Sleeping and Dining in Rantepao, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Introduction

Tana Toraja, located in the steep mountains of south Sulawesi is best known for its fascinating culture surrounding their funeral ceremonies and life after death.  Although they are Christian today, their Christianity is blended with ancient traditions. For example they do not believe in hell. After death the soul goes to a secondary life where mistakes are atoned for before returning to God. Funeral ceremonies follow specific traditions and may include animal sacrifices.

I hired a guide for 3 days to visit the local sights and do some trekking in the mountains near Rantepao, the gateway to the area and where you find most accommodations and restaurants. While the region does see some tourism, tourism is not a big industry here. Most tourist come in August, during the dry season, when they bring out the dead bodies to clean and redress them.

I cover my time here in 4 posts. The first post talks about visits to cemeteries, the second visits to 2 funerals, the third walks in the mountains and the forth sleeping and dining in Rantepao and a review of my guide, Otto.

Buffalo Market

The Rantepao buffalo market is the largest buffalo market in the world. Buffalos are bought and sold here every day. Every sixth day the market is bigger with an additional section open. The buffalo are on display and privately bought and sold, sometimes through a middle man working as an agent.

Because these buffalo are scarified at funeral ceremonies the price of a buffalo depends on the coloring. A small buffalo with the right coloring can sell for much more than an ordinary large buffalo. At a big funeral ceremony of an important person they may sacrifice 24 different colors of buffalo. Often these differences in coloring are minor such as a white streak on the chest. The rarest and most expensive type of buffalo has blue eyes, a mostly white head and patches of dark and light on his body. They can sell for as much as $30,000 USD.

At the market they also buy and sell pigs (price is based on size) and cocks used in cock fighting.

Food Market

Near the buffalo market is a food and dry goods market with crowded colorful stalls.

Sleeping and Dining in Rantepao

Sulawesi Castle

Sulawesi Castle run by the charming Sarah is a great place for those wanting to have more interaction with locals and learn about the culture. Sarah is usually around, smiling and eager to help with whatever you might need. She helped me arrange a driver to and from the airport and introduced me to a knowledgeable local guide.

Sarah also runs a side business making breads and desserts which is quite unusual in Indonesia.

Room

My third floor room with mountain views was spacious and comfortable. Besides a large bed there is a wonderful window seat with large windows. The room also has a small dressing area with a table and a good sized bathroom with a sizable shower and plenty of counter space around the sink. Hot water, however, was an issue as her water heater was not working at the time of my visit in October of 2023. Upon request she provided some very hot water in a large pale that I could mix with cooler water to get an adequate amount of warm water for bathing. It worked but it’s not ideal. If this is an issue for you, you may want to enquire whether her water heater has been fixed.

The main room downstairs has a homey vibe. Currently her sister and her sister’s children are living with her. The kids are mostly respectful and nice to have around.

Meals

Meals are communal. There is a long table for breakfast and dinner.

 Breakfast includes a selection of breads including her famous banana bread and homemade jams and peanut butter. Everything is prepared with care and is a wonderful way to experience some of the local fruits.

Dinner can be requested and is served family style for those staying at the guesthouse. I ate at the Castle 3 times, once with just Sarah and twice with other guests. On one occasion when there was a number of guests dining at the guest house Sarah prepared a special dinner of chicken cooked in bamboo over an open fire. The chicken is a marinated mixture that includes banana stem, lemon grass, coconut and ginger. She also prepared a second regional specialty pamarrasan.

Other interesting dishes included curry, a rather bland curry, with tempeh tofu and chayote and fern leaf with male papaya flower. The flower gives the dish a slightly bitter flavor.

For dessert Sarah made a beautiful and delicious chocolate cake that tasted as authentic as you possibly could get in Indonesia. A rich moist cake with a not too sweet chocolate icing, heaven.

Pamarrasan

Pange is a local fruit. In Toraja they make a sauce called pamarrasan from the dried seed. The seed, however, is poisonous when fresh. They lay it out to dry. As it dries it turns black and the resulting sauce is also black. The sauce is used generally for pork or fish. You can buy the ground black powder at the market.

They also use parts of the fruit meat in cooking some savory dishes. There are two parts of the fruit, the fruit meat and the skin around the seed. For dinner we had a pamarrasan fish with the skin around the seed also used in the dish. It’s a sort of vegetable that soaks up the flavors of the sauce.

Pia’s Poppies Restaurant

I went with Sarah the short walk from Sulawesi Castle to Pia’s Poppies for dinner. Located on a side street off the main drag they have a lovely back garden with outdoor seating. The setting has a peaceful ambiance with generously spaced tables. The menu offers a selection of both Western and Indonesian dishes.

I tried the Manuk Batutumonga – chicken breast with sautéed onions and leeks in a sauce tasting primarily of soy sauce, more salty than flavorful. Sarah ordered a hamburger and fries. When my food came and Sarah’s didn’t, she inquired about it and they had forgotten her order. At Pia’s they state that it takes 45 minutes for a food order. Even after they had forgotten her order she had to wait another 45 minutes to get her food. Unfortunately, it wasn’t worth the wait, the meat too chewy and the lettuce dowsed in mayonnaise. Come for the ambiance and don’t be too picky about the food.

Kaana in the Pison Hotel

Across from Pia’s is Kaana in the Pison Hotel. I didn’t eat here but they have a reasonable looking café. Sarah says it’s one of the few places you can get dessert.

Review of Guide Otto Mi’ting

For those looking for a more in-depth understanding of the Torajan culture as well as visiting the local burial sites and funeral ceremonies I would recommend Otto Mi’ting. I was introduced to him by Sarah at Sulawesi Castle. I was traveling by myself and I told him that I wanted to do some hiking in the mountains and see what the region had to offer. I was not specific in what I wanted to see and left it up to him. The result was 3 fascinating days.

 The first day focused on the different types of burial sites – natural caves, stone graves, baby tree grave and rante menhir sites. The second day we made a short stop at a smaller funeral where they were in the process of butchering buffalo, not something I would recommend to those who are sensitive to such situations. There is a lot of blood. We then drove into the mountains for a hike through local villages.

The 3rd day we went to a larger funeral ceremony where we observed the softer side of the funeral watching the procession of families paying their respect. Because of Otto’s connections I was able to sit with the family including sharing a meal. In the afternoon we went for a short hike that should have fabulous views of the surrounding rice paddies and Rantepao below, but with the hazy weather and it not being the right season the view was disappointing.

Otto is a senior professional guide and was very knowledgeable about his culture and Torajan traditions. He was eager to have me understand the various aspects of their practices and beliefs. It’s complicated with the various types of ceremonies, rules and procedures involved but I found it fascinating. His English is pretty good, he is primarily a French speaking guide, but it was sometimes necessary to ask questions to clarify his explanation of the complicated customs. He has infectious smile and an easy manner which makes spending time with him a pleasure

September 11-16, 2023