East Timor (or Timor-Leste in Portuguese) is a small country that takes up the eastern half of an island lying between Indonesia
. It is a very remote travel destination well off any beaten tourist tracks, but highly rewarding for those (dark) travellers into such extreme exoticness.
After some 500 years as a colony of Portugal
, and a brief period of occupation by Japan
, this remote corner of the world suffered one of the darkest chapters of modern history during the final quarter of the 20th century, when it was invaded by Indonesia
, which subjected the population to an at times genocidal form of ruthless oppression while a surprisingly well-organized resistance movement kept up the fight for independence.
This was only achieved in tumultuous fashion from 1999 when a UN
-supervised referendum was held. Indonesia tried to undermine this but still a vast majority voted for independence. The response was a vicious militia assault that left most of the country's infrastructure destroyed, countless houses torched and thousands dead. It almost looked like the situation was heading towards yet another Timorese genocide. This was only stopped by an international military intervention, led by Australian troops. For once such intervention proved successful. In 2002 East Timor became the first newly independent nation to join the United Nations
in the new millennium.
In terms of tourism, East Timor is also pretty much terra nova
. The small number of Westerners you see in the country are mostly involved in aid and development work (and are predominantly from Australia
); only very few people visit the island purely for tourism as yet. But it really is a very worthwhile destination for the intrepid traveller – and for the dark tourist there is the obvious “attraction” of the country's deep dark history. This is now quite well commodified, mostly in the capital Dili, but also in a few more rural locations:
In addition there are a few further sites with some dark associations, in particular the regional historic town of Aileu
. Not only was this a Fretilin stronghold (see historical background
) during the Indonesian occupation, it was also the site of a WWII
massacre of Portuguese by invading Japanese
forces in 1942. The latter is commemorated by an unusually large monument that is the main sight in town today.
On a less dark note, the Japanese also left their mark in the form of sulphurous hot springs at Marobo in the Maliana district, which is quite an oddity in such a super-remote location.
A subtle reminder of the more recent dark history can be felt near the border
with West Timor, which still is part of Indonesia
, of course, and thus has the only land border with Timor-Leste.
East Timor is actually a discontinuous country, namely in that it also includes the exclave of Oecusse within West Timor as well as a couple of outlying islands. Of these, Atauro island is the largest and most noteworthy in historical terms, since it was used as a prison island by the Portuguese colonial power as well as the Japanese and the Indonesian occupying forces. These days it is also one of East Timor's prime ecotourism destinations, mainly thanks to excellent diving opportunities. The same is also true for the small island of Jaco just off the easternmost tip of the main island.
This mainland, so to speak, is quite varied in terms of scenery but mostly dominated by rather mountainous terrain with deep valleys cutting through it. Vegetation ranges from tropical to rather sparse and arid looking. In some parts white eucalyptus trees are the only taller kind of plant. This makes East Timor look mostly quite different from Indonesia and even somewhat Australian in places.
People-watching is particularly interesting in East Timor. The ethnic mix is quite stunning. You see elements of Aborigines' features as well as Portuguese Hispanic ones, in fact more so than Asian, and in general an intriguingly wild mix. It is especially the very young and the very old that struck me as the most stunning faces. In the case of the latter, though, you have to wonder what these faces may have witnessed during the long dark period of the Indonesian occupation and subsequent troubles …
The very young are strikingly numerous. Apparently half of East Timor's population is under the age of 18. It's as if people are desperately trying to make up for the population loss suffered during the dark times of Indonesian occupation (see history
). Every village you pass through is teeming with children – and whenever they see a white person they come racing to the roadside, yelling “malae” (the East Timorese word for “foreigner”) and waving at you. It's almost like Central Africa in that respect, even though East Timor is still nowhere near as overpopulated as, say, Rwanda
The Creole-like ethnic mix, the craggy mountain scenery and the many visible marks the Portuguese left on the country make East Timor more akin in atmosphere to the island of Santiago, Cape Verde
. In any case, Timor is really quite un-Asian. How anybody could insist it ought to be integrated into Indonesia
is a mystery to me. But then again West Timor IS
part of Indonesia, and other parts of that country are quite un-Asian too (Papua, say), so I guess that alone is not really such a strong argument ...
As for travel practicalitie
s: getting to East Timor is quite easy by plane. There are regular direct flights to Dili
from Denpasar (Bali
and Darwin (Australia
). The only other way of getting into the country (short of sailing in by boat) is using the land border with West Timor, Indonesia
. However, there are no visas on arrival available at that border, so Dili airport will be the principal and logistically easiest entry point for almost all visitors to the country. At the airport 30-day tourist visas on arrival are available and more or less a formality only, but you have to pay 30 USD in cash. (Nominally you are supposed to prove that you have sufficient funds – 50 USD per day – accommodation arrangements and a return ticket. But nobody asked me for these things when I got to the window. They just took the money and handed over the visa.)
While getting around in Dili
itself is not too tricky (except for dealing with overeager taxi drivers), travelling into the countryside is a bit of a challenge, unless you have a driver-guide with a 4x4 vehicle. Except for parts of the main north-south road, which have been upgraded recently, many of East Timor's “roads” are rather very rough tracks that require off-road driving skills, not to be attempted by the inexperienced! Motorbikes are an alternative, but again require the relevant experience. Public transport is limited to buses and minibuses – also a challenge for foreigners and especially if you have more than minimal luggage.
