The Best Experiences and Things To Do In East Timor
East Timor is really one of the last remaining frontiers left to be traversed by travellers in Southeast Asia. Before I visited the small, eastern half of the island of Timor, I knew little of the people, the places or even the history. I just knew that this was a new country, a country that had been ravaged by conflict and that only achieved independence in 2002 from Indonesia.
I wanted to find out more, and so I travelled to East Timor to see for myself what this small nation is like. It turned out to be one of the most exciting and adventurous trips that I’ve ever made anywhere in the world, and now I’d encourage anyone else to travel to East Timor too.
Before I set off to explore the country though, I found very little in the way of information or even just inspiration on what to do, where to go and what to see. I had to find out a lot the hard way and I had to take the long way round to get to a lot of places. To help you out on your journey or perhaps to just inspire you to visit, here were my favourite experiences from travelling across the country and here are the best things to do in East Timor!
The Best Experiences And The Best Things To Do In East Timor
Discover Timorese History in Dili
Dili is the city where every traveller begins their journey and understanding of East Timor. It’s the nation’s seaside capital and a city that has been through conflict after conflict. In Dili, while beginning to learn about the country and the people of East Timor, visit the Timorese Resistance Museum and the Chega! Exhibition to learn about the country’s long history of colonialism and oppression and only recent independence. It’s the first experience any visitor to East Timor needs to have.
Climb To The Top Of Christo Rei
Christo Rei is a giant, towering statue of Christ the Redeemer that stands atop one of Dili’s most imposing mountainsides looking out to sea. It was a ‘gift’ from the Indonesian occupiers to the people of East Timor but has now become more a symbol of independence from the very Indonesians who gifted it. Climb the steps to the top and look out over the city.
Explore Timor’s Colonial History On The North West Coastal Road
The island of Timor is divided between east and west. This is a divide that has its roots far back in colonial history and a divide that still plays out politically today. The west is part of Indonesia and historically, was colonised by the Dutch. The east is now independent but was primarily colonised by the Portuguese. Along the coast west of Dili, are the ruins of Portuguese and Dutch prisons and forts that tell a tale of colonialism and European expansion across these islands. It’s a fascinating story and one that largely remains untold. Visit the old Portuguese Ai Pelo Prison, then travel further along the coast to see the Dutch colonial fort at Maubare.
Beaches, beaches, beaches
East Timor’s coastline is absolutely spectacular. It’s completely untouched too, and you will struggle to find anywhere else in Asia quite so beautiful and pristine. The water is generally clear and the coral is clean and colourful. The only annoyance is the potential presence of dangerous saltwater crocodiles in the ocean, but this is an adventure you are looking for right?
There are some great beaches around Dili and all along the coast towards the east, while Atauro Island and Jaco Island are spectacular and supposedly crocodile free. Grab a snorkel or contact one of Dili’s ever expanding dive companies to really get up close with some marine life off the beaches.
Travel to Tropical Atauro Island
Atauro Island is the tropical paradise you’ve never heard of. It’s a beautiful place, just a two-hour ferry ride away from Dili and it was one of the best experiences on my East Timor itinerary. The island is surrounded by some of the world’s most biodiverse waters. The coral is the best I have ever seen anywhere in the world, and the marine life is absolutely abundant. The island itself is rugged and remote, and at times can be completely isolated from the mainland by bad weather, but the beaches are golden and beautiful and the locals are gearing up to welcome more tourists to their island home in the future.
Go Swimming In Baucau
Baucau lies 125 kilometres east of Dili, and it’s the country’s second city. It’s a ramshackle colonial town that overlooks the coastline and is fringed by the towering mountains of the island’s interior. Baucau though is famous for its natural swimming pool. A huge open air pool that’s fed by spring waters from the hills, and in hot and sweaty Timor, a swimming pool is worth a long drive from the capital to enjoy.
Climb Mount Ramelau
Mount Ramelau is the highest peak in East Timor and it’s a mountain that’s steeped in mystery and local culture and tradition. Locals will frequently make pilgrimages to the summit, as it’s an important peak that has to be climbed. The walk to the top isn’t the hardest climb in Timor. Many more mountains in the island’s rugged interior are much more challenging. But the mountain is sacred, and a visit here can help you understand Timorese culture. Unfortunately, when I visited East Timor, the weather stopped me from travelling and making the climb. There was just too much fog. Another reason why the mountain is literally shrouded in mystery.
Discover The Lost World
A mountain that I did attempt to climb, however, was Mundo Perdido, The Lost World. This is one of the tallest in the country and is a place that was used as a guerrilla hideout by East Timorese forces during their struggle for independence. The mountain is as mysterious as Ramelau and there was just as much fog when I attempted to summit. I had to turn back halfway, but not before I’d begun to experience the culture that has been borne in the mountains over centuries here in Timor.
Dodge Crocodiles at Lake Ira Lalora
Crocodiles are a huge part of Timorese culture. The island is home to huge populations of the dangerous animals, and the shape of the island is even said to resemble that of a crocodile. Tales and legends abound in local culture and traditions that involve the crocodile. Across the island, you will see danger signs warning of crocodile activity in certain areas. In particular, the most dangerous place in the country is Lake Ira Lalora, which is part of East Timor’s only national park. It’s a sacred area because it’s an area that’s home to the densest concentration of crocodiles in the country. Be careful.
Travel To The Deserted, Tropical Jaco Island
In the far east of the island is the country’s most beautiful asset. Jaco Island is difficult to reach but it’s the most incredible island you will ever see. A white sand beach surrounds a tropical island. And that island is completely deserted. It’s sacred in local culture and no one stays the night, no one has built a home, or a hotel or anything. It’s utterly devoid of people. It’s literally a deserted paradise. If you travel to Jaco, you can pay local fishermen to ferry you across where you can stay for a day on your own private island
Pay Your Respects To Fallen Journalists At Balibo
On the border with Indonesia in the west is the small town of Balibo. This place would be rather insignificant if it wasn’t for the fact that it was here that the Indonesian began their invasion of East Timor in 1975. It was here the long occupation began, and at Balibo, the first casualties were five journalists working for Australian news companies. Known as the Balibo Five, they became symbols of the world’s disinterest in the events that were happening in far-off Timor, and today there is a museum honouring their sacrifice in this far corner of the world.
Visit The Oecusse Enclave To Get Really Off The Beaten Track
If East Timor as a whole isn’t far enough off the beaten track for your tastes then it’s possible to get even more remote and even further off the beaten track by visiting the enclave of Oecusse. It’s a small wedge of East Timor, that’s completely cut off from the rest of the country by the Indonesian area of West Timor. Some call it an island within an island, and it’s hard to be anywhere further off the well trodden path in this isolated enclave.
Travel Overland To West Timor (or Vice Versa!)
When you’ve experienced all there is to East Timor – or simply exhausted my list here – then the next adventure awaits you across the border in West Timor. Travel overland for some real fun, and meet the people on the other side of the border. You might find like I did, that they aren’t really so different from the people in the east. They just speak a little less Portuguese.
All Photos and Words by Richard Collett
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