25 August 2019 – East Timor is anything but your typical tourist destination - yet it has it all: superb diving, friendly people, stunning beaches...
Some 100,000 tourists visit East Timor each year; compare that with the 6 million arriving in Bali, an island with many of the same natural attributes.
Much of this is due to a recent turbulent history, in which tens of thousands (some say up to 200,000) were killed as the tiny nation struggled for independence. It is shaking its reputation for violence but the droves haven't yet appeared. There are other reasons, too, which I'll outline below, but first, let's see just why Dili, East Timor is such an intriguing destination, the jumping off point for any exploration of this massively untouristed nation.
Arriving in Dili from the sky and circling over its stunning bay is the perfect introduction to one of the world's newest countries (Timor Leste, as it's known locally, was founded in 2002).
But few people come here: it is expensive, hard to reach, its volatile past is still too recent and it hardly has any tourist infrastructure.
All of this is changing.
As the country develops (albeit slowly), new hotels and hostels and restaurants spring up so often they may not even be listed yet, relying instead on word of mouth. Yes, it is expensive, as it has grown to accommodate the aid workers and UN staff who helped it through its transition. with all that aid money (and UN money before that) coming in.
It may be hard to reach, but not that hard. There are flights from Australia and from several points in Southeast Asia (Bali is the most common but there are a few from Singapore, and the list is growing). East Timor flights are still expensive, but as more people visit, prices will fall.
The infrastructure is being upgraded but remains in a pathetic state. The water is not fit to drink, medical facilities are still inadequate, and the roads, which are often made of dirt, tend to wash out completely in the rainy season.
Wifi works relatively well if you buy a SIM card, but don't expect wifi signs in any private establishments. There is construction everywhere, and slowly, the main arteries are being paved. Timor Leste is being dragged into the 21st century.
Rather than deterring you, these are actually perfect reasons for immediate East Timor travel planning - before it begins to look like every place else.
For now, though, Dili is a post colonial town, its whitewashed bungalow architecture clearly harking back to Portuguese rule that lasted four centuries. Here and there, a few monolithic statues remind inhabitants that freedom and independence were gained only recently.
In parts of the Timor Leste capital, you might think you're in a rural village - three snarled cars denotes a traffic jam, and the city feels calm, unpopulated even.
Earthquakes are common in the region, as are the tsunami warnings that follow. But walking along the seashore, the sea is calm today. People are curious, friendly, young. There's no sense of threat but an underlying energy, of waiting for something important to happen.
As is the case when visiting many parts of the world, you might be tempted to skip straight to the "what to do in East Timor" section and take it from there. Please don't.
Its violent history is too recent and memories remain fresh, constantly intertwined in conversation and policy. This land was first settled by the Portuguese in the 16th century. A few decades later, the Dutch would occupy the other, western side of the island. The two colonial powers fought but Portugal won, finally stamping its formal ownership on the territory in 1860.
The colonial occupation lasted until 1975, when a pro-independence political party, Fretilin, declared the nation's sovereignty. but freedom was short-lived and in December 1976, Indonesia invaded.
They would stay until 1999, reigning over a dark slice of Timorese history. They were unwelcome and during their two decades of rule, tens of thousands would die either fighting or from poverty and starvation. Eventually, under world pressure, a UN-sponsored referendum was held, with more than three-quarters of the population voting for independence. Indonesia acquiesced and handed back East Timor to the Timorese, although the UN would still stay and supervise for a few more years.
Those years were violent. Pro-independence and pro-Indonesians clashed, killing hundreds. Refugees began streaming across the border in both directions.
Timor Leste, finally independent in 2002, still faced violence as factions within the country warred. Eventually, the parties would find some common ground and a semblance of political stability would emerge. The fight with Indonesia would fade into the background and relations would be re-established on a cordial basis.
These days, factional violence is (it is hoped) a thing of the past as the Timorese turn towards their most pressing problem: eradicating the poverty that engulfs a vast majority of the population, two-thirds of which still lives on less than $2 a day.