So unless you are a real hardened adventurous backpacker type happy to rough it, the tourist way of exploring East Timor would be on a private tour. That's what I did. Such tours do not have to be forbiddingly expensive either and are really worth it if you genuinely want to see a bit of the country and not just the capital. There are both local companies and ones operating out of Australia
. For shorter trips, hotels in Dili
can also organize transport and guides. I did a full 8-day/7-night tour that included all the places mentioned here (except the islands and Oecusse) and it cost less than 2000 USD per person including
You have to come with a degree of flexibility in a place like this, though! Accommodation arrangements may change at the last minute and some parts of the itinerary may suddenly not be possible due what's going on locally (see Baucau
Don't expect too much luxury with regard to accommodation
either. There are very decent hotel options in Dili
but outside the capital it's a different story. It is also as good as impossible to book anything outside Dili in advance (except in Liquica
), so again a local guide/tour operator is most useful. Some guest houses in remote parts of the country can be basic and hot water is rarely available (there may not be any running water at all!). Unfortunately this includes the otherwise superbly located Pousada Maubisse, a former Portuguese mountain retreat on top of a hill. But it is sadly now quite run down ...except for the gardens.
As far as food & drink
are concerned, don't expect culinary treats on a par with Indonesia
. There are distinctly Timorese elements (e.g. their predilection for tamarind), but outside influences are stronger, including Portuguese
and Indonesian. Standards can be basic here too, especially outside the few more “foreigner-oriented” places in Dili
. But you won't starve.
As for drinks, the fact that East Timor is predominantly Christian and especially the old colonial ties with Portugal
still ensure a good supply of very decent imported wine from there – both in terms of availability and price, especially when compared to the situation in Indonesia
. Soft drinks (other than bottled drinking water) on the other hand are for the most part the usual sugary international brands (don't they grow fruit?). Coffee is a local speciality, and can be on a par quality-wise with top Indonesian varieties!
Finally, language-wise East Timor is a reflection of its history too. There are numerous local native languages but one serves as a lingua franca almost everywhere: Tetum. The other official national language remains Portuguese, but English is also being pushed … and Indonesian is still spoken in some parts too. The language barriers will naturally be greater the more rural the location, but in places catering for foreigners there's a good chance you can get by with English. My driver-guide’s English was of a very good standard.
Overall I must say that East Timor ranks amongst the most fulfilling really exotic destinations I have been to, one that provided many an eye-opener. It was educational, intriguingly different and full of unexpected beauty too. The country won't become a real big tourism draw any time soon, if ever, but that in its own way adds to its exotic attraction, of course. It's off-the-beaten-track travel at its finest.
- East Timor 01 - flying in
- East Timor 02 - ruin by the roadside
- East Timor 03 - former militia leader home in ruins in Maliana
- East Timor 04 - international revolutionary revered
- East Timor 05 - contemporary politics campaigning for non-violence
- East Timor 06 - hot spring baths left by the Japanese
- East Timor 07 - Aileu massacre memorial
- East Timor 08 - Portuguese victims
- East Timor 09 - Portuguese monument
- East Timor 10 - more contemporary graffiti
- East Timor 11 - political fishing boat
- East Timor 12 - near the border with West Timor
- East Timor 13 - the only land border
- East Timor 14 - eucalyptus trees in the north-east
- East Timor 15 - lush vegetation around mountain stream in the interior
- East Timor 16 - Mt Loelaco
- East Timor 17 - mountain vista
- East Timor 18 - erosion in the mountains in Bobonaro district
- East Timor 19 - mountain village in the central uplands
- East Timor 20 - traditional houses
- East Timor 21 - Portuguese-style Catholic church
- East Timor 22 - Portuguese-style village cemetery
- East Timor 23 - church incorporating traditional holy house design elements
- East Timor 24 - holy house
- East Timor 25 - holy house ceremony
- East Timor 26 - gathering
- East Timor 27 - kids, kids everywhere
- East Timor 28 - interesting features
- East Timor 29 - rural school
- East Timor 30 - going to market
- East Timor 31 - carrying betel nuts
- East Timor 32 - another little Portuguese legacy
- East Timor 33 - public transport with rather incongruous kitsch
- East Timor 34 - on the road
- East Timor 35 - dignity in poverty
- East Timor 36 - riverbed in the dry season
- East Timor 37 - new bridge and predecessor ruin
- East Timor 38 - very old, very rickety bridge
- East Timor 39 - rough road inland
- East Timor 40 - stroppy cow
- East Timor 41 - buffalo on the road
- East Timor 42 - stand-off
- East Timor 43 - rice growing
- East Timor 44 - coffee-growing country near Gleno
- East Timor 45 - coffee beans
- East Timor 46 - Maubisse
- East Timor 47 - the pretty but run-down Pousada Maubisse
- East Timor 48 - flowers in Timorese colours
- East Timor 49 - North-Korea-esque kitsch in a simple guest house in Maliana
- East Timor 50 - nightfall over Maliana