The Southeast Asian Dilemma
In just a few decades, many destinations in Southeast Asia have become popular worldwide, receiving more tourists than ever before, boosting the region’s economy. On the downside, though, places like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Bali, Palawan, Boracay, are at risk of losing their authenticity in terms of culture, biodiversity, cuisine, and even people, by hosting more visitors than actual local citizens sometimes. Due to this “touristic phenomena”, the travel experience can feel a bit too mundane and commercial. In Dili, the capital of Timor Leste (the Portuguese name of East Timor), this is not the case. At least not yet.
My first encounter with this country and its capital was while doing some web search for one of my trips. I ran into the list of Southeast Asian countries and I saw the remarkable yellow, red and black colors of the Timorese flag. Where in the world is East Timor? Dili? That was my impression when I read those two names for the first time. As I scrolled down the pictures of my search results, I knew I had to include this country in my travel route. I knew it would mean adventure. When I made it there, I was not disappointed, but I definitely was surprised by the kind of adventure I found.
In terms of tourism, it might be the Southeast Asian country that receives less attention. To get there is a little tricky too. On my planning, I found that the most efficient way to get there was first arriving at Bali, Indonesia, and then fly to Dili (President Nicolau Lobato Comoro International Airport). At the airline counter, the staff was truly surprised and quite happy that there was an actual passenger attempting to do some tourism in East Timor. The rest of the passengers of my half-empty flight were Timorese working in Indonesia.
I was happy too. After my arrival to one of the youngest countries in the world, achieving its independence from Indonesia in 2002, it felt to me like being in a strange dimension. In a good sense, an isolated, remote, anonymous corner of the globe. Finally, no tourists.
This “corner” of the globe, however, turned out to be bursting with signs of progress and development: roads being built, skyscrapers rising from the ground, embassies from many nations, international food chains, and more. Language wise, due to the country’s unique history of colonization heritage, the official languages spoken in the capital are Tetun and Portuguese. Although, Portuguese is mostly taught at schools. The use of this language also explains why there are many Portuguese and Brazilians expats working in NGOs and government offices here. As a Portuguese speaker myself, though, I still found more useful to use English to communicate my basic needs with the locals. I observed that a fair number of the population are fluent in Bahasa Indonesian as well.
Basic expenses in Dili
Here are some estimated daily expenses for Dili:
- Transportation using the local Microlets, USD 5
- Cellphone data as cheap as USD 1 for 3G and 4G plans
- Meals (3) and snacks, USD 10
- Night at a budget hostel, USD 15
What to do in Dili?
Below, I list my favorite points of interest. With these places, I believe you can get a good idea of the local culture and history.
Dili is located at the north coast of the main territory, making it a pleasant ocean capital city where the access to the seaside is as immediate as it can be. Even the Government Palace is facing the ocean. How cool is that, huh? The size of the city also allows most of the touristic commuting to be done on foot. During the late afternoon, it is easy to see office workers jogging along the coastline. Thus, reaching this coastline and start walking towards the east or west is a great way to explore, see the coral reefs and pristine waters from the shore, and find some interesting local eateries and cafes.
2. Archives and Museum of East Timorese Resistance
East Timor used to be part of the Indonesian island of Timor until 1999. To earn its independence, the Timorese people had to fight for it the hard way. First, fighting against the Portuguese in 1975, and then, against Indonesia, until the recognition of the country by the United Nations in 2002. It is possible to appreciate the details of the Timorese people’s history in the Archives and Museum of the East Timorese Resistance. Since the museum is within the city, there is no need to take any transport. The entrance is just one USD 1.
3. Cristo Rei Beach and Dolok Oan Beach
Both are peaceful beaches full of corals and fish beneath their pristine waters, and empty of people and ambulant vendors for most of the day. From the city center to Cristo Rei beach, it only takes about 25 minutes and USD 0.75 by Microlet.
After having enough of its beautiful white-sand shores and turquoise waters, climb the stairs all the way up to the Cristo Rei. monument. This 27-meter-high landmark is the bridging point between the two beaches, which are separated naturally by an untouched and lovely hill range. The set of stairs from Cristo Rei Beach will take you first to an open court, from where you can keep climbing to the monument’s observation platform. The view of Dili, Atauro Island and both beaches from the top are definitely rewarding.
