Tomohon, The Most Macabre Meat Market

Tomohon, The Most Macabre Meat Market

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The Most Macabre Meat Market: Tomohon, Sulawesi

Posted on 30 October 2013. Tags: bizarre foods, indonesia, sulawesi, tomohon

Brad tries the chef’s special at the Tomohon market, the most macabre meat market in Sulawesi

Note: This article contains foods of Indonesia that are not common in the Western World. If you are offended by other cultures, are strictly vegetarian, or simply want to remain blissfully unaware of where meat comes from, this article is not for you.

In Search of Bizarre Foods

Tomohon Traditional Meat Market, Sulawesi-
My mission to debunk perhaps the most notorious travel myth, live monkey brains, has brought me through 8 Indonesian islands to one of the most remote places on earth. I had been through dirty back-alley markets serving some of the strangest animals and dishes I’ve ever seen to find the epicenter of bizarre foods. I was excited but what I was about to see was shocking beyond belief.

It is here in Tomohon, Sulawesi where the local Minhasan people are said to eat anything with four legs but the tables and chairs. This might be the only place on earth with fewer food taboos than China, and likely the only place in Indonesia where monkey is still a chef’s special. What I found was raw was and grizzly.

Ancient Traditions Survive

Tomohon is perched in the hills outside of Manado, Sulawesi, in a region with the highest density of Christians in Indonesia. Weird traditional beliefs are still thriving in parts of Sulawesi because Christian faith has been the least oppressive of the imperialistic religions, so the culture is a mix of Christianity with ancient beliefs and customs. In many Muslim areas, historical beliefs have been mostly eradicated.

Rats, Rats Everywhere

Rats are welcome, in fact encouraged at this market. This is “bush meat” at its most refined, almost everything here was found running around the forest yesterday, and indigenous people travel here from all over the region to show off whatever odd animals they’ve found in the forest. On this mysterious island, hot dog takes on an entirely new connotation.

This food is completely organic, free-range, antibiotic free, locally-sourced and farm-to-table. That’s good, right?


Vendors come from far and wide to showcase their live animals

The Traditional Market

At first glance, this appears to be no different than a typical traditional market. The parking lot is clogged with shared vans and walking vendors selling everything from ice cream and candy to plastic toys and fresh flowers. The front of the market has colorful displays of colorful fruit and pungent spices. But this facade masks a secret.


Flamboyant displays of fresh chilis illuminate the streets of Sulawesi


There is a tremendous variety of fresh fruits and vegetables here


The fresh smoked fish will make your mouth water

Everything on Four Legs

As we turn deeper into the thriving central market, the stark difference smacks us in the face. The pungent smells of death fill our noses, burning hair, decaying meat, blood and human sweat. Hordes of flies enjoy an unimaginable feast. The raucous excitement builds the closer we get to the action.

If you get squeamish at all, you can read one of my more pleasant articles here

Animals still convulsing in pools of their own warm blood, burning alive in the fires of flame-throwers singing all of their hair off. Saturday is the day the snake vendors come from the villages with their fresh catch, and there is exhilaration in the air. Vendors are welcoming and love to stir the emotions.


These decapitated pig heads are proudly displayed in their own juices


They do have the freshest chickens possible


A bat vendor proudly shows off his prize catch


These are not your garden variety rats. They taste just like Kentucky Fried Rabbit.


These charred bats are frozen in the middle of their final terrifying scream


Vampire bats: the tongues are the best part if you can stomach the site of them

The Pet Section

The dog area was the most difficult part to see.

Mangy dogs packed so tightly in the cage, yelping and struggling to find a spot big enough to sit down. The puppy dogs cowering with long, pleading faces that tug at your heart strings. Their expressions briefly glow when the cage flies open from a new order, but the optimism is short-lived. They know this is the end for them, patiently taking their last breaths. This must’ve been what Nazi gas chambers were like. As they yelp hysterically, they are bludgeoned on the back of the head with a heavy wooden club to crush their skulls. The cages go silent. Many die with the first blow, but some are still twitching minutes later after repeated beatings.


Pre-roasted dogs showing off their good side


Saturdays are extra special because the snake vendors come to town

The Dangers of Bush Meat

Bush meat has long been villainized in western culture as the scapegoat for mankind’s most notorious diseases. The biggest issue is the questionable sourcing animals. Eating here requires a certain degree of trust in the vendors. These vendors don’t know the first thing about the science of food safety. They just know that if they don’t do what they did last week something will go horribly wrong.

Although there is risk in eating bush meat, a line of locals is a positive sign that they are selling reasonably safe food. Their lifelong reputation as a food vendor is tested every day. The entire family business could come crashing down with one small slip-up. Here, food violations are not enforced by the government, but with reputation and the rumor mill.


You don’t easily forget these expressions


The best parts of these dogs have been picked-through, leaving only entrails and the less tasty bits

Fine Dining in Tomohon

If you want to eat the more exotic dishes in Tomohon, you must pick your animals at the market and bring them to the restaurants. Walk around and ask the vendors what makes their rats or vampire bats better — there is a fine art to preparing and selling superior rats. With the hair burned off they are easier to transport and cook– just toss them in the back seat and drive off. It is a funny sight to see families carrying bags of dead animals into a nice restaurant.


