Ubud is the cultural hub, where deep conversations over organic coffee’s, yogic retreats and breathtaking scenery are the reason many decide to stay. Tourists have been flocking here for decades, hoping their dreams of an “Eat, Pray, Love ” lifestyle would one day become a reality. Who can blame them! With its cascading rice terraces, stunning beaches, and beautiful temples, Bali has a serenity that is as much to do with its laid-back people as its artistic culture. It’s a seductive, intriguing journey into the self.
Ubud reveals a bohemian lifestyle where western owned arty cafe’s and chakra cleansing retreats coexist with local business’s. Culture is everywhere. Stroll past intricately carved temples and catch a glimpse of Balinese dancers depicting epic stories of the Mahabharat to the haunting sounds of gamelan music. Festivals are a plenty and daily rituals leave streets adorned with flowers. Trendy bars and cool hang-outs sit alongside traditional eateries whilst high-end craft shops and galleries add an air of sophistication.
There’s no shortage of accommodation in Ubud. From five star hotels to homestays, the choice is endless. Ever dreamed of a staying in your very own villa in Bali? Well, check out Airbnb and make your dream come true. We stayed in a one bedroom villa in the middle of rice field. Conveniently located away from the touristy areas of Ubud, it was still close enough to be just a short drive away from the centre of town. Complete with its own kitchen, spacious bedroom with an en-suite bathroom and open terrace, it was the perfect place to relax and unwind amidst an idyllic setting. The best thing was it cost next to nothing!
Villa Junjungan Resort Pool & Spa just screams affordable luxury. Set amongst emerald-green rice fields and swaying palms, this peaceful retreat is the perfect getaway. Accommodation is made up of cottages, family rooms and villas with tastefully decorated room. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available at the restaurant along with a whole host of facilities including a shuttle service and tour desk. Four poster beds, a pool, onsite massage and meditation classes, ensure you can recharge your batteries before you set off for your next travel adventure.
Ubud is food heaven. Expect everything from high-end restaurants alongside streetside warungs where plastic plates are piled high with delicious local fare. Nomads is a popular haunt especially for the first time Bali crowd where a fusion of Asian and Western dishes is always a crowd pleaser. If you’re watching the pennies, Warung Ijo also on Jl Raya is great if you want to eat cheap, local, flavoursome food. If you’re missing a curry, you must eat at Queens. It was one of the best Indian restaurants I’ve ever been to!
Bali is synonymous with temples and Ubud is no exception. In fact, every home has a shrine built in the courtyard. Visit Pura Tama Saraswati, dedicated to the goddess of wisdom and arts for its ornate carvings and lotus-filled pond. Alternatively, Puri Saren Agung which sitsalongside Ubud Palace, is especially beautiful at night, when lit up during Balinese dance performances.
Shopping is an epic experience in Ubud. From designer shops to local markets, shopping malls to craft shops -the sheer variety of choice will have your head spinning. Ubud Art Market located close to Ubud Palace is a great place for souvenirs. You’ll find everything from wood carvings to paintings, buddha statues and Batik clothing. Remember, haggling is part of the fun!
There’s so much to see and do in Ubud. From biking tours riding through rice fields to hiking over volcanic mountains such as Gunung Batur – you won’t be stuck for ideas. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a royal wedding that took place and enjoy the festivities surrounding the palace. If you’ve fallen in love with the cuisine take a cookery class or if you’ve indulged in far too much of well…everything, head to Kush Ayurvedic Rejuvenation. From Yoga classes to Ayurvedic massage therapies, there’s a risk you’ll get seriously addicted!
Further afield the Kuta, Legion and Seminyak are the usual tourist hotspots. Kuta with its lively mix of bars and non-stop nightlife is a crowd-pleaser but if you want something a little more sophisticated and cool, Seminyak with its slick hangouts, top resorts and elegant boutiques will definitely please. If you’re looking for a more tranquil experience, the beaches of Amed or Candi Dasa are a perfect escape and the beautiful island of Nusa Lembongan will utterly captivate you!
Whatever you do in Bali, just remember three things: breathe in, breathe out and …relax!
