Into the Ocean, Into History: Indonesia Part 2 & Timor-Leste

After leaving Malang, I flew to the town of Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores. A town of only a couple thousand people, Labuan Bajo has no particular historic or cultural significance. What it does have is the closest airport to Komodo National Park, home of the eponymous dragons. That, plus a plethora of dive sites makes it a tourist mecca that far outweighs its size. Perhaps it was my childhood love of dinosaurs drew me to their closest modern counterparts on Komodo, but I chose the right time to go, as due to ecological pressures from tourism (including the mass theft of juvenile dragons) the Indonesian government plans to close Komodo island for one year starting next January (Komodo dragons are found on a few other islands in the area, so large reptile enthusiasts will not be entirely out of luck). Luckily on this trip, there was no difficulty spotting the lizards – it took all of a few hundred feet of hiking before running into two lying in the middle of the trail, while on the return trip we saw three more, including one sleeping right next to the park restaurant. Despite their comfort with humans and laziness (their hunting style is apparently to lay at a waterhole until a prey animal appears, then wait for it to die from the bacteria in their saliva), the Komodo dragons are as impressive as hoped for, and quite dangerous if traveling solo in the remote parts of the island.

The Komodo tour also included a climb to the heights of Padar island to view the paradisiacal landscape of deserted tropical islands as far as the eye could see and a trip to an impressive reef abutting a pink sand beach, though rough seas disrupted another spot known for its manta ray population, which would have been exciting to see. The six hours spent on a boat were less enjoyable, but it was nonetheless easy to relax with the sun beating down and the sea breezes blowing over the deck. Before the tour, I also took the hostel’s old kayak out to explore Labuan Bajo’s bay – before realizing that I was returning at low tide, forcing me to walk through a particularly disgusting stream to return (proper garbage disposal is very lacking throughout Indonesia).

After Labuan Bajo, I doubled back to perhaps the most essential spot on any traveler’s Indonesian itinerary, Bali. Bali is the stereotypical picture most Westerners have of Indonesia, but besides the climate it could not be more different than the rest of the country. The only overwhelmingly Hindu island of Indonesia, it preserves an ancient culture long ago displaced by Islam in the rest of the archipelago, though remnants still remain as monuments such as Prambanan. Given the syncretism and general liberalism of Indonesian Islam the contrast is not so great as between India or Pakistan, for example, but minarets are replaced with monumental statues of Hindu gods and ornate temple gateways, pork rejoins the menu, and headscarves are nowhere to be seen. Needless to say, any Ramadan festivities or limited eating options were absent from Bali – but given the ubiquity of Hindu festivals the island was still in a celebratory mood. Long a tourist destination, Bali is far more geared toward and used to Westerners than other parts of the country, though only marginally more expensive.

Many Western visitors to Bali head straight to the beaches, I however stayed with relatives living in inland Ubud. While no less touristy, Ubud focuses more on cultural, spiritual, and gastronomic tourism and as a result is classier and somewhat more authentic than the beach districts. And while I usually avoid over-touristed sites and even early in the summer Ubud’s main street is packed, Ubud is certainly worth its reputation. In just two days I hit the local palace, multiple temples (including Saraswati, famous for its lotus ponds; Tirta Empul, which featured ritual water immersion; and the 11th century rock sculptures of Gunung Kawi), spectacular rice terraces, the sprawling local market, and a traditional Hindu kecak dance ceremony.  And that’s ignoring all the spas, top-tier vegetarian restaurants, and numerous other historic and natural sites which could easily give someone with more time a week’s worth of activities. While in many cases it seemed tourism had largely replaced the traditional spiritual aspect of these sites or activities, they nonetheless were well-maintained, beautiful destinations that presented an excellent picture of Bali’s unique cultural offerings. Having access to my family’s driver certainly helped, as public transit is nonexistent in Bali, giving taxi drivers license to charge ridiculous prices to whichever tourists are unable to rent their own motorbikes to navigate the constant traffic. Sadly, my constant island-hopping forced me to miss many other Bali highlights, but given the wealth of direct international flights to the island, it’s not difficult to return.

