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.