Flying from Dili to Oecusse along the East Timor coast

Southeast Asia Off The Beaten Path — Why You Should Travel East Timor


Why should you travel East Timor?

The Philippines have more impressive beaches. Java has more massive coffee plantations. Borneo has larger forests. Bali has a more elaborate religious and cultural tradition. Penang has a bigger architectural heritage.

But East Timor, one of Asia’s most Southern countries has a little bit of all of that in a compact package with a fascinating history. 

And less than 700km from the Australian coast, she offers a lot of gems that few backpackers have explored.

Timor-Leste is a Southeast Asian destination truly off the beaten path.

A short introduction to East Timor’s history

East Timor, officially the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste aka Timor Lorosae, is one of the smallest countries in Southeast Asia and one of the World’s youngest countries, albeit built on tens of thousands of years of history.

“Timor” is the Bahasa word for East, and Lorosae is the Timorese – Tetum – word for East, comprised of the two words loro and sa’e — sun and rise. So as a not so subtle nod to her location within the Sunda Islands the country’s name can be translated to East East.

At 15,000 km² it’s barely bigger than Montenegro and smaller than Swaziland. All the way in the South of Southeast Asia, East Timor consists of the eastern half of Timor island (Pulau Timor) plus the enclave Oecusse on the North coast of Indonesian West Timor as well as the islands Atauro in the North and Jaco just East of Timor.

However small as she may be, East Timor is not easy to travel. Distances are prolonged by a crumbling road network reducing the average traveling speed to 10 to 25 km/hour.

East Timor’s relative poverty is due to her recent history as a colony/occupied territory.

People first settled on Timor island 42,000 years ago, when the sea around the Sunda Islands was still a bit shallower and distances between the islands smaller.

5,000 years ago, during the Melanesian migration, the next wave of settlers came to Timor.

In the 14th century, Timor island was divided into around 60 feudal kingdoms. And the Timorese kingdoms traded sandalwood, slaves, and honey with Asian trade giants like India and China.

The first Europeans arrived in Timor in the early 16th century. Though Portugal wasn’t ready to surrender control over the island to the Dutch – as they had done in most of the region – it wasn’t until the late 18th century that they officially declared East Timor the colony “Portuguese Timor.”

And even after that, the Portuguese had little interest in developing the land. When they left, there were barely any roads, electricity, schools, or hospitals in East Timor. Instead, they had chopped down most of the land’s sandalwood trees, introduced cattle, and established coffee plantations.

During WWII, despite Australia trying to stave them off, Japan extended it’s influence throughout Southeast Asia all the way to East Timor.

After WWII, Portugal claimed Timor Leste back as a colony and continued to exploit their half of the island.

Only when the fascist rule of Portugal finally ended, did East Timor gain her independence.

But barely was the independent nation of Timor-Leste declared in 1975, when neighbor Indonesia — which had claimed her independence from the Dutch shortly after WWII and was now under authoritarian rule by independence hero General Suharto who had successfully squashed campaigns for independence on several Indonesian islands and who had annexed the Western half of New Guinea — overran the country.

Within the first four years of the East Timorese struggle, Indonesia killed almost a quarter of the population, either directly or indirectly through a slash and burn tactic that caused a famine.

The international community largely ignored what was happening. It was the height of the Cold War and East Timor’s Fretilin leadership was advocating socialism while Indonesia’s Suharto government had a history of killing Communists.

Over the next 25 years, Indonesia employed carrots and sticks to win over the East Timorese: they built an extensive road network, schools, and hospitals; but they also imprisoned and killed suspected Fretilin supporters.

The East Timorese hid their freedom fighters in the mountains and worked to build international support for independence.

When the Indonesian authoritarian government started to falter in the late 1990s, a referendum was announced allowing the people to choose whether they wanted to officially join Indonesia. 78.5% of voters – with a stunning voter turnout of 98% of the adult population – voted for independence.