Travel is one of the few experiences that transforms your life. It’s impact is felt to the very core as your whole perspective on life changes. You emerge changed, almost reborn into a newer, better version of yourself. It happens gradually when you travel, then POW! It hits you when you return. You realise nothing has changed. Your friends are doing the same thing, your home is the same, the job you left is the same. But you’re not the same. You feel restless, impatient and disappointed that the return is such an anticlimax to a mind-blowing experience. Nobody understands. You want to get back on a plane. You ask yourself, how and why did this experience have such a profound effect? Was it the trekking in the Himalayas that did it? Or was it the cute Orangutan in Borneo! Did skydiving in New Zealand really do this or was it listening to the stories of a stranger in Burma. You know – it was all these things and more. Here’s how travelling changed our lives forever.
We learned a lot about ourselves
Travelling was tough. Catching many flights across different time-zones, not sleeping properly for days, long uncomfortable train journeys and flight delays. Add to that death-defying taxi rides, near misses, slips and falls and lugging your back-pack around in unbearable temperatures was definitely character building. On many occasions we went hungry, got food poisoning (mostly me) and had to visit doctors on several occasions. All this taught to us to adapt to situations, not worry about things and continue moving forward.
Travel inspired us to make big changes in our lives
On returning, being tied to a corporate didn’t seem so great. So I took a leap of faith. I started a business. It was nerve-wracking to give up the stability of a permanent job but I couldn’t let the experience of travelling just fade away into a memory.
Our perspective on the world changed
Yes – travelling turned our world upside down! Like most people, we had a 9-5 job, got married and had a home. However, after living out of a backpack for almost a year and experiencing the freedom that travel offers, you realise you don’t have to be pigeon – holed into living a life that involves just working and paying bills. The definition of living changed for us. Travelling was true living. Experiencing and engaging everything the world had to offer and growing as a person was a revelation.
We appreciate life more
You have back-packers then you have flash-packers. I guess we were flash-packers as we never stayed in dorms or real hell holes! Saying that we came across a few grim places in an effort to save money. In the end it taught us to appreciate what we have. These days, we have shorter showers, watch less TV and spend less money. We appreciate the seasons and use our time more constructively.
We’ve made friends from all over the world
It starts with a drink (or three) and ends with a promise to stay in touch. Next thing you know, you’re in another country and so are they! That’s when you know you’ve connected with friends. Interacting with strangers on the road does wonders for your social skills. There’s no hiding when you travel.
We’ve developed a taste for global food
Eating our way across Asia was one of the joys of travelling. The food is inspiring, cheap and delicious! So much so I decided to take a cookery class in Nepal, Thailand and Malaysia. Mealtimes are not the same anymore. You’ll often find Morning Glory with garlic & chilli or red fish curry on the menu. I really miss chicken Momo’s so that’s next on the shopping list!
We realised all you need is a back-pack
You start with loads of stuff in your backpack but you soon come to realise you don’t need it. I actually ended up with less clothes than Asad. If I needed anything I’d just buy it. Carrying the bare minimum was cathartic and empowering. On returning I found I was less attached to our material possessions. Even our home. It didn’t mean as much to me. Spending almost a year among vast landscapes in Asia meant we felt trapped by the tiny surroundings of the UK. It took us a long time to adjust.
We discovered what it means to be in the present
We are all raised to constantly think of the future. What’s going to happen in the next hour, day, week or year. We plan our lives around this, running around leading busy lives- barely taking time to stand still and just be present in the moment. Sometimes we pay others to tell us to stand still. That’s why travelling stops you in your tracks and forces you to take a look at how crazy beautiful the earth is!
We have more of respect for nature
We’ve seen a lot of wildlife and nature on our travels. From the Orangutans in Borneo to the Proboscis Monkey’s and birdlife down the Kinabatangan river. We’ve seen chickens ritually killed by shamans and tens of buffalo slaughtered by tribes in Sulawesi. We’ve bathed elephants in Chiang Mai and experienced dolphins and whales in New Zealand. It’s a privilege to share the earth with such amazing creatures.
Our thirst for travel never died, it just got stronger
You would think that a year and a half later, the urge to travel would fade and we would slot right back into our lives in the UK. But it hasn’t. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of getting on a plane and just going somewhere. Sometimes I wish we didn’t feel that way. It’s unsettling and we both still suffer from a restless desire to just pack up and go!
We discovered our adventurous side
We went mental in New Zealand. Probably because we bumped into a friend who was a bit of an adrenaline junkie. Before you know it, Asad had performed a skydive, I had ziplined and paraglided my way over the Remarkables. We would never have even contemplated any of this before! It just goes to show that the confidence you gain enables you in so many ways.