This mega bat is letting it all hang out for inspection


Rat on a stick: examine closely to get a good one

Dogs are reserved for special occasions since they are more costly than other animals, so it is less broadly consumed than other animals. My driver loves to eat dogs, explaining that they taste like monkey, but also has several as pets. He sees no contradiction as nobody would dare eat a pet dog. He feels better that these dogs come from Muslim areas where dogs are not kept as pets.

They prefer very spicy meals here, likely to cover up the taste of noxious organs and any unfresh meat.

I did not finish the hot dog platter, so they asked me if I wanted to take it home. I joked that, back in the US, they are called doggie bags because the leftovers are fed to the dogs. Here, it is very different.

Question: These are far from the strangest thing I’ve eaten.  Should these make my list of the 10 Weirdest Foods I’ve Eaten?


Paniki: an exotic food dish made with bat, coconut, curry and spices. So good!


Hot dog Indonesian style. Don’t forget a doggie bag for your leftovers.


Bat wings will surprise you. They have a soft, velvety feel like a fine pasta.


Bat penis is pretty foul. It is a thick, chewy skin with a rotten taste and a sticky mouth feel.


What would you do if you found a rat head in your dinner?

Rat Hunting

For the adventurous, you can get up close and personal with your caveman side by rat hunting with locals in the forest.  Local guides will show you all of the ins and outs of foraging for your dinner.

Now, if you are feeling squeamish and swearing to a life of vegetarianism after reading that, I completely understand.  You should have read the warning. 

Lembeh Strait, Creatures from the blue lagoon

Lembeh Strait, Creatures from the blue lagoon

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THE sheltered waters of Lembeh Strait in the Indonesian island territory of Sulawesi are a haven for fishing fleets and a hideaway for divers in search of quiet waters.

On the eastern tip of North Sulawesi, north of Timor and south of the Philippines, the Lembeh Strait is a narrow section of the Molucca Sea that separates the island of Bitung Selatan from the mainland.

Most divers who visit North Sulawesi head for Manado, focusing on the wall-dives around Bunaken National Park and the remarkable biodiversity of the Celebes Sea.

Yet two hours from Manado the Lembeh Strait offers a different style of underwater exploration, with fewer divers in the water, plenty of fish and the bonus of muck-diving through the volcanic black sands. Throw in a really good resort and you have a fine destination for pleasure above and below the water.

Lembeh Hills Resort is hidden away at the northern end of the strait, with 23 villas clinging to the steep hillside where the road ends and the jungle begins. The resort is modest in scale and big on charm. Apart from the pool, the spa and locally inspired dining, the focus is on getting among the reefs.

Views from the villas vary, however. The coconut palms are so thick that even the cliff villas have a partially obstructed view across the strait. I can see enough of the cove and neighbouring fishing village to gain a sense of where I am without losing my sense of privacy and, if I wanted to build my own fishing boat, there would be room inside my villa.

The interiors are modern and restrained, and the service follows a similar pattern. Don’t come here looking for silver spoons and colonial formality. These are very relaxed people who are doing their best to meet international expectations, but with a generous dose of Sulawesi style.

The resort’s dive centre has a few small boats and a team of very cheerful guides. The boys know their reefs intimately and get genuinely excited about sharing their experience.

With more than 40 reef sites to visit within a few minutes of the resort jetty, we are spoilt for choice.

The waters of Lembeh Strait can be a little turgid but the small fish and marine life are easily viewed in the shallows. Some old refuse covered in silt gets stirred up from the bottom every now and then but my attention is mostly taken by the fish, coral and freaky residents of the reef.

Our vessel is a small converted fishing boat, more functional than fancy, but our gear is top-notch down to the diving boots, adjustable flippers and glass goggles.

Morning trips are always the best in this part of the world, typically with flat water when you get out early and dark skies if you head out late. April to October are the prime months for good weather, with wet and wild conditions slowing the tourism trade outside that period.

The resort opened last November, and the architecture is more charming than chic. The grounds would quickly turn into jungle if the gardener went on leave, and there is just enough room on the paths for a golf buggy to carry guests up the hill. The spa centre is modest but well-trained staff deliver a seriously therapeutic touch.

A small fishing village neighbours the resort, where colourful outrigger boats contrast with the deep black volcanic sands.

Outriggers are great for shallow conditions, allowing the fishermen to skip across the surface and steer clear of the coral below.

Houses here are flat and low and surrounded by papaya trees and bougainvillea flowers.

These are not wealthy communities but the sea and forest do provide a bounty beyond currency.

I walk through town early in the morning and discover nearly everyone speaks enough English to say “good morning”, and very little else.

Some of the fishermen here have retrained to become dive guides, putting their knowledge of the water and marine life to good use.

One man invites me into his home to show me his giant gecko, which is the size of a blue-tongue lizard.

It’s a strangely beautiful creature with bold green eyes and mottled skin.

He says it lives in the coconut palms, and you have to be careful not to lose a finger when collecting. I take a step back from the chicken-wire.

Another lady has a parrot called Moonie on her front porch. The bird does a little dance every time you call its name.

Later I meet a baby squirrel that eats a chunk of my papaya. It is another resident of the coconut palms. The locals insist this furry bundle of eyes and ears is a baby tarsius, but our wildlife expert at the resort believes otherwise. The tarsius are the world’s smallest primates, famous in Sulawesi, where seven species are now known to exist in the nearby forests.

