Timor-Leste is not a country that falls into most people’s radars, and there’s a reason for it. This small nation state is located in Asia, wedged in between the Indonesian West Timor and Papua, but the country only came to be marked on global maps after 2002 when it gained its own sovereignty from the Portuguese colony and earned independence from Indonesia.
Timor was originally colonised by Portugal during the 16th century and it was during this period that the island nation was split into two separate parts through its western and eastern sides. After much conflict between the two regarding Timor, the Dutch and the Portuguese resolved to sharing equal parts of the Timor island, thus resulting in Timor Leste and East Timor-Leste.
Portugal’s dominance over the island of Timor was devastating for the island’s residents, for Timor-Leste was largely deprived and even exploited by its colonial holders. The only significance the island had to Portugal was its profitable sandalwood and coffee exports. Therefore, when World War 2 occurred and the Portuguese power over the island lessened, the islanders revolted and gained their independence, making them the first independent state in the 21st century.
Where is Dili, Timor-Leste?
Currently, Timor-Leste lies in South-eastern Asia on the Malay Archipelago in the eastern Lesser Sunda Islands. It shares a land border with Indonesia, residing on the eastern end of Indonesia’s archipelago. While the population and tourist-to-local density is comparatively low when compared to Timor’s neighbour, Indonesia, the best place for a tourist to visit in this island state is its capital, Dili.
You can find Dili located in East Timor on the edge of the island’s northern side. Most tourists choose to go to Dili because it has a better developed state with greater facilities than the rest of Timor. You can find museums, caves, village markets and more around Dili.
Where is East Timor-Leste / Is East Timor-Leste a country?
The Democratic Republic of East Timor is still to this day segregated from its western half, where West Timor never gained independence from Indonesia and thus became a part of Indonesia’s state borders. In fact, the word ‘Timor’ itself translates to ‘East’ in the Malay language.
Because of its long and confusing history, many do question whether East Timor stands as a country by itself. In answer to that, East Timor-Leste is a country separate from Indonesia, and you can see where it is located on the Timor-Leste map.
According to the July 2020 estimate, the population of Timor Leste sits at 1.3 million. Residents of the island are addressed as Timorese, and while the majority of people follow Christianity as their religion, Timor Leste is also home to tribalism and maintains a large array of different ethnic groups.
The capital city in Timor, Dili, has a lower density of inhabitants where it is estimated that about 200 thousand people live in the capital. This statistic implies that Dili is rather quiet and less hectic than the city of Jakarta in Indonesia where the total population nears to 9.6 million. Therefore, Dili is an untrodden land for most and it is land where you can peacefully explore. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Dili is also known as the City of Peace among locals.
Why You Should Visit Dili, Timor-Leste
Dili’s land is rather unexplored, mainly because most tourists choose to ignore its existence while travelling to Indonesia or other South Asian nations. But this is a good thing for Dili has one of the most spectacular green landscapes, with nearly all of it being untouched and unruined.
One of the biggest drawbacks to visiting Indonesia is how crowded it can get, where in some markets, you are forced to push away people in order to walk forward. Timor-Leste is different in regard, for the island is barely crowded and has better spaces for you to calmly shop or explore around.
There are also a number of activities that you can sign up for, with amazing snorkelling reefs, large and lush mountains and dangerous sites marked by the devastations of war – Dili is a place that offers more than just a natural scenery.
Best time to Visit Dili, Timor-Leste
Travelling to Timor-Leste in bad weather can ruin almost all of your plans. This is because roads are usually shut down and pathways can be dangerously muddy and slippery to use. Therefore, the best time to visit Dili is in between the months of June to September as the weather is completely dry then. You will face moderately hot temperatures, usually averaging to around 31 degree Celsius. Make sure to travel with light clothing during this time.
Weather in Dili, Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste experiences the typical climates of any other tropical island. Much like its neighbour, Timor has two main seasons which include the wet season and the dry season.
The wet season is when the island becomes slightly dangerous to live in, for sea tides increase, resulting in floods, and rocks break away from loose mud, causing great landslides. Roads are also shut down and travelling around the island becomes extremely difficult. This occurs from the months of December to April.
The dry season, on the other hand, is one of the best times of the year and it usually takes place from May to November. You can find slight drizzles and minute-long rainfalls but the overall climate continues to be dry and breezy. September to December is the period of the whale-watching season where whale species from the world migrate to the Wetar Strait and can be seen off the coast of Timor island.
Language Spoken in Timor-Leste
Timor has a total of 13 municipalities with different tribes and ethnicities. All of these have distinctive languages and speech, but the official language in Timor continues to be Portuguese and Tetun.
However, Timorese do have adequate knowledge of English and can easily switch between their native tongue to English whenever it’s necessary. They also speak and understand the Indonesian language, using it mostly during trade with their neighbour.
Money and Currency Used in Timor-Leste
Timor uses USD as its official currency, which makes it easier for tourists to pay while in the island. The reason why Timor chose to adopt the USD as its main currency is because of two reasons – firstly, the USD is considered one of the most stable and strong currencies in the world, and secondly, their legislative council found it best to operate their economy with USD.
