A view of the wonderfully isolated and pristine 'Back Beach'.

Timor-Leste Travel Guide

Date Visited: March 2020

Introduction

Located far off the well-beaten tourist track which meanders its way through southeast Asia, remote and isolated Timor-Leste (East Timor), is a rewarding and surprising travel destination.

A view from the north coast of Timor-Leste with Atauro island in the background.

A view from the north coast of Timor-Leste with Atauro island in the background.

One of the world’s newest countries, Timor-Leste offers plenty of rewarding experiences for those intrepid travellers willing to make the journey. From mountainous, ancient volcanic landscapes, to pristine beaches which are fringed by spectacular coral reefs, Timor-Leste offers so much to outdoor enthusiasts.

Friendly Timorese youth selling traditional Tais cloth in the Tais market in central Dili.

Friendly Timorese youth selling traditional Tais cloth in the Tais market in central Dili.

A long, bloodied history has left its mark on the country in many ways, with museums in Dili offering insights into Timor-Leste’s dark past.

A former Portuguese colony (which was then invaded and occupied by Indonesia shortly after the Portuguese departed), the country is full of reminders of its colonial past, from beautiful colonial-era buildings, many of which are decaying gracefully along the shady streets of Dili, to fine dining Portuguese restaurants which can be found on along the Rua’s of downtown Dili.

Timor-Leste souvenirs for sale in Dili, one of the world's youngest countries, having gained independence in 2002.

Timor-Leste souvenirs for sale in Dili, one of the world’s youngest countries, having gained independence in 2002.

Unfortunately, the country hasn’t gone out of its way to promote tourism and currently has several obstacles in place which prevent it from developing tourism. Those obstacles include:

  • Limited and expensive flights to the country by a few airlines, which operate on monopoly routes. As an example, a return flight from Singapore (one of just three gateway cities) will cost you around US$1,600! If you’re a oneworld frequent flyer, with points to spare, there is good news. For more on flight options and details, please refer to the ‘Getting There‘ section below.
  • Financial services in Timor-Leste are totally undeveloped and hardly conducive to tourism. Please refer to the ‘Banking Services‘ section below and be better prepared than I was!

My journey to Timor-Leste was unfortunately cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant I only had time to explore the sights of Dili and partake in some diving. Of what I saw and experienced, I cannot wait to return to complete my journey – once travel restrictions are lifted.

A colourful, traditional, wooden fishing boat on a beach east of Dili.

A colourful, traditional, wooden fishing boat on a beach east of Dili.

Location

Timor-Leste (East Timor) occupies the eastern half of the island of Timor, with the Indonesian province of West Timor occupying the western half. Timor-Leste includes the enclave of Oecussi, which is located within West Timor (Indonesia).

A political map of Timor showing the Indonesian province of West Timor, East Timor and the exclave of Oecusse. Source: Wikipedia.

A political map of Timor showing the Indonesian province of West Timor, East Timor and the exclave of Oecusse.
Source: Wikipedia.

This newly independent country, one of the youngest on earth, lies at the southernmost edge of the Indonesian archipelago, northwest of Australia. Darwin is located 722 km to the south-east of Dili, a flight time of 1 hour, 20 minutes.

A map of the Lesser Sunda Islands, an Indonesian island chain, with independent Timor-Leste clearly indicated. Source: Wikipedia.

A map of the Lesser Sunda Islands, an Indonesian island chain, with independent Timor-Leste clearly indicated.
Source: Wikipedia.

The island of Timor is the largest and easternmost of the Lesser Sunda Islands, an Indonesian archipelago. Some of the main Lesser Sunda Islands are, from west to east: Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Sumba and Timor.

A view of a typical north coast beach, east of Dili.

A view of a typical north coast beach, east of Dili.

Timor-Leste has volcanic origins which have produced a rugged terrain, characterised by a central spine of steep mountains that cascade to the sea in the north while giving way to a gentler decline in the south.

People

A Timorese family enjoying sunset on the waterfront in Dili.

A Timorese family enjoying sunset on the waterfront in Dili.

With a population of around 1.3 million, the Timorese are one big community with that sense of community having been reinforced and strengthened in recent years following their struggle for independence from firstly Portugal, their former colonial master, and Indonesia, their former occupier.

Artwork at the Xanana Gusmão Reading room illustrates the young countries struggle for independence.

Artwork at the Xanana Gusmão Reading room illustrates the young countries struggle for independence.

The Timorese are a friendly, hospitable, happy, gregarious people who always made me feel welcome. Despite living hard lives, they like to laugh and will always greet you with a warm smile.

The Timorese are very religious with 98% of the population being Catholic and everything shutting down on Sundays so everyone can attend church. Roads around churches in Dili are blocked to traffic during Sunday services.

History of Migration

A young Timorese girl attending a birthday party at Cristo Rei in Dili.

A young Timorese girl attending a birthday party at Cristo Rei in Dili.

Due to different waves of migration, Timor-Leste is a patchwork of many different indigenous groups, each with its own language and cultural practices. The most popular of the indigenous languages spoken is Tetun, an Austronesian language, which is spoken by just 25% of the population.

