24 interesting facts about East Timor (Timor-Leste)

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The most interesting facts about East Timor (Timor-Leste) from the first new nation of the millennium to the world’s most biodiverse waters.

Colourful marine life in East Timor
Interesting facts about East Timor include its diverse marine life

Fast facts

Official name: Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
Population: 1,413,958
Area: 14,874 sq km
Capital city: Dili
Major languages: Tetun, Portuguese, Indonesian, English
Major religions: Roman Catholic 97.6%, Protestant/Evangelical 2%, Muslim 0.2%
Time zone: UTC+9 (Timor Leste Time)
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

Interesting facts about East Timor

1. East Timor (Timor-Leste) is an island nation in Southeast Asia bordering Indonesia.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

2. The name of the country translates as “Eastern-East” as “timor” stems from the Indonesian and Malay word “timur” which means “east” and “leste” which is the Portuguese word for “east”.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

3. Archaeological remains found in East Timor suggest the area has been inhabited for at least 42,000 years, making the site one of the region’s oldest sites of modern human activity.
– Source: University of Wollongong Australia (Journal)

Aerial view of Dili East Timor
Dili is the capital of East Timor (Shutterstock)

4. East Timor occupies the eastern half of the island of Timor, some small offshore islands and the enclave of Ambeno in West Timor.
– Source: Britannica

5. East Timor was colonised by Portugal during the 1600s. They remained in power almost entirely until 1975.
– Source: BBC News

6. Japan invaded East Timor in 1942 during the Second World War and occupied the country until 1945. The occupation, and subsequent battles with Australian troops, led to the death of over 60,000 East Timorese.
– Source: BBC News

7. East Timor initially declared independence in 1975 from Portugal. However, just nine days later it was invaded by Indonesia and declared as its 27th province.
– Source: Lonely Planet, BBC News

A map of East Timor
A map of East Timor (Shutterstock)

8. East Timor became the first new nation of the 21st century after it gained independence from Indonesia in 2002.
– Source: BBC News

9. As such, East Timor is also Asia’s newest country.
– Source: Lonely Planet

10. Two East Timorese have won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1996, the prize was awarded jointly to East Timorese activists José Ramos-Horta and Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo “for their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor.”
– Source: The Nobel Prize

11. East Timor’s flag has a red background with a black triangle, a yellow triangle and a white five-pointed star. The black symbolises colonial repression, yellow the struggle for independence and red the suffering of the country’s people. The white star expresses hope for the future.
– Source: Britannica

East Timor's flag
East Timor’s flag (Shutterstock)

12. East Timor is one of 27 countries that doesn’t have a single UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also doesn’t have any properties on the Tentative List of sites intended to be submitted for nomination.
– Source: UNESCOThe Telegraph

13. East Timor is located within the Coral Triangle, a marine area in the western Pacific Ocean home to an incredibly high number of corals (nearly 600 different species of reef-building corals alone). The region also sustains six of the world’s seven marine turtle species and more than 2,000 species of reef fish.
– Source: WWF

14. East Timor is home to the world’s most biodiverse waters. In 2016, scientists discovered 643 species in the waters around Atauro Island, many of which are believed to be entirely new.
– Source: The Guardian

A boat near Atauro Island
Atauro Island (Shutterstock)

15. At least 22 species of cetaceans (aquatic mammals such as whales, dolphins and porpoises) have been found in East Timor’s waters. These have included spinner dolphins and blue whales.
– Source: The Guardian

16. As well as the four main languages – Tetun, Portuguese, Indonesian and English – there are around 32 indigenous languages also spoken in East Timor.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

17. Dugongs can also be found in East Timor’s waters. Dugongs are considered sacred animals to some locals, and are not hunted. However, they are still considered a “Vulnerable” species due to a number of other threats.
– Source: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

A dugong in East Timorese waters
A dugong in East Timorese waters (Shutterstock)

18. East Timor’s national anthem, “Patria” (Fatherland), was first used when the country declared its independence from Portugal in 1975. The song’s lyricist, Francisco Borja Da Costa, was killed in the Indonesian invasion just days later.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

19. East Timor is one of only two predominantly Christian countries in Southeast Asia, the other one is the Philippines.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

20. East Timor is one of the least visited countries in the world. It only received around 74,000 tourists in 2017. For comparison, Indonesia received nearly 13 million.
– Source: UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)

21. A popular tourist attraction in East Timor is the 27m (89ft) high Cristo Rei statue of Jesus. The statue was a gift from the Indonesian government in 1996 and has 570 steps leading up to it.
– Source: Lonely Planet, Atlas Obscura

Aerial view of Cristo Rei
The Cristo Rei statue in East Timor Shutterstock)

22. East Timor is one of the poorest countries in Asia when measured by GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity (PPP). It is also the poorest country in East Asia.
– Source: World Bank

23. East Timor is the world’s second hungriest country and suffers from “alarming” levels of hunger according to the 2021 Global Hunger Index.
– Source: Global Hunger Index

24. As such, East Timor is also one of the world’s least obese nations. The country is ranked 186th out of 191 countries when measured by the prevalence of obesity among adults over 18 years old.
– Source: World Health Organisation

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