Timor-Leste: Visiting the forgotten jewel of Southeast Asia

https://www.astroawani.com/gaya-hidup/timorleste-visiting-the-forgotten-jewel-of-southeast-asia-117043

Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli

Timor-Leste: Visiting the forgotten jewel of Southeast Asia
Timor-Leste: A beautiful beach near Laga

The island of Timor is located in the far eastern portion of the Malay Archipelago and is shared by two sovereign nations – Indonesia and Timor-Leste.Literally meaning ‘east’ in Malay-Indonesian, the pre-colonial history of the island of Timor is unclear – except it was once under the influence of the mighty Majapahit Empire and later on was loosely governed by the Kingdom of Ambeno.With a population of slightly more than a million, Timor-Leste is Asia’s youngest country subsequent to gaining independence from Indonesia in 2002.

Timor-Leste endured a dark and murky past under Portuguese administration and later experienced brutal Indonesian occupation.

Pic 1: The Australian outback-like landscape of Timor-Leste
Pic 1: The Australian outback-like landscape of Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste remains a hidden gem, largely ignored by tourists.The capital Dili, can only be reached directly from three cities; Singapore, Denpasar (Bali) and Darwin.The cheapest way to Timor-Leste from Kuala Lumpur is to fly to Dili either with NAM/Sriwijaya Air or Citilink Airlines via Bali – the overall cost is around RM1200 return trip.

Malaysians are required to purchase a visa-upon arrival of US$30 to enter Timor-Leste. This can be done at the main airport in Dili.The current Timorese government is promoting Portuguese as the national language of the country even though most of the younger generation perceived it as ’ colonial language’.

Even after 14 years of independence, Portuguese is spoken by only about 5% of the population with Bahasa Indonesia understood by majority Timorese.Bahasa Indonesia is, till now, largely used in business and in universities alongside Tetum as the mother tongue for most Timorese.

Visiting Academic

The first time I visited Timor-Leste was in May 2015 upon the invitation of Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL) and Universidade De Paz (UNPAZ), both located in Dili.The trip was partly funded by the organisers and I was requested to deliver a talk on the Timor Sea dispute between Australia and Timor-Leste.

Pic 2: With students at the Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL) in Dili, Timor-Leste
Pic 2: With students at the Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL) in Dili, Timor-Leste

My second trip was recently in September 2016 where I made a courtesy visit to the Rector of Universidade Dili (UNDIL), Senhor Estevao Da Costa Belo and delivered an academic lecture entitled ‘Should Timor-Leste become a member of ASEAN?’ at UNTL.I was very impressed with the active participation of students during the Q&A session despite lack of proficiency in the English language.

The students took advantage of the lecture to exchange perspectives, knowledge and viewpoints particularly on the maritime disputes involving South China Sea and the Timor Sea.Unlike universities in Malaysia with huge campuses and beautifully landscaped compounds, the universities in Timor-Leste are modest in size, infrastructures and facilities.This shortcoming is not perceived as major hindrance for many Timorese students as they are ever-willing to educate themselves to build a better future for their beloved country.

Pic 3: With students at the Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL) in Dili, Timor-Leste
Pic 3: With students at the Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL) in Dili, Timor-Leste

In addition, I also had the opportunity to meet with the Muslim Community Leader of Timor-Leste, Pak Arif Abdullah Sagran who graciously offered to host me for the rest of my stay in Dili.Pak Arif is a well-known figure in Timor-Leste and a highly respected individual particularly among the Muslim community.


From Dili to Lospalos

When I first visited Timor-Leste in 2015, I mainly toured around Dili and went down to Maubara, located 50 km west of Dili, a site of an ancient Portuguese fort.Unlike other bustling Southeast Asian cities like Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Jakarta, Dili is a small town with a population of about 250,000.The cheapest accommodation is around US$30 and the most expensive is approximately US$200 and above.

The official currency is the American Dollar and yes, Dili is obviously an expensive city.To get to see more of Timor-Leste, I arranged for a trip to Lospalos located about 220 km east of Dili.A student of UNTL, Senhor Da Costa Acacio has gracefully agreed to bring me on this tour with his motorbike.

Pic 4: Timorese traditional house
Pic 4: Timorese traditional house

Lospalos is home to the unique Fataluku houses – a tall, elongated house with stilts supporting a main living room topped by a high, tapering thatched roof – the pride of Timor-Leste.As a young country, Timor-Leste is still struggling with lack of sufficient infrastructure particularly good quality roads connecting town and villages along the length of this island nation.

The Portuguese did not provide much infrastructural development for Timor-Leste during its 400 years of colonial rule. When the Portuguese colonised Malacca, the Portuguese did not dare venturing outside the walls of A Famosa fearing attacks by other Malay sultanates such as Aceh and Johore.The remnants of Portuguese rule in Malaysia could only be seen in Malacca.This was not the case for Timor-Leste. The vestiges of Portuguese colonial rule could be traced in almost all towns along the way, particularly in Dili, Baucau, Lautem, Com and Lospalos.