Tourists can visit them in the wild but you need a little patience. These nocturnal primates are very small and rather shy, but some nesting trees contain families of tarsius that are relaxed about human intrusions.

To see them descend from their nests, we spend an hour driving down a forest trail, walk for 30 minutes and wait for darkness. It makes for a late evening back at the resort, but the chef is happy to serve up a hot meal. Few people come to Lembeh for the tarsius. Not with such rich diving options all along the straits. Only a small proportion of visitors are Australian.

The tourism infrastructure is still developing. Dedicated dive resorts on the Manado Bay side of Sulawesi are comfortable but far from indulgent, and guests rarely get a cultural connection with the locals.

No trip to Manado would be complete without a day in the waters of Bunaken National Park, where sharks and turtles are abundant, but the sheltered coves of Lembeh Strait are in many ways more spectacular.

Selayar Island

Selayar Island

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Selayar Island is a secret find; an unspoilt island tucked away in South Sulawesi.  The charm of the island combines genuine, warm hospitality with first-rate diving and a little German hospitality.

Selayar Island is positioned near the famed Takabonerate National Sea Park, in South Sulawesi and is the third-largest coral atoll in the world, after the Marshall Islands and the Maldives. With this major draw card you would expect to find developed tourism, several dive resorts and five-star hotels, but this is not the case. Selayar is a secret find.  It is a place where time has stood still.

Accommodation is mostly in homestays or three-star hotels in Benteng, the main town, however the journey out to the dive sites that are worthwhile, will take you up to six hours by boat to access.  Another dive accommodation option is a remote National Park managed dive facility, six hours off the mainland, with homestay accommodation.  If those options don’t appeal, you are whittled down to two choices – Selayar Island Resort (barely functioning at present) and Selayar Dive Resort.  And so, research done, my adventure begun.

From Makassar, it is a six-hour land and sea adventure involving a bumpy four-hour road transfer (in a nice air-conditioned van), and then a two-hour exciting private speedboat ride.  When I finally arrived at the Selayar Dive Resort, a jovial, German character met me by the name of Jochen, who operates the charming waterfront dive resort.  “Anyone can jump on a plane and stay in a hotel”, Jochen from explained, “My place is different; it is difficult to find, but people find out about it and when they come, they discover one of the best dive spots in Asia.”

Jochen has been a dive master for twenty-six years, so you are in very experienced hands and when you don your dive gear and tip off the side of the boat, you are in for a treat, as you are diving in a protected marine environment. One of the nice things about staying at the dive resort is how close you are to the reef.  It is at your doorstep.  No long boat rides to get out to far away dive sites.

Jochen is a passionate environmentalist.  He is involved in protecting and maintaining his marine back yard and has a good working relationship with the local fisherman.  He knows the best spots to dive, knows the moods of the ocean and he even knows every piece of coral personally.

Selayar Island – SulawesiAfter a day of diving, cocktails are served on the big wide wooden verandah or if you wish, you can bring your own liquor.  On the second night of my stay, we all sat around the lounge and watched a dive movie, which Jochen had produced himself, which featured cave diving in Mexico and other unique diving havens around the world.

The nine guest beachfront bungalows all have their own grove of trees, creating privacy and an opportunity for a little hammock hideaway snooze.  A German running this place, means everything is in order and kept to a high standard, even bathrooms have decent water pressure and adhere to European standards and the generators, which run 24 hours a day, are located two kilometres from the resort, ensuring your peace and quiet.

If you are not a diver, then this resorts offers a beautiful beach setting, relaxation and hammock time.   I loved exploring the reef from my bungalow door, with flippers and a mask in hand – it is all you need. The reef stretches all the way across the front of the beach and tied to the end of the jetty is a rope, so you can traverse the length of the reef and keep your bearings. I got literally lost in time, snorkelling for hours following turtles, schools of friendly fish and drifting with the swaying coral.

At night, you have a friendly, ready-made social group of intrepid travellers with a passion for diving, great stories to tell and if that gets too much, you can flop on the couch with one of the fine books from the selective library and order a drink.

Such are the experiences that await you on this unspoilt, charming island inSouth Sulawesi. The genuine warmth and hospitality bestowed upon you makes for a memorable travel experience, and for anyone wanting a real adventure, Selayar Island is the place.

Selayar Island – SulawesiFACT FILE :
Where to Stay:  
Selayar Dive Resort (open from 15 October to 30 April)
Meals and diving included.

Five Senses:
Taste – Hot, fresh German baked bread is served every day at the resort.  The meals are hearty and wholesome and the German deserts, cakes and home made treats will delight you.

Sight – Taking a long walk along the private beach in the evening, feeling the soft white sand between your toes is simply heavenly.  Spectacular sunsets finish off the day nicely.

Feel – The beautiful, tepid warm waters are perfect for diving and the friendly turtles that come in close to shore make you feel like you are touching nature.

Sound –  An atmosphere of peace and serenity falls around you on your private island stay.  No discos or disturbances – a great way to unwind and truly relax.

Smell – The tropical forest is at your back door and the salty fresh clear water is at your front door.  If you want a day off from diving, there is a forest trail that will lead you to a hidden cave, which is a little bit of a hike to the top of a hill, just above the resort.   A great place for reflection and taking in the natural surroundings.

