Discovering East Timor

My today’s article will be dedicated to my journey to a place that is not very well known but therefore is even more interesting to see and explore. I’m talking about the country called East Timor.

Hello from East Timor!

It is an island country located in the Malay Archipelago in Southeast Asia. Despite its official name, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, many call it simply Timor-Leste or East Timor. Located not too far away from Australia, it feels like a completely different world.

It had been a colony of Portugal since the 16th century and was known as Portuguese Timor until November 1975.

The etymology of the name is quite interesting. The word “Timor” derives from “timur” which stands for “east” in the Malay language. At some point, it was borrowed by the Portuguese who transformed it into “timor”, which consequently resulted in tautology meaning “East East”. Simple, isn’t it?

East Timor’s closest and the biggest neighbor states are Indonesia (which Timor-Leste shares the Timor Island with) and Australia, located 650 kilometers to the south across the Timor Sea.

The country’s territory consists of the eastern half of the island of Timor as well as the small neighboring islands of Atauro and Jaco, and Oecusse (a municipality and a Special Administrative Region of East Timor).

The view on East Timor

Two particularly interesting facts about this state:

– most people in East Timor speak Portuguese (the country has two official languages: Portuguese and Tetum) due to the country’s colonial past
– and East Timor is the second-largest Catholic country in Asia next to the Philippines with an estimated 97% population of Catholic belief.

The population of the country is around 1,225,000 people now. But it wasn’t always so. According to the historical data, the country lost up to 70,000 of its citizens during World War II due to the struggle with the Japanese. Its population used to be twice as small in the 1980s.

The local climate is tropical and generally hot and humid, characterized by distinct rainy and dry seasons. East Timor is a very mountainous and green country. Tatamailau or Mount Ramelau, is the highest mountain in East Timor and the whole Timor Island. Its height reaches 2,986 meters above sea level.

Mountainous region

Diving, trekking, biking, great scenery, stunning mountain driving and pristine white and gold sandy beaches are available in this country. Nevertheless, East Timor is still not a very popular tourist destination.

In fact, getting to this island is not an easy task. It is very rare for anyone to visit, so I obviously had to go there.

You can get to this island from Bali (the plane flies daily) or from Darwin in Australia, but this flight takes place only once a week. Another way is to get there from Singapore. My route ran through Bali where I spent 2 days prior to my flight to East Timor. These two days are worth another article for I was extremely impressed by the island. But let’s not get off the track. The flight from Bali to the island took about 2 hours and it was quite enjoyable as the plane flew over small islands and volcanoes. I flew to Dili, the capital, largest city, chief port and commercial center of East Timor.

The plane offers a very beautiful view of the Atauro volcano, which is located 30 to 40 kilometers from the coast. This island is also considered to be the number one destination point of the world for diving! According to some biological surveys, the waters near the island have more species of reef fish per site than any other place on the planet! Too bad I didn’t have enough time to see everything that I wanted during my 2.5 days in East Timor, but this island is definitely going to be my must for the next trip.

A lively spot

I booked a room in a very nice and cozy hotel in the heart of the capital city of Dili in an area that looked like an Australian colonial-style frontier town with a couple of Portuguese colonial buildings too. The hotel also had a nice restaurant and bar. I arrived relatively late but still had an opportunity to see a little bit of the city with my guide.

First, I was shown the statue of Pope John Paul II. The six-meter-tall bronze statue rises above the hills of west Dili, overlooking the beautiful coastline of Tasitolu. John Paul II visited the island 20 years ago. With more than a decade long struggle, where any form of expression was suppressed by Indonesia militant rule, which I’m going to tell you about a little later, religion was the only remaining source of hope for many Timorese. Even though many people claimed there had been some political grounds for the visit of the pontiff to the small island country of Timor-Leste, the very fact that he was the only world leader to visit the nation at its darkest hour became one of the most significant catalyzers leading to the declaration of independence in 2002. The Timorese are eternally grateful for it.

The statue of Pope John Paul II

The island and its capital have a fascinating history, primarily due to the periods of the Civil War and World War II.

During the Second World War, East Timor was occupied by the Japanese, who encountered widespread resistance to their attempts to force the population to grow food, both for their troops and for export. By the time the Japanese surrendered in 1945, some 60,000 Timorese, 13 percent of the population, had died.

By 1975, East Timor was a colony of Portugal and represented its least developed possession. East Timor was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century and was known as Portuguese Timor until November 1975, when the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor declared independence of its territories. Nine days later though, it was invaded and occupied by Indonesia, which declared this land Indonesia’s 27th province just the following year. The Indonesians occupied the country until 1999. During the 25 years of Indonesian rule, armed and peaceful East Timorese groups struggled to overthrow the occupier. More than one-quarter of the population is estimated to have died as a result of the fighting and associated famine.

