The landscapes were beyond breathtaking, the culture was sanguine and optimistic, and the adventures were truly memorable. But what captured and retained my attention, as well as my heart, in Timor-Leste were the children.
Despite the poor living conditions, weak health including malnutrition, shortage of food and lack of education, the young ones remained upbeat about life as they transformed the natural outdoors into their playgrounds.
Their eyes were filled with curiosity as they stared up at me, someone of a different skin colour, the inability to converse in their language and a huge DSLR camera lens in their faces.
Still, they shyly accepted the candies and biscuits from me, wolfing them down immediately, before willingly posing for photos.
Finding its feet as a nation, Timor-Leste is recovering well since it regained independence a decade ago. Slowly opening up to the rest of the world, Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, has its roads filled with vehicles as buildings and even its first shopping mall sprout up in welcome of tourists. Receiving looks of doubt and to some extent, horror, my friends were not encouraging when I told them I was headed towards Southeast Asia’s newest and poorest nation. However, the one week spent in Timor-Leste has opened up my mind and heart in more ways than one with its renewed confidence to overcome the struggles of poverty and corruption.
Courtesy of Air Timor, this trip to Timor-Leste was probably the most exciting outdoor adventure I’ve ever been on. Flying directly into the Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili, the flight was only three and a half hours long, on the chartered Silkair flight. The first thing to do upon arriving in the capital was to go on a little city tour with tour operators Island Explorer Holidays, who planned the itinerary of the trip together with Air Timor.
Timor-Leste is a predominantly Roman Catholic country with 98 per cent of the population of the Roman Catholic religion, so it was not surprising to see many churches and religious influences around. We were brought to see two religious statues – the six-metre bronze Pope John Paul II statue at Dili Bay and the famous Cristo Rei (Christ the King) statue.
To see Cristo Rei, a 27-metre-tall statue of Jesus standing on a globe, I had to climb hundreds of steps up to the top. This was built in 1996 by the Indonesians as a gift to the Timorese during the occupation and offers commanding scenic views of the surrounding seas such as Cape Fatucama and Areia Branca.
There are five districts on Atauro Island and a few eco lodges – that involve minimal use of energy – you can stay at, such as Barry’s Place.
On the narrow and windy mountainous tracks, we drove through fog, rain, mist; slipping and sliding on the muddy and potholed grounds towards Maliana and Maubisse. Along the way, we made stops at former Portuguese prison Aipelo; Batugade where the Indonesian border is; Maubara where there is an ancient Portuguese garrison; and Balibo, where a group of Australian journalists were murdered by Indonesian troops in 1975.
Some remote areas outside of Dili are inaccessible due to poor road infrastructure and mountainous geography, hence not having electricity or running water. For certain places such as Maliana, the capital of Bobonaro district, electricity is cut off in the daytime and only turned on for a certain period of the night.
From the humble guest house we put up at for a night at Bobonaro, the journey to Marobo Spring was a genuinely rocky one. The final part of the way to Marobo Spring then had to be covered by foot. Previously a Portuguese resort and mountain retreat, Marobo Spring has since been abandoned, although the natural hot sulphur springs remain. There is a rectangular pool which you can soak in, accompanied by the surrounding mountains – everything in its pure natural form.
Climbing to higher ground, we went around Mount Kablak and Mount Ramelau (the highest mountain of Timor-Leste) on the way to Maubisse, which is 1,400 metres above sea level. Putting up at Pousada de Maubisse, a hilltop Portuguese hotel, the views of rolling hills and expansive valleys in the early morning were literally clouded over.
We then drove up even higher, to visit families living 1,500 metres above sea level, in cone-shaped houses.
Two things you want to bring home as a memento would be the coffee, which Starbucks buys from, and tais, a traditional weaving cloth made by the Timorese women that can be used as apparel or home décor. Traditional handicrafts and local souvenirs can be bought at Tais Market…
…or at the five-storey modern Timor Plaza, which has retail outlets, restaurants, offices, conference facilities, service apartments, a hotel and even a sky garden on the rooftop.
Dili is already on track with its modernisation progress, though still having some way to go before becoming as commercialised as typical tourist beach getaways like Phuket or Bali. For a country rich in oil and gas resources, hopefully the living conditions and poverty levels can be improved as Timor-Leste rebuilds its tomorrow.
For more photos of my trip to Timor-Leste, view here.
Timezone: GMT +9
Languages: Tetum, Portuguese (official languages); Bahasa Indonesian, English (working languages)
Visa and Airport Tax: US$30 for visa on arrival and US$10 for departure tax
Weather: Tropical humid (average of 19˚C to 35˚C)
Flight: 3 times a week direct from Singapore to Dili by Air Timor
Island Explorer Holidays (Dili Office)
Tel: + 670 331 2777
Estrada Areia Branca
Meti-Aut, Dili, Timor-Leste
Tel: +670 332 2929