In May 2002, after 450 years of near-continuous foreign occupation, East Timor became an independent state. The road to independence was long and traumatic. Even so there’s plenty to admire in this picturesque country of beaches and mountains while getting to grips with the complex history.
The Portuguese first arrived on the island in the early 16th century and by the 1550s had occupied the eastern part. The Dutch took control of the western part, which became part of the Dutch East Indies and, after independence, Indonesia. In 1975, the new left-wing Portuguese government relinquished all of its colonies. East Timor then enjoyed just a few days of independence, before the Indonesians annexed it as their 27th province. There was little local resistance and the international community largely acquiesced.
In the aftermath, the main independence movement faced a savage counter-insurgency, during which the Indonesian army killed over 100,000 East Timorese. Finally, a referendum was offered to East Timor in 1999, and 80% opted for independence. Violent reprisals by the military followed, but the country eventually became independent.
Colonial architecture, Portuguese fortresses and other treasures from the 100-year Portuguese occupation can be found all over the country. However, many towns and villages were destroyed during the Indonesian occupation and the fighting in 1999, and these are only slowly being rebuilt. Many houses are still erected on stilts in the traditional way, using local materials such as grass, bamboo, tree trunks and palm leaves.
Despite the tragic recent history, East Timor’s immaculate reefs, little-trodden mountain paths and rich, traditional cultural that has endured in the face of war make it a true hidden gem. Hiking in the hills will bring you to otherworldly jungle caves, while exploring settlements away from the capital of Dili give a taste of village life. Well off the beaten track, East Timor is still getting back on its feet, but is a raw and compelling destination.
14,919 sq km (5,760 sq miles).
1,211,245 (UN estimate 2016).
82.5 per sq km.
President Taur Matan Ruak since 2012.
Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araújo since 2015.
220 volts AC, 50Hz. European-style plugs with two round pins are standard, but some hotels also have sockets for Australian-style plugs with three flat pins.