East Timor trip report


East Timor

East Timor (or Timor-Leste in Portuguese) is a small country that takes up the eastern half of an island lying between Indonesia and Australia. After some 500 years as a colony of Portugal, East Timor was invaded by neighbouring Indonesia, who subjected the population to a ruthless 25 year oppression. The Indonesian occupation was sanctioned by the USA (claiming to be fighting communism) and the Australians who were getting Timor oil on the cheap. The Indonesian occupation was at times in genocidal form; about 200,000 people are thought to have died, a staggering number for a population of less than one million at the time.

Out-powered militarily, a surprisingly well-organised resistance movement kept up the fight for independence during the occupation. This was only achieved in tumultuous fashion from 1999 when a UN-supervised referendum was held. Indonesia tried to undermine this but still a vast majority voted for independence. The response was a vicious militia assault that left most of the country's infrastructure destroyed, countless houses torched and thousands dead. It was only stopped after a UN military intervention that East Timor gained independence in 2002. The UN ended its peacekeeping mission and left the country in 2012. Since then, despite continuing problems with infrastructure and poverty, Timorese people are very hopeful for the future.

In terms of tourism, East Timor is pretty much off-the-map. The small number of foreigners in the country are mostly involved in aid and development work or Chinese people running small businesses; only very few people visit the island purely for tourism as yet. When I landed at Dili airport, I was one of only two foreigners. The immigration officers were so bored, I was taken inside and asked the exact same questions by three different officers.



Large parts of Dili had to be rebuilt after the destructive chaos of 1999. The capital city doesn't exactly boast a pretty cityscape, it has the character of a bland sprawl of functional buildings, punctuated occasionally by grander-looking ones. The setting, along the coast and against the backdrop of steep hills, however, is quite pretty. Dili beach is beautifully clean with incredible sunsets. Walking around Dili gives you a weird mixture of off-the-beaten-track calm and at the same time an outposty, end-of-the-road and far-from-civilisation kind of feeling. The locals will often presume you are one of the aid workers. But let them know you're a tourist and they will warm and treat you like family. In terms of getting around, there are ten micro-lets (minivans) combining to provide what is essentially Dili's only form of public transport. They are individually coloured and numbered on the front and back from one to ten.


Dili -> Maubisse

I hired a motorbike in Dili for $25 a day. I didn't need to show a licence but you can forget about insurance, it's full liability for any damages. It was a risk worth taking as the road from Dili to Maubisse was full of great scenery, mostly dominated by mountainous terrain with deep valleys cutting through it. Many of the "roads" are rough tracks that require good driving skills. It had been raining heavily so some sections of the roads were littered with mud or deep potholes. My only advice is when in doubt, just wait for a local on a motorbike and follow his path.