Life on Lake Tempe

Lake Tempe is a very large lake in Southern Sulawesi which is home to hundreds of folk who make a living from fishing in the lake. They live in floating villages on the lake, they work, eat, sleep and go to school on the lake.

We arrived in nearby Sengkang, a historic and bustling market town on the shores of the lake, mid way between Tana Toraja and our destination of Makassar. It is the centre of commerce and culture in the region but still retains its traditional character. As well as being home to many old cultural traditions such as the very colourful bugis wedding ceremonies,  traditional dance and silk weaving. A major fishing industry has now developed on the lake which is attracting investors from all over Asia.

At the quayside we board very carefully a narrow and precarious long-tail boat and cruise out through the maze of houses built on stilts around the shores of the lake. These boats are fast and I quickly realise I am sitting in the wrong seat as I am drenched to the skin within minutes!


The houses are built on stilts because the size and level of the lake ebbs and flows with the coming and going of the rainy season. When the level rises the floors of the houses still remain above the water level, or at least they did until last year when they flooded for the first time!

After a short ride through this lakeland suburbia and passing by the huge mosque, we finally reached the lake proper. We continued through yet more water borne villages until we reached the open lake – it is massive!

A huge number of bird species live here, a paradise for bird-watchers. In recent years there has been a problem here with invasive aquatic plants which are rapidly growing and choking parts of the lake; causing major problems for the fishermen and threatening their continuing way of life.

The Bugis people first started building floating houses on the lake in the 1980s to take advantage of the extraordinary fishing opportunities. More and more were built on the lake until there were several “villages” dotted around the lake.


We noticed that all the floating houses seemed to face the same way i.e. into prevailing wind. When the winds change, the houses all rotate in the same direction until the whole village faces in another direction. Houses are built on bamboo rafts and anchored by bamboo poles driven into the shallow lake bed. This way, each house remains stable in its location and its position within its village. When the lake level falls, homes on the edges are moved to the deeper centre and everyone’s neighbours get closer. Some residents we spoke to, told us that when they got tired of their neighbours, they just towed their house to another location and found new ones!


The bamboo rafts last for about two years before they need replacing, usually just by building another floor on top of the old which is left to rot away.

The lake is the life for these people. Whole extended families live in these floating houses. The men fish, the women shop at floating shops, mothers take their kids to the floating school, and then take their fish to the markets in Senkang. The toilets are boxes attached to the sides of the houses – “everything” drops down into the lake below. Drinking and cooking water is collected from the town but people swim, bathe and wash clothes in the lake.


Sulawesi Lake Tempe
There was a bit of jostling to be next to Carolyn!
Sulawesi Lake Tempe
Fish all laid out to dry

Swimming seemed to be the main pastime of the kids although we did see a football field albeit under three feet of water but no doubt used in the drier times.

The people here are very hospitable. We were invited into one of the houses for tea and fried banana (Pisac Goreng) whilst we watched the villagers practice for the upcoming dragon boat competition.

As we sat there watching the sun go down we chatted with the family as best we could and were asked for yet more selfies by a group of visiting Indonesian students. We are beginning to feel like tourist attractions ourselves!

Sulawesi Lake Tempe
The long sticks are to contain water weeds which attract the fish.


As we headed back across the lake, we were treated to a wonderful sunset. A perfect end to the day.

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