The country isn't poor - it has massive oil supplies which are being rapidly exploited but may run out in a few short years. The money from oil, which makes up 90% of the Timor Leste government income, is spent (many say wasted) on mega-infrastructure projects, some of which simply aren't viable, while others are either incomplete or do not work as planned. Instead, critics say, those rapidly dwindling funds should go towards health and education and the many things that help prepare a society to face its future. The health system remains primitive, and would be even more so if it weren't for the extensive number of Timorese doctors trained in Cuba or by Cuban doctors in East Timor (I wasn't expecting a large swathe of the medical profession to use Spanish as their lingua franca).
Often, the unemployed turn towards emigration, seeking fortune in far-off lands and providing much-needed remittance payments at home.
Yet the Timorese I spoke to are full of hope. They believe tourists will come and that will help, and that eventually their roads and services will improve and that, however slowly, they will be raised from poverty. Their optimism is commendable, but reality hasn't quite caught up yet.
Along the streets of Dili, brightly colored plastic flowers and baskets are lined up outside the small shops. I point to them and ask about thriving small businesses.
"It is not what you think," my local friend explains. "All those things come from China. The Chinese do some jobs more cheaply than the Timorese so we often can't find jobs. And if we open a shop, they get their goods from China much more cheaply, so they can sell at a low price. If we want to sell, we have to buy from them..."
Most Timorese are Roman Catholic - a Portuguese legacy - and the main East Timor language is Tetum, along with Portuguese; a surprising number of people are also happy to speak Bahasa Indonesia. This makes for complex communications, however, because not everyone speaks all the languages, not to mention the many other languages spoken by smaller groups throughout the country.
Around Dili, despite a few luxurious beachfront developments and stylish cafés, poverty isn't hard to see. The hills around the city are denuded as people hunt for firewood to use and to sell, piles of which aren't uncommon in the further parts of town.
While the trees get cut, water too is scarce. This means there is a dearth of drinking water, especially in rural areas, but also a lack of hygiene as washing does not take priority over drinking (with all the health consequences this entails). While many development agencies have struggled to bring water to the countryside, this is one problem that has yet to be resolved.
In Dili, one way of dealing with poverty is to sell sand from the riverbed to the many construction enterprises that are springing up. Along the city's edge, men and women crouch under the hot sun, pulling sand from the dry riverbeds and placing it in neat little mounds that will be swept up by dumptrucks. One shudders to think of what will happen to all this hard labor if it rains tonight...
This may be one of the smallest and calmest capital cities I've ever seen, but that doesn't mean you'll be stuck in your room the entire time. On the contrary.
Here are just a few of the many things to see in Dili.
The approach to Dili on a clear day is stunning, a string of delicate bays with tropical waters lapping the shore. There are crocodiles in East Timor but it is said they are further away from the capital (let's hope). If it's towards the end of the year, crane your neck - you might be in for a surprise sighting of migrating whales.
Wherever you turn your eyes or ears, East Timor's recent past is bound to come up. It was violent, heartbreaking and transformative, and gave birth to one of the world's newest countries.
This museum captures it all - the history, the brutality, the genocide, in English so you can really grasp what happened. The museum (and the Santa Cruz Cemetery, which we'll talk about below) qualifies as a dark tourism site, with photographs that aren't easy to look at and an oppressive story, in great detail, that highlight's the country's recent dark past. Artefacts from the resistance are also displayed and the museum belongs to UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme, an initiative that protects documents and photographs from destruction by people or nature.
Like visiting a concentration camp or the scene of past atrocities, this museum is worthy of respect and quiet contemplation. These events weren't long ago and, as is the case with history, we must not forget.
What's special about this church (other than the fact that it is East Timor's oldest Catholic church) is its historical significance: this is where Timorese tried to hide during the troubles one October night in 1991.
The Indonesian army invaded the church and Sebastião Gomes, a student activist, was shot. A few days later, a peaceful memorial march organized to lay flowers on his grave at Santa Cruz Cemetery turned into one of the most notorious East Timor massacres, one that drew widespread international condemnation.
At first sight this is a bright and flowered cemetery, with a riot of colors against a lush tropical setting. But it is the site of an event that still lives in Timor's soul, one few people forget. Unasked, a taxi driver immediately points it out and tries to explain its importance. No one forgets.
As thousands of pro-independence protestors marched peacefully through the cemetery's gates on 12 November 1991, Indonesian soldiers grabbed them and lined them up along the fence, opening fire: they killed 271 people, wounded 382, and 250 are still unaccounted for. Today, as the ground around Dili is dug for new buildings or resorts, graves or remains are still being found.