What followed was another violent campaign by the Indonesian army leaving an estimated one-third of all buildings in East Timor burned.

Now, the UN — led by Australia — stepped in and deployed troops supporting the final steps on the road to an independent Timor-Leste, which was declared in May 2002.

There were a few more bumps in the road, markedly before the 2007 presidential election. But in 2012, the UN left.

While this was a great sign for political progress it has left a marked dent in the Timor Leste tourism development. The UN soldiers spending their wages during weekend getaways weren’t replaced with backpackers and travelers eager to explore the newest Southeast Asian destination.

Today, East Timor has a population of about 1.3 million, about as many as Estonia. At USD5,000, the country’s GDP/capita is well above that of most African countries but less than half of Indonesia’s (based on IMF 2017 numbers).

Most East Timorese are subsistence farmers. Coffee, cocoa, and cinnamon are major agricultural exports.

Most of the country’s budget is, however, paid with oil and gas revenue, and a recent agreement with Australia over large oil/gas fields in the sea between those two nations could mean even greater funds to invest in building the country and make East Timor more appealing to mass tourism.1

Until then, you can feel like an explorer and discoverer when traveling East Timor and you will share most sights with no one or maybe with the local tourists who are always eager to let you in on the secrets of their nation.

Travel East Timor: What to do and see

Of the less than 60,000 tourists East Timor welcomes each year, the vast majority never makes it out of the capital Dili and the island of Atauro just off the Dili coast. The sole purpose of their visit is to enjoy some of the World’s finest diving.

Many Australians are interested in East Timor’s wartime history. They want to trace the steps of their compatriots, they will visit Balibo where five Australian-based journalists, known as the Balibo Five, were murdered on the eve of the Indonesian invasion. And they will visit caves along the Western border and in the Eastern Highlands where during World War II Japanese and Australian troops lived and fought.

The traces of Portuguese architectural heritage are few and far in-between but you can find them in the pousadas (see accommodation), in places like Liquica and Baucau, which both hold a number of early 20th-century Portuguese buildings, and in the forts, such as in Maubara and Balibo.

Travelers interested in culture will discover a country that is a true melting pot. The people of East Timor are related to the Indonesian people on the Sunda islands in the West and North, they are related to the Papuans and Australian Aborigines in the East and South. They have Portuguese roots and some ancestors even came from Mozambique in Africa.

All of those elements are in some shape or form celebrated and the national spirit and pride connect all 1.3 million Maubere. How else could it be explained that even after 25 years of occupation by mega-neighbor Indonesia, the 1999 independence referendum yielded such massive support?

East Timor’s unique brand of Catholicism – almost 97 % of East Timorese identifies as Catholic – blends in tribal elements such as the country’s spirit animal, the crocodile, and the tribal kings. It’s best displayed in the Letefoho Christo Rei, a great day trip from Dili.

And if you are lucky enough to visit in May/June keep your eyes peeled for the colorful St. Anthony processions when people don feathered head pieces while parading statues of the country’s patron saint around towns and villages.

Beach dwellers can find endless miles of empty white, yellow or black sand beaches with coral reefs a few steps into the water.

Beware of the saltwater crocodiles, though!

Because its bad luck to kill this reptile, East Timor is one of the best places to see them, most notably in Lake Ira Lalaro outside Lospalos, which is reportedly home to 300 salties.

Foodies will want to explore the region which produces some of the best coffee in the World, Letefoho/Ermera.

Adventurers appreciate the hiking/trekking. Beyond the well-known journey up to Taitamailau in the Ramelau Mountains – at 3,000m the country’s highest peak – there are endless possibilities for day treks through the mountains, to waterfalls, in the forest, and even to mud volcanoes in the footsteps of the rural communities between Oecusse and Jaco Island.

Is there any backpacking in Southeast Asia off the beaten path left? Yes! Travel East Timor, a destination full of gems that few backpackers have explored! #offthebeatenpath #backpacking #southeastasia


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