The CEO Story: Timor-Leste – A Nation in the Making

Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital, is only 1½ hour by flight from Bali in Indonesia and an hour from Darwin in Australia. However, it is an entirely different world to Australia and has quite a different national character compared to Indonesia. This is not your usual tourist destination, this is a destination in the making.

Timor-Leste is Asia’s youngest nation and has lived through a troubled history, not only for the past four decades but since much longer. It has gone from a feudal state to a Portuguese colony more than 500 years ago, was a battleground of the Japanese imperial forces during World War II, and even gained nine days of independence from Portuguese rule in 1975. What has marked Timor-Leste’s recent history though is the 25 years of Indonesian occupation, which lasted until 1999 when the United Nations installed a temporary government to administer the country until its full independence in 2002.

Today, Timor-Leste feels like a new, young nation in search of its identity. Take languages as an example. Although the official languages are Tetun and Portuguese most of the young people speak Bahasa Indonesia. This is not due to the Indonesian language being spoken at home, where Tetun is prevalent, but because most television programmes and soap operas are broadcast from Indonesian West Timor.

What will shape the future of this country are the young. An estimated 50% of the population is under 17 years old and the average fertility rate is 5.2 children per woman – the youngest population and the fastest growing population of any country in Asia. Way to go since there are only 1.2 million inhabitants today.

The country’s government has been shaping the new nation for the past 15 years, but it will take much longer for laws, rules and regulations to take hold. Take the ministry of tourism for instance – there are no license regulations for guides, no tourism schools, few guidelines on tourism investments and little security for foreign investors. It is thus no surprise that only a handful of foreigners have invested in tourism in recent years. It is also sad to see that international advisors to the ministry have not achieved much more than writing lengthy papers on how to do things without any experience on how to implement their theories.

What made me decide to travel to Timor-Leste, apart from the novelty factor, were the stories from friends who had been to the country on how beautiful the underwater world is, how welcoming the local people are, and how beautiful the mountain scenery is. And I was not disappointed.

Timor-Leste and the nearby island of Atarau is a paradise for divers, and probably one of the best diving spots in the world. Snorkelers will equally enjoy the untouched reefs, the diversity of fish and marine life, and the incredible visibility. This alone is worth a visit to the country.

Driving up into the mountains is a bit of a challenge. Except for a few stretches roads are heavily potholed and partially unpaved, but road construction is omnipresent and in a few years they will mostly be rebuilt, courtesy of the Chinese government.

The mountains are magnificent especially in the Maubisse region, a three-hour drive from Dili, and a must for visitors who want to trek into the mountains and visit local villages. The traditional way of building conical houses, whose high roofs reach almost to the ground, is still practiced today. Despite the majority of Timorese being Christians, animist culture is still part of their daily life in the villages. The spirit houses are as much part of today’s culture as they probably were 1,000 years ago.

There is not much of Portuguese architecture left in the country. However, visitors can see some scattered colonial houses in the countryside and in Dili and particularly in Baucau, a three- hour coastal drive from Dili, where visitors can even stay in a refurbished Pousada (traditional Portuguese colonial style inn).

Of contemporary historical interest is the area around Balibo, about 10 kilometres from the border with Indonesia and a pleasant three-hour drive on a mountainous coastal road from Dili. Many of you may remember the movie ‘Balibo’, a 2009 Australian war film that recounted the story of five Australian journalists assassinated by the Indonesian army just days before the invasion in 1975. The Balibo Fort houses a small hotel with eight rooms, an ideal base for exploring the surroundings.

Most visitors will make Dili their base and travel back and forth from the capital city as it has the most quality hotels and infrastructure.

I was pleasantly surprised by Dili. It’s a small town with a clean beach, some nice restaurants, a couple of interesting sights and, contrary to its perceived image, it is safe. A visit to the Resistance Museum is a must as it showcases the history of the Indonesian occupation, freedom fighter’s resistance to the invaders, as well as gives an excellent insight of the struggles leading to an independent Timor-Leste in 2002.

