East Timor, the Next Big Thing?

By Charmaine Chew

Four years afer its people voted overwhelmingly for indenpendence, the second newest nation on earth is now opening its doors to the world.
Four years after its people voted overwhelmingly for independence, East Timor is now opening its doors to the world.

Our collective imagination of East Timor ‘s recent history is one littered with images of burnt out churches and widespread devastation.

Four years after its people voted overwhelmingly for independence, the newest nation on earth opened its doors to the world. It is a unique opportunity for visitors to explore a beautiful island paradise while gaining an insight into the challenging task of rebuilding a country.

East Timor is an Asian country with the laid back feeling of small island nations and a dash of Latino spirit. It is a land of daily siestas, beaches lined with coconut trees and remnants of Portuguese culture.

It is also a place where the time of day is marked not by clocks, but by the position of the sun in the sky. For a country less than a third of the size of Tasmania, it is a travel destination full of surprises and rewarding experiences, best suited to visitors with a sense of discovery and a penchant for the unexpected.

East Timor ‘s capital, Dili, is a compact city, with hills to its south and a beautiful stretch of coastline to its north. Traffic glides along unhurriedly, with enough time for drivers and motorists to wave to passing friends or family members.

There is no better place than Dili to witness the melting pot of faces and languages as people from all over the country come to attend university or to search for better employment opportunities. The people are an eclectic ethnic combination, with traces of Chinese, African, Polynesian, Malay and Portuguese heritage. This small nation also boasts an estimated 32 indigenous languages, with Tetum and Portuguese as its official languages.

Getting Around by Mikrolet

The most interesting way of getting around Dili is by mikrolet – minivans converted into heavy duty people movers. They are equipped with sound systems loud enough and a bass strong enough to give you an out of body experience. Bright-eyed children, Catholic nuns, breastfeeding moms, flirtatious teenagers and distinguished older gentlemen (cradling their prized roosters) are common companions.

Collecting vegetables in the back streets of Dili.
Collecting vegetables in the back streets of Dili.

Combined with the profound lyrics of Westlife, Brazilian tunes of tragic heartbreak, Bollywood or Indonesian metal, you’re guaranteed the ride of a lifetime for 10 cents. Taxis offer the same audio facilities, minus the squashed sardine experience, plus the occasional inquiry of your country of origin and marital status – for a dollar a ride.

Female tourists note: if the taxi driver tells you he’s single and from Los Palos, he’s advertising his superior eligibility status (for men and women from Los Palos are supposedly highly sought after marriage material)!

The city still bears many remnants of the country’s struggle for independence. A visit to the Santa Cruz cemetery is a moving experience, especially if you remember the infamous news footage of the massacre there in 1991. Many buildings destroyed during the post-ballot violence in 1999 have been renovated, refurbished and cleansed by spiritual leaders.

Comarca Prison

One such example is the Comarca, a prison built during Portuguese times and used as a detention center both during East Timor ‘s civil war in 1975 and throughout the Indonesian occupation. It now serves as the premises for East Timor ‘s Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Parts of the building and graffiti by soldiers and inmates have been preserved as permanent reminders of a brutal past.

Beaches abound in East Timor. Richard Collette photo.
Beaches abound in East Timor. Richard Collette photo.

Dili’s other highlights include the Palacio das Cincas (‘Palace of the Ashes’) – office of the President, Francisco Guterres, perhaps the most humble office of a President anywhere in the world.

Also worthwhile is a visit to the Parliament (if in session), Taibessi or Comoro market (the latter if you enjoy mingling with a much bigger crowd of people), Arte Moris (a free art and drama school for East Timorese youth) and the Dili foreshore for a fresh coconut and to share the shade with the wandering goats.

Finally, unwind and relax at the multitude of beachside restaurants and watch the sunset in colors that reflect the passion of the people.

At the foot of Mt. Ramelau, a Mambai man rides his Timor pony to market.
At the foot of Mt. Ramelau, a Mambai man rides his Timor pony to market.

For those who prefer to combine their travel with a better understanding of development issues, Dili is also home to a host of local and international non-government organizations involved in various aspects of the country’s reconstruction. These include groups working on permaculture, agriculture, micro-finance, various aspects of health, human rights and community building, to name a few.

Spectacular Countryside

Beyond Dili, East Timor ‘s countryside is spectacular regardless of which direction you go, and even more enchanting at dawn and dusk. It is like stepping into a different stratosphere. Heading inland, the landscape is full of undulating hills dotted with little huts and houses, separated occasionally by flat grasslands or lush luminescent rice fields.

