Singapore, 26th January 2009. Flying to Timor Leste is easy. Just jump on a plane at Changi Airport, Singapore. It's a four-hour journey to Nicolau Lobato - but when you arrive, it's like you've travelled back in time.
Stunning sights from a coastal drive.
"Bon dia," said the immigration official, smiling broadly as he took my passport to enter the visa details - by hand, into a great big book. No computers here; no electronic tickets or passport scanners. Timor Leste is still an underdeveloped country, but this is where much of its charm lies.
Admittedly, Dili, the capital, has its share of street chaos with hooting mopeds, food vendors, the occasional Internet cafe and chunky 4WDs (four-wheel drives).
But venture just a few kilometres up or down the coast to Manatuto or Liquica, or head inland up into the mountains towards Maubisse, and the change is dramatic.
As Dr Jose Ramos Horta, President of Timor Leste, said to us: "The Portuguese were here for 400 years, and they did basically nothing while they were here."
All they left when they went was their language and a deep abiding Roman Catholic faith. No scenery-spoiling motorways, no river dams, no railways, almost nothing apart from a few colonial buildings, an odd church or two and the remains of an old fort. The countryside was untouched by modern progress.
Mountains reach more than 6,000 feet here.
"We are a poor country, but we are proud of our country and want to welcome people here," added the President.
"This," said our guide the next day, "is some of the most stunning scenery." He was right. We had driven about 40 minutes out of Dili, east along the coast, past the huge statue of Christ the Redeemer on its crag at Ponta Fatossidi (Cape Fatucama), past tiny thatched-hut villages with running kids and groups of fishermen sitting playing cards.
Once through the villages, the road clings to the edge of the cliffs at Ponta Hatolana Rein, some 250m above tiny white sand beaches. The cliffs, covered in green tropical plants and huge white gum trees, plunge into the pure blue sea - a stunning sight. The marble rock faces glowed red, black and white in the afternoon sun, fit for a scene in the next James Bond movie.
We passed by Dollar Beach (it's called that because the locals used to charge a dollar to drive onto it) and stopped in the tiny hamlet of Berhedan for local honey, sold in old rum bottles yet tasting of native flowers. Every place we passed, people waved and smiled. Some even cautioned us to be careful where we swam - the national animal is not the crocodile for nothing.
The next day, we took a trip into the hills, to a tiny village near Letefoho where a new school was being opened. The road there can be described as a challenge, which means you definitely need a 4WD. Winding up across the mountains, we had wonderful views of the sea out over Dili, and glimpses of the scores of tiny hamlets that seem to hide behind every curve of the road and hilltop.
Apparently, locals shun the more open land near the sea and prefer to live in the hills, where it is harder for marauding tribes to mount surprise attacks. Whatever the reason, this fondness for hill-dwelling has given rise to a unique way of life. Tiny fenced plots of cassava and corn sit next to rushing streams and thatched storage barns.
Dogs and chickens wander about on single-file paths between rice patches.
Men and women in locally woven turbans herd the local cow between smoky huts.
All this makes trekking and walking in this area excellent, but check your accommodation options first - hotels are thin on the ground.
Once the ceremony to open the school started, the local orchestra - a group of older women with gongs - led the festivities.
President Horta and moms of school going kids.
They were joined by village elders in ornate feather and silver headdresses, and some very cool shades. Everybody joined in, laughing, dancing, stamping to the music, eating pig livers, drinking strong local coffee and eating super-sweet milky puddings.
The celebrations went on for hours, but it was so interesting, it was never tiring. A Singaporean policeman, on local duty with the United Nations, stated the obvious: "It is very different from Singapore."
Before we left Timor Leste, I thanked our guide and asked him what he wanted me to tell our readers.
"Please tell your readers Timor Leste is a safe and friendly place to visit," he said.
He didn't need to say that; it is both those and more. It is a stunningly beautiful destination, with a new experience around almost every corner. And thanks to all those old Portuguese roads, there are plenty of those.
Related Articles on Gaia Discovery:
President Horta: Let's have an Asian Climate Change Summit
Small Island Developing States Partnership launches the multimedia Green Disc: New Technologies for a New Future.
Fancy a trip up to Timor Leste? Read about the charms of Viqueque - caving, cockfights and plenty of soothing countrysides.
The Editor thanks Austasia Airlines and Hotel California for their gracious sponsorships in enabling this interview.
Austasia Airlines takes you from Singapore to Dili twice a week, and soon three times a week via SilkAir. Flight time around three and half hours. Flight details:
MI 296 Singapore to Dili 0920 – 1415 hrs
MI 295 Dili to Singapore 1515 – 1800 hrs