We learned people are the same
People are the same the world over. It doesn’t matter what religion or race you are, everyone has the same needs. Everyone works, looks after their families, plays candy crush and enjoys a good drink! Everywhere we travelled people received us with an open-heart. Strangers shared their food and stories with us. In China we felt like celebrities. They were intrigued by us. Asians with a British accent. Even in remote areas where the locals were not used to tourists, people may have been reserved but there was never any hostility. We’ve learned that people are essentially good. Even in countries such as Myanmar (Burma) who only opened their doors to the world in the past few years, people were friendly and warm. I miss that.
We learned religion is more diverse than we thought
We experienced alot of Buddhism and Hinduism across South-East Asia. But Indonesia was really amazing. Bali had such a diverse form of Hinduism, nothing like you see in India or Nepal. Sulawesi was breathtaking and threw the usual concept of religion out of the window. Mosques displayed ancient Torajan symbols and some Christians still practiced cliff-burials. It was all surreal and magical.
The planet we live on is an amazing place. Go see it with an open heart and an open mind and I promise it will teach you something no book or university will.
Let us know what you think of this post! We’d love to hear from you.
It’s a beautiful frosty morning. The sun is shining, there’s not a cloud in the sky and I’m reminiscing. Another year is drawing to a close and as I think about what the new year will hold for me and Asad, I’m also thinking about what an amazing year of travel we’ve had. It’s got me thinking of how I can sum it all up in one post without boring the pants off everyone! Then I thought of Facebook.
When I look back at my travel Facebook posts, it’s a virtual timeline. A diary. A reminder of all the places we visited, the sights we saw, the people we met and how we felt. It jogs my memory of events that six months later are fading but that are never truly forgotten. It’s written in the moment without the heavy thought process involved when writing a full post. Not all the pictures are perfect but that doesn’t matter. It’s a spontaneous insight into all the places we went to that are not yet written about on this blog. All those empty drop down menu’s that I’ve yet still to fill with inspiring posts of our adventures around South East Asia.
It’s a taste of what’s to come.
So here are just a fraction of our top Facebook posts of 2014 that highlight the best of our travels.
In the meantime…
I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. May all your travel dreams come true!
May 25th 2013 – Poon Hill, Nepal – So after 4 days of trekking to Poon Hill, up and down 10,000ft, the best we could get of the Annapurna range was….
June 25th 2013 – Fun, fun, fun! Just got in from the Full moon party! Crazy fire ropes, a few fights, plenty of booze buckets, boogying and well some other dodgy stuff going on! – Koh Phangan
June 27th, 2013 – What a lovely day! Zipped around the island discovering best beaches and hidden coves. Som Tam and watermelon for lunch followed by a mad dash through dirt track and jungle to finally see a perfect sunset — Had Salad, Koh Phangan
July 1st, 2013 – Exhausted! Woke at 3.00am, took taxi at 4.00, a ferry at 5.00, hopped in a transit van at 8.00, bundled into a bus at 9.00, train at 10.30, 9 hrs later we took another train to finally reach our hotel!! The saga will start again tomorrow at 4.30am when a flight to Blighty is on the cards!! I need sleep and some more mossie spray!! – Bangkok.
October 24th, 2013
So, back at Heathrow airport again! We started our travels in May but had to take a slight detour back to Blighty in July to help the folks at home. 4 months later, a little older, a little wiser, we are back on track! Here’s to an amazing journey and adventure!!! Ready for take off! First stop Bangkok! Woo hoo!
November 3rd, 2013 – Great to see how Diwali is celebrated around the world! Today Kathmandu is alive with people getting ready for tonight’s celebrations. Happy Diwali to all our friends, may you always be blessed with health and happiness!
November 21st, 2013 – Wow! We completed the Annapurna Circuit, culminating in a very quirky and death-defying last-minute ascent on a mountain pony (Asad got altitude sickness) to the highest point Thorong La pass. At an altitude of 18,000 feet this was a real achievement for us lazy city folk! So proud of ourselves! A massive thanks to Amrit our very creative and entertaining guide and our very strong, singing porter Rajendra. Without your humour and faith we couldn’t have endured the acclimatisation exercises up hundreds of meters a day, the freezing cold temperatures, the endless dal bhat, freezing cold showers (or no shower) and the squat toilets! But it was all worth it to see the jaw dropping scenery of the Himalayas!