Photos by David Metcalf




This blip of a town is the main southern gateway to the Togeans with near daily boat connections to at least some part of the archipelago from either the central port or a small village just to the west of town.

Ampana is a small, friendly and remarkably clean town — one of the cleanest we’ve seen in all of Indonesia in fact (save the festy canal near the water) and while we saw it in the midst of Ramadan, we imagine across the rest of the year this isn’t a bad place to lose a day or two waiting for the boat to the Togean Islands.

With mountains backing it in the distance and clear waters running out from the pebbly beach to the Tomini Sea beyond, this is a relatively scenic spot and (outside of Ramadan) there are a couple of beachfront bars and simple seafood restaurants to soak up the atmosphere in.

Few travellers though come here to soak up the Ampana vibe though. Virtually all will be using it as either a transit point to or from the islands, or, as was the case with us, as a resupply point to get cash and chocolate before returning to the islands — in both cases, Ampana does the job.

Between Ampana and neighbouring Labuhan are a handful of places to stay covering most budgets. Ampana has plenty of places to eat along the main road through town, along with a couple of seaside bars/restaurants that make for an ideal sundowner (outside of Ramadan).

There is a small “Tourist Information Office” on the pier at Ampana (on your right when looking at the sea) that can provide limited information on accommodation availability (some places work solely on a walk-in basis), along with boat timetable information and tips for ways to fill your slow time in Ampana — if you’re stuck here for any period of time drop by and have a chat to Ulfah . She’ll have ideas for stuff but if you find her rates too high, you’ll be able to negotiate prices elsewhere.

The central area of Ampana is small and easily walkable. The only reason you’d need to use an ojek (or a horsecart) is to get to the alternative boat landing spot (for Bomba) at Labuhan.

The main pier is the centrepoint of town. With your back to the water, follow the road to the right for the market and take your first left for the Oasis Hotel and the losman next door. Continue up this road and you’ll reach the main drag through town. Take a left and you’ll quickly hit a decent nasi campur place, one more block (crossing the road back to the pier), on the opposite side of the road is Nasi Jamil, whose giggling staff do a solid satay.

Back up to the pier road, walk down towards the pier and take the first right (or coming from the pier, your first left) and you’ll find two convenience stores that are the epicentre of the traveller restocking scene — note to those travelling with kids, the minimart slightly further from the pier road has Cornflakes and paint sets.

While there is a BRI bank and ATM in the centre of Ampana (two blocks west of the boat pier), this won’t be of use to many travellers. There is however a Mandiri ATM on the road to Labuhan. If you want to walk there, just take the main road and keep going, it is perhaps a 20-minute walk from the pier — or flag down an ojek and ask for Mandiri.

Ampana has a basic hospital familiar with dealing with dengue and malaria cases. Ampana is considerably closer to the Togeans than Gorontalo, but Gorontalo has a larger hospital and a far more conveniently placed air connection to the rest of Indonesia. It’s a hard call to decide where to recommend you head should you be unfortunate enough to come down with either. We’d be inclined to say let the boat timetable determine wether you head north or south.

Internet cafes are scattered across central Ampana and there is also a solid 3G signal via Telkomsel — if you’re heading to the islands, check your email now as you most likely won’t be checking it again till you’re back on mainland Sulawesi.

If you arrive at Labuhan on a public boat from Bomba, you’ll be disgorged on a pebble beach with a cluster of waiting ojek drivers — they’ll ferry you into Ampana for 5,000 rupiah. To your left there is boatyard for wooden mid-sized cargo boats (quite interesting and photogenic) and next door to that is Marina Cottage, with its smart and very solid wooden bungalows.

Togean Islands

Togean Islands

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The Togean — or Togian — Islands are an archipelago in the southeast region of the Tomini Sea in northern Sulawesi. Famous for both their difficulty to reach and diving, the archipelago is formed by seven primary islands situated near the centre of a global hotspot of biodiversity known as the coral triangle. Home to a great number of rare marine and terrestrial species, most tourists who come here are divers or snorkellers hoping to see some of the world’s best marine life in unspoiled surroundings.

Are the surroundings unspoiled? Not really. While above the water, the islands are beautifully little developed and unspoiled, below the waves it’s a different story. Since the early 90s, highly destructive fishing methods like dynamite fishing and cyanide poisoning have been widely used in the Togeans, causing a steep decline in fish numbers and immense shallow reef damage.

Sharks, other large fish, and turtles are rarely seen — especially when compared to locations like Komodo National Park, which has seen better (though not perfect) protection. In two weeks on the islands we saw not a single example of snorkelling trips using buoys, with anchors freely thrown onto reefs and, while boats made some effort to adhere to already smashed channels, attention in this regard was pretty cursory. While one hotel owner suggested the reason for this was to not show fishermen where the fish are, these are very simple practices that could have a significant impact; it’s a shame to see little attention paid to it.

While evidence of logging is rarely seen from a boat running by the coasts, under the water clear examples of coral smashed by sunken logs can be seen on some house reefs. Other effects, such as silt run off from cleared areas of jungle for cash crop farming, is less obvious to the untrained eye. Rising sea temperatures and crown of thorns starfish have also caused significant damage to the reefs.