While other massacres took place in East Timor, this one became internationally notorious when video footage filmed by a British journalist was published, giving the world a front-row seat to what was happening in this distant corner of the world. It was seen as a turning point in East Timor's fight for independence.
I strolled along the cemetery's main alley looking (unsuccessfully) for Sebastião Gomes's gravestone, but going any further would have involved walking on top of the tightly packed graves in what is one of East Timor's most sacred places. I paid my respects from afar.
I've already made much of the lovely bay along which Dili is built, and I haven't exaggerated. It makes for a lovely walk, past the romantic couples kissing on concrete benches (they have nowhere else to go), past the Presidential Palace and the fishermen with their catch, until I reached a luxurious café no one had told me about. As the sunset hour approached, I was the only customer, almost surprising the half dozen or so staff hanging out in back. I can't imagine it will stay empty for long.
Cristo Rei is a 27m statue of Jesus standing on a globe (that's 88ft).
The statue is relatively recent, dating back to 1996 when it was presented to East Timor as a gift from President Suharto of Indonesia, when East Timor was still ruled from Jakarta. If he had hoped this would dampen the enthusiasm for independence, he miscalculated.
You can't really walk all the way to Cristo Rei from downtown Dili; it's far, and construction keeps getting in the way. Hope a taxi or a Mikrolet and you'll end up near a statue that reminds you of Rio de Janeiro but on a smaller scale.
Cristo Rei's 500 steps are a challenge to the dozens of active runners who climb them at sunrise, before the day's heat sets in. (Disclosure: I made it halfway up but look at those views!) Others prefer to run in the evening and work up an appetite. A word on safety: I'd have no problem coming here on my own at sunrise but I'd be a little more cautious visiting solo at sunset.
The way up is punctuated by bronze stations of the cross, where people stop and pray (or catch their breath). For some, this is a sports venue and for others, a place of pilgrimage.
While the food in East Timor - perfectly fine, by the way - isn't necessarily the draw for me here, many restaurants line the bayshore, their tables jutting towards the sand and, if you can hear above the karaoke, the sound of waves lapping the shore will lull you into peaceful enjoyment.
I can't give you names because places open and close quickly but from memory, in town I'd recommend the Letehofo specialty coffee roasters. Valentino for good pizza and Rolls & Bowls for cheap and cheerful Vietnamese food. I also ate at several restaurants along the beach, some of which were so new they didn't even have a name outside. So walk around, ask around, and take a chance.
The cathedral, the second-largest in Asia after Manila, is a bit modern and I'm afraid there's little to call attention to it other than its freshness in the summer heat, and the peace it provides as a place of worship.
As with Cristo Rei, it was built by Indonesia's President Suharto in a failed attempt to influence the Timorese.
Tais Market was the successful brainchild of USAID, the US development agency, which helped put up the funds that made this smart little market possible. Throughout, women sit at their looms weaving their tais, or traditional cloths, with patterns passed on to them from their mothers and grandmothers.
Each of Timor Leste's 13 districts has its own pattern and if you happen to be familiar with them, you'll instantly know where each bundle of cloth came from. There are plenty of other handicrafts, including wood statues from Atauro, all under the watchful gaze of a fighting cock tied to a tree (cock-fighting is a sport much beloved in East Timor).
Should you visit Dili, a visit to the Tais Market will help local women fight poverty. The products are hand-made and first rate, you'll get the best prices here, and the profits will go straight into the pockets of the women who work so hard to produce them.
For now, though, the alleys remain sadly empty, save a few international aid or NGO visitors who go from stall to stall trying to spread the shopping around as much as possible. Yet another reason for you to visit...
As in most developing countries, live animals are sold at open air markets. Flies buzz everywhere, and the squawks of those destined for the chopping board always bring out my (rather subdued) desire to become a vegetarian.
Beyond the chickens and other assorted beasts are the piles of vegetables, the chillies and fruits lined up and piled in symmetry, not for tourists but for everyone. There is a bit of a reticence here (which I found nowhere else) about taking photos but I suspect it would be fine if you spent a bit of time to get to know some of the stall owners, something I sadly could not do the day I visited – and that's why you have no photos of nice rows of fruits and vegetables!
