Written by Zoe Stephens
East Timor (Timor Leste) lies North of Australia and is Southeast Asia’s newest country, only officially gaining independence in 2002. It has therefore been somewhat left off the tourist map, being visited only by businessmen, diplomats, and those visiting for development work. You need a real sense of adventure when travelling here as it can be quite challenging. Accommodation is limited and roads are rough. However, exploring the unexplored is also extremely rewarding. And after a while, you’ll get used to being the only foreigner in the village and might even enjoy the attention!
East Timor’s history is incredibly interesting and relatively new. It gained independence in 2002, but only after a long struggle. Until 1975 East Timor was a colony of Portugal. They declared independence from Portugal in November 1975, but just 9 days later Indonesian forces invaded and occupied the former colony. Over the next 20 years, Indonesians remained and integrated themselves in the colony. Many high-powered roles in society were occupied by Indonesians instead of the East Timor.
In 1999, the UN oversaw a referendum which saw East Timor vote for independence from Indonesia. This resulted in violence throughout the land and UN troops from Australia attempted to pacify the situation and re-establish a civil society.
On 20 May 2002, East Timor was internationally recognized as an independent state
East Timor’s culture has been heavily impacted upon by its history. The influence of both Portugal and Indonesia has created a bizarre mix of Portuguese-Indonesian fusion. It’s unique, and works surprisingly well! East Timor is also dominated by a large farming culture, with agriculture being one of the main sources of income.
Strongly influenced by Indonesian cuisine, Timorese food bases itself with a staple diet of rice, curries, and spices. Street food stalls are also in abundance, offering a range of local delicacies. Fried fish is the national dish and definitely a must-eat whilst you’re there. Eating local dishes will cost you around $1-3. If you’re spending time in the capital, Dili, you can also enjoy the impressive range of international restaurants on offer.
Widely grown throughout the country, East Timor is a great place for the coffee lover. It has been the main export since the colonial period and is some of the best. Head to the mountain town of Ermera, one of the regions where coffee is grown. Here you can see it being grown and harvested, as well as trying some of the freshest coffee around.
Thanks to the untouched seas and shorelines, East Timor offers some of the best diving in the world. Pristine white sand beaches and coral reefs are becoming ever more popular and well-known in the diving community.
At Atauro Island you’ll find some unparalleled diving sites, and whilst you’re there you can check out the local divers and fishermen. They fish traditionally using handmade goggles and spear guns.
Trekking & Hiking
Thanks to its mountainous regions and lush weather, East Timor offers some of the best hiking and trekking in the world. For example, Mount Ramelau (± 3000 above sea level) in Maubisse mountain town. Maubisse offers impressive landscapes and gorgeous nature, as well as providing accommodation for travellers. Mt. Matebian (Baucau) and Mt. Kablaki (Baucau) are also all great for treks.
East Timor is home to over 260 species of birds, 8 of which can only be found on the island of Timor. Enjoy bird watching whilst trekking or hiking and see what you can find!
Ecotourism has been written into the nation’s tourism strategy and works well throughout the land. The Nino Konis National Park is one of the protected areas with rich rainforest and coastal areas. Here you can do numerous activities such as bird watching and diving.
There is a large number of NGOs remaining in East Timor, although the number is depleting. Many come here to volunteer for numerous types of organizations.