Isolated and near inaccessible, Asia’s newest nation is home to the largest UN peacekeeping mission on Earth, located in the poorest and most overlooked corner of the region. Emerging from decades of bloodshed and occupation with scarcely any infrastructure intact, war-ravaged Timor-Leste attracts just a few thousand tourists per year. Roads are amongst the world’s worst (where they exist), the airmail service is rumoured to take one-and-a-half years, the humidity is oppressive, healthcare minimal, poverty rampant and the dinky shot-up capital, Dili, makes Beirut look refined. So why would anyone care to visit?
Because travellers will discover in Timor-Leste what everyone else in Southeast Asia is hopelessly searching for. All your dreamy paradise island clichés can be found within – pristine white beaches, crystal clear azure seas, some of the richest and most diverse sea life on the planet and a queue of welcoming, unjaded locals to show you the way. Adventurous tourists will come across incredible hiking routes, thick rainforest, untouched lagoons and delicious seafood – and more often than not, you’ll be the only traveller in town.
For all its ugliness and expense, booming Dili is a good starting point for seeing the half-island nation. Gleaming UN and NGO 4x4s are ubiquitous but, with peaceful elections recently concluded, most agencies are due to pull out by 2013 leaving behind one of the safest cities on the continent.
First stop is the only man-made attraction in town, the Cristo-Rei of Dili – a contemptuous ‘gift’ from dictatorial fruitloop Suharto. The giant JC was installed in 1995, blessed by Pope John Paul II and still faces Jakarta. It stands at 27 metres tall – a metre to represent each Indonesian province, including Timor-Leste. However, rather than rotate him to face the city as per his Brazilian cousin, Christ the Redeemer, the Timorese have rehabilitated the statue and optimistically regenerated the area for tourists. Hikers who venture out are rewarded with incredible panoramas of the stunningly green suburbs.
Back in the easily walkable centre, a day can be spent learning about the many years of suffering endured under the neglectful Portuguese and brutal Indonesian regimes. The infamous Santa Cruz cemetery in the heart of Dili is the notorious site of a 1991 massacre in which at least 250 peaceful protesters were killed. More about the state-instigated violence and war can be uncovered at the Resistance Museum or excellent ‘CHEGA!’ (‘No More, Enough, Stop’) Exhibition. The latter draws on thousands of archived witness testimonies to paint a shocking years-long account of torture, forced displacement, disappearances, sexual violence, famine and cruelty.
Despite the gradual fostering of peace and democracy since independence in 2002, unemployment is still sky high with 40% living on under US$0.55 per day. Community activities such as ‘Futu Manu’ are popular and, though outsiders may lack the stomach for cockfighting, it remains a centuries-old traditional spectator sport and illicit gambling event. Most taxi drivers can direct visitors to the daily male-dominated meetings and foreigners will find themselves quickly ushered into VIP seats. Sharp metal spurs are tied to the back of the animal’s legs and, in a rapid fury of blood and feathers, men who can afford it (and many who can’t) exchange bets of up to US$1000. The birds themselves are purchased for around US$30 and are lovingly groomed, fed and cherished by their owners until their big day arrives. As the defeated fowl is barbecued up, it’s worth reflecting on how preferable the life of a Timorese cockfighting chicken seems compared to that of a long-suffering battery hen back home.
Those hoping for a less gory afternoon may enjoy the handsome Dili Cathedral or a visit to Arte Moris, a superb NGO which trains young people in painting, photography, sculpture and architecture. The workshop an equally worthwhile grassroots initiative is located on Atauro Island, 2 hours north of Dili by water taxi. The Bonecas de Atauro factory empowers local women and produces Timor’s most sought-after souvenir – unique cabbage-patch-style Bonecas dolls. Previously a prison island, lush Atauro’s eco-resorts are a favourite escape amongst expats. It is also the premier spot for, arguably, Asia’s best diving and snorkelling, where dive companies are world-class, underwater landscapes spectacular and beaches unspoiled.
Back on dry land, jeep or dirt bike rental are the only realistic options for navigating the mainland’s decrepit highways, especially in the wet season. It is not uncommon for sudden crater-like potholes to appear or for coastal roads to sometimes vanish suddenly off a cliff without warning. This and the threat of wild crocodiles aside, it is always a joy to be greeted by curious villagers and children demanding photos as you pass through picturesque countryside, beautiful tiered paddy fields and thick jungle. Smiles are plentiful in spite of the fact that 75% of the populace struggle by on a subsistence lifestyle that has persisted for centuries.
122km east of the capital is Baucau, set around the charming, if not slightly spooky, Portuguese Mercado Municipal building. The derelict old marketplace sits in the centre of the laid back old town begging for restoration, nature slowly reclaiming it. Heading further eastwards requires some improvisation and a tough set of wheels but daring types will be well compensated should they make it to the heavenly Jaco Island off the tip of Timor. Rock up mid-week and this uninhabited, undeveloped tropical gem will be yours alone to explore, though overnight stays are forbidden. Surrounded by surreal turquoise seas, this tiny, protected island is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel teeming with dolphins and other sea life.
Most of Timor’s delicate tourist infrastructure is restricted to the capital and there is a risk that the upcoming exodus of foreign residents may take half of the fragile industry with them. Whilst their presence created a false economy of imported goods, international eateries and mid-range hotels, their exit may at least prompt a welcome drop in prices. For the rest of the country, accommodation is rarely luxurious, restaurants hit-and-miss and transport can amount to a masochistic farce. The prospect of roughing it off the beaten track may keep many away, but this is just as well for adventure-seekers willing to explore, as they will have Timor-Leste’s undiscovered mix of culture, history and breathtaking scenery all to themselves.