regions in Tana Toraja, North Toraja (Rantepao) and Toraja (Makale). Before the dutch came in 1903, they belief was animism. Their Gods are the creator, guardian and preceptor. Last year was the celebration of 100 year bible in Tana Toraja. Nowadays, almost 80% of the population are christian. Marriage in Toraja before Christian did not need the matrimony. If two families have met and agree about the bride and groom, they already considered as marriage couple.

People of Tana Toraja have a faith that kings from all kingdoms (Gowa, Luwu and Bone) in Sulawesi have Toraja’s ancestry. If you want to know the house of royal family, just see the pole in front of their house, it will be full of carving and buffalo’s horn. The number of buffalo’s horn describe about how many generation had stayed in that house. The house of Toraja’s people called Tongkonan and they usually have another small house called Alang, the barn for storing their food supply. There is only 3 rooms inside Tongkonan and do you want to know how much the cost to build it? almost IDR 500,000,000 for each tongkonan.

Buffalo is more valuable than any animal at most places in South Sulawesi. Buffalo is the symbol of wealth and they are so expensive (some priced for almost 500 million rupiah). They are not used in rice field but for any tradition ceremony. Anything related with fine and ritual of the tribe are using buffalo. Before Dutch colonial, royal family has different rules with common people about how many buffalo should be used for decease ceremony. The first caste (royal family) should give 24 buffaloes, second caste with 9 buffaloes and the lowest caste needs less than 9 buffaloes.

We only have 1 day to explore Tana Toraja and we called it a grave day! Our first pit stop was Lemo, the cliff grave with wooden balcony which build since 17th century. The chamber size 3×4 m that cost IDR 50,000,000 to make it. The small house in front of the grave called Luba Duba which used to carrying the dead one. Just see the picture to feel the atmosphere.

For Toraja people, death is the way to Puya, another world to live. That’s why, they called their grave as house without smoke since no one use the kitchen. Buffalo represents as vehicle to go to Puya. The grave is a chamber hang on the cliff. They are not buried in the ground because they believe that death is a transit before Puya. If you are a moslem, they bury in the ground but in the same area as other family members who buried in the cliff. The grave usually made from Nangka wood which only be used by royal family (the grave called Tau Nangka) and other common wood (Tau Alang). When Toraja people died, they always bring their favorite stuff to the grave. They will also bring few white clean sheets. Those sheets will be used in Puya.  After 3 years since decease, there will be a ceremony. Their bones put in order and wrapped back before stored in the chamber. If there is other family member died, the dead body will be put in the same chamber. It is because they honor the value of togetherness. If you are not having Toraja’s ancestry but marriage with one of them, you will be buried in Toraja. 

The next one is Kambira, a baby grave where they buried in the tree. This place is not only for the newborn baby, but also for a toddler. They buried in the tree because it is believed that they died without any sins. Hence, they can’t be buried together with adults. The tree also like a highway to Puya. And it is also reflect a wish from the parents to have a healthy and perfect descent for the upcoming birth. In Toraja, the baby’s placenta will be buried in front of the house at the east side. Life represents by north and east while death by south and west. Hence, the tongkonan will face to the north, the center of life.

Before lunch we stopped at Sangala, a royal graveyard. All royal family members buried in the cliff and the chamber marked by red scarf. The king placed at the highest place at the cliff and the chamber cemented so there is no one can be buried in the same chamber with the king. The last king of the Sangala’s empire was a moslem, his body and also his entire family buried on the ground. Once upon a time, there was a burglar tried to steal the puppet in front of the chamber. They were a local people who cooperate with artifact collector from Bali. Police did find the stolen things and return it back to the grave. The burglars should pay for the ceremony for return the puppet which cost a buffalo.

Finally, the Gua Londa,the most scariest place to end the grave day tour! It’s a grave inside the cave where you can see the dead body…and the newest member is someone who just passed away 2 weeks ago! If you are quite clumsy,it is better to reconsider of entering this cave. You will need at least one pig for ceremony to return things back to first place.


The last pit stop of the day was The last pit stop was Kete Kesu village. It’s traditional village which famous with their carving. They use soil to have brown or orange color,so everything comes from mother earth.

We drove from Toraja to Makassar thru Pare – pare in our last day in South Sulawesi. Even it’s gonna be 6 – 8 hours trip, please do no take any sleeping pills, cough syrup or anything that can make you sleep like a baby. Otherwise you will miss the amazing view! From Lantimojong mountain, Kampung Pana’s cliff, Tontonan mountain (which I believe even more beautiful than stongehenge), Legawang mountain, and finally the Nona mountain or some people called it an erotic mountain. You should stop at restaurant in front of the Nona mountain to feel the atmosphere of Indonesia. In which part of the world you can have this landscape?

….Secangkir teh susu, semangkok indomie..sambil memandang gunung nona #Indonesia Banget

— More stories illustrated in my web album “An Illustrated Journey” —

3 thoughts on “The Magical Experience of South Sulawesi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s