December 3rd, 2013 – My favourite pic on our travels so far ! – Chitwan, Nepal
December 25th 2013 – Wow! What a journey on the Yangon to Mandalay Express! Ironic it’s called the express, it took 15 hours!! Anyway, it was shall I say, a memorable experience. Why? Because the train thundered through some of the most beautiful rural scenery we’ve seen. It was so bumpy we were often catapulted off our seats, even airborne for a second! The train rolled from side to side, creaked and swayed and groaned all the way! Let’s see what Mandalay has to offer. Today’s travel tip? Maintain sense of humour whilst travelling!
December 27th, 2013 – What a fun day! After yesterday’s escapade trying to get back to the hotel, we bravely decided to rent a motorbike and explore Mandalay the easy way. Well not that easy! We had no mirrors, no clutch, helmets that didn’t fit and the bike kept on stalling much to the amusement of everyone around us! On the agenda was the heavily guarded Mandalay Palace and U Bein Bridge – the longest and oldest bridge in the world. Somehow we got back alive after dicing with death a few times, weaving in and out of crazy traffic and nearly coming off! A totally hair-raising experience! Today’s travel tip: When in Myanmar DONT get a bike!!
December 30th, 2013 – Today we experienced the sun rising over the Bagan temples! Walking up the steep steps of the Shwe San Daw Pagoda barefoot at 5.00am, we were excited and full of anticipation! When dawn broke revealing hundreds of mist covered temples we were tickled. When the sun came up in all it’s glory we were wowed by the beauty and tranquility of it all. Finally, when the hot air balloons went up one by one and covered the sky, it was the icing on an already delicious cake!
On the flip side, we spent 9 hrs zipping from one pagoda to another, when suddenly the bike finally gave up and came to a grinding halt. Asad decided to try some chivalry out and pushed me on the bike back to the hotel. (I opted to walk of course) but he wasn’t having any of it)! Guess what? Yes, the locals once again found it hilarious! Mmm I think there seems be a recurring theme here!!
February 3rd, 2014 – Well it’s goodbye Thailand! We’ve had an awesome time. Bangkok was exciting with its bustling streets, great food and fabulous shopping. Chiang Mai was a perfect meeting point for friends we’d picked up along way with the odd ladyboy thrown in for a bit of fun. From cookery classes to Ethical Elephant tours and a bit of Muay Thai and markets galore – Chiang Mai was to our relief cheap and definitely cheerful. Fast forward and we hit the very touristy beaches of Ao Nang only to shout oh no!! So we ran away and found our little piece of heaven in Klong Muang. Here we met some great people and had an amazing time! So Selamat Datang Langkawi! Malaysia here we come!!!
March 4th, 2014 – Kota Kinabalu
So it’s almost the end of our time in Malaysia! It’s been real fusion of culture, people and food. Langkawi was a beautiful island, very laid back. Kuala Lumpur was fantastic – uber modern. The Cameron Highlands were a nostalgic throw back to British colonial times where walking amongst tea plantations and lychen forests lifted our spirits. We then moved on to Borneo; From Kuching – Kota Kinabulu – Sandakan, we travelled. Jungles, Orangutans, floating down the Kinabatangan river, watching Probiscus monkeys, flying bats, snake birds and the beautiful Kingfisher – all in their natural environment. Amazing! Tomorrow we fly to Singapore!
March 6th, 2014 – Just a fleeting visit to Singapore!
March 19th 2014 – So it’s that’s time again, we are leaving Sydney. Tomorrow we go to New Zealand for a 3 week fly drive tour of the beautiful South Islands. Australia was unfortunately just a pit stop and not really in our plans to visit. But a stupidly cheap flight from KL came up and we thought let’s go!! We had visions of travelling around but the cost has been enormous and hey we still have other countries to budget for! Shame, we would have loved to have experienced the outback, aboriginal culture and of course Ayers Rock! Alas it was not meant to be this time. So apart from seeing the usual sites of Sydney and a trip to the fabulous Blue Mountains, we have to say that the highlights were meeting our friends. Firstly, staying with Craig and Lorena in Canberra, then meeting Matt who used to work with us in London and Samma and co who we met in Nepal and who treated us to some home-made Momos! Thanks guys, you made Sydney memorable!
March 22nd 2014 – So today we started our 3 week drive around the south islands. Checked out of our prison lodging – no seriously it was a converted prison, very novel! (Bit concerned at the picture of Asad as he took to being an inmate too easily)!
