A former Portuguese colony that declared its independence from its former colonial master in 1975, East Timor has seen its fair share of hard knocks over the years. Just nine days after that momentous occasion, they were invaded by Indonesia and forcibly integrated into their unfriendly neighbour. The Indonesians terrorized this nation during a period of pacification, which saw as many as 250,000 Timorese killed.
Then, in an UN-supervised referendum in 1999, East Timor once again voted for their freedom; they were once again punished for their desire to govern themselves, as gangs and militias aligned with and supported by the Indonesian military waged a civil war against the populace of the newly free country of East Timor. After a pitched conflict that converted the majority of the tiny nation’s infrastructure to rubble, this country finally got the peace it had long sought, and they could finally begin the process of re-building their society.
Today, East Timor is still one of most “rough-around-the-edges” countries you can visit in Southeast Asia, but for those seeking an undertravelled nation under the radar of most tourists, this nation delivers in spades. While the well-designed travel paths like the Banana Pancake Trail of mainland Southeast Asia do not exist here, and the infrastructure for supporting guests is creaky in places, it is a unique destination just waiting to be discovered, not unlike Cambodia shortly after the civil insurrections that it suffered in the not-so-distant past.
Currency: US Dollar
Languages: Tetum, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia
What To Do
Starting your journey in the capital of Dili, the major sight that you should see in the city before departing for outbound destinations should be the Cristo Rei de Dili statue, a 27 metre high statue of Jesus Christ. Modelled after the Christ the Redeemer statue found in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, it also has a darker side, as more than 20 East Timorese died while constructing this monument, which was installed to commemorate their 20th anniversary of being “repatriated” with Indonesia.
If you plan to visit East Timor between April and May, check out Carnaval de Timor. Recently established by the government in 2010 in the capital of Dili, it taps into the exuberant tradition that one might expect to find in South America or in Portugal, but not in Southeast Asia. It is basically a huge party in the style of the public celebrations seen in the parts of the world mentioned previously, with a colourful parade featuring many extroverted participants in gaudy costumes being the highlight of the festivities. This festival has been seized upon by the locals and the NGO’s in town with enthusiasm, making it a cultural cornerstone worth experiencing if you have the chance.
Looking for the elusive experience of being one of the only foreigners to visit a village in a long time? This is getting harder and harder to find these days, as more nations and destinations are getting discovered than ever before. With many people either being scared away from East Timor due to its association with war, or with many other people never having heard of this place’s existence, you have a chance (for the time being) to be a rock star in a village of people that rarely sees anybody else that isn’t Timorese or Indonesian.
The absence of tourists in this country means that all those crowded beaches with culturally deaf tourists and touts that you just can’t stand another second of … are mercifully absent here. Lay out your towel on the sands of many pristine and isolated beaches across East Timor, such as Dollar Beach and Areia Branca, which are close to Dili, or Jaco Island, which has some absolute stunners, located an arduous (but worth it) six hours to the east at the eastern tip of the country. Note: the South Coast of the country also has beaches, but also a troubling presence of saltwater crocodiles, so if you decide to go there, please be aware!
In keeping with the beach theme, East Timor is also fortunately located in the midst of the Coral Triangle, one of the most biodiverse underwater regions on Earth. This means incredibly prolific sights for the keen diver and/or snorkeler, so be sure to procure a mask and snorkel before you arrive in the country.
Hardcore coffee drinkers will be in heaven during their stay in East Timor, as the country is awash in coffee plantations. Head up to the delightfully cool elevation of 1,000 metres above sea level (temperatures up here average 15c), where farmers will be more than happy to treat you to some of the stronger coffee you’ve likely had for a while. Recommended destinations include Ermera, Maubisse, and Liquisa.
What To Eat
Deeply influenced by the Portuguese and neighboring Indonesians, East Timorese food is an interesting mix of the previously mentioned nations, with a twist added by the locals. A commonly consumed dish by many residents here is Ikan Sabuko. It is fish dish that is made by marinating a fillet of Spanish Mackerel in tamarind juice, which is then grilled with basil and capsicum thrown on to add seasoning and heat.
A popular side dish with Ikan Sabuko, Batar Daan is a mix of corn, mung beans and pumpkin. It is a sweet medley of vegetables that compliments many main entrees in East Timor perfectly, so be sure to order some before leaving the country.
For dessert, try some Bibinka. Bibinka is a coconut cake that is cooked on the grill, served with slivers of almond and a scoop of ice cream as a side, making it the perfect end to a local meal in East Timor.