East Timor Tours
As Seen in…
Places to visit in East Timor and on our East Timor tours
Why visit East Timor?
East Timor, or ‘Timor Leste’ in the language of its Portuguese former colonial power, is both small (15,007 km²) and tucked away from the ken of even the most hardy traveller. And yet this, largest of the Lesser Sunda Islands, is the only Asian state in the southern hemisphere, contains the most biodiverse coral reefs in the Earth’s oceans, and is home to the oldest cave art in South East Asia.
The reason for its obscurity then lies partly in its inaccessibility, its nearest neighbours being Australia to the south and Indonesia, who comprise the western half of the island and make up the encircling archipelago to west, north and east. The other key issue is its unfashionable status on account of its 20th century turmoil which thankfully has abated, leaving its building as a fabulous travel destination.
As evidenced by the Ili Kere petroglyphs from 42,000 years ago, humans have existed here for an incredible amount of time, an ethnic mix of incoming Malays, Melanesians and South East Asians, a fusion which very much still characterises the local population of around 1.2 million. Apart from occasional finds linking trade here to China, Java, the Philippines and India, little is known of the island of Timor until Portuguese adventurers and then traders set foot on its shores in the early 16th century.
From then on, a wrangle for possession went on between the Dutch and Portuguese, the latter of whom brought Catholic Dominican friars to convert the locals and ensure they threw in their lot with the Iberian conquerors. The fortresses such as at Lautem and the capital Dili speak of this tempestuous time, yet vain and short-lived successes which now languish under the sinuous caress of the engulfing jungle once more.
Once the local kings had been subdued, the trade in sandalwood, slaves and eventually coffee provided the European powers with a meagre income which in turn meant that few troops were garrisoned here and still fewer settlers came, leading to a dominant Mestizo – mixed race European and native people – culture which still survives. By 1851, fixed Dutch (West) Timor and Portuguese (East) Timor were formalised and whilst uprisings against colonial powers occurred, the East Timor administration survived even the Japanese occupation during World War II and lasted until 1975 when the people rose up and declared independence.
The response from Indonesia which now included former Dutch Timor was decisive: invasion, occupation and brutal suppression of dissent. An estimated 100,000 died either through starvation of violence until 1999 when an Australian-led and UN-backed process for independence finally took shape. Democratic elections and periods of unrest have finally abated and the country is making huge strides towards establishing itself as a tourist centre.
Clearly this matters since poverty is rife, with only 38% of Timorean homes being connected to electricity. Whilst oil, gas and coffee all provide income and the vibrancy of Dili’s bars, restaurants and shops speaks of a land on the up, the natural assets of the region are gradually being realised. At the time of writing, the nation’s applications for UNSECO recognition for its many valued sites are underway and national parks are being established, especially in the north where dry tropical forests make up fascinating landscapes and are home to the land’s rarest species.
Wildlife here is compelling – 240 bird species, such as the ubiquitous red jungle fowl and red-footed booby and the rarer Timor green pigeon and jonquil parrot draw naturalists, along with a fabulous array of snakes, geckos, skinks and huge tokay lizards. The relatively unknown landscape is also, understandably under-recorded. New species are being constantly discovered and this is no more so than in arguably the island’s greatest draw – its marine environment.
Whilst Jaco Island is a stunning pageant of gently rippling shoals and turquoise seas, Atauro Island boasts the most prolific display of sea species ever discovered. Approximately 642 species exist around its magnificent, though endangered reefs and in the deeper waters 7 species of dolphin and a gripping range of whales can be easily seen, from blue, killer and humpback whales to the marvellous and rare pygmy killer whale species.
Least prized of all, and perhaps most compelling are the villages that lie in the higher hill country and on the fringes of Dili and Bacau’s coastal plains: here ancient methods of building raised wooden houses, weaving and preparing traditional foods are all revealed to guests by disarmingly charming locals who make the island experience precisely what it is: proud, grounded in respect for nature’s beautiful displays of simplicity, and far exceeding expectations in a truly magical place.