Well it’s time to say goodbye to New Zealand! In 3 weeks we’ve had a taste of what makes this country awesome – it’s landscape! We’ve travelled over 3300 km from Christchurch to Kaikoura and experienced so much in between. We’ve been so spoilt – stared at the Milky Way on most nights, seen whales, seals, penguins and some amazing bird life! Every corner you turn, you simply can’t believe how stunningly beautiful this land is especially at this time of year. So tomorrow we head off to Bali to relax for a while before we explore Indonesia. Farewell New Zealand it’s been a blast!
April 17th 2014 – Great night catching up with Federica and Sal again! – Ubud, Bali
April 22nd 2014 – Third day of funeral ceremony and we well and truly got what we expected! A mass slaughter of 8 buffalo! It was terrifying, shocking and insane! The will to live pervades through everything that lives and breathes and to see such a large beast still trying to get up after an almost decapitation is beyond words!! Still – we managed to get through it surprisingly well! It was still worth going and a privilege to be part of a tribal tradition that spans hundreds of years. Tomorrow the family of the deceased will bury the person in a cave high in the hills with an effigy that bears a resemblance. We’ve learned so much about these mysterious people – it’s an anthropologists dream! Plan for tomorrow? No more funerals – just mountain hikes and serene village walks here we come! – Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi.
May 13th 2014 – What a hectic day! Last day in lovely Ubud which called for some last-minute sightseeing and a bike ride to see Mount Batur. Got fleeced on the way up by the local police who fined us IDR 250,000 for not having an international driving licence! We’ve driven everywhere in South East Asia and get fleeced here! Left Ubud, drove an hour and now in Seminyak. Asad had another craving for something bland – aka BURGER so ended up in Wacko Burger. Nice! Ended up having a drink in some random place called Frankensteins. Random photo included!
May 18th 2014 – 12 years ago was the last time we saw Ranjan in the UK. Now he’s living in Hong Kong with his lovely wife and family. Had a great evening catching up! – Discovery Bay, Lantau Island, Hong Kong
May 26th 2014 – Tomorrow we start another adventure – we are off to China! We’re excited and slightly apprehensive as we have the challenges of language, culture and of course politics to contend with. But it will be totally worth it as we have an awesome bucket list!
May 31st, 2014 – Supposed to leave the delightful Hutongs of Lijiang and saw-toothed mountains of Tiger Leaping Gorge a few hours ago to discover Beijing. But what do you know – the flight’s delayed! After zero communication from anyone we have found ourselves still here 3.5 hours later! I wouldn’t mind but the info board still says boarding! Anyway, they gave noodles away! Here’s some pictures of what we left behind!
June 2nd 2014 – We had a great day today visiting the lovely Forbidden Palace and the Soviet inspired, centre of Communist China – Tiananmen Square. Asad seems to have turned out to be a bit of celebrity. Wherever we go the Chinese want their picture taken with him! No luck for me I’m afraid Don’t you just love the outfits!
June 6th 2014 – Been in Datong two days now! A coal mining town with a socialist feel that has had the history kicked out of it and rebuilt again. Why do the Chinese do that?! No English spoken here and the menus are well dodgy! (Erm can’t even read them)! Pictures of Bullfrog, lamb spine, brain and here’s a new one – Donkey! Our dietary restrictions of no pork and no beef are stopping us eating well and I think it’s beginning to show. We’re existing on one meal a day now! Anyway took a couple of buses to the Yungang caves today – Buddhist statues dating back 1500 years. Laughed with the locals, had a few more pictures taken of us and went back to the hotel for our one meal of the day. Yeah you guessed it – noodles! – At Datong County, Shanxi
June 12th 2014 – Had a fabulous time in Pingyao walking through the historical streets of the old town. Met Sebastion, a fellow traveller who entertained us with his adventures through Mongolia and China. Arrived in Xian after a very long train journey of 10 hrs and what do you know we met up with another friend from London! Had a fabulous two days catching up with him and his friends over drinks and seeing the amazing Terracotta Army!
June 15th 2014 – Wonderful day at the rainbow mountains! The next three weeks are going to be tough but awesome. Bring on Tibet! A dream about to become reality!
June 17th 2014 – Finally arrived after an epic 38 hour journey on board the Qinghai to Tibet Railway in a non-smoking pressurised train with everyone smoking!
June 24th 2014 – Back where we started our journey, after an epic trek across Tibet via Everest! Off to Pokhara and Kathmandu for a few days to meet up with friends.