The local population are predominantly Muslim and six main ethnic groups live here (Togeanese, Bajau, Bobongko, Buginese, along with Gorontalonese and Javanese transmigrants). Small villages are scattered about the islands and poverty is endemic, with poor living standards and high unemployment. While some live by fishing, many others grow cash crops such as coconut, cacao and cloves on land cleared of jungle. Some resorts are foreign-run and others are managed by Indonesian entrepreneurs from elsewhere in the archipelago — few of the locals seem to reap any financial benefit from tourism, aside perhaps as boat pilots and staff at some of the larger resorts.

The island group was only declared a national park in 2004. Since then, the area has been earmarked as a key tourist destination by the Indonesian government. Potential problems arising from a significant increase in tourist numbers, such as extra demands on an already limited water supply, and sewage and trash disposal, do not however appear to have been addressed — by the authorities or many of the resorts. There is no central waste disposal system and, at least as far as the resorts are concerned, non-biodegradable trash such as plastic tends to be either buried or burnt (though some plastic bottles are kept to sell to recyclers and empty beer bottles are sold back — drink beer not coke!). Outside the resorts, waste often appears to be just thrown into the ocean; we watched one woman on a boat clear out a cupboard at port, casually chucking pieces of paper overboard. We also heard of one resort owner who purposefully throws aluminium cans into the ocean under the mistaken belief that they promote reef growth.

While this isn’t good news for the long-term sustainability of tourism to the Togeans, there are simple things you can do to help reduce your personal impact. Bringing your own water bottle and making use of water refills (where available) is one of the easiest steps. It you need to buy bottled water, buy the larger 1.5 litre ones rather than the “virtual cup” ones that litter beaches across the archipelago. Another option is to keep your plastic trash and take it back to the mainland with you.

When snorkelling, collect rubbish (particularly floating plastic and bottles) and at least bring it back to your resort. Organise a beach cleanup at low tide — you’ll be surprised just how much plastic litter there is when you take a close look — and try to get the local kids involved as the more they do it, the more the desirability of a clean beach will become apparent — and perhaps they’ll start telling their parents to stop throwing their rubbish in the ocean, as the kids on the next beach will need to clean it up. Small steps, perhaps, but better than no steps at all.

The archipelago runs west to east a smidgen south of the equator and is made of six large islands and a bunch of smaller ones. From east to west they are Walea Bahi, Walea Kodi, Talatakoh, Togean, Batudaka and Una Una to the north. The main town, Wakai, is roughly in the centre of the archipelago, at the eastern tip of Batudaka, while other sizeable coastal towns include Bomba and Dolong.

Accommodation can be found on Batudaka (Island Retreat and Poya Lisa — the latter is on an islet just off the coast), Togean (Sunset), Kadidiri island, off the northwest coast of Togean (Lestari, Black Marlin and Kadidiri Paradise), off the coast of Katupat (Fadhila and Bolilanga), Malenge (Pondok Indah and Lestari), Walea Kodi (Sifa Cottage) and Walea Bahi (Walea Dive Resort). If you’re not sure where to stay, read our pick of the best places to stay on the Togean Islands.

If you arrive from Gorontalo you’ll be deposited at Wakai from where you’ll need to get another boat to the resort you’re staying at. If you’re coming from Ampana, you may be deposited at Bomba, Wakai, Katupat or Malenge (among other spots — see the transport section for details).

You’ll get a patchy telephone signal (Telkom and Indosat only) on Kadidiri, a rough phone signal (but no EDGE) off Pulau Taupan (far west on the way to Ampana, useful only for Poya Lisa and Island Retreat) and a rather unreliable EDGE signal within eyesight of the antenna at Wakai. Unless otherwise noted, assume that any accommodation listed here has no phone signal and no internet access whatsoever. If you need to be online daily, or even simply require the ability to be in regular telephone contact, the Togeans are most definitely not for you.

There are no ATMs or banks in the Togeans so bring plenty of cash with you to cover the cost of your stay. Accommodation and food is paid in rupiah, while dives are generally payable in US dollars or euros. If the resort you are staying in has a website with prices in US dollars or euros, it can be a good idea to pay in that currency as some of the exchange rates the resorts use are a little unorthodox — and not in your favour.

The nearest cash machines that accept foreign cards are in Gorontalo (most major Indonesian banks) or Ampana (Mandiri and BRI only) — note the Mandiri ATM in Ampana allowed a maximum withdrawal of five million rupiah per day per card. Unless you plan to charter a speedboat for a return trip to the mainland, it is at minimum an overnight trip to the mainland to reach an ATM.

The Togeans are a risk area for both malaria and dengue fever. Be vigilant about applying mosquito repellent both during the day and at night and consider taking an antimalarial such as Malarone or doxycycline if you are planning a prolonged stay (or travelling extensively elsewhere in Sulawesi as well). The nearest hospital is in Ampana; it’s basic but they do have facilities for malaria testing and treatment. A traveller we talked to who was treated there for dengue in 2013 was not particularly complimentary of the services delivered — though he did live to complain.

Bira, First impressions

Bira, First impressions

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Bira is a holiday resort village at the tip of Sulawesi’s southwestern tentacle, boasting several squeaky white-sand beaches, beachside boatbuilding and offshore diving and snorkelling.

About as quiet as Bira gets on a weekend: just one banana boat out at 08:00.

About as quiet as Bira gets on a weekend: just one banana boat out at 08:00.