Pic 5: The main road connecting Dili and Lospalos in Timor-Leste
Pic 5: The main road connecting Dili and Lospalos in Timor-Leste

Although Indonesia is remembered for its brutal occupation in 1974, Indonesia has provided Timor-Leste with modern infrastructural development never before seen under Portuguese rule.In just a short time span of 25 years, the Suharto administration has built roads, an airport, schools, universities, hospitals and promoted Bahasa Indonesia as a language of unity.

Bahasa Indonesia is still widely and fluently spoken among Timorese even though Timor-Leste is no longer ruled by Jakarta.The effort by the Suharto regime is inspiring – something that Malaysia has failed to undertake so far – not all Malaysians are fluent in Bahasa Malaysia despite five decades of nationhood.

Senhor Costa and myself left Dili for Lospalos at 4am on 10 September 2016.The main roads connecting Dili and Lospalos are paved but are not well maintained particularly from Baucau to Laga.The roads are dotted with huge potholes – 8 hours of motorcycle ride for a mere 220 km journey.The traveling time could take longer with four-wheeled vehicles.

Pic 6: The stretch from Baucau to Laga in Timor-Leste
Pic 6: The stretch from Baucau to Laga in Timor-Leste

The distance of this journey is equivalent to that of Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Kangsar, Perak.However, driving on PLUS highway made it possible for a 220 km journey to be completed only in 2 hours and 30 minutes.Taking an example from Malaysia, good quality roads and highways are vital to drive economic growth particularly for a young developing country like Timor-Leste.

The view along the way was spectacular with miles of virgin beachfront, rolling cliffs and Australian outback-like bushlands.However, this beautiful landscape hides a painful history, as it was once a ferocious battlefield between the Indonesian army and the resistance.

Many villages were burnt to the ground during the Indonesian occupation in 1975 causing innocent Timorese to flee into the wilderness.

Pic 7: Timor-Leste's Mount Matebian and its surroundings.
Pic 7: Timor-Leste’s Mount Matebian and its surroundings.

Mount Matebian, the second tallest peak in Timor-Leste, was a major base for the resistance army against Indonesian occupation.Life was hard back then with lack of food, clean water with most Timorese lost their properties and loved-ones. After riding for about four hours, we reached Baucau, a city located halfway between Dili and Lospalos.

Pic 8: The ruins of Portuguese heritage in Baucau, Timor Leste
Pic 8: The ruins of Portuguese heritage in Baucau, Timor Leste

This colonial city is located on a hill overlooking the Ombai-Wetar Strait and is rich in Portuguese legacy.Portuguese rule was not all rainbow in the sky either – many Timorese were forced into becoming slave labourers for the colonists.The existence of ruins of Portuguese-built prisons and police stations along the way indicated that life was not easy back then. We reached Com at 1pm and the view was breathtaking.

This coastal village is a hidden paradise at the eastern end of Timor-Leste.With crystal clear waters and miles of white sandy beaches, Timor-Leste has huge potentials to become the next ‘big thing’ after Bali, Langkawi and Phuket in Southeast Asia.However, due to lack of infrastructural facilities, this country still has a long way to go.

Pic 9: The breathtaking beach of Com in Timor-Leste
Pic 9: The breathtaking beach of Com in Timor-Leste

Our final stop was at Lospalos, a town located on a plateau with cool temperature of about 22 degrees Celsius.There is nothing special about Lospalos, except the fact that it is home of the rumah adat (traditional house) of the Timorese.The Indonesian government promoted the preservation of this rumah adat during its 25-year rule.

However, when I visited the rumah adat, it was practically dilapidating and falling into a state of disrepair, nevertheless, still unique and lovely.We left for Dili at 6 pm and it was a challenging journey.Unlike traveling on Malaysian highways, the poor quality roads coupled with the criss-crossing of wild animals added to the high risk of accidents on our journey back to the capital city.True enough, we encountered two accidents along the way involving a collision between motorcyclists and the criss-crossing wildlife.

We also saw a number of vehicle breakdowns along the way.After nine-hours of tiring journey, we reached Dili at 3 am on 11 September 2016.Although the journey was difficult, it was an amazing experience where I get to see for myself what Timor is like and I owe it all to Senhor Costa.


Building a Better Future

This young and beautiful nation is how I think Malaysia must have been like upon gaining independence.The British did not leave us with much development and infrastructural facilities when they exploited the natural resources of our land. In the end, colonialists will always be colonialists. It was us, the people of this country, who worked hard to build a better Malaysia.Malaysia experienced rapid development in the time span of just 59 years if compared to 171 years of British rule.

To many Timorese, Malaysia is indeed a success story.Likewise, centuries of Portuguese administration left Timor-Leste with practically nothing.It is the Timorese themselves who have to charter the future of their nation and it all goes back to providing sufficient infrastructural facilities and quality education for its citizens.

Timor-Leste will always be very close to my heart.With its abundance of natural resources and alluring beauty, Timor-Leste is truly a forgotten jewel of Southeast Asia.

Pic 10: A beautiful beach near Laga, Timor-Leste
Pic 10: A beautiful beach near Laga, Timor-Leste

Mohd Hazmi bin Mohd Rusli (Ph. D) is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a research associate at the Asia-Africa Legal Consultative Organization, New Delhi, India.

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