July 1st 2014 – So the day has come when we have to post our final travel Facebook status. We are going home tomorrow. We’ve travelled across 10 countries by foot, plane, train, taxi, songthaew, rickshaw and boat. From the majestic Himalayas in Nepal to the mysterious death practices of Sulawesi. From the awesome landscapes of China to the Tibetan plateau and finally Everest Base camp! We’ve lived, breathed it all. It’s been an amazing experience. We’d like to thank you all for your support and for taking the time to read our posts – it means a lot to us. To the new and old friends we met along the way especially Federica and Sal, Ariela, Pemba, Amrit, Rajendra, Tim and Jenny, Toni and friends, Alan, Ranjan, Craig, Matt, Samma, Shally and Musi. We will never forget you. You will all remain in our hearts forever for the laughter and experiences we all shared! For those of you who wish to travel the world – do it! Do it as soon as you can. Don’t wait for the promise of tomorrow – it may never come. It will give you a sense of freedom never experienced before – that of your heart and your mind!
So there you have it. Tell us about your travel highlights of 2014…
I took so many pictures in Sulawesi. I was like a crazy woman snapping away at everything – but I’m glad i did! Here are some favourites and hopefully they’ll go along way in showing you just how special Sulawesi was to us.
Formerly known as the Celebes, Sulawesi dominates the Indonesian archipelago by its extraordinary “K” shaped presence. Our experience of this stunning island was brief but the impact was huge. Incredibly diverse in culture and people, its four peninsulas shelter the highland Torajans who practice ancient death rituals, the seafaring lowland Bugis, central highland tribes and Filipino descended Minahasans in the far North.
The scenery and landscape is as magnificent as it is otherworldly. In fact there’s a drama to it. You’ll first experience it on the road to Rantepao as you pass through the mountainous regions of Enrekang and Batutumonga. There’s an untamed wildness that surrounds the emerald avalanche of rice fields, volcanoes and lakes.
I would have loved to have spent longer than eight days here. It was way too short a time to fully explore the treasures of Sulawesi. But I guess this was a taster that even now whets our appetite for future travels to Indonesia.
Sulawesi was compelling, unconventional, bizarre and beautiful.
Makassar – 1 night
Previously known as Ujung Padang, Makassar is the provincial capital of Sulawesi. Historically a thriving cosmopolitan trading centre for spices, textiles and metals – Makassar was colonised by the Dutch in the early 17th century. Fort Rotterdam still stands today as a reminder of the colonial past.
We arrived in Makassar quite late. Luckily Mr Dodo, whom we had arranged the tour with a few days earlier, kindly picked us up from the airport and drove us to the hotel. We only stayed one night in Makassar giving us just enough time to grab dinner in a local restaurant where everyone kept staring at us! It didn’t bother us – in fact I think we were quite fascinated by their fascination!
From what we saw, Makassar was chaotic. It was a seething mass of people with hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and dark corners where ladies of the night gathered. I must admit we didn’t expect that. I don’t mean the ladies of the night, I mean we were just so surprised about how built up the city was! We were expecting less modernisation but well – this is Asia and it never ceases to surprise. The next morning a quick history lesson around Fort Rotterdam and a nautical photo stop allowed us to briefly glimpse local life in Makassar, before we drive to Tana Toraja.
Tana Toraja – 4 nights
Tana Toraja is an intoxicating mix of stunning scenery, bizarre culture and some of the most friendly people you’ll meet. Its intriguing and sophisticated culture of death rituals and animal slaughter are woven into the very being of this place leaving us with vivid memories that refused to leave our psyche. From experiencing eerie cave graves to the dramatic and elaborate funerals, Tana Toraja crept subliminally into our minds leaving us in awe of its people and hypnotic landscape.
Wadjo Sengkang – 1 night
Situated in South Sulawesi, Sengkang is a bustling market town famous for nothing more than silk weaving and Lake Tempe – a huge shallow lake fringed by wetlands, floating houses and a bird watchers paradise. You won’t come across many tourists here. It was a pleasant pitstop that broke up our long journey from Tana Toraja to Bira. We arrived in the heat of the afternoon sun. After a well earned lunch, our guide who took us on a quick tour of the silk weaving factories complete with a predictable visit to a silk shop. The highlight was a tranquil boat ride just before sunset, through Lake Tempe where we visited Salotangah Village inhabited by fishermen who made their living from the freshwater fish in the lake. The village houses were built on floating rafts made from bamboo which meant they moved around freely. Imagine waking up every morning with a different view and a different neighbour! Mooring our boat by the side of one particular floating house, we enjoyed tea and Pisang Goreng – fried banana with the owners.