Humans first settled in Timor-Leste around 42,000 years ago. Descendants of at least three waves of migration are believed still to live in East Timor.

Children playing in the Tais market in Dili.

Children playing in the Tais market in Dili.

The first wave, 42,000 years ago, was comprised of people described by anthropologists as Veddo-Australoid, who settled not just in Timor-Leste but continued wandering, where they eventually settled in Australia and the Pacific, as Papuans in Papua New GuineaAboriginal Australians; and the Melanesians of Fiji, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu (click links to view my travel reports from those countries).

A group of Timorese celebrating a birthday at Cristo Rei.

A group of Timorese celebrating a birthday at Cristo Rei.

Around 3000 BC, a second migration brought Melanesians, who like their earlier predecessors, eventually settled the islands of the Pacific. Their arrival forced the earlier settlers to retreat to the mountainous interior of Timor-Leste, where their descendent still remain. Finally, the third migration saw proto-Malays arrive from south China and Indochina.

Did you know? Timor” derives from the Malay word ‘Timur‘, which means “east”. This was then translated by the Portuguese as “Timor“.

Flag

The flag of Timor-Leste.

The flag of Timor-Leste.

The flag of East Timor was adopted in 2002 and is the same as the flag that was originally adopted when the country declared its independence from Portugal in 1975 – nine days before being invaded by Indonesia.

The flag consists of a red field with a black isosceles triangle based on the hoist-side, bearing a white five-pointed star in the centre. This is superimposed on a larger yellow isosceles triangle, also based on the hoist-side, that extends to the centre of the flag.

A flag of Timor-Leste at the Tais Market in Dili.

A flag of Timor-Leste at the Tais Market in Dili.

The flag, which is a national symbol, is full of meaning with the yellow triangle representing “the traces of colonialism in East Timor’s history”.

The black triangle representing “the obscurantism that needs to be overcome”; the red base representing “the struggle for national liberation”; while the star, or “the light that guides”, is white to represent peace.

Souvenir model boats for sale at the Tais market, featuring Timorese-flag sails.

Souvenir model boats for sale at the Tais market, featuring Timorese-flag sails.

The national flag was first raised during the first moments of Independence Day on the 20th of May 2002, at which point, the United Nations Flag was lowered.

Currency

The United States Dollar has been the official currency of Timor-Leste since 2003.

The United States Dollar has been the official currency of Timor-Leste since 2003.

The U.S. Dollar is the official currency of Timor-Leste. The dollar was introduced in 2003, to replace the Indonesian Rupiah, during the United Nations administration period and has remained in place ever since. Currently, there is no plan to introduce a local currency.

The decision to adopt the US$ was made by the National Consultative Council (NCC) who stated that the dollar was chosen due to the fact that it is a strong and stable currency and is widely accepted around the world.

An almost complete set of Timorese Centavo coins.

An almost complete set of Timorese Centavo coins.

While the country doesn’t issue its own bank notes, it does issue its own coins, which are minted in Lisbon by the Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, the Portuguese national mint.

Uncirculated sets of centavo coins can be purchased, at a premium, from the Banco Central de Timor-Leste.

Uncirculated sets of centavo coins can be purchased, at a premium, from the Banco Central de Timor-Leste.

The Timor-Leste centavo, which was introduced in 2003, is issued in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 and 200 centavos and feature images of local plants and animals. While the coins are equal in value to US cents, only centavo coins are used in Timor-Leste. Sets of uncirculated coins are sold at the Central Bank in Dili for the princely sum of USD$25 per set!

Important: US Dollar banknotes issued prior to the year 2000 are not legal tender in Timor-Leste.

If bringing USD cash to Timor-Leste, you should check each note to ensure they are all post-2000 series notes. The year of issue is printed on each note under the heading ‘Series‘ (as highlighted on the image below).

Only post-2000 US dollar bank notes are legal tender in Timor-Leste.

Only post-2000 US dollar bank notes are legal tender in Timor-Leste.

Banking Services

Despite displaying foreign exchange rates, the main branch of Bank Mandiri does not change foreign currency.

Despite displaying foreign exchange rates, the main branch of Bank Mandiri does not change foreign currency.

Terrible!

Banking services in Timor-Leste are very undeveloped and of little use to visitors. It’s important to note that no banks offer currency exchange services. While many banks offer ATM’s, these accept VISA card only.

If you’re travelling with MasterCard, American Express or any other non-Visa credit card, you will not be able to withdraw money from any ATM in Timor-Leste. You will not be able to use your credit card to access funds anywhere or to pay for expenses such as hotels etc.

I arrived in Dili from Darwin, carrying Australian dollars cash plus my MasterCard and American Express card. None of these were of any use to me in Timor-Leste! Argh!

I asked my hotel where I could exchange my AUD into USD, a standard request in most countries. They directed me to the main branch of Mandiri bank, an Indonesian bank, which was a short walk away. As I entered the bank, unofficial money-changers on the street outside the bank, offered to change my dollars, all of them offering a different rate.

Upon entering the bank, I saw an illuminated currency exchange board, fixed to the wall, which displayed the current exchange rates. I asked a staff member where