If you’re vagabonding in SEA and trying to get off the beaten track the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is a great place to do just that, especially during the low season of Dec. – Feb. There is a reasonably reliable network of bus service around the island but the roads are terrible and the rate of bus crashes seems (based on observation) higher than average for Asia. Not surprising, given the state of the roadways. If you can rent your own car, it’s a ticket to freedom on the island, but be prepared for people to be shocked that you’re driving yourself. Apparently everyone hires a driver or takes busses!
If you are looking for an excellent guide or arranger of further guides, Dodo Mursalim, in Makassar is your man. He’ll pick you up at the airport, deliver you at hellish hours, and even put you up in his house. He’s a wealth of information about Sulawesi and has uncanny connections all over the island. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rantepao is in the heart of the region of Tana Toraja, which should not be missed. Plan to stay several days to a week, slow down, explore, and try to see a funeral. Nicholas Pabara is a fantastic guide, he asked me to share his phone number with fellow travelers: 082-192-183-677. Having a local to tell you the stories, explain the history and find the out of the way things that you won’t find on your own is priceless. You’ll definitely want him to help you place a bet at the cock fights!
Bira is at the eastern tip of the northern arm of Sulawesi. It’s got a pleasant tourist slum with cheap accommodation, but if you head out of the tourist district to Bara Beach there are six little bungalows for rent on a deserted beach that are a little slice of heaven. A boat can be arranged to the facing island where the diving is world class. This is the place to kick back and relax for a few days away from the hustle of Indonesian cities.
Samalona island is listed as an afternoon trip from Makassar in some of the guides. A better bet would be to head out for three or four days and stay in the home of one of the seven families (all inter-related) who live on the island. To get there, take a blue bus to Fort Rotterdam, cross the street to the waterfront and the boatmen will find you. There is no electricity (a generator will be turned on in the evening) no running water, no shower, and no hot water, but it’s a welcome respite from the bustle of Indonesian cities and the snorkeling is pretty good. You’ll find the islanders welcoming, generous, and their fresh from the ocean cooking worth staying an extra day for. If you have an instrument, bring it, music is welcome in the evenings. It costs about $20 USD a night for lodging and three square; can’t beat that.