Jul 13 2013

Travelling with children in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Published by at 6:06 am under Sulawesi


Tana Toraja in the mountains of central South Sulawesi makes for an intriguing stop in Indonesia if you’re travelling with children, though not all the key attractions are suited to them. Blood spurting from a staggering, about-to-die buffalo at a traditional funeral? Not for our six- and five-year-old, no. But walks through paddy to see traditional houses, graves and rural life — yes.

A typical Tana Toraja scene.

A quintessential Tana Toraja scene.

Traditional Tana Toraja funerals are a key reason travellers come to this part of Sulawesi but we didn’t think our kids should see bloodshed that we ourselves found confronting. So we opted for a calmer, gentle morning ramble through paddy.

We began with a stop just outside the main Toraja town of Rantepao at Ke’te kesu, where ageing clan houses, or tongkonan, and rice storage barns are topped with the classic soaring Torajan rooves. Just behind these houses is something confronting in its own way: the graves of the deceased from the families. In a society that’s largely all about preparing for death, it’s not surprising reminders mortality are never far away. Crumbling coffins jut from rock faces, clothed effigies stare blankly out of locked grates, and skulls sit lined up along ledges, just so.

And how about that woodwork kids!

And how about that woodwork kids!

We saw dead people!” the kids said when asked what they did that day.

Such a visit could of course be a good way to start to talk casually about death; if you’re not ready, then at least be prepared for a barrage of questions.

We passed a wood-carver making one of the effigies, or tau tau, that you’ll see placed outside the graves of some high-status Torajans and stopped for a peek. They take about three weeks to make; you can’t order one ahead of your death though as it’s bad luck. I wonder if Torajans do however select the photo they’d like the effigy maker to work from?

A serious business.

A serious business.

Then our car dropped us off for a ramble through a village and muddied paddy paths. We saw the colourful day-after remains of a major funeral; brace yourself for more questions if you stumble on something like this. The kids couldn’t quite see the freshly removed 15 buffalo horns laying out to dry (they’ll eventualy be mounted on the house of the family of the deceased), but they did see the purple cross. “What’s the cross for?” is another good conversation starter, at the least.

Christianity blends with building buffalo bridges to heaven.

Building buffalo bridges to heaven.

Otherwise we saw more of the intricate houses up close, and typical rural scenes: farmers picking sweet potato leaves to feed their pigs, areca nut, cacao and papaya trees, noisy ducks, the pigs themselves, a few high-worth buffaloes in their individual bamboo pens, pink snail eggs (a new one for me!) in the paddy, and black rice growing (another for me) adjacent to normal rice.

Mum was scared. The kids practically skipped across.

Mum was scared. The kids practically skipped across.

If your kids are used to mucking through the countryside in Southeast Asia, though the scenery is beautiful, it’s not quite as amazing as say parts of Bali or Sapa; but if you haven’t travelled much in the region, it’s a great way to spend a morning — or a few days. Our guide told us he’d taken kids our age on overnight treks; while our six-year-old would be up for it, our only-just five-year-old wouldn’t quite be ready yet we don’t think.

We paid 700,000 for a guide and driver (350,000 for each) for the half day. Our guide insisted the driver would still charge a full-day for a half-day. We suspect we paid too much, but many of these guides are very smooth talkers. Be prepared to haggle, or simply ask a few guides their prices so you get an idea of the going rate for what you want to do. Also if you don’t have children, travelling by motorbike is another option, which removes the need for a driver.

Black rice!

Black rice!

There’s nothing Torajan about it, but if you’re looking to just chill out for a half-day, you can swim at the Toraja Heritage Hotel, a five-minute drive out of town. The hotel has certainly seen better days but the two pools, one for adults and a smaller, shallow pool for kids, are clean enough. A day pass cost us 15,000 rupiah for kids and 20,000 for adults.

Rantepao is the easiest place to base yourself while travelling in the region. We stayed at the wood-heavy Indra Toraja, which surrounds a pretty little garden good for kids to hunt for lizards in. We bargained to get a non-air-con clean room with hot water shower for 350,000 rupiah per night, including an extra bed. Nearby is the flasher Luta hotel, with a pool set riverside, which has non-air rooms starting from 555,000 rupiah. Their more expensive rooms have air-con, but as you’re at an altitude of 1,200 metres, there’s really no need for it. If you’ve been travelling in tropical Indonesia for a while, the weather may well be an attraction in itself. It can rain quite a bit here at any time of year; it might mean you want to pack a light raincoat for everyone. We had no problem finding a room but in August in particular things can get busy and booking in advance can be prudent. Agoda has a few places listed but there are many other places to choose from.

Rantepao has a couple of kid-friendly restaurants — Mambo, Cafe Aras and the new Le Miriam — where you’ll find Indonesian favourites and a few Western dishes kids might go for, such as pasta or pizza. Minimarts have UHT milk and other supplies.

Our son was sick here so we went to see a GP; our expectations were low and they were met right at that level. At least there are a couple of chemists, but they are not necessarily well stocked. We couldn’t, for instance, find standard local electrolyte powder.

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