From the court, another set of stairs descend to Dolok Oan Beach. Significantly longer and even more paradisiac, this beach is an overlooked pearl among tropical beaches in Southeast Asia.
4. Atauro Island
Atauro Island is about 20 Km north of the mainland. This is a paradise for nature lovers: breathtaking coral reefs, vibrant sea life, and many hills to hike freely. There is no wonder why many travelers decide to spend most of their time on this island rather than in the capital, regardless of its very basic infrastructure. The fact that there is barely enough electricity for the basic needs might be central to the charm of Atauro as well. It kind of makes clear that we do not need all that technological amusement we surround ourselves with every day. Forget about four of five-star hotels. Only homestays, eco-lodges, dirt roads, and open-air markets.
There are several ways to go from Dili to Beloi. However, I only will point out the cheapest ones here. Berlin Nakroma costs USD 5 one-way ticket, and it takes two hours. Departure time to Beloi is at 9:00, every Saturday, and the return trip is on the same day at 16:00. The other option is the Dragon Star Fast Boat, which costs USD 10 (when bought on the same day, otherwise it is USD 18) one-way, and takes one hour. They run from Thursday to Monday, departing to Beloi at 8:00, and returning to Dili at 15:30.
For both options, the tickets can be bought at the ticket booth of each port. Beloi is the main village, where most of the touristic activity is located. If your plan is to stay overnight, be mindful of the boat schedules to go back to Dili. Also, ask your host for the hiking trails and snorkeling (and diving) spots. Some eco-lodges offer boat services and equipment for snorkeling/diving in case you need it.
5. Tais Market
An essential part of the nation’s cultural heritage, tais weavings are used for ceremonial adornment, sign of appreciation towards guests and friends, as home decor, and as personal garments. This form of traditional cotton weaving, created exclusively by the women of East Timor, was formerly used as a unit of exchange. Nowadays, places like the Tais Market offers a wide variety of products using this technique passed down from generation to generation as an oral tradition. Currently, the export of Tais is difficult and nearly all sales take place with foreigners. Thus, by buying locally, you hit two birds with the same stone: you are contributing to this small-scale, local commercial activity, which is an important source of income for women, and you are acquiring a genuine, hand-made product rich in meaning and unique. Prices range from USD 25 for the biggest pieces, to USD 2 for smaller souvenirs.
6. Relax! Enjoy Dili’s everyday life
With more and more people traveling to their “dream destinations”, it is hard sometimes to find a place of calm where one can feel like the only foreigner around, wandering somewhere on Earth. Dili is the kind of place where one can still do that. The streets, the food, the people are authentic.
Forget about going to that crowded night market, making it to the top of that city tower, or the fancy district, and exchange all that for a laid back afternoon walking through the peaceful streets, playing beach soccer with the super friendly locals on the seashore, or have a barbecue skewer. All that right next to your hostel.
- Regarding life and expenses, Timorese use the United States dollar as their currency, but they also have their own Timorese “cents” that you can receive as change. Do not worry, one Timorese cent is equivalent to one US cent.
- There are a couple of medium-sized malls with supermarkets and fast food options in case you need an easy and convenient meal on the go. The most popular malls are Timor Plaza, Metro Mart. These malls also have plenty of eateries with local food at more affordable prices compared to fast food chains.
- If you feel overwhelmed by the horde of taxi drivers (which do not have taximeter) waiting outside the airport’s arrivals terminal, it takes an hour from the airport to the city center if you decide to walk. The second cheapest option is to take one of the above mentioned Microlets, which will take you to the city center for only USD 0.75.
- For the regular commute, Microlets are the widespread option. The fees range from USD 0.25 to USD 1 if you move within the city. At the time of my visit, there was no Grab or Uber option. Google does not show any details about the schedules or stops either. The stops are not specified, so you will need to get this information at the hostel, or just ask the locals.
- Check the visa requirements for your nationality. In my case, I qualified for the on-arrival visa, which costs USD 30.
Dili is the kind of place that makes you slow down the travel pace. It certainly rewards those visitors who dare to endure some little inconveniences with a good dose of sunlight, beach vibes, and a sense of remoteness.