While the neighboring countries of Indonesia and Australia receive a lot of international visitors, East Timor is still one of the more difficult and expensive (by South East Asian standards) places to travel.
It remains under the typical traveler’s radar and East Timor tourism is still not very popular for backpackers, although tourism is on the rise – especially following the 2012 election.
As a young country, East Timor is still developing its infrastructure. Further down the road, it needs to figure out how to market itself to attract visitors who will spend some of their lucrative tourist dollars in the country.
If you are curious and need some inspiration to visit, here is a quick East Timor fact list to introduce you to the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.
1. Heard of East Timor? You’re the minority
Twenty-five years after its independence being recognized by the United Nations, East Timor remains relatively unknown to the rest of the world. Even the world postal system seems somehow to have never heard of the capital, Dili.
Envelopes or packages can easily end up in Delhi instead of Dili. If you must send something to Dili, it is highly suggested to write “Dili, via Darwin”, even if you use reliable shipping services such as DHS or SDV/FedEx.
There are a limited number of post offices in the country, and only one “main” post office in the capital. So it is understandable that the East Timor Postal Service is not as reliable as those with more developed postal systems.
A simple postcard sent via Australia or Indonesia can take more than a month to arrive.
2. You won’t be dealing with big tourist crowds
East Timor tourism is still “off the beaten path.” Many travelers have never even heard of it before, let alone plan on visiting anytime soon.
That said, no matter where you go in this tiny and friendly country, you won’t have to fight huge crowds.
Everything here is still genuinely free of tourist traps.
You will rarely find visitors on the streets of Dili, only smiling locals. East Timor natural resources are slowly being discovered by scientists. That attracts a small group of expats who move here to work in a few lucrative fields, like oil or construction.
Some come here to work for the United Nations as UN Observers – we even met a few of them in Dili! There are also mainland Chinese investors, who move to the Dili suburbs to open stores to sell pretty much everything – construction materials, household materials, and anything to help make their fortune.
If you are visiting Dili, here’s a few things to do in Dili, East Timor.
Getting to the country can present a challenge, too. Like many international visitors, you’ll arrive in Dili via one of three cities: Bali, Singapore, or Darwin, Australia.
These are the only connections available to fly to and from Dili International Airport.
Fortunately, East Timor immigration is fairly straight-forward. Generally speaking, international visitors need a valid passport and $30 US for a visa on arrival.
There are no ATMs or money exchange stations in this tiny airport. So be prepared and have US dollars ready before you arrive.
You can’t cross the land border to enter East Timor unless you are a Timor Leste citizen, an Indonesian citizen, or have a pre-approved East Timor visa sticker in your passport.
Portuguese citizens are exempt from visa requirements.
You can read updates on visa policy on the Timor Leste Official Visa Policy Page.
3. East Timor is expensive
East Timor is still in transition when it comes to money. They use US paper currency, but have their own coins, so it’s a little confusing. Because they use US paper money, it drives prices up.
If you arrive from Indonesia, you will feel poor right away.
Everything is expensive, and it is somewhat challenging to find budget-friendly East Timor accommodation.
There are still not many hotel options in East Timor – a decent Dili hotel will cost you about $50 US per night.
Lunch at a basic restaurant costs at least $5 for a meal of rice and two sides. By comparison, in nearby Indonesia, the same meal at a Restoran Padang would cost Rp 13,000 (90¢). Ouch!
Local and inter-city transportation are affordable – a public minibus, called a mikrolet, will take you to places in Dili for TLD 0.25 (local coins only, as you can’t use US coins for payment).
Ask locals to help you figure out which mikrolets to take, as there are no posted routes.
You will need to know prior to boarding to get the right mikrolet to your destination.
4. East Timor is a poor country
Yes, it’s an expensive country to travel and live in, but East Timor is quite poor. To give you an idea, the monthly minimum wage is about $110, or $4 per day.
Welfare for the elderly is $30 per month – only $1 a day.
The unemployment rate in Dili is high, so the typical trend of migration from rural areas to urban does not happen in East Timor.
I was informed that people prefer to stay in their small villages.
At least there, they may stay poor but can grow food. It’s better than being poor and miserable trying to make end’s meet in the city. Makes sense!
Several governmental and NGOs run programs that were introduced to help the East Timor people. One of them is the Alola Esperansa Foundation, a non-profit organization to support women and children by preserving the Tai cloth-weaving tradition.
They sell them to fund the program.
5. Dili’s streets and markets are meticulously clean
Not that people don’t litter – they do – but the city deploys a wonderful program of street cleaners. They work non-stop to pick up litter everywhere.
You will not see any regular trash on major streets in Dili! There is a strong movement to change citizens’ mentality about cleanliness and organization – all of the Dili tourist markets we visited were spotless and extremely well-organized.
Tais Market is one of Dili’s famous landmarks. You can come to visit haggle-free while you peacefully browse any of the colorful stacked merchandise.
There are no aggressive sellers in this market.
Even better, the Fatin Fa’An Al-Fuan Natural fruit market takes organization to a higher standard. I could have stayed in this market for hours, admiring their neatly stacked and organized fruit displays.
