Backpacking Information on East Timor

  • Population: 857,000 (UN, 2005)
  • Capital: Dili
  • Area: 14,609 sq km (5,641 sq miles)
  • Major languages: Tetum and Portuguese (official), Indonesian and English (working languages)
  • Major religion: Christianity
  • Life expectancy: 56 years (women), 54 years (men) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 US dollar = 100 cents

The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste is one of a few countries who have not always had it easy, and to this moment still remains shaky. Overshadowed by the repute of neighbouring countries, Timor-Leste neither suffers nor benefits from the international media, and with a freshly self-determined nation and underdeveloped tourism industry, the new republic has a rocky but bright road ahead. East Timor is the first new sovereign state of the 21st century. After having been assaulted with violence and control by Indonesia for almost a quarter of a century, Timor-Leste has definitely seen better days.

What remains hidden to the world’s eyes is East Timor’s rich cultural heritage from tens of thousands of years of civilizations and culture, enriched and given more depth and flavour by 4 centuries of Portuguese colonial occupation. The Land of Discovery, Timore-Leste just 400 miles to the north of Australia, is an inviting peace of secretive mystery with lots of treasures in store on land and sea. Instituted as a nation just of late in 2002, the people struggle with a lower than middle income economy with billions of oil dollars in the bank that have not been mostly utilized and disseminated to rebuild it.

Within decades of resistance from Indonesian military, slaughter of a third of the population is one of the worst brutalities that nearly wiped out a nation the world has seen in the 20th century. True, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But the real story is how splendid and refreshing an escape Timor-Leste is now because it is a land too far out, too far gone.

GEOGRAPHY

Timor-Leste (8 50 S, 125 55 E) is the largest of the Lesser Sunda Islands with an area of 14,874 km2. The terrain is basically mountainous, especially to the north and east. The Paitchu Rnage and Iralalaro are easternmost, the latter being possibly the last of tropical dry forest within the country home to extraordinary flora and fauna and top priority for conservation. The north coast features abundant coral reef systems. The highest mountain is the Tatamailau with an altitude of 2,963 metres above sea level. The lowest point is the Timor Sea that separates Australia from the country. It is rich in petroleum, natural gas, and gold.

CLIMATE

The climate in these parts is tropical with a mean temperature of a roasting 30 °C, quite like the countries nearby with 2 seasons of hot and wet, but the pattern is rather screwed up. The hot and dry season is through the months of June to October, what is to most SEA countries the rainy season, and the wet and rainy season is from November through May. The onslaught to nature of a slash and burn agriculture does very little comfort in the heat or the flooding.

PEOPLE

But as a nation of a people with a deep sense of community, always helping each other one out in times such calamities strike, the Timorese are the country’s real treasures. It is that one place where you’ll enjoy more the company of locals than the place itself. And East Timor has a population of 1,131,612, that’s a million times the hospitality and smiles. Back then, journalists are not welcome in Timor-Leste, but the tiny nation is slowly but surely opening up to the world and tourism.

RELIGION

East Timor is also one of just two nations in the South East that are predominantly Christian (Roman Catholic, 97% and Protestant, 1%), the other being the Philippines. On the other hand, Muslims constitute 1% of the population, Hindus, 0.5%, and Buddhists, 0.1%. The Timorese are mostly Austronesians and Papuans, while a small enclave of Chinese form the minority. Christianity unfortunately is one of the main catalysts to violence of Indonesian Muslims toward the Timorese such as the mass murder of 1999 in Suhai and kidnapping of thousands of children in 2002 to indoctrinate Islam.

LANGUAGE

TETUM, an Austronesian language, and PORTUGUESE are the two official languages of the state. At present, there are more than 25% of Timorese and growing proficient in Portuguese for purposes of communicating with the world outside. The form more widely used is Tetun-Dili, apparently the Tetum learned by Portuguese colonizers in DIli which has evolved to have immense Portuguese influence. ENGLISH and INDONESIAN are considered as trade languages, significant as vehicles to business, education, and foreign matters. As a sum, there are around 16 indigenous languages spoken all over the island.

ATTRACTION

Indeed Timor-Leste is a small land with big offerings. With its sort of reversed climate, this country makes a great getaway when all else in Asia is cloudy and wet. Even with a backtracked but budding tourist infrastructure, there’s just enough magic and beauty to compensate for the butt-painful road travel especially for the adventurous, without undue travail. Timor-Leste is an underground paradise, an underwater surprise teeming with an eclectic range of marine life and pristine coral reefs.

First off, there is Dili where the country’s best beaches are in holed up, much like the ghost pipe fish, leaf scorpion fish, and angler fish. In the North Coast, on the other hand, from Tutuala to Liquisa to the west, are superior shore-diving in the world with reefs plotted as near to the shore as possible 10 metres near like Bubble Beach where marine life is rare like barracudas, octopuses, and critters. Atauro Island, however, is a snorkelling hotspot, no doubt. Same and Ermera’s large coffee plantations are also worth the visit.

To the east of the country is the Nino Konis National Park-one of the last surviving tropical lowland rainforests in the world where the traveller can go trekking, diving, and bird-watching (Timor Bush Warbler-distinct endemic bird species). The park has been well protected in part to the country’s ECOTOURISM agenda with its rich coastal environment. In Timor-Leste, a tenner a day is beyond a possibility.

FOOD

To most outsiders, Timorese cuisine is a blank page, and there is some truth to it. With an economy and agriculture that’s way far from developed to sustain and supply an entire nation, and almost half the population below the poverty line, food to the Timorese is mostly consumed to get by. Nonetheless, the most innovative creative cuisines come from the ingenuity of a group of people who have close to nothing. Rice is a staple but in the absence of, there are sweet potatoes, cassava, taro and corn. There isn’t much insight to a national dish as of yet, but the common Timorese meal is one with rice, meat, and spices, closely resembling Indonesian cuisines of “rice and spice”. There are Western foods served in restos and cafes in the urban Timor for the more affluent foreigners who live and work there.

Timorese gastronome is an amazing fusion of Malay/Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese influences. Fish, specifically fried fish, is among the most popular dishes here the cuisine of fish termed as pepes, while curries, like chicken recipes, are a famed fave, but Indonesian food is very close to the Timorese’ heart and stomachs if not for proximity and influence. Fresh dessert is characteristically Timorese which could be anything from bananas, mangoes, papayas, and watermelons. Fruits can be eaten during or after the meal because dessert per se is not a culinary concept in Timor-Leste. Dessert can also mean snack like pudim de coco or the Portuguese custard tart creme caramel. And they eat dog too, sometimes. Nowhere has the saying “danger is what makes life worth living” been more true than Timor-Leste where people are not shy of optimism and forgiveness.