While Westerners have been coming in dribs and drabs for years, it’s more recently become a very popular spot for weekend visitors from the surrounds and as far afield as Makassar, which is about a five- or six-hour drive away (or 206 kilometres from the airport, at least according to our taxi’s speedo…).

This Saturday is young.

This Saturday is young.

We came on a weekend just prior to Ramadan, a time when locals like to get away for a break before their arduous month of fasting begins. The main beach was packed with friendly families banana boating, floating in tubes, taking photos of each other (and not infrequently, us) and endlessly snacking.

In short: a festive atmosphere, but sadly the main beach was full of rubbish that nobody was in a hurry to pick up.

To get away from the crowds, we headed to a sliver of a beach a little further away reachable by foot and had a bit of a swim there. The sand is so beautiful as to be noteworthy — fine and powdery, gleaming white so the waters lapping near to shore are turquoise — but with the boats zipping past between the beach and drop-off, we didn’t have a successful snorkel. A tourist was killed here two years ago by a boat; it’s easy to see how this could happen, especially as the boat numbers have only risen since then.

A patch of white and turquoise just for us -- almost!

A patch of white and turquoise just for us — almost!

We’re waiting for the weather to clear before we check out the next beach along, Pantai Bara, and the snorkelling, but we’re expecting to pay 300,000 for a boat for the day with three stops (and have heard great things about what you can see underwater here).

Frisbee with the locals and a three-in-one at a beachside warung.

Frisbee with the locals and a three-in-one at a beachside warung.

While initially it may seem like there’s a few dozen places to stay, several joints are abandoned — or only open on weekends or during the July-August high season — while others really cater to local groups rather than independent travellers.

A few places do however focus on foreigners passing through keen on checking out the surrounds and perhaps diving and snorkelling. Our two picks are Salassa Guesthouse, priced at 150,000 per night for a double plus an extra bed for the kids, and Sunshine Guesthouse (formerly Nini’s), for 175,000 rupiah including an extra bed. Both are traditional-style wooden buildings, with shared bathrooms; Sunshine has hot water and is in a more solid building, with wonderful views out to sea and two daybeds where you could easily spend a day reading and looking out to sea. Both places include breakfast in their room rates.

We found the food at Salassa to be very good, with generous portions, but slow — figure on waiting at least an hour. Sunshine doesn’t have a restaurant, but Warung Bumbu nearby also does good standard Indonesian fare. We tried to head to the boat restaurant overlooking the beach, but they were wrapping up after a big lunch buffet and didn’t look open for private diners. Expect the most exotic item on any menu here to be guacamole, and that in season only, but we had some great fish and calamari, and ayam rica-rica as well.

Stranded swan, big skies.

Stranded swan, big skies.

We came to Bira direct from Makassar airport. A taxi from the booths here is a standard 924,000 rupiah; we walked out, intending to eat before we grabbed one, but were then offered one (in a sedan, not an Avanza) for 750,000 rupiah – after arrival, backpackers we met had paid 500,000 from Makassar downtown, so bargain hard — well, harder than us! You can also get a seat in a crammed kijang for 70,000 rupiah for the trip. With petrol prices rising from 4,500 to 6,500 per litre recently, all transport prices are pretty much in flux here.

You’ll then pay 20,000 per foreigner to enter Bira’s beachside strip from the harbour area — where there is also a BNI ATM — then head a little further down to get to the coastal strip proper, which ends abruptly at the main beach itself.

Bira, Liukang Loe Island

Bira, Liukang Loe Island

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If you’re looking to slip the weekend crowds of Sulawesi’s Bira, Liukang Loe Island beckons just offshore, a 15-40 minute boat ride away (depending on weather). With two homestays, no traffic, two mosques and a lovely long beach with sand perfect for castle-making, it’s a great little spot to just chill.

There’s a homestay at either end of the beach, each costing 250,000 rupiah per night, including breakfast. We stayed at Ocean Holidays Guesthouse, owned by former lobster diver Javar, which is to the far left when facing the island.

Not the boat to Bira — though it probably regularly goes a lot further.

Not the boat to Bira — though it probably regularly goes a lot further.

Ocean’s has three rooms, one attached to the restaurant, which we took, and two others attached to each other in a building nearby. With a double bed and desk, and attached cold water bathroom with a bodgy sink and a few cockroaches, it was basic, but adequate. A few chairs and table on the veranda makes it a reasonable place to rough it for a few days. A wall-mounted sanitiser squirting the air every few minutes in the bedroom fought to cover a smell that came and went from the bathroom. The extra bed was two thin mattresses rolled out at night (no extra charge); plenty of pillows meant enough to go around, but no extra coverings were provided, so bring a sarong or two if there’s more than two of you.

Hanging with Liukan Loe's kids.

Flippin’ a frisbee with Liukan Loe’s locals.

We stayed for two lunches and dinners, each pretty much the same and charged a very reasonable 35,000 rupiah per head (less than Bintang, going for 38,000). We had a few very fresh fish, noodles in kecap manis, one or two vegetable soups and a side of tomato sambal. It filled a spot, but you wouldn’t come here for the food alone. Biscuits from a box out the back or a freshly shucked coconut will have to do for dessert. Coconuts are 6,000 rupiah; small waters 5,000. We paid 250,000 rupiah for Javar to pick us up in his boat and drop us back to Bira.

Fish so fresh it's still practically flapping on the plate.

Fish so fresh it’s still practically flapping on the plate.

