East Timor became the newest country in Asia in 2002, when it finally got its independence from Indonesia. From the 16th century until 1975, she was known as Portuguese Timor and one of Portugal’s overseas territories. Once independence was declared in 1975, Indonesia invaded and occupied immediately, declaring her the 27th province. Hm.. interesting is it not? I still have reflections from watching the news where people were being dragged by cars. There was a highly violent decade long conflict between several separatist groups (eg. FRETLIN) and the Indonesian military. Since her independence, NATO moved right in and pretty much built the economy and gave it a kick start. There are two Christian countries in Asia, one being the Philippines and the other, East Timor. The currency of use is US Dollars, so do not expect cheap prices like the rest of South East Asia. East Timor is more expensive than the other countries, with varying quality. Besides, it’s an island nation in the middle of nowhere, so imported products are really expensive. If you stick with local goods, the prices can be easy on your wallet.
Is it safe to visit?
I visited in December of 2016 and it was absolutely safe. When I visited, there were very few tourists and most of the NGOs and ex-patriots were out of the country on vacation. Nevertheless, you will see a few foreigners here and there, but don’t expect something like Bali. The locals were very friendly and were used to foreigners and will do their best to help. Keep in mind that English was not widely used by the locals, so it will help if you speak Indonesian or Portuguese (the youth and the older generation spoke some). I did not see that many white people, but there was a good population of Chinese (local and expats).
I did not face a single problem during my stay, but I recommend not walking alone at night, especially in the poorly lit areas and watch out for potholes in the middle of the street. There were mixed reviews about swimming in the water, since there were some incidents of fresh water crocodiles, so I stayed away. The locals did not seem to care and they were playing in the water.
At the Airport
When you arrive at the airport, the procedure is straightforward and there is nothing complicated. If you require visa on arrival, get in line in front of the visa window. The tourist visa costs $30 USD for all foreigners and payable only in cash. Once you get the visa documents, proceed to immigration. The immigration officer will ask you how many days you will be in East Timor, just say 30 to get the maximum 30-day visa. If they question you about your outgoing flight ticket, just tell them that you will enter Indonesia by land (the west side of the Timor island). FYI, if you tell them 10 days, they will only give you 10 days.
Once you pick up your luggage, proceed to the exit and there will be loads of taxis. The first and easy option is to take a taxi into town and it should be no more than $10 USD. Don’t ever pay more than that and it is per taxi and not per person either! Matt, whom I befriended at the hostel ended up paying $20 USD for two. In my case, I took a taxi and it was $5 USD after negotiating a couple of times. Well, I negotiated like a Russian so they had to either take it or lose a client. The ride into town was less than 5km so it cannot be more than $5-$10 USD. Keep in mind that the capital Dili was very small.
The other option is to take the microlet (it is a public transport minivan and there is a number on the front). You have to walk about 400 meters to get to the main street called Avenida Presidente Nicolau Lobato. It’s really not that far and you will see a statue of him. Once you arrive, stay on the left side, since you will be going east into Dili. Microlet number 10 takes you towards the city center and runs on the main street (there is really only one) Presidente Nicolau Lobato. The cost is 25 cents (you heard me, it is only a quarter of a dollar), so make sure you have a one USD bill. You will get the change in East Timor coins, so don’t be frightened. Just pay the driver when you get off, and not when you get on.
Where to Stay
If you check Tripadvisor, there are several places to stay. I opted for the backpacker place called Gili Central Backpackers. The place started 10 weeks ago and it is still in the renovation process. It costs $15 USD for a fan 4-bed and $20 USD for an air-conditioned 4-bed. I recommend going with the air-conditioned room since it is extremely hot and humid and you will more likely have to go into the room to cool off. The living area only has fans so it can get hot during the day. The staff were very friendly and welcoming. I spent Christmas with the staff and some of the friends that I met in the hostel (only three people were staying there). East Timor does not get many tourists, but I’m sure this number will gradually enlarge in the coming years.
For the ones that are looking for more comfort, there are three to four star hotels very close by, but the chain hotels (think Marriott, Accor, Sheraton, Hyatt, Hilton, etc) are not in the country yet. The going price is around $50 – $100 USD for a private room.
Things to do see in Dili
The Cristo Rei: It was a gift from the Indonesian government to the Timorese… I guess for all the tension that the sides went through? We will never know. The statue was 27 meters high, which correlates to East Timor being the 27th province of Indonesia. The site was situated at the end of the Fatucama Peninsula, a short 10 to 15-minute ride from Dili. The microlet number 12 goes to the statue and only costs 25 cents or you can take a taxi, which should be $2 USD. If the driver asks for more, stick with $2 USD. It takes about 15 minutes to get to the summit, roughly going through 500 steps. It actually was not so bad getting to the top and you will be blessed with magnificent views of Dili and the surrounding hills/beach. The water on the back side was beautiful, almost like an emerald color. You may see some kids dipping in the ocean, but ask around if there are any crocodiles or dangerous animals around the area.
Pope John Paul II statue: It was built in 2008 in tribute to Pope John Paul’s visit to East Timor during the Indonesian occupation. At the top of the hill, you will see a statue of the Pope and a church for Sunday service. You can take the microlet 10 until the end. After that, you will need to take another bus going west for about 2km. The place was not that far and a taxi will run you around 10 minutes and maximum of $5-$10 USD from the city center.
Dili Waterfront: You will find the boat harbour and wonder around the waterfront. When I visited, the water looked dirty due to the rainy season, but I’m sure it looks nice during the dry months.
Museum of East Timorese Resistance: It was one of the only museums in Dili and I enjoyed my stay in there. The museum showcased the history of East Timor and year by year breakdown of what happened during the 1900s. It costs $1 USD per person for entrance and should take roughly one to one and a half hours. Make sure to check if the museum is open in advance. A friend of mine visited three times and was closed on all days.
In all, three days will be more than sufficient to see all of Dili. You can walk around the city center to check out other monuments, government buildings, and fruit markets.
Next up, I will write about my trip to Atauro Island for two nights.