Tribes and Sacrifices – Exploring West Timor, Indonesia
West Timor, Indonesia was not on our original itinerary when we initially made a plan for our extended travels around Asia. The Indonesian part of the island of Timor, neighbour to the independent country of Timor-Leste which is located on the same island, seemed way too difficult to travel in, and we could find very little online information about it to guide us along our travels.
Seven months into our journey, after experiencing some raw travel adventures in Timor-Leste, we felt that we were mentally prepared to face the potential discomforts of traveling in West Timor, Indonesia. We knew next to nothing about the relatively unexplored traditional region, but were curious to find out as much as we could, especially since many of the people we met traveling around Indonesia seemed completely oblivious to this part of the country.
Exploring West Timor, Indonesia
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Getting to West Timor, Indonesia
So how would you get to West Timor? We traveled overland from Timor-Leste, but the region’s capital Kupang is actually very well-connected by air to the rest of the province, and serves as a regional transit point for many destinations in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). In fact, we had already passed through Kupang’s airport a couple of times to get to other destinations in NTT such as Alor.
Travelling overland from Timor-Leste was a relatively painless, though long process. The ticket from Dili in Timor-Leste to Kupang cost $23 each (about € 19.25) from Timor Travels and we were told to be at the company office at 7.30am.
The minivan we travelled in was quite comfortable and getting a seat on the right side of the van meant that we could enjoy the great views over Timor-Leste’s coastline as we made our way down to the border. We were first stopped at a border checkpoint where Timor-Leste police officers checked our names against a list of people they knew would be making the crossing that day.
We had already obtained a 2-month visa to Indonesia in Dili, so very few questions were asked as we filled in customs and arrivals documents. We were carrying one bottle of wine each which we had bought in Dili (where wine is so much more affordable than it is in Indonesia!) and no questions were asked about that either.
After we had crossed the border, a second van was waiting for us to drive us along West Timor. The van makes its final stop in the capital of Kupang towards the west of the island, but we you can stop at any point on the trip. We had decided that we would spend our first few days in West Timor, Indonesia in the town of Soe, from where we intended to explore the surrounding traditional villages.
If you are not a fan of buses, flights to Kupang can be checked at Nusatrip.
Soe is a little Indonesian town set in West Timor’s mountains. Although the town itself is unremarkable, it is a great base from where to explore the surrounding rural countryside, tribal villages and traditional markets which make West Timor, Indonesia so unique.
Where to stay in Soe
We stayed at Dena Hotel in a large and comfortable room without an a/c or fan which was anyway unnecessary since, being located in the mountains, Soe is not as warm as other places in Indonesia. The bathroom was clean with a squat toilet which we had become used to using at this point in our travels.
The room cost around IDR 250,000 per night including a good buffet breakfast (about €14.70). No English is spoken in the hotel (or anywhere else really), and even Bahasa Indonesia which we spoke a little of, seemed to be considered a foreign language around these parts!
What to do in Soe
On our first morning in Soe, we made our way to the tourist office in town to try gain some insight and information about the traditional villages in the region, also hoping to obtain some telephone numbers for local guides. Even finding this office was a bit of an adventure!
Finding a Guide in West Timor, Indonesia.
It is almost impossible to visit the traditional villages without a local guide. This is not a matter of comfort or research, as some of the villages do not welcome visitors unless they are in the presence of a local guide who can speak the dialect and who needs to introduce them to the village elders.
Secondly, even if you know some Bahasa Indonesia, it is very unlikely that you can in any way communicate with the villagers and tribe elders, since few of them know and understand the national language!
Also, some of the villages are hidden high up in the mountains and the rough winding roads leading to them are not serviced by any form of public transport, so a car and with a driver would anyway need to be hired.
Although we chose to visit tribal villages independently in Sumba, Alor, and Papua, we decided that this time around it would make sense to avail ourselves of the service of a guide/translator. The people at the tourist office spoke no English whatsoever, but we managed to make ourselves understood when asking for a local guide.
Finding a guide for possibly the only foreigners in town seemed to be no easy task either. Phone calls were made and a network of friends and relatives summoned! Finally, a red-toothed man called Timus made his way to the office, and we were told that he was a guide who could speak English. He confirmed that he could also speak the dialects spoken in the traditional village, so we were ready to start negotiating a price.