What’s there to do? Snorkelling offshore is decent enough, and while the coral is quite banged up in close, further out from Ocean Holiday there is a massive coral garden and some great sand banks beyond — it is well worth the swim out, or get a boat to take you to the rocky point out to the right. We saw some very large schools of small fish… It’s not Kanawa, but a paddle rounds out a relaxing package on the island. The non-snorkelling inclined can take a cross-island trail to the second village (and a longer beach), but as we were snorkelling inclined we never made it.

We're back!

We’re back!

It’s pleasant to just wander along the beach, through the sandy village (keep an eye out for the weavings for sale — and the attractive Bugis houses), and have a swim. We were there over a weekend, when Bira can get very busy — particularly the few weekends just before Ramadan — and it meant a few daytrippers also stopped by for lunch and a splash. Once they left though, it was very quiet, though you can always walk down the other end, where the other guesthouse is, to escape them. The daytrippers seem to come to Javar’s for the few deckchairs and lunch.

The owners at the other guesthouse are friendly too and it’s a similar set up. Three motel-style wooden rooms are attached to a little restaurant. The wood lends a more rustic feel — we just had a quick look, but noticed no smell from the dark bathroom. Rooms are a touch smaller than at Ocean.

If you like boats, you’ll enjoy seeing all the different kinds parked along the beach, from tiny one-person canoes through to larger affairs, all in various states of repair and condition.

Javar has an interesting history and has dived all over Indonesia, hunting lobsters for the Hong Kong market. The boat he did it all on is still moored just outside the guesthouse. And it’s not very big.

No longer in use.

The boat to Bira. Kidding, kidding.

As at Bira, there was sadly quite a bit of rubbish — plastic, shoes, seaweed — along the beach, though they cleaned up outside Ocean’s (we didn’t notice outside the other place). A few locals told us it was seasonal; September/October is the best time to come — Javar said the oceans are calmer around then too, making it easier to get to the Takabone Rate national park, which is home to the world’s third largest atoll and lies further south toward Komodo. Perhaps next trip.

People have been known to bend over backwards to get here.

People have been known to bend over backwards to get here.

Ocean Holidays Guesthouse
T: (0811) 421 99418

Wisma Liukang Loe
T: (0813) 425 78515

Tana Toraja, A funeral in Toraja

Tana Toraja, A funeral in Toraja

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Anywhere else, you probably wouldn’t spend a full day of your vacation at the funeral of a 100-year-old woman you’d never met. But in the highlands of South Sulawesi, the weddings and funerals of the Torajan people are as much of a draw as the ancient wooden houses, improbable rice terraces, and white water rafting.

In the traditional religion of aluk todolo, or “the way of the ancestors,” until a funeral is held, the deceased was considered merely sick, with the body kept at the house. It was the funeral, and the slaughter of as many as 100 water buffalo for a wealthy high-born family, that allowed the deceased to pass on to the afterlife. Although Torajan culture absorbed Christianity in the early 1900’s, and then a flood of tourists (and government tourism consultants) in the 1980s, traditional ceremonies still play an important social and spiritual role.

Boy at Toraja

And so, outside Kete Kesu, I watched arriving guests manoeuvre massive black pigs off the roof of a van. They carried them on poles up to a family compound, stopping to pay a tax on each animal at a makeshift government post.

My guide Enos and I followed them into a courtyard. On the left, wooden rice barns on pillars provided shade for respected guests. Along the right ran more barns and the tonkonan, a traditional house decorated with painted carvings and buffalo horns. In the courtyard was a tube-shaped coffin on a platform, and a buffalo tied to a stake. On every structure, including the platform, a Torajan-style roof curved upwards front and back like buffalo horns.

A bull about to be slaughtered at Toraja

The first step was to meet the family. We sat cross-legged in a raised bamboo structure behind the barns and I presented a carton of cigarettes as a token gift. Neighbours brought us coffee, cookies, and a palm sugar snack, and one daughter opened a cloth bag holding the ingredients for chewing betel nut. The offer was largely symbolic and I accepted the alternative of a clove cigarette.

Their mother had died six months before, and the five siblings had organised the funeral quickly. Families often wait a year or two to accumulate funds: a single prime buffalo, such as a male with broad horns and a white head, might cost US$20,000.

Funeral goings on at Toraja

“Let’s go,” said Enos, “They’re starting!” We hurried between the rice barns to the courtyard, where a man in rubber boots approached the buffalo. He expertly cut its throat with a short knife, holding a rope attached to the nose-ring as the animal staggered, fell to its knees, and came to rest on its side.

The massive bulk was covered with palm leaves, attracting a pig that had freed its hind legs from its bindings. As the animal rooted around, Enos muttered that city people just didn’t know how to tie a pig properly.

Pensive at Toraja

Soon after, the coffin was carried up a bamboo ladder to the tonkonan balcony. Family members in black walked slowly to the far end of the courtyard to formally receive guests. Groups continued to arrive from around Torajan Land, the pigs they brought hanging on poles, and were escorted in by two children in traditional dress.

Meanwhile, behind the compound knots of men killed some of the pigs, singed their bristles off over open fires, and expertly butchered them. In the courtyard, kids stopped running and laughing long enough to watch as men began to butcher the buffalo as well. Nearby, two more pigs were dispatched with a stab to the heart.