Although colonizing the country for almost 400 years, the Portuguese left little in the way of infrastructure except for their pousadas (hotels). Admittedly, they chose their locations well, for many pousadas around the country are located in places of breathtaking beauty.

Maubisse is approximately three hours southeast of Dili. The pousada there is the perfect location to watch the sunrise and listen to roosters crow randomly as the mist rises from the valley. On Sundays, the town is a hive of activity as families come from near and far, on foot or on horseback, to attend mass at the nearby church.

Afterward, they congregate at the market to buy or sell a few things and to catch up on the latest gossip. Western tourists may be a bit of a spectacle for the locals anywhere outside Dili, and much entertainment can be gained on both sides if you try to engage with the people.

A simple greeting – ‘bondia’, ‘boartardi’ or ‘boanoite’ (good morning, afternoon, evening), accompanied by a slight nod when addressing older people (to show respect) will win you smiles and giggles all around.

Maubisse is also reputed to grow some of the country’s finest Arabica coffee so coffee aficionados should stock up here.

Barely a couple of hours away, Hato Builico is the town closest to the base from which you can hike up Mount Ramelau, East Timor ‘s highest mountain. The mountain itself is considered holy and one is expected to be respectfully silent at particular points of the trek to honor the spirits that rest there.

Fish for sale at Dili's waterfront.
Fish for sale at Dili’s waterfront.

Standing at 2963m, the hike to the peak takes about 2 hours. Watching dawn break from above the clouds is almost a spiritual experience, especially in the presence of a statue of the Virgin Mary placed at the top of the mountain. Thousands of people gather at the mountain annually.

In a strongly Catholic country, the trek up Mt Ramelau is spiritually significant. It also serves to commemorate those who died there sacrificing their lives in the struggle for freedom.

Morobo’s Hot Springs

For a bit of indulgence, the hot springs at Morobo offer a luxuriously cleansing soak in a pool overlooking a valley of little villages, complete with strands of thin smoke spiraling from household cooking stoves below.

Located near the border with West Timor, the journey there takes approximately 5 hours, and passes through the town of Balibo , where five journalists (two Australians, two British and one New Zealander) were killed in 1975. The journalists stayed at the ‘Balibo Flag House’ days before they were shot.

This was the house on which Greg Shackleton, one of the journalists, painted the Australian flag to signal their neutrality against the impending Indonesian invasion. With the help of the Victorian government and various Australian companies, the house has now been restored and will be used as a crèche, library and vocational training center.

If you’re looking for a holiday by the sea, a drive along the coast will take you past numerous sleepy fishing villages and beautiful beaches. According to several dive operators, East Timor reputedly has some of the best diving sites in the world.

Like many popular diving sites, ‘K41′ (located 41 kilometers east of Dili) is barely an hour’s drive to a diver’s paradise. The crystal clear waters reveal an amazing underwater display of pristine flora and fauna. Divers report regular sightings of a variety of sharks and stingrays, even the Dugong, a marine mammal at risk of extinction. Pods of whales and dolphins also make an occasional appearance.

Atauro: The Ultimate Beachside Escape

The ultimate beachside escape can be found on the island of Atauro. The island is visible from Dili and is approximately 2 hours by ferry, longer if you travel on the community fishing boat (and undoubtedly more exciting).

Atauro was once used as a prison and resettlement camp. The island is now renowned for its flourishing community-based eco-tourism venture. The eco-tourism site is designed to minimize the environmental impact of tourism through the use of compost toilets, solar power, local and natural materials for construction. The site contains 6 beautifully constructed bamboo huts, offering simple but pleasant accommodation.

You can spend your days listening to the waves from the verandah of your hut, feast on tasty meals prepared by local staff, dive or snorkel in warm tropical waters or visit villages around the island to experience the local art and culture there.

It is impossible to describe all that East Timor has to offer, except to say that it is visually stunning, culturally rewarding and endlessly fascinating. As tourism is at its infant stages, traveling there requires spontaneity, a bit of patience and a spirit of adventure.

In turn, you will be rewarded by the hospitality of the East Timorese people, their rich cultural heritage and also learn a little more about the challenges of rebuilding a country from scratch.

Charmaine Chew

Charmaine Chew toured with Intrepid Travel then stayed on to volunteer at the East Timor Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation Commission. She is convinced of the country’s tourism potential – if only somebody would employ her to write a travel guide! She is now back in Melbourne in search of the ‘perfect job’.

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