Whilst asking for a guide at the tourist office, we had simultaneously also contacted Pae Nope by SMS (tel +6281339111937), a very well-known figure on the island who is directly related one of the kings of West Timor, Indonesia. He told us that he was not on the island at the time, but could hook us up with one of his other guide friends.
Timus (tel +6282147671113) offered a tour including his services plus a car and driver to a market and the villages of None and Boti for 1,000,000 IDR (about € 62). Pae Nope offered the tour for the same price, so we felt that we preferred using Pae Nope’s service, only because he was highly recommended.
Just as we were about to confirm with Pae Nope, Timus reduced his price to IDR 800,000 (about €47) which was, of course, a more attractive offer and closer to our budget! Little did we know at the time that Timus would have most probably been Pae Nope’s surrogate choice for us!
On our way back to the hotel, we also encountered Jemri (tel +6285253282332), a local teacher and also a registered guide who also offered us his services. Since we had committed with Timus, we declined his offer at the time, but used him for a second guided tour which we eventually decided to take at a cost IDR 700.000 (about €41) for the day.
If you are looking for a guide, in West Timor Indonesia, we can happily recommend both Timus and Jemri. Both spoke good English, gave us detailed information about the region, its people and their culture and advised us on how best to behave when meeting the tribal elders. Although they are based in Soe, they seemed to be willing to guide visitors based in other towns on West Timor too.
Visiting a traditional market
Markets in West Timor are held on specific days in different villages, so your guide will know which ones are happening on the day of your trip. We went to the little market of the village of Desa Nusa. If you’re looking for an authentic experience, this is as local as it gets.
We were pretty much the guests of honour and the villagers swarmed round us to look at us and touch us (hail the bule!) as we made our way along the muddy path. Timus apologised on their behalf saying that they don’t get to see white people at all, but we actually felt honoured to be treated in such a manner! The locals were very courteous and their behaviour was driven out of curiosity.
Fresh and salted fish, slaughtered carcasses, salt, shoes, betelnut and huge cans of cooking oil were the main products on sale at the market, which the locals seemed very intent on selling to us, although I couldn’t for the life of me understand why they thought we might need large containers of cooking oil on our travels! They must have known we suck at packing light!
If you’re in West Timor, Indonesia, do include a visit to a traditional market on your itinerary. It is similar, but not quite the same, as local markets on other Indonesian islands and is without a doubt, an experience worth having!
Visit the None tribe
The former headhunting village of None is probably one of the most accessible and easy to visit within the region, but still provides a very insightful and authentic experience into ancient village life in West Timor, Indonesia.
Be sure to take gifts of betelnut and lime powder to the villagers with you. It is rude and unacceptable to visit the tribal village without taking any gifts. Our driver stopped us at a stall where we could buy bags of both to distribute to the villages we were visiting that day. Two bags of betelnut and lime costs IDR 40,000 (about Eur 2.50) – we felt that we might have been overcharged here though!
As soon as we entered the village, the “caretaker” came to greet us wearing traditional tribal clothes. We did not manage to figure out whether this was his usual attire or whether he had changed into tribal dress for our benefit.
We presented our gifts, signed the guestbook (and left a small donation as a bookmark), and he led us to the main canopied area in the village where we sat on an elevated platform decorated with pig and monkey jaws. This reminded us that the villagers had stopped their human head-hunting practises pretty only recently, and wondered whether the jaw decorations were actually of animal origin, as we were led to believe, or whether some of them could possibly have been human like the ones in Buscalan, the Philippines.
We were told that this canopied area was the meeting place for important events in village, where important decisions, such as the discussion of the dowry prior to a potential village wedding were discussed.
As we were led to a viewpoint, Timus explained that this village also functioned as fort for the surrounding villages. Indeed, we realised that the village is built at the top of a hill, surrounded by a sheer drop to the bottom on two sides and fortifications around the rest of it. A very strategic location indeed, which would probably have been quite difficult to access by potential enemies. The village also features its own sacrificial area, but because the villagers have now been converted to Christianity, live sacrifices are not as common.
Visit the traditional village of Boti
Meeting the King of Boti and learning all about his tribe was easily one of the highlights of our entire trip in Indonesia, and probably one of our favourite experiences in 2017! Boti is accessed via a horrible pot-holed road which our driver had difficulty navigating. Try asking for a 4×4 vehicle when you’re negotiating a price with your guide!