Coffin being lifted at Toraja

We decided it was time to go, but for the guests things were just getting started, with three more days of speeches, feasts, buffalo fights, the slaughter of more animals, and the distribution of meat according to careful rules. Then the funeral party would accompany the coffin to a small mausoleum, an alternative to the graves traditionally cut high into the rock face and marked with wooden statues of the dead.

Ceremonies are common from May to October, after the rainy season and the harvest. Even in the rainy season, over just a few days I witnessed the funeral, a raucous post-ritual cockfight, and a celebration marking a marriage agreement between two families high in the mountains.

Traditional houses, Toraja

To find a ceremony, visitors can ask around in the hub of Rantepao or hire a cultural guide for a fixed price of about 250,000 rupiah a day. They can help you pay your respects to the family and understand the relevant customs, although the most important thing is simply not to block the view of other guests or otherwise get in the way. Guides can also help find local sites of interest (though most are well marked), and lead hikes through nearby rice fields.

Enos the guide can be reached at or (0852) 5572 5432. The town has many guides, but they’re in high demand come high season.

Story by Matt Easton

Tana Toraja, Village trekking in Tana Toraja

 Village trekking in Tana Toraja

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After a few days in Rantepao, in the South Sulawesi uplands of Tana Toraja, we asked a trekking guide to come by the guesthouse to discuss an overnight trip. Under five feet, barrel-chested, chain-smoking, and pushing 50, our prospective guide extended his hand and said in a deep baritone, “My name is Yatim.” Fatherless. He wrote out a string of villages he wanted to take us to, and told us to bring water, rain gear, good shoes, a flashlight.

The next morning we stopped at the vast market held near Rantepao every six days. Men in batik shirts hand-fed their buffalo. Pigs lay bound in rows, or were carried on bamboo poles. We had a lunch packed, and bought some snacks and kreteks to share along the way.

Rantepao market

From there we drove northwest to Kepe, and continued on foot, leaving the road at the sign for the Obama copy shop and heading through bamboo stands and coffee trees into the hills. The trip through the woods, valleys, and rice terraces was remarkably beautiful, as well as a reminder of how densely populated much of Indonesia is. You might not see another person for hours, and go for two days without seeing a road, but you’re never far from the sound of an axe or a rooster’s crow. Even in remote areas, you stumble across coffee, clove, and cacao trees, or rows of spindly cassava plants. Even an old tree may have been planted decades before by a villager who knew his children would be rebuilding their traditional house about now.

The Obama copy shop

In Perangian we unwrapped our chicken, rice, and eel in black sauce in the shade of a rice barn. After lunch, we passed through a wilder area with views of the river coursing through the valley far below (it’s possible to raft part of the way back). Yatim pointed out an edible fern shoot called pakis, and the miana leaves cooked with pork in bamboo.

Walking through a village

Due to a recent traffic accident — but not, he said, to smoking — Yatim sometimes tells clients to go ahead and wait for him at the top of a hill. He definitely never had to do that with us. The paths wet by the current monsoon slowed us down, and we arrived at Limbong behind schedule, just after dark. Our hosts brought tea to a table under their raised house. Light from a generator came and went, while the work of the house went on around us, cooking, cleaning, and weaving mats to sell at market.

Early morning in Limbing village

A chicken was dispatched for our dinner, appearing on the table some time later with vegetables from the garden. Someone handed Yatim an ancient guitar, and he coaxed out a Torajan song followed by a version of “Sailing” far more soulful than Rod Stewart’s. It was raining too hard to walk to the traditional house as planned, so we slept comfortably upstairs on the floor, nestled in stacks of blankets.

Traffic in the terraces

The next morning we had lightly fried cassava and strong, sweet coffee before climbing the last bit of mountain to a hilltop school and the sound of lessons chanted. Below us the rice terraces carved their way up the mountain in countless levels: bright green seedlings, amber stalks ready for harvest, or filled with water that reflected the bright sky. Buffalo wallowed or grazed, tolerating white birds to stand on their backs, the result, Yatim explained, of a long-ago drinking contest (the bird cheated).

Church and terraces

We left the terraces, walking downhill on forest paths. In one village, a family with newborn twins waved from their porch. Under the house, two plants marked where the placentas had been buried, forever linking the children to their home. In the next village, two families shared a feast to celebrate an engagement.

Yatim in the rain

Much of Indonesia’s character comes from village life. Getting a glimpse of that life, as much as the improbable rice terrace views, is what made this trek so remarkable.

You can trek on your own with a good map and a few Indonesian words. However, guides can take you on routes not in the guidebooks, show you shortcuts through forests and across terraces, and arrange food and accommodation with villagers. To hire a guide, ask at your hotel or go to Mart’s restaurant after dinner to meet guides over music and beer. (You can also call Yatim at (0813) 5529 5000.) Trekking guides charge 300,000 to 550,000 rupiah per day, depending on the season and the size of the group requiring food and accommodation.

Rice terrace views

Several possible treks start near Batutumonga, which is accessible by public bemo, and where you can take a beautiful half-day hike if you don’t have time for an overnight. You can arrange a drop-off by a hired car or motorcycle at locations not reachable by bemo.

While not too strenuous, our hike required navigating narrow, slippery paths, and we all fell at least once (well, not Yatim). Think twice if there has been heavy rain.

Story by Matt Easton