As a tourist, you can expect moderately cheap prices for both products and accommodations, where the average budget per person should be around 50 USD every day. This is quite expensive when you compare it with other South Asian countries, but the high prices actually finance the ongoing development of this underdeveloped nation.
How to Get to Dili, Timor-Leste
You can choose a number of ways to get to Dili in Timor-Leste but the best option out there is via air. For budget travellers, it is ideal to pick budget airlines which offer discounts for the route to Dili. These are predominantly offered through flights operating from Bali in Denpasar airport.
Where to Stay in Dili, Timor-Leste
Dili doesn’t truly conform as a perfect holiday destination due to its lack of facilities. As a tourist, you might not have significant options for accommodation, particularly if you’re aiming for a budget hotel. The choice that you eventually make for your accommodation will depend on the type of travelling you’re doing and the budget that you have.
For backpackers going either solo or with friends, the best option for accommodation is either a dormitory or twin room in hostels. You can expect to pay about 15 USD for dorms or 65 USD for hostels, but you aren’t guaranteed with much facilities.
If you want to go for a higher standard accommodation while travelling as a couple, a good option would be booking a room in a resort or a hotel which is on the lower-end in terms of prices. However, you should know that the less you pay, the lesser facilities you’ll get with breakfast and dinner often being excluded from your hotel room prices.
If you’re travelling as a family, you should not compensate on poor quality rooms with limited facilities. Thus, while it may be more expensive, the best accommodation are those in guesthouses and bungalows.
How to Get Around Dili, Timor-Leste
Your preferred method of transport around Dili also depends on the budget you have planned for your trip. For the cheapest transport, the Microlet is a public bus service which offers both long-distance and short-distance travelling. The cost per way will be around 0.25 pence but you will have to squeeze in your seat as these buses can often get crowdy.
If you’d like a bit of privacy and more comfort in your travels, you can opt for a yellow or blue taxi around Dili’s city-centre. These taxis will take you anywhere around Dili and sometimes even on the outskirts of Dili, but you will have to negotiate a price down before getting in.
If price isn’t a concern, the ultimate way to travel around Dili and the whole of Timor-Leste is by renting a 4WD or jeep for nearly 145 USD per day. These are great for off-road travelling, particularly in poor weather when the roads are simply unusable by normal cars.
Nightlife in Dili, Timor-Leste
The nightlife in Dili doesn’t get overly crowded or raucous. Instead, you will find some bars along the beachside open for hours late at night, offering draft beers and sometimes wine. A few bars will also have live music for foreigners, but there isn’t any significant partying.
Top Things to Do in Dili, Timor-Leste
1) Walk Through the Tais Market
Dili has street markets located all around its city square, but the Tais Market is one which has garnered great fascination among tourists. This is because the Tais Market solely sells traditional crafts, made completely by hand by villagers and locals. You can get crochet purses, hats, colourful beaded chains and more. It’s the best place to get a hold of special souvenirs at cheap rates.
2) Visit the Prison Cells in Centro Nacional Chega
Timor-Leste comes from a dark and cruel past, tainted with deaths and torture. This museum in Dili recalls that dark period of time by showing documentaries of abuses that went on from 1974 to 2000. The museum is actually located inside the former prison cells made by the Portuguese government to house people who had revolted against their reign. You can find images demonstrating graphic violence and learn more about the sufferings of the then oppressed. It is best to not visit this museum with your children.
3) Enter the Oldest Roman Catholic Church in the Island
The Motael Church was first constructed in 1955 in the period of Portuguese colonisation. The entire church is decorated in Portuguese fashion, with elements that are quite distinctive among Portuguese colonial architecture. You can find wooden chairs and large hanging ceiling fans inside of the church, combined with a blue and pale white toned interior.
4) Learn About the History in the Archives and Museum of East Timorese Resistance
While Centro Nacional Chega was a graphic display of the violence that Timorese suffered under the rule of Portuguese colonists, this museum focuses more on educating tourists through written narratives of the struggles of Timorese. You can find these stories printed on the walls alongside pictures detailing suffering and exploitation, but these are less graphic than the ones in Centro Nacional Chega.
5) Cycle in the Tour de Timor
This is an adventure specifically for professional cyclists, where you can test your cycling capability by running through the beaten paths of Timor-Leste’s undeveloped roads. This is a challenge that runs for five days on a 500km route, occurring annually. Both tourists and locals can take part in the competition, but all competitors will have to bring their own bicycles.
6) Taste Timor-Leste’s Freshly Made Fruits in the Fruit and Vegetable Market
Timor-Leste is covered by fertile lands which are perfect for agriculture. Therefore, you can find a number of different plantations dedicated to growing and harvesting different natural food products. To actually purchase and taste these organic items, you will have to visit one of the many fruit and vegetable markets around Dili, where through a bit of negotiating, you can get yourself completely natural and freshly harvested fruits to eat.