Take a look at this picture of one of the market stalls. Almost everything is perfect!
6. Be sensitive while talking about East Timor history
Many countries around the world go through a somewhat similar grim history to gain their independence.
You’ve heard it before – many people killed, heavy fighting throughout the regions, and huge sacrifices made to finally gain independence.
East Timor history experienced these dark moments twice. In 1974-1975, they struggled to get their independence from Portugal. In 1999, they held a referendum to gain independence from Indonesia.
East Timor independence was fully recognized at the international level in 2002.
The turmoil during these darker periods of East Timor history were obviously painful, and keep in mind that this is fairly recent stuff.
Many current Timorese people experienced these events, and may have lost family members and friends during these times.
At the historical Santa Cruz Cemetery, our tour guide, Julio, showed me one particular grave site. There, four siblings were killed by Indonesian troops just a few days apart back in 1974. Over 100,000 people lost their lives either directly or as a direct result of actions by Indonesia.
The East Timor genocide is a shameful event for Indonesia – my home country.
When talking to the Timorese, it’s OK to ask questions about this history. Just keep in mind that these events are still fresh for many people and it may still be quite painful for them.
So, be sensitive to that.
7. The majority of people speak at least 3 languages
The official languages of Timor Leste are Portuguese and Tetun, which is the language of Timor Island. The third unofficial language is, unsurprisingly, Bahasa Indonesia.
If you happen to know it, it will be a more helpful here than English. Indonesian TV stations are widely available in East Timor, and all public schools teach Bahasa Indonesia as a foreign language.
Like almost every country on Earth whose name starts with a direction, East Timor has a neighbor called West Timor, which is part of Indonesia.
These two places share the culture, language, and custom, as well as the physical location of the tiny Island of Timor.
7a. You are visiting “East East”
Fun fact: the name “Timor” means “East” in the derived Bahasa Indonesia variation. “Leste” also means “East” in the Portuguese language. People who speak French may also notice a similarity, “l’este.”
No matter how you say it, East Timor or Timor Leste, the name literally means “East East.”
That means the Indonesian region of West Timor is “West East.”
8. East Timor’s love-hate relationship with Indonesia
For better or worse, Indonesia is like a big brother to East Timor.
During the Indonesian occupation, there were times when the Timorese really suffered under the abuse of Indonesian troops. Many friends and family members were killed during these times.
For a while after the 1999 referendum, there was a resistance to (and vendetta against) Indonesians visiting East Timor.
But time heals, and East Timor today is ready to move on. The East Timor people now have a great relationship with their giant neighbor.
Bahasa Indonesia remains spoken and learned by the majority of the population, and traveling and trading between the two countries has been easier.
Roads and infrastructure that connect East and West Timor have been constructed and improved, as the two countries are ready to be once again united in friendship.
9. Many East Timor citizens hold dual Portuguese citizenship
That’s right, Europeans – many citizens of East Timor are your brethren! Anybody born prior to 1999 was given the opportunity to become a Portuguese citizen.
And if at least one of your parents is a Portuguese citizen, you can also apply to become one.
A large number of scholarship to good Portuguese universities were given to many talented young Timorese. It was the hope that they would learn good skills to bring home and help develop their own country.
Unfortunately this plan backfired, with many young and talented citizens opting to move to Europe permanently. Even if they didn’t get one of those scholarships, many Timorese still decided to take a chance on Europe.
A sizable East Timor population lives and works in many blue-collar jobs in the shops and factories of the U.K.
10. Grab your Rosary – East Timor is devoutly Catholic
The Vatican is number one, of course, with 99.99% being Roman Catholic. But East Timor comes second with an astonishing 96% + of the population being practicing Catholics.
As a Portuguese enclave, East Timor is one of two countries in South East Asia where Roman Catholicism is the religion of the majority. The Dili Cathedral is said to be the second largest church in South East Asia after Manila’s.
There is even a big statue of Jesus overlooking Dili Bay that was a gift by then Indonesian President Suharto to win Timorese hearts.
It failed. He didn’t.
Pope John Paul II visited Dili in 1989. For that event, a traditional Timorese altar was built.
A statue of the Pope was erected on top of a hill, and his signature marks the entrance to the Dili Cathedral.
11. Timor Plaza is the only shopping mall in the country
The Timorese are extremely proud of their rich culture and history. This is especially visible around East Timor independence day in May.
The East Timor flag decorates everything, everywhere in the country.
The newest buzz is the relatively new Timor Plaza. Here, you can buy electronics, office supplies, and enjoy an air-conditioned supermarket!
Many young and trendy Timorese hang out here, maybe in the western coffee shop on the corner.
Oh, and there’s even a food court that you can enjoy!
As you can see, life is simple here.
East Timor Tourism is on the rise. Go visit!
So, what are you waiting for? East Timor tourism will be fully developed in the near future. But we think it’s great to visit places like this before tourism changes it forever.
Have you visited East Timor? Do you live there and have more strange or little-known facts?
Note: This post has been updated.
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Halef moved from Indonesia to the US nearly two decades ago to go to college here. He hasn’t looked back. He’s been to over forty countries and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. He’s a Landscape Architect in Atlanta, GA.