Portuguese flavoured East Timor became the newest country in the world when it was finally granted its official independence in 2002. Due to that face and the political turmoil its found itself in, this country is almost untouched by tourism so if you’ve been in South East Asia a while and you’ve had your fill of full-moon parties, tubing and Buddhist temples then East Timor will certainly offer you something completely different…
I spent a couple of weeks in East Timor and, aside from the odd group demonstration and presidential assassination attempt (:P), it’s completely safe to visit. That’s a bit tongue-in-cheek to be honest, it’s true that there still lies a level of tension in East Timor due to political and ethnic clashes but nothing to be overly concerned about. Tourists aren’t a target so as long as you keep away from gathering crowds and political demonstrations you’ll be safe as houses. Locals are used to seeing foreigners (read: white people) thanks to the huge UN and other NGOs presence so although the place rarely gets visited by tourists as such, the Timorese won’t be shocked by you being there.
Due to the massive UN and NGO presence East Timor is an (unfortunately) perfect example of a false economy, artificially inflated thanks to foreign salaries pouring into the ex-pat population so East Timor is not dirt cheap to travel in. That being said, it’s still not London or Tokyo but you’ll need to budget at least $25 a day during your stay.
Things to see and do in East Timor? There are a few things of note, if you have a week or two to spend here, here are the things I’d say are absolute musts:
Dili Waterfront: Dili, the capital city of East Timor, is a charming city with a definite twist of Portuguese. The city centre boasts a nice waterfront where you can wander along, as you get to the end you’ll be facing the new East Timor Government building.
The Jesus Statue, Cape Fatacuma: ‘Cristo Rei’, as it’s locally known, was built by the Indonesians in a bid to appease the Timorese, but its height – 27 metres – was a spiked reference to East Timor’s status (until 1999) as Indonesia’s 27th province. Don’t let that detract from the awesome sight to behold though – it’s said to be the second largest Christ statue in the world (second to Christ the Redeemer in Rion, Brazil) and offers a very cool hike to the summit of the hill that it’s on. You can jump in a cab from the city centre to get here for around $2 and then start climbing! The views from the top are beautiful and there’s a great beach behind the hill so reward yourself with a dip in the azure blue waters when you get back down
Atauro Island: The island is about 30km from Dili’s shore and is accessible through the Berlin Nakroma ferry (only runs once a week on a Saturday for $5 so try to charter a boat from a local fisherman, about $10). The lure of island are the dolphins and pilot that you are almost guaranteed to see, and the diving which are said to be amongst the best in asia if not the world.
The Santa Cruz Cemetery, Rua Santa Cruz , Santa Cruz: A poignant remembrance to the recent tragedies they have had to endure. The cemetery marks the spot of one of the massacres carried out by the Indonesians, but this one was captured by a British journalist, and effectively marked the beginning of the end of the Indonesian occupation. A truly key spot in Timor’s recent history.
Beaches: The best local beach is Areia Branca (‘White Sands’), where the Purple Cow bar/restaurant attracts a crowd in the evening. You can to the Jesus statue from here with any problem. Another great beach is Pasir Putih (‘white sand’ in Indonesian) – a real hidden gem, it’s situated very close to Dili . Also, there is a beautiful hidden beach in Com which you can ask about and finally the beaches on Atauro are breathtaking too.
Scuba: East Timor is seriously on the scuba map these days with some of the best diving in the world so if you’re a scuba aficionado, you’re going to love this place! There are so many dive spots here and a couple of great dive companies, it’s all very easy to sort out Dili.
Trekking: There are a handful of mountains reaching over 3000 feet and the trekking is great fun. Again ask at Dili backpackers and they will help you arrange everything.
Budget: $25 per day
Food: On the street you can eat for around $2 for light meals. If you visit a restaurant of pub, you’ll be looking at prices of $5+ for anything substantial.
Accommodation: In Dili, East Timor backpackers ($12 for a dorm) is the best budget option. Expensive hotels are available and horribly overpriced.
Transport: Buses are frequent, if a little dangerous! Roads are run down and the buses are dilapidated. One hour is a bus is around $2 so it’s a fair bit more expensive than Indonesia.
People: Very friendly indeed, I stayed with a family there when I was in a spot of transport bother and they took me under their wing like one of their own.
Language: Portuguese and Tatum, English is not widespread but the international language of charades works fine
Weather: Tropical, averaging around 30 degrees. November to May iswet season and some roads become impassable.
Religion: One of only 2 Roman Catholic countries in Asia (the other being the Philippines)
Currency: US dollars are the legal tender here. There are ATMS that accept international cards so no stress there
Visa: As normal depends on your mode of transport. If you arrive by air or sea, then VOA (visa on arrival) is possible, $30 payment and your down. If, like me, you arrive by land through West Timor then since the recent regulation changes you need to arrange your visa before you arrive. This is pretty easy to arrange in Jakarta when your there if you plan to island hop all the way from there (great, great trip!).