7) Pay Your Respects in the Santa Cruz Cemetery
The revolution which took against the Portugese colonists was not a triumphant one initially, for it caused the death of hundreds of innocents. Timor-Leste still finds itself grieving for the deaths that happened on the 12th of November in 1991, where Indonesian soldiers open fired on the masses during a memorial service for a famous resistance figure. Here, more than 250 people lost their lives and were later buried in the Santa Cruz Cemetery. Visitors can pay their respects and show admiration for their bravery in this cemetery now.
8) Hike Up to See the Cristo Rei Statue
One of the most popular places in all of Dili is the mountaintop on which a huge metallic figure of Jesus Christ thrusts out and stands on top of a globe with arms outstretched to the world. This is supposedly the second biggest statue of Christ in the whole world, and can be reached by people through hiking over a hill on the eastern part of the city. It is also one of the most scenic places in all of Dili, giving you a perfect vantage of the whole city from top.
9) Admire the Rock Arts in Tutuala and Jaco Island
Apart from Dili, Timor has a large canvas filled with natural architecture – one of which can be found in the island of Tutuala and Jaco. Amidst the cliffs enveloping the area, you can find carvings made on the rock walls of caves depicting both folklore and fantastical fables. There are pictures or sea urchins, barbarians clad in hunting costumes with spears and more. You can find these cliffs located in signposted areas, but it’s best that you travel with a guide for a more thorough exploration of the rock arts.
10) Watch the Dili City of Peace Marathon
One of the biggest festivals in Dili occurs during the time of the City of Peace marathon. This race, usually taking place during August but on altering dates, includes four specific race types, with each having different groups of participants.
Timorese are particularly fond of racing, and the City of Peace marathon even has races among families. The event is a really fun and exciting experience for both participants and onlookers. It’s also a great way for tourists to get a flavour of local festivities and enjoy being a part of the Timorese community for a day.
What and Where to Eat in Dili, Timor-Leste
Timorese cuisines vary only as non-vegetarian and vegetarian, while the staple food item is rice. You will also find dishes being combined with agricultural ingredients, such as potatoes, corn and taro. These are completely homegrown and due to the mass quantity of its supply, nearly all dishes are paired with such sides.
Here are a few popular dishes in Timor-Leste, and where you are likely to find them in:
1) Ai Manas
This is a dish that spice lovers will absolutely fall in love with, for the entire dish is spicy chilly containing different types of chilli pastes mixed with a few supplementary ingredients, such as garlic, lemon or ginger. You can find this dish at every table in all the restaurants around Dili. If it’s not there, you can always ask for one to be given.
2) Fish or Chicken Sticks
One of the best local food that you can find in Dili will be served up in roadside stalls. You can find varieties of local snacks and meals being sold in street carts, while the most common of them all will be fish or chicken sticks. Make sure you have one of these while on your trip.
3) Locally Made Coffee
Timor is famous for its coffee plantations, and you can drink the locally produced coffee in nearly every coffee shop you can find. However, one of the most recommended places for drinking locally brewed coffee is at Letefoho Café. This place offers a more luxurious atmosphere than what you’d get from local coffee stores, but if you wish for less pricier coffee, there are a number of other shops right around the corner.
4) Ikan Sabuko and Feijoda
While these aren’t exactly Timorese dishes, both Ikan Sabuka and Feijoda are commonly eaten by locals. The Feijoda is a Portuguese dish consisting of pork, cannellini beans and chorizo while the Ikan Sabuka is a Spanish dish made with mackerel fish cooked in a tamarind marinade and served with basil and chili. You can find both of these dishes at Angora Food Studio.
Tips For a Safer Travel to Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste isn’t exactly a violence-free country and cases of crimes occurring are frequently reported. Here are a few ways you can have a safe travel in Timor-Leste:
1) Be Attentive Towards Your Personal Belongings and Don’t Travel at Night
While travelling, make sure you have your hand on your bag at all times and do not lose focus on your belongings while exploring. Theft does happen frequently and you can’t always hope for the security service to help you out. More importantly, make sure you do not travel alone at night, especially as a woman due to possibilities of sexual harassment.
2) Carry a First-Aid Kit and Health Insurance
Medical services are either very limited in availability or not trained enough, which increases the concern for health-related issues. Before travelling to Timor, make sure you pack a first-aid kit with you and have a good travel health insurance set up. You should also carry mosquito repellents and sprays to avoid catching malaria or dengue.
3) Hire a Good Driver
Roads around Timor-Leste aren’t well-developed and accidents can happen easily if you’re someone who isn’t accustomed to driving off-road. There’s also very little signposts and directions, which makes it harder to navigate through different locations. When chartering a taxi or any method of transport for long-distance travelling in Timor-Leste, make sure you can communicate with your driver and feel comfortable with their driving skills and navigational ability.
To get more information for visiting Timor-Leste, please contact the Ministry of Tourism, Rua Martires de Patria, Farol, Dili or call them at +670 3311 499.