‘Road trip to Indonesia’ is not a thing

Torajan farm

A morning walk to our host’s family home was the perfect way to end our time in Toraja, Sulawesi. Aside from serving the best sambal (chili paste) of the trip, his mother loaded us up with pounds of fresh coffee beans for us to roast at home. We drank lots of delicious roasted coffee there, too, in the Torajan style where you put the fine grounds straight in the hot water—with plenty of sugar, of course—and then wait for everything to settle before you drink.

Makale market, Toraja

The Toraja Region of Sulawesi may be known for its customs around death, but its towns are brimming with life. These photos were taken at the traditional market in Makale during a three-week tour of Indonesia last summer.

Torajan burials

As part of Paulus Paramma’s three-day orientation to traditional Torajan life and customs, we visited two ancient burial sites, Ke'te' Kesu and the Londa Graveyard. Each included tongkonan—the Torajan ceremonial houses—and sheer cliffs peppered with caves that contained coffins and effigies of the deceased, in various states of decay. Where there were no caves to hold bodies, coffins were cantilevered over the cliff face on wooden frames. Where the frames gave way, bones and broken coffins were recovered and stacked along the base of the cliff.

Ke'te' Kesu has been in use by the same family for 10 generations. It contained a variety of cliffside graves as well as contemporary mausolea.

Torajan houses

In addition to elaborate funeral customs, Torajans are known for maintaining a caste-based society, where “blue-blood” members of the community demonstrate their status (and support the local economy) by building distinctive horn-shaped ceremonial houses called tongkonan. Traditional tongkonan are constructed without metal hardware, and are used to display the horns and jawbones of animals slaughtered in family ceremonies—also a sign of status. At least two water buffalo must be killed to consecrate a tongkonan itself.

Torajan funeral

Toraja is both a distinctive ethnic group and a mountainous region of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. To a large extent, Torajans are known for death. Funerals are an important focus of community life, lasting for several days. Depending on a family's social status and the stature of the deceased, they require the slaughter of dozens of pigs and water buffalo, and the construction of a small village of temporary bamboo structures to host hundreds of guests.

Because funerals are astronomically expensive—a prize water buffalo can cost $60,000 US—funerals are delayed for months or even years until the family can afford them. In the meantime, the deceased is embalmed, referred to as "sick," and included in daily household activities in a kind of extended wake that boggles the North American mind.

Paulus Paramma, a Torajan friend of my cousin, Greg, invited us to his family home near Makale, the capital of Tana Toraja Regency. While there we had the opportunity to attend the third of a four-day funeral for the sister of a family friend.

What we did not see were 12 rounds of water buffalo fighting on the first day, the slaughter of buffalo on any given morning, dancing in the evening, or the burial on the final day. What we did witness was preparing and butchering pigs, distributing meat to neighbors and guests and cooking and eating delicious buffalo and pork, all with the backdrop of a stunningly rugged mountain farm.

One of Greg's colleagues at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University delivered this TED Talk about Torajan funerals in 2013.

Passing through Makassar

It turns out that three weeks of feverish photography can produce a lot of blog posts! I’m hitting highlights of last summer’s trip through Java, Kalimantan and Sulawesi islands in Indonesia.

Makassar is a bustling port city on the southern end of Sulawesi. We spent a quick day there with my cousin’s friend Lydia, talking about her native Toraja, visiting the faded Fort Rotterdam and looking at goldfish in plastic bags.

Bule and me

Pokemon did not seem to be an all-consuming pastime in Indonesia when I visited. But collecting selfies with bule (BOO-lay—foreigners; literally "albinos") certainly is. Being politely asked to pose for pictures with Indonesians at popular landmarks was a refreshing counterbalance to the base voyeurism and trophy collection I do as a tourist with a camera. 

Riverfront property

Pangkalan Bun is the closest town to Tanjung Puting National Park with an airport. Its riverfront is full of life. Den, our klotok guide through the national park, took us on a river walk that ended with a long motorboat ride downstream at sunset.

Meeting orangutan

Tanjung Puting National Park, on the southern coast of Central Kalimantan, is famous for orangutans, who only live on Kalimantan and Sumatra. Dr. Birute Galdikas began studying the primates in 1971, becoming the third of paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey's “angels” (along with chimpanzee scientist Jane Goodall and mountain gorilla researcher Dian Fossey).

Today one can take a slow houseboat called a klotok about 25 miles up the Kumai and Sekonyer rivers to Camp Leakey, the research and education facility founded by Galdikas and her former husband, Rod Brindamour.

Although some 60 klotoks are in operation, the trip feels amazingly remote and wild. In addition to orangutans, in two days and nights on the boat we saw mouse deer, wild boars, gibbons, hornbills, long-tailed macaques, silver and maroon leaf monkeys, proboscis monkeys, carnivorous pitcher plants, tarantulas, a freshwater crocodile, a dung beetle and an owl.


Night feels like a magical time in small Indonesian towns. Evening comes early—sunset is around 6:00 p.m.—and streetlights are sparse. In Salatiga's central square, young people and tourists can pay to take a spin on pedal carts tricked out with sound systems and colored LEDs.

Upcycling, Indonesian style

Sapu (sapuupcycle.com) bills itself as a creative art community working at the foot of the Mt. Merbabu volcano in central Java. Designers, artists and craftspeople from Indonesia and Australia collaborate to produce a array of bags, wallets and jewelry out of recycled rubber and canvas. Michelle, Greg and I looked at their goods at ViaVia—a funky fair trade shop, restaurant and guesthouse in Yogyakarta—and then visited their small cluster of open-air workrooms in Salatiga.

