The Crocodile of the Pacific
For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the ocean. Nothing brings me more joy than sinking my toes into the sand and watching the sunset over the ocean while the waves lap onto the beach. This love has brought me back to the Asia Pacific and from island to island one thing is clear: the ocean is life. The ocean is revenue, the ocean is food, the ocean is fun. As the sun rises and the tide is low, teenagers and young adults are gathering mollusks and crabs from their otherwise submerged homes. Throughout the day, the shoreline brings families, friends, and neighbors together. Deep into the evening, floating clusters of spotlights illuminate the water surrounding ships that serve as a home base for divers and fishers.
Nowhere has this intimate connection to the ocean been more obvious than the coast of Timor Leste, the world's youngest sovereign state (declaring independence in 2002).
For those of you who roll your eyes when you see yet another Instagram couple posing on a swing over the ocean in Bali, Timor Leste might be the perfect destination for you. During my three days in Dili (the nation's capital) I saw less than a handful of foreigners giving the country a nearly impossible to find authenticity. There were no tourist filled markets. No one was trying to sell me fake souvenirs. Though there is no way of knowing for sure, I am pretty confident that I was never upcharged simply for being American. For those of you traveling in East and Southeast Asia, you know this is rare.
Timor Leste is the kind of island we picture when we close our eyes and dream of a place where time seems to move slower and where palm trees line the ocean. The entire population of the small country is only barely more than one-million people, most of whom live in the capital coastal city. Dili is a narrow strip defined by a few main streets. Avenue Portugal hugs the coast. On one side, sweeping views of the ocean are filled with smaller and smaller islands that disappear over the horizon. On the other side of Avenue Portugal is a haphazard collection of inns, embassies, hostels, restaurants, and coffee shops all competing for the best views in Timor. For visitors making their way to Timor, this street will be your home base.
In a matter of hours after arriving in Timor Leste, a trend became obvious. Crocodiles were the decor of choice. They were carved into furniture, painted on walls, and placed on the dashboard of cars. I have never seen more crocodile decor in my life. As the trend continued, so did my curiosity. I was actually quite surprised to learn that the water off the coast was filled with salt water crocs (in hindsight, this makes sense based on the country's proximity to Australia and New Zealand). This also explains why very few people were swimming in the picturesque waters. It still didn't add up. We have millions of pigeons in San Francisco and we have exactly zero pictures of them in our apartment.
I dug further and I got to the bottom of it. The lore of the crocodile runs deep in East Timor. The legend goes that a young boy found a stranded crocodile and carried him to sea. The crocodile was eternally grateful. Years later, the boy wanted to see the world. He called to the crocodile. When the crocodile arrived, the boy climbed on his back and they set off swimming until the crocodile grew tired. “Brother, we have traveled for a long way.
But now the time has come for me to die. In memory of your kindness, I will turn myself into a beautiful island, where you and your children can live until the sun sinks into the sea.”
As the crocodile died, he grew and grew, and his rigid back became the mountains and his scales the hills of Timor.
This is the legend of the crocodile of the Pacific.
What to expect when you visit Timor Leste
If you have not traveled Southeast Asia or have not stayed on the islands in the Pacific, Timor Leste will be quite different. First, it is worth noting that Timor is a young nation without much luxury. While it has come a long way since 2002, there is a lot of growth in its future. Timor is not for those that find their comfort between the sheets of a plush king sized bed in a Four Seasons. Timor is for the travelers that find their comfort with a backpack on, a camera in hand, and a curiosity to try new things.
Where to stay in Timor Leste
Avenue Portugal is the artery of Dili and staying on the avenue makes it easy to explore the city (and the nation). When traveling to Timor, we recommend you stay either at Hotel Esplanada or Hotel Timor
Hotel Esplanada With a full restaurant, pool, garden, and a perfect location across from the beach, Hotel Esplanada is the perfect home for us in Dili. Drinking a Bintang on the balcony of the restaurant taking in the views and watching life pass by is a highlight of the country. The clean rooms are well air-conditioned, comfortable, and quiet with a never end supply of drinking water. The highlight at Hotel Esplanada is definitely outside of your room though. A garden with winding pathways surround a beautiful outdoor pool perfect for cooling down.
Hotel Timor Just up the avenue from Hotel Esplanada, this hotel has more comforts and luxuries. While the beach is just a 5-minute walk, Hotel Timor is on a main square in the city providing direct access to activities and sites around the city.
Where to eat in Timor Leste
Fine dining is one of the luxuries that has not made its way to the island. Though there is still an art to finding good food, beer, and cocktails in Dili.
Hotel Esplanada Even if you decide to stay somewhere else, the restaurant in Hotel Esplanada is a great option for a beer and some food.
Osteria Italiana For an elevated option, this Italian restaurant has a massive list of Italian dishes from pasta to pizza and a small selection of local dishes.
Cafe Brisa Serena (Letefoho) In our opinion, there is one option for coffee that stands above the others. This small shop is unlike any we have found anywhere in the world. Dedicated to the art, science, history, and taste of coffee, Letefoho has to be an early morning stop as you walk the Avenue and listen to the waves crash on the beach.
One final recommendation
The size of Timor Leste makes exploring very easy. If you have the time and the capacity, we suggest renting a motorcycle, scooter, or car and follow the Avenue of President Nicolau Lobato out of Dili. The road follows the coast through forests and past sweeping views of the ocean and mountains. Take the time, see the country, meet the people, drink the coffee, listen to the waves, and get to know the crocodile of the Pacific.
Travel. Capture. Taste