East Timor has sacred houses, uma lulik, which you'll usually find far off in rural areas. These houses are the first to be built should a village be relocated. The house always has a locked room where ancestral pieces are stored.
During the war in East Timor, many of these houses were destroyed but there has been a strong desire to rebuild and help preserve this unique heritage.
The photo below is of a sacred house in Dili, one of the very few (if not the only one) in the city. It is unmarked and hard to find and I was brought there by a local who had lived in Dili all his life and was unaware of others.
For a city that lacks a lot of tourist infrastructure, Dili has a surprising number of decent coffee shops - which makes sense, given East Timor's quality coffee crop. It is the country's main export (apart from oil) and has a stellar reputation worldwide as one of the best in the world, despite its tiny crop (it accounts for 0.2% of the world's coffee). The entire coffee crop is organic and is branded Fairtrade, so as infrastructure strengthens and farmers are better able to produce and transport their crop, income from it can only grow.
Next time you go to Starbucks, order a cup of East Timor coffee. It's not available everywhere but if you do get your hands on it, you'll be helping farmers in a faraway land whose livelihoods depend on our coffee addiction.
For tourism, East Timor isn't just about Dili. There are plenty of things to do in East Timor beyond the capital. Here are some of the most loved.
Atauro Island is an easy day trip from Dili and if you're looking for glorious beaches and coral reefs but don't have much time, skip over to Atauro for a day of relaxation.
In addition to diving or trekking around the hills, Atauro is a birdwatcher's paradise, with some 20 species, a far cry from its original use as a prison by the Portuguese.
Located at the eastern tip of Timor, Jaco Island's beach could easily rank as one of the most beautiful places in the world.
East Timor is mostly visited for its nature and culture. It is uncrowded, and considered a prime diving spot by those who know. It has glorious and undamaged coral reefs, and plenty of water wildlife, including dolphins and whales. And dugongs.
And crocodiles. In some places.
If you're a diver, you'll find some excellent dive shops in East Timor, as well as boat tours to go watch the whales. Pretty much any East Timor beach will make you catch your breath.
Timor Leste is one of the world's least visited countries and still has virtually no tourist infrastructure. There are hotels and restaurants in the capital and here and there throughout the country, but they're not really designed for tourists so you won't find many mass travel discounts and deals. This being a poor country, nature is still treated as a natural resource to be mined and exploited.
My one regret is not having been able to meet more Timorese. I do believe they are the country's most precious resource – committed, concerned and forward-looking, with a deep love for their country and hope for its future.
You'll also come here for the sense of adventure, of visiting a place steeped in history and with a unique culture.
As you look around you, the environment will overwhelm you and you'll catch your breath by the beach as you watch the sun slowly drift towards the horizon , framing the silhouettes of fishermen as they gently roll in their fine nets for the night.
East Timor, also called Timor Leste, sits at the eastern tip of the island of Timor, which it shares with Indonesia, its only land neighbor. Its nearest maritime neighbor is Australia, a one-hour flight away.
The capital city of East Timor is Dili. It lies on the north coast and has a population of around 200,000.
East Timor usually ranks among the top 10 of the world's least visited countries – about 60,000 visitors a year, but growing. Tourism infrastructure is still weak but each day seems to bring a new restaurant or shop, many designed to appeal to foreign visitors. Timor Leste travel is becoming popular!
European citizens (with the exception of Ireland and the United Kingdom) do not need an East Timor visa. Everyone else needs some kind of paperwork. Check with the (slightly confusing) official page because rules change quickly. Or check here for a straightforward answer on whether you need a visa.
The most frequent flights to Dili are from Bali, Indonesia. There are less frequent direct flights to East Timor from Singapore and Darwin, Australia to the Timor Leste airport.
The East Timor currency is the the US dollar for bills and local "centavo" coins for change (equivalent to US cents).
East Timor is just south of the Equator so it has a tropical climate. It is usually hot, with a rainy season that lasts from December to March and a dry season that usually starts in June and ends in September.
The flag of East Timor was adopted in 2002 and is the same flag the country used when it first declared independence in 1975. The yellow triangle represents colonialism, the black one "the obscurantism that needs to be overcome", the red background is the liberation struggle and the white star represents peace.