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Culture in East Timor

A woman weaves traditional tais.

The culture of East Timor has been influenced by the many different countries that have occupied the territory. The local Timorese culture dominates in the country especially as 70% of Timorese still live in rural areas such as small towns and remote villages far from the influences of modern life.  These country dwellers survive mostly from fishing and farming and have successfully preserved their rich culture. However, the centuries-long Portuguese occupation has left its mark on the area as you’ll see by walking the streets of the capital Dili, where you’ll pass many examples of colonial architecture. Many visitors to East Timor are drawn here by the fascinating aspects of a culture that has survived the interferences of modern technology and flourished in its isolation.

The People of East Timor

The people of East Timor are composed of many different indigenous groups, each has its own identity, culture, and traditions. In some cases, indigenous groups have their own language and there are more than 30 languages spoken in Timor. Tetun is the most common with around 25% of the population claiming it as their mother tongue. The Timorese people who speak Tetun live mostly around Dili, Suai, and Viqueque. The second-largest ethnic group, the Mambae, reside in the central mountains and make up 10% of the population. There are many other smaller groups such as the Kemak, Fataluku, Makasae, and Bunak, each with their own language. 

The years of occupation and struggle for independence greatly influenced East Timorese culture. It produced great songs, pieces of literature, and formed a strong national identity. As a consequence of this period, the people of East Timor are very politically aware. Sights such as the Resistance Museum in Dili are dedicated to the preservation of local peoples’ memories from this time. Hear first-hand accounts from victims of the occupation and learn from audio-visual exhibitions about key moments and figures.

Elsewhere in the country, the Centro Nacional Chega exhibits the findings from the human rights investigation carried out by the Commission for Reception, Truth & Reconciliation (CAVR). The museum details the violations of human rights through displays and photos and it is set in an old prison where resistance figures were held by the Indonesian military.

Much of the traditional Timorese culture was repressed during the Indonesian occupation, it was only when East Timor gained independence in 2002 that people reclaimed old traditions. The people of East Timor are relatively conservative, with great importance being placed on family and religion. Around 90% of Timorese identify as Roman Catholic and the remainder mostly as Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu. Large families are common, with an average of 5.5 children per mother.


The architecture of East Timor says a lot about the country’s past and culture. The styles differ greatly, from the recently developed modern structures in Dili to historic forts in the mountains and the thatched huts of small village communities. There are some must-see buildings that will help you understand the country’s history and present.

Totem Houses

In many small villages around East Timor you will come across traditional totem houses on stilts. These sacred houses are called uma lulik and represent a link between the living community and their dead ancestors. The structures are built or renovated every 10 to 20 years and the process of rebuilding is thought to strengthen the bond between families. These houses were first built by the Fataluku people, a minority ethnic group. The fact that visitors can still see these buildings today after centuries of foreign occupation is a testament to the tribe’s dedication to their culture.

Pousada Baucau

This hotel is a prime example of colonial architecture. The salmon-pink outer walls certainly grab the attention of anyone passing by and the tiled roof and small columns indicate the influence of the Portuguese occupation. During the Indonesian occupation, it is said that this building was used as a torture center.

Ai Pelo Prison

Ai Pelo is another example of Portuguese architecture, but unlike Pousada Baucau, it lies in ruins. The prison was built to house criminals and political dissidents from elsewhere in the Portuguese empire. The island of Timor was considered sufficiently remote to serve as a form of exile for prisoners. The prison looks out onto the ocean and is located near to the town of Liquiça which was once the capital of East Timor. In 1939 the prison was closed by the Portuguese government, but in 1942 when the Japanese invaded, it served as a military base before being bombed by Allied forces. Along with this destruction, the coastal weather has eroded what was left of the structure. 

Arts and Handicraft

In this traditional culture, arts and artisanal products are made using historical techniques handed down through generations. Weaving is particularly popular throughout the island and most communities produce their own style of tais (a woven cloth). These unique and brightly-colored patterned materials are used as skirts or shawls for men and tied up to form a skirt or dress for women. Local people also weave baskets with great skill and sell them alongside pottery, jewelry, and musical instruments.  

Music & Dance

Traditional and cultural events play a huge part in day-to-day Timorese culture. Celebrations often involve tebe (dancing) and singing. There is a wealth of traditional music which has been passed down throughout the music without changing much. The guitar is key to this kind of music as are indigenous string instruments. In ceremonies, it is common to hear a symphony of coordinated drumming whereas local rock and hip-hop are becoming popular among the younger generations. Iikurai dance is a folk dance performed by women, it originated as part of a welcome ceremony for men returning from war. This was during the era of headhunting when warriors would parade home carrying the heads of their enemies.

During the Indonesian occupation and colonial rule, music was associated with the struggle for independence and became an outlet for feelings of repression. Many resistance groups used songs to voice their discontent and convey messages to fellow citizens.

Our tours of East Timor cover the culture and history of the country in detail. All our guides are locals and we work with local communities to uphold ideals of sustainable tourism. If you’re interested in what you’ve read about in this article and want to visit this fascinating country, please contact us.

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