Timor-Leste is not a destination for visitors seeking the sun and fun on the beach. It is also not a destination for in-depth cultural enthusiasts. Instead the country is for tourists who are interested in the novelty factor, mountain scenery and authentic villages, modern history and, in particular, diving/snorkelling.

If you have Timor-Leste on your bucket list go now if you want an adventurous holiday and do not mind limited infrastructure, as the country’s ‘rawness’ will provide an experience like no other. Or wait for a few years until new roads and better quality hotels will be built outside of Dili to make for more comfortable travel. In any case you will live through an authentic travel experience for many years to come.

Our office in Bali looks after Timor-Leste, and you may contact the Asian Trails Bali team for itinerary, products and information at any time.

P/S: Note the statue on the photo on top of the hill. Rio has its Corcovado, and also Dili has its statue of Jesus Christ. Want to know more? Check out the images on Google.

Happy Trails!

Laurent Kuenzle
Asian Trails


The CEO Story: The Art World of Modern China

While I was in Beijing recently I took some time off to visit some of my favorite artists and art galleries in China’s capital city.

Many of you may have heard of ‘Art798’ (also known as 798 Art Zone or Factory 798), an area surrounding a decommissioned military factory that was turned into a center of art and artists in 2000. Some people may tell you not to visit this art zone, saying the artists have left the area and so it is not an interesting place anymore.

My advice is: don’t listen to them. While it is true that only a few artists are living and working in Art798 as they cannot afford the rent, there are many galleries and museums worth visiting.

It cannot be denied that Art798 has changed to adapt to current times and has not strictly adhered to its exclusive art concept. However, it is a nice place to visit if you are in northern Beijing, with a really pleasant ambiance and showcases modern China with boutiques, libraries, coffeeshops and restaurants in addition to the art galleries and museums.

The place’s popularity is reflected in the visitors from all walks of life – from young Chinese couples walking around holding hands, people gazers sitting on terraces of quirky coffeeshops sipping espresso to the affluent wearing fancy Chanel shades carrying Louis Vuitton bags and folks from more modest background.

Most of the art galleries in the art zone do not charge entrance fees, and you get to see paintings, photographic exhibitions, sculptures, video art and much more – all for free!

There are also a few cultural centers in the area. One of the most interesting is the Minye Korea Culture Institute Official Art Museum, which exhibits art from North Korea. For most people this is as close as they will ever get to anything related to North Korea, apart from the North Korean restaurants in Beijing.

What draws me always back to Art798 is the contemporary art exhibitions where artists make subtle (or not so subtle) political statements through their paintings and sculptures. Most of it relates to the Mao times and his campaigns, the power of the Communist party and its implications in today’s modern China, policies of double standards, and changes in the political landscape. While written text on any of these topics would probably be censored most artists seem to get away with their work, which are not necessarily deemed ‘politically correct’.

A good example are the Gao Brothers who have a large studio and exhibition at Art798. If you have not heard of them and are interested in contemporary art and modern Chinese history, search for them on the Internet. Their creation of ‘Miss Mao’ – a figure similar to Minnie Mouse with a Pinocchio nose depicted in colorful sculptures – is known around the world. Their family history during the Cultural Revolution has influenced their art and the messages they want the outside world to understand. If you are at Art798 don’t miss a visit to their studio.

Huang Yin is another well-known artist. You may have seen some of her works in contemporary art museums and galleries around the world. Remember those small men and women wearing Mao-style blue pants with brown belts, red ties and waving Mao’s little red book, as well as her rendering of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ Communist-style under Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe? She moved her studio from Art798 many years ago, and now resides in one of the seven artist villages located around Beijing.

One of my favorite contemporary artists is Hou Quing, who is fascinated by traditional Chinese poems and Chinese opera. He combines beautiful traditionally dressed heroines of poems and stories with the scantily dressed modern woman of China in one modern painting. He also lives in an artist village outside of the city.

I had a cup of tea with Hou Quing and he told me that he wasn’t sure how much longer he would be able to live and work in the artist village, as even there real estate prices are reaching levels that many artists can no longer afford.