The last segment of my trip left Indonesia, even if not by a lot, as I escaped the tourist highlights to squeeze in a visit to the world’s 4th newest country, Timor-Leste. Unlike the rest of the archipelago, which was divided between the Netherlands (Indonesia) and the UK (Malaysia/Brunei), Timor-Leste was a Portuguese colony (Timor-Leste is the Portuguese translation and official name of East Timor, which used to be the more commonly used name in the US). It experienced an extremely short-lived independence in 1975, after which is was violently annexed by Indonesia, then fought a guerrilla war for the next 30 years before finally breaking away in 2003 after significant damage to the country. After independence, it essentially dropped off the global map except for Peace Corps volunteers and geography enthusiasts, an isolated and undeveloped backwater of the world of minimal strategic or economic importance. Even the discovery of oil has not meaningfully changed that situation, especially as the large UN presence wound down as the country transitioned into a shaky democracy, though competition between the US and China in Southeast Asia has brought some investment benefits. Still, with only three flights in and out of the country a day (and my original one was cancelled), infrastructure largely nonexistent outside the capital, and high prices compared to the rest of the region, it’s still not an easy country to visit. However, it certainly is a fascinating one. The struggle for independence has created a national pride that supersedes internal divisions – Timor has a stunning ethno-linguistic diversity for its size, with the largest local language only spoken by 25% of the population; the people of West Timor, which remained Indonesian, are traditionally antagonistic to their eastern brethren but many families have ties across the border. Flags and the name of independence hero Xanana Gusmao are ubiquitous, while the colonial inheritance of Catholicism and the Portuguese language have become the unifying features of the new nation. It is interesting to contrast the situation in Timor-Leste with that of other separatist regions of Indonesia, as the diversity and disconnectedness of the country prompted independence movements in Aceh, West Papua, and the Moluccas that failed, while little Timor-Leste eventually won.

That being said, Timor-Leste is still limited when it comes to tourist attractions. The capital, Dili, is a standard second-rate third-world city (though one with a disproportionately high number of expatriates). While attractively sited along the waterfront it has relatively few attractions, save a museum of the war for independence and a colossal statue of Jesus overlooking the bay (not the only way that Timor-Leste feels similar to Brazil). The other “cities” of the country are even less engaging, while the interior jungles, mountains, and tribal villages require four-wheel drives and far more than a few days to explore, making them essentially inaccessible to all but the most devoted trekkers. What Timor-Leste does have in profusion are reefs, as it is located at the heart of the coral triangle, the richest underwater environment in the world. And because of its lack of development, Timor-Leste’s reefs are in better condition and less crowded than many others in Indonesia (though Indonesia does have many spectacular ones as well). Most famous is Atauro island, across Dili’s harbor, though many dive sites are only a short drive from Dili (indeed, one good one is apparently right off one of the main docks). Thus, I spent most of my full day in Timor-Leste in the water as I snorkeled at a couple beaches east of town. Despite my hostel owner’s recommendations, it’s debatable whether the locations I visited were better than taking the shuttle to Atauro, but they nonetheless presented a remarkable variety of fish and coral and no other swimmers, though I again missed out on seeing any larger marine creatures such as dugongs, which are present at one of the beaches I visited (and I do regret not investing in an underwater camera before this trip). While I enjoyed my time in Timor-Leste, it is hard to imagine how it can differentiate itself enough from Indonesia to become a thriving tourist destination – but perhaps it will always be best suited to people like me who are willing to sacrifice some comfort to experience something a little unique.

Despite my worries about flight cancellations due to the eruption of Mt. Agung on Bali the weekend I left (and various tropical diseases I ended up escaping), it was no difficulty returning from Timor-Leste. While there are many more parts of Indonesia still to explore (and I would return to Timor-Leste too) the 36 hours I spent in planes or airports traveling back may dissuade me from stopping back in the region in the near future – so my next blog will likely be from somewhere a little closer to home.