Bira – 3 nights
Bira was a sleepy beach village with goats and markets stalls lining the road leading to Pantai Bira Beach.
We had no choice but to relax here as wifi was non-existent and even a trip to the upmarket Amatoa Beach Resort proved futile when trying to connect to wifi. There was little to do here unless you were a diver which unfortunately we didn’t quite get round to learning even though we promised ourselves we would. So kick back we did and time stood still for a while. Bira beach was stunning. It’s powdery white sands and turquoise waters were amazing but the heat of the sun was so overwhelming it was almost impossible to stay out for longer than an hour. Unusual for us as we love the sun! One day we took a boat to the nearby island to enjoy Bara Beach and the fishing village close by.
We arranged our trip through Mr Dodo who runs a very good tour.
The price included all hotels, except for the one night in Makassar that we had already booked. Transport was also included and was by air-conditioned MPV with a dedicated driver that stayed with us from Tana Toraja to Bira.
Mr Dodo kindly picked us up from the airport in Makassar late at night, dropped us off at the hotel and then drove us to Rantepao the next morning. He was engaging, entertaining and basically a really nice guy. Watch out for his party tricks! We also had a guide in Tana Toraja and Sengkang. The only exception was Bira where you don’t really need one. However the driver is at your beck and call should you want to explore anywhere. I must admit we felt a bit sorry for our driver by the time we’d reached Bira as he’d covered so much distance and was looking a bit worse for wear! So we told him to take a break for two days even though he still waited for us eagerly every morning!
Enos the guide in Tana Toraja will take you to a funeral if one is taking place. These normally occur between July and September though they can occur all year round. We went in April and were lucky to experience one. I would recommend you go with a guide to get the most out of the experience. Enos answered all our questions and was patient, informative and fun. The guide in Sengkang was good too but we only spent a few hours with him so we didn’t get a chance to get to know him.
As for tips – we tipped Enos and the driver as they deserved it and really went out of their way for us. We saw everything we wanted to see especially in Tana Toraja and the driver was great as he stopped at scenic sites for photo stops. It goes without saying we did a lot of this!
Held every six days, Rantepao market offers a crazy mix of livestock, food and general market goods. Buzzing with traders from the lowlands who come here to auction their livestock of buffalo and pigs, Rantepao market attracts people from all over Tana Toraja.
This is where the buffalo and pigs are bought and sold for funeral slaughter, for gifts or to be reared. Highly prized buffalo were albinos with their blue eyes or those with distinctive markings and impressive horns. They were actually quite stunning to look at if not a little scary. The size of some of them was immense! During the funeral season when demand for buffalo is almost feverish, the price of a buffalo can rival that of a car and I’m not talking about a second-hand car!
Another part of the market was dedicated to the buying and selling of pigs. Now, if you’re into animal rights then this is one place where your “to do” list is going to be endless! Trussed to bamboo poles, hundreds of pigs are left in this painful position until sold. If bought for funerals, they are carted off by whatever means, still trussed up and left for hours in the sun until they’re slaughtered – usually carried out by a stab to the heart. Not the best method to ensure a painless end to so much suffering!
Rantepao market offers more than just the auctioning of livestock. Discover stalls bustling with traders selling delicious Torajan coffee, fresh fish, a variety of vegetables and much more. Here we chatted to locals and browsed the colourful array of foods native to Sulawesi.
Kambira – Baby Graves
By now, both Asad and I had serious buffalo overload – alive or dead! We had come to the market straight after witnessing a funeral and quite frankly we’d seen enough animals. So after a lunch of chicken and rice cooked in bamboo and an hour spent gazing across a buffalo free rice field, we headed east of Makale to Kambira. A well-known and unique burial site, this sacred place is renowned for its trees. But these are not just ordinary trees. They actually housed the deceased bodies of babies. Hard to believe, but so true!
Walking through a forest of bamboo we came to a clearing where a lone Tarra tree stood. Looking up we could see the tree had a fibrous patchwork of squares covering the niches that hid the bodies of the babies. Enos explained that only babies who had not cut their first tooth were buried here. Those from high-class families would be buried higher up than those of lower class. All would be buried facing the direction their families lived. The sap of the Tarra tree was symbolic of a mother’s milk whilst the trunk of the tree represented returning to the mother’s womb. It was a tranquil place, peaceful and not as unsettling as some of the crypts and graves we’d seen. Another reminder of how fascinating and unconventional the customs of Aluk to Dolo are.