Throughout the early years of the Indonesian occupation, more than 100,000 East Timorese died as a direct result of the conflict. Most of the dead were simple civilians killed by the military or starved to death in internment camps or while hiding in the hills from the Indonesian military.

The report published in March 1977 mentioned that since December 1975 Indonesian forces had killed between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians in East Timor. As a result of the destruction of food crops, many civilians were forced to leave the hills and surrender. Often, when surviving, villagers came down to lower-lying regions to surrender and were executed by the military.

Those who were not killed outright by Indonesian troops were sent to receiving centers that were prepared in advance. In these transit camps, the surrendered civilians were registered and interrogated. Those who were suspected of being members of the resistance were eventually detained and killed.

These centers were often constructed of thatch huts with no toilets. Many of the Timorese, weakened by starvation and surviving on small amounts of food and poor diet, died of malnutrition, cholera, diarrhea, and tuberculosis. By late 1979, between 300,000 and 370,000 Timorese had passed through such camps.

Indonesian dictator Suharto, who had ordered the 1975 invasion, was removed from power in 1998, and East Timorese renewed their calls for independence. In 1999, the people of East Timor voted massively for independence in a referendum. An Australian-led U.N. peacekeeping force was deployed to stop the violence, and in August 2001 East Timor had its first democratic elections after which an autonomous government was established.

Christ on the hill

Having explored the historical museums that turned out to be extremely interesting, we headed west to see a massive monument of the Christ.

Cristo Rei of Dili is a 27-meter-high statue of Jesus located on the outskirts of Dili. It was designed by Mochamad Syailillah, who is better known as Bolil. Officially unveiled in 1996 as a gift from the Indonesian government to the people of East Timor, it is one of the main tourist attractions in the country.

This magnificent big statue resembles Rio’s Christ the Redeemer.

Once you park at the foot of the hill, be ready to take 2000 steps to the statue. This is what I did. Yes, it’s a lot of steps but the ascension is well worth the effort for a great view up the coast and surrounds. To be honest, climbing did not take me very long and was quite easy. It took me around 20 minutes to reach the top. After only 40 min I was down again and we continued back to the capital.

On our way there we made a stop at the beach for some snorkeling and that was pretty much my first day.

An empty and beautiful shore

I might have forgotten to mention some minor things I did that day like strolling around some old colonial buildings and the Presidential Palace. I also had a quick walk along the harbor front, the promenade, but, as you see, I spent most of the time wandering around museums, memorials and independence movement sites.

On the next day, I made up my mind to explore the southern part of East Timor and drive to the mountains. Together with another tourist, we were driving to the beautiful mountains all day long. East Timor is vastly covered by mountains. We were driving to the center of the island which is considered by the locals to be the center of the world. There is a great legend about how the island appeared. They actually say that a rat is responsible for its creation! People pray to the rats in the old animistic beliefs because the rats are considered to be holy creatures of East Timor. And most households have a certain corner where they put food for rats and they can come and eat it. The legend says that everything was underwater and then a rat dug a hole and all the water went down that hole and that’s how a piece of land named East Timor was created.

A holy creature eating

Before we reached the mountains, we basically just drove around, first up Dili which is located directly at the sea but shortly after 1 km after Dili the mountains already begin and rise quite high up – probably 1000 meters – and we were driving along the serpentine roads up there, visiting small museums and a school which was quite interesting.

Another fact about East Timor is that it is full of very underdeveloped roads. One has to drive along the mud roads most of the time. The authorities just built the new road where we were driving but it was still sealed. Anyway, we saw beautiful mountain areas with endless coffee and cocoa plantations. East Timor is also quite well-known for its coffee. Starbucks gets most of the cocoa beans from there.

We also visited some volunteer projects financed by some Brazilians. Lots of locals work in the mountains. They showed us what they do, like painting, carpentry and things like that. We also had lunch there, in the company of local youth with very good English skills.

Young Timorese

After that, we headed deep into the mountains. This area is abundant in churches. We visited some of them on our way. We also visited some old colonial-style Portuguese guesthouses on some hills with very beautiful scenery.

Our ride back to Dili took us around 4 hours along some bad roads. It was not too far away, perhaps some 50 km, but took much more time on the bad roads. The good thing about such slow rides is that you manage to take lots of pictures of the surroundings on your way.

A beautiful scenery

To cut the story short, East Timor makes a very good impression. It is truly very underdeveloped, probably the most undeveloped country in Asia, but quite optimistic and promising land. One can find plenty of fascinating things, nice resorts and lots of cool experience there!

The church we came across on our way