What makes Boti village so special? Timus explained that the villagers of Boti refuse to change their ancestral traditions despite the government’s repeated attempts at modernising the village. There’s no electricity, and although a generator is available, this is only used for the benefit of potential village guests who can also stay at the (only) village homestay. This was exactly what we were hoping to experience in West Timor, Indonesia. A traditional village which has not been set up for tourists, but one which still operates within the confines (or freedoms?) of century-old traditions.
Although most of West Timor has been converted to Christianity, Boti villagers still cling to ancient animist beliefs and strictly adhere to adat – the laws that govern the tribe’s everyday life. The tribe tries to relinquish all outside influences, living a happy but very poor lifestyle in this remote part of West Timor, Indonesia.
Armed with this knowledge, we made our way to the village and were more than surprised when the first thing we saw as soon as we entered Boti was a giant TV satellite dish. Had we misinterpreted the little information available? Timus laughed at our puzzled faces, explaining that the satellite dish is actually an unwanted gift from the local government, and the villagers are suspicious of it, refusing to use it or even learn its purpose. Nikki carefully inspected the connection, and couldn’t help the grin when he realised that it led absolutely nowhere!
Timus directed us towards the main hut in the village where an intelligent-looking man with stained red lips wearing an old t-shirt was waiting for us. This was the King of Boti, probably one of the most humble persons we have ever come across. He accepted our gift of betel-nut with thanks and grace, and offered us coffee and banana fritters as the rest of his family sat around us and observed us with curiosity.
With the help of Timus, we managed to explain that we hail from the tiny island of Malta which seemed to excite the peaceful King because we were the first ever Maltese to visit his village. Much of the conversation was spent describing Malta and confirming its location and independence despite its size (a fact which tends to surprise many of the people living on the 17,000-island archipelago).
We were taken around the traditional village, home to huts, common cooking areas, a little herb garden where medicinal plants are grown, and a crop field with cotton, used for making some of the villagers’ clothes. One of the huts included 3 small simple bedrooms for guests, so if you’re thinking of visiting Boti, you can easily spend the night in the village!
We were taken to the little village of Maubesi in West Timor, Indonesia on a different day, by our second guide Jemri on our way to Tamkesi. He said that we should see the Magic House. Since everything about West Timor felt a little mystical, we were not surprised to hear about the existence of a Magic House, although we were very curious to learn about what happens inside it.
The Magic House turned out to be a hut that was not particularly distinguishable from the others around it. Upon entry though, we noticed that the prominent feature inside the hut was a flat circular blood stained stone holding a large pole, which was decorated with swords and feathers. Various (pig?) jaws decorated the interior of the hut.
The village chief asked Jemri to explain the importance of the Magic Hut, inside which a black pig would be sacrificed before warriors were sent out to fight in tribal wars. A slice of the sacrificed black pig, complete with skin and hair, would be eaten raw by the warrior. On the warrior’s return, a white pig would be sacrificed as a blessing.
Nowadays it seems that such ceremonies are only performed during harvest and planting times, and on special occasions such as when a villager goes to study in another village. The monkey skulls adorning the village were supposedly those of monkeys killed when caught stealing village crops and are now used as deterrent to other potential animal thieves!
Monkeys are captured by means of a horribly crafted trap made from pumpkin decoys, which are purposely loaded with chillies. When the mischievous creatures try to steal the seeds, they suffer temporarily blindness after rubbing their eyes, and are thus unable to escape their captors.
As we approached our fourth traditional village, Tamkesi, whose villagers had origins in Timor-Leste, we realised that we were still feeling enthusiastic about the whole traditional village thing and were far from bored. We were happy to be discovering that every village was particular in its beliefs and customs. Same-same but different too … this is what we had come to experience in West Timor, and we were getting so much more insight than we had hoped for!
Tamkesi village is set on two hills on the eastern portion of West Timor, Indonesia, not too far from the border with Timor-Leste. One of the hills is known as the Holy Mountain, and every seven years, seven male villagers go up to the mountain to sacrifice a goat and a rooster. The goat is killed and eaten whilst the rooster is tied up and left to die alone.
The village is actually made up of 9 separate families, each representative of the nine surrounding villages. There are presently only 26 people living in the village. Tamkesi has been established to preserve the traditional way of life in the region, and the nine families are the “keepers” of this tradition. They will remain in Tamkesi until their deaths.
One of the beliefs within the village is that anything that falls on the ground needs to be picked up only by the chief of the village. We were strongly instructed by our guide that should we drop any of our belongings, we should definitely not pick it up ourselves, as it would bring bad luck to the entire village.