Tampangallo – ancient burial site
Leaving Kambira, we headed to Tampangallo. Famous for housing the descendants of Tamborolangiq, who is believed to have descended from heaven on a stone staircase – this burial cave has a chilling collection of hanging graves and bones on show.
Apparently dating back to three hundred years, the coffins were in various stages of decay. Time had taken its toll, spilling the contents everywhere! We weren’t particularly frightened about being here. We were just taken aback by the scale of the caves and the many skulls that littered the floor. It was more unnerving than anything else. As we looked around in astonishment, even the cave seemed to take on a formidable presence. The natural erosions of the rocks formed the shapes of faces and skull-like impressions. It was spine-chilling!
Arriving in Tana Toraja was like landing on Earth hundreds of years ago. It had that remote, lost in time feel to it. We had arrived on the cusp of dusk which melted swiftly into the approaching darkness – when the surrealism was all the more heightened and when for the first time our eyes fell on strange boat-shaped structures. Their shadows and shapes whizzed by us as we drove through the wild and rugged landscape. Ghost like images of farmers in darkened rice fields floated past us and for the first time an excitement resurfaced after the long, bone rattling journey from Makassar to the capital Rantepao.
Armed with our very charming guide Enos, we kicked off our tour the next morning, by visiting the ancestral homes of the Torajan people known as Tongkonan. These were the bizarre looking structures we had seen the night before. According to Torajan belief – The Creator Puang Matau, built the Tongkonan in heaven and when the first ancestor descended upon earth, he replicated the house in the image of how it stands today.
Symbolically built facing north – south, Tongkonan represent ancestral identity and are used as meeting places where communal issues and ideas are discussed. The most striking part of the Tongkonan were the buffalo horns hung vertically on the facades as a sign of status and ritual sacrifice. Beautifully decorated in red, black and yellow wood, the designs and motifs reflect prosperity and fertility. The dramatic curves of the eaves swept up to the sky, perhaps reminiscent of the prows of the ships that carried ancestors to the island long ago. They simply took our breath away and were unlike anything we had ever seen before!
Ten kilometres south of Rantepao lies Lemo – one of the best known burial sites in Tana Toraja. Now this was where it all started getting weird but very exciting!
Set amongst stunning rice fields, we were greeted by a sheer rock face lined with balconies of tau tau – wooden effigies carved in the image of the deceased. Above and below these tau tau, rectangular graves were cut into the rock face. Some were closed, whilst others were open and revealed a glimpse of coffins or skeletal remains inside. Traditionally only the wealthy had tau tau made for them with graves of the well-heeled carved higher than those of less status. These particular graves were for descendants of a Toraja chief who once ruled the area hundreds of years ago.
It was one of those moments where all we could do was just stare back in disbelief and wonder. The whole place felt surreal and otherworldly.
Traditionally tau tau were simple carvings showing only the gender of the deceased. These days they are strikingly realistic to the point where you feel like they’re watching you! Just in case you’re wondering, the tau tau in the picture below were carved for tourists and not of the deceased!
Surrounded by enchanting rice fields, Kete Kesu is a quaint village renowned for its wood carvings (I picked up three) and traditional Tongkonan. It’s the oldest village dating back to four hundred years. We walked around the Tongkonan which were set in rows facing each other complete with connecting rice barns.
On the cliff face behind the village we came across an ancient burial site, estimated to be over seven hundred years old. It was an eerie yet awesome sight! Hanging coffins balanced precariously on suspended wooden beams and skeletal remains piled high into decaying wooden coffins.
Notice the tau tau below has hands that are turned down instead of facing up and open. We were told this was due to Christian influence which historically has discouraged the making of tau tau. Though many Toraja were Christians and Muslims, it was interesting how these ancient death rituals and customs had managed to survive.
Enos explained that modern day burials were changing. Though some still chose to be buried in the rocks, many were now laid to rest in mini house like mausoleums. Conventional earth burials were also increasing.
Experiencing these caves and coffins was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie! It was all there – rattling bones, coffins, cobwebs and dark, spooky caves! It wasn’t so bad being there in the day, but come night time, I can imagine it would be seriously scary. Our guide Enos said he’d received a request once to take a bunch of tourists to a cave at night and wait whilst they lit candles and “meditated”! What? Are you crazy? A grave yard is no place to “meditate” and why would you go at night? Suffice to say he quite rightly declined! Although he had visited these caves countless times in the line of his work, even Enos said he would be scared to come here at night – and he was a Torajan! I don’t know – some people have crazy ideas!