While it is easy to visit Art798 on your own it is difficult to find the artist villages on the outskirts of Beijing, let alone meet one of the artists. We offer several art tours in and around Beijing with visits to art galleries, artist villages and artist studios. It’s not always easy to meet a specific artist as many live by their own schedules and often travel to exhibitions, but we are always able to arrange for interesting encounters in the Chinese art world. Most artists don’t speak English, but our guides or art experts are on hand to translate.

Experiencing a country through art and artist encounters gives a unique character to a journey. Our managers and dedicated specialists spend a lot of time researching the art world, meet artists, and fine tune excursions into the world of art. We will gladly share our expertise with clients interested in art, and Asian Trails China will be your primary contact to the art world of China.

Happy Trails!

Laurent Kuenzle
Asian Trails

 (Photo above from left to right: Zhen Gao from the Gao Brothers with Laurent Kuenzle and Xiaolin Zhang, Asian Trails China’s Managing Director).


His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej | an update

Dear friends and business partners

Further to our first announcement on the situation in Thailand after the death of H.M. The King of Thailand yesterday, 13 October 2016, Asian Trails Thailand has been able to obtain more up-to-date information.

Following our earlier statement, all public transportation, airports, train stations and cruise ports remain unaffected with the exception of visits to royal sights such as the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. The temples within the vicinity of the Grand Palace will not officially be closed (such as Wat Pho), but we do expect large crowds of locals in the area paying their respect. All of our guides are briefed and can offer alternative programs if required.

Asian Trails Thailand can confirm that the following updated information:

  • Loy Krathong Festivals in Chiang Mai and Sukhothai next month will be cancelled. There’s no official communication so far regarding the Loy Krathong festivities in Bangkok and other parts of the country.
  • Entertainment venues such as the Muay Thai Live show at Asiatique and Lumpini Boxing Stadium have announced that they will close their doors up until 17 October.
  • The Cultural Show by Sampran Riverside is cancelled for now but they offer an alternative program for confirmed bookings.
  • All hotels and resorts, including all in-house bars and restaurants, are operating as usual. Most of their in-house entertainment and live music have been cancelled during the coming days as a form of respect during the mourning period.

Asian Trails remains monitoring the situation over the weekend; our team will provide support and alternative solutions where required.

With thanks for your understanding, support and sharing the nation’s sorrow during these emotional times.

Best regards

Asian Trails


His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej


Dear friends and business partners

It is with great sadness and disbelief that the Kingdom of Thailand and all of its subjects has lost its unifying father and dearly beloved King. His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej has passed away peacefully after a long sick bed, surrounded by members of the Royal Family and dignitaries. Asian Trails joins the Kingdom in mourning the loss of one of the world’s greatest humanitarians, the world’s longest reigning monarch in history and longest serving head of state.

Thailand truly has lost a guide, a loving father and source of inspiration that devoted his life for the betterment of all Thais. His Majesty, at the very respectable age of 88, has been the driving force in bringing peace, harmony and prosperity throughout the nation and to all walks of life, irrespectively of religion, race or gender to the Kingdom since his ascension to the throne in 1946 as the 9th Rama King of the Chakri Dynasty.

In line with Buddhist belief and the constitutional regulations of the country, the Thai Government has declared an official mourning period of 30 days, likely affecting various entertainment venues and public performances around the country.  Asian Trails asks all travellers to dress respectfully and act gracefully, especially nearby any mourning rituals or gatherings. There is, as of today, no clear guideline available about any restrictions on the sale of alcoholic drinks, but outdoor places will likely not serve any alcohol during this period.

At this moment, all operations inside Thailand – including public transportation, airports, train stations and cruise ports – remain unaffected with the exception of visits to royal sights such as the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. Also shopping malls continue to operate as normal.

We will regularly communicate with all concerned and monitor the situation closely about operational matters that may affect customers’ travel plans and sights that may be closed during the coming period. We will provide updates as necessary via email or via our social media channels.

We are sincerely honoured to have received so many messages of sympathy and condolences in the past hours from business partners and friends. These messages of sharing the sorrow have touched us deeply and we extend these wishes over to our Thailand team.


With best regards

Asian Trails