The village features nine special wooden poles (representing the nine villages), each balancing a large flat stone on top. If the stone were to fall, that village would be subject to bad luck. Needless to say, we stayed as far away from the poles as possible! I am certainly not known for my grace, so Nikki followed me worriedly as I tried to move ‘delicately’ in between the boulders making up the village, whilst having visions of me bumping into the poles resulting in us being banished from West Timor!
On our way to Tamkesi, Jemri stopped us close to some woods where a little path led to an area packed with empty honeycombs on the ground. As we looked up, we noticed several large honeycombs and their hexagonal-shaped cells high up on the trees near the tops. The area around Kefamenanu is well-known its excellent honey, jars of which are sold from roadside stands!
Local palm wine known as arak, is also sold from roadside stands along the village roads in plastic bottles. Jemri took us to one of the houses where the wine is constantly bing made and explained how palm juice in clay jars, is left to ferment with pieces of wood which are then heated to produce the wine. The first portion is usually the strongest and considered to be the ‘best’, whilst the second and third portions are less strong. I was handed a glass of the strong liqueur which I gulped down – not as strong as I expected!
Where to eat in Soe
Soe is home to a splattering of local warungs where you can easily grab some local food for about 25,000 IDR (about €1.50). We tried 2 or 3 different ones which were close to the local market (close to where our hotel was located), which served standard warung fare at similar prices.
Depot Remaja is a local eatery specialising in pork. Regretfully we never got the opportunity to try this place out since it was not located nearby our hotel and we were always too tired to walk that far!
Getting to Kupang from Soe
We traveled to Kupang in a private car. We had intended to use the public bus, but we got to know that a private car, which would pick us up from our hotel at whatever time we wanted, cost IDR 50,000 IDR (about €3.10) each. The bus cost 30,000 IDR (about €1.80) and we would have had to walk to the stop, a couple of kilometers away. Nobody seemed to know anything about a schedule either, so we weren’t even sure that we would eventually get on!
Faced by the uncertainty and the good value, we deciding to use the private car, arranged by our guide Timus. It was a no-brainer in our case considering that our backpacks are way heavier than they should ideally be!
Where to stay in Kupang
Like the few other backpackers that find themselves in Kupang, Lavalon Hostel was our accommodation of choice. A private room with bathroom set us back IDR 160,000 IDR (about € 9.95) per night and it was conveniently located a few metres away from the night food market. (Do you notice a recurring theme here?)
What to do in Kupang
This lovely spot in Kupang is easily the city’s hidden gem. You can go there with a guide or on a private tour, but it’s really easy to do independently using public transport too.
We flagged down a bemo outside our hostel which took us to the terminal at Pantai Alona and then got on another one headed to Bolok. We told the driver we wanted to get off at Crystal Cave. We were stopped on the road leading to it and walked across some rocks for a few minutes on an uneven path to access the cave. The cost of a bemo ride was of 3,000 IDR each (€0.17) per ride.
A little shack in front of the cave functions as a changing room and then it’s a little sheer path down to the bottom of the cave. Wearing sturdy shoes is advisable since the path can be slippery.
The little lagoon at the bottom of the cave is crystal clear and appears to shimmer and shine in the midday sun, when the sun’s rays make their way into the cave and hit the water. It is advisable to go there by noon and not too late in the afternoon, as otherwise it would be too dark inside. Truly a magical spot!
We didn’t quite make it here since we heard that the waterfall is not too impressive during the dry season, and the experience did not seem to be worth the 2 hours’ drive. It is probably a better attraction to visit during the wet season, although it may get pretty crowded on weekends.
Kupang is home to a few beaches where locals tend to hang out in weekends. They are definitely not touristy beaches and lack the infrastructure of the more popular beaches in Bali, since there aren’t many tourists in West Timor, Indonesia. We did not have time to visit the beaches since we preferred exploring the caves and hanging out at the market. If you have more time than we did, we hear that they are worth going to!
Where to eat in Kupang
We only ate at the night food market where a dish of large freshly-grilled calamari and rice cost IDR 40,000 (about €2.40). Having such amazing local fare located so close to our hostel meant that we didn’t even bother to look at restaurant menus!
West Timor is really one of Indonesia’s off-the-beaten-track islands and provides an excellent experience for those looking to explore and discover some of Indonesia’s most authentic parts! If you’re looking for adventure, be sure to put it on your bucket list!