Amazing products. We bought most of our gifts here.

Independence Day

Recapping an action-packed August trip through central Indonesia...

Indonesia's Independence Day is August 17, but flags and bunting begin appearing a week before, and parades and celebrations continued until the end of the month.

In her engaging and witty "Indonesia Etc." Elizabeth Pisani reports:

When the country's founding fathers declared independence from Dutch colonists in 1945, the declaration read, in its entirety: “We, the people of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.”

Indonesia has been working on that “etc.” ever since.

Wayang (Indonesian shadow puppets)

Continuing to recap a fantastic three weeks touring Indonesia with Greg Vanderbilt, a lecturer at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.

Wayang is an Indonesian shadow puppet performance. Traditionally the show is accompanied by a gamelan orchestra with the dalang (puppet master) providing dialogue and narration for the figures he raises against the screen.

Many performances start in the evening and go all night, accompanied by food and other festivities. The most familiar stories are taken from the Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata, but in this case, we watched wayang wahyu, Christian wayang, in celebration of the anniversary of a Catholic seminary in Yogyakarta.

Interestingly, all the seats were placed facing the “back” of the screen because it’s so popular to watch the dalang at work. This was perfect for me—I spent the first act wandering back and forth between the “right” side (where a few traditionalists were standing) and the “backstage” side (where everyone else was).

Soto forever

Soto is a dish that I could be happily constrained to eat for the rest of my life. It's kind of a breakfast/lunchish soup (a lot of restaurants sell out by early afternoon) with rice or noodles, chicken or beef, sprouts and scallions (usually), sautéed garlic slivers and other yummy goodness, depending on the restaurant and town. Most of the soto I ate was on Java, but Makassar serves another variety they call coto (CHOE-toe), and we found DIY soto on a hotel breakfast bar on Kalimantan as well. By the time we made it down to breakfast, it had been ravaged.

Paris, Indonesia

The Special Region of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, stretches from the active volcano that marks its northern point to the black sand beaches on Java's southern coast. A straight line apparently can be drawn from the smoking crater of Mount Merapi, through the sultan's palace in downtown Yogyakarta (see last week's post), to Parangtritis, a.k.a. Paris, a tired beach town on the Indian Ocean.

Michelle Bruhn and I paid about $230 U.S. for two days and nights there—meals and transportation from Jogja included—in probably the most luxurious hotel I've ever occupied. For most of our stay we were the only people there.

The sultans of Java

Jogjakarta has a sultan. I don't pretend to understand what this means, but here are some facts I've gathered that I think are at least mostly right:

  • Both Jogja and nearby Solo have Sultans. Both towns have a history of royal houses dating from when Dutch colonizers split the Javanese kingdom of Mataram in 1746 after several Wars of Succession.
  • Two hundred years later, when Indonesia was winning its independence, the sultan of Solo sided with the Dutch but the Jogja sultan supported the revolutionaries.
  • Consequently, while the Solo sultan is strictly a ceremonial figure, the Jogja sultan technically owns all the land in the city, and has traditionally has had other broad political and religious powers, like being head imam at the city mosque.
  • The first sultan of Jogja was Prince Mangkubumi, and he built this spacious, low-slung kraton (palace) downtown in 1755, where gamelan orchestras play for tourists and well-connected citizens hold honorific roles.

Romo Mangun architecture

Catholic priest Yusef Bilyarta Mangunwijaya (Romo Mangun; 1929-1999) was an award-winning Indonesian novelist, theologian, activist and architect. In 1992 he won a prestigious architecture award from Aga Khan, an international Islamic foundation, for his innovative redesign of a riverside slum area called Kali Code in Yogyakarta.

On an August trip to Indonesia, I had the opportunity to visit three of Father Mangun's sites—the Kali Code complex, a Marian Grotto in the hills above Borobudur that Mangun designed in 1969, and the architect's former home in northeast Yogyakarta.

Mangun believed construction budgets should be put into workers' wages, not expensive supplies. His designs are marked by a thoughtful mix of reclaimed and environmentally friendly materials. Small spaces are defined by changes in level. Judicious use of color knits everything together.


The Ramayana ballet performs every night for tourists with the magnificent Prambanan historic site as a backdrop.

Prambanan—built at the same time as the Buddhist Borobudur—is a 9th century Hindu temple compound a short drive from downtown Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Reliefs on the third balustrade of the main temple tell stories from the Ramayana. On stage, these stories include the tale of an abducted princess—rescued after a white monkey thwarts immolation by burning down his captors' palace—being rejected by her husband as defiled until she also lights herself on fire and is saved by Shiva.

Beans, beans

I'm recapping an August trip to Indonesia...

Just down the road from Borobudur (see last week) was a beautiful little Hindu temple. And across the street from that, a source of the infamous luwak coffee made from beans shat by civets. Here you can sample the coffee (either free or 25,000 rupiah, depending) and meet a civet (the one below seen cleaning its feet with its tongue).

The coffee tasted fine, and I bought some as a novelty. Then I did a little internet research.

Tony Wild, who introduced civet coffee to the UK, disavowed the industry in 2013, saying that it's practically impossible to find genuine wild coffee civets, so the coffee mainly comes from caged animals.

And research published in the Animal Welfare journal earlier this year reported that all 16 plantations researchers visited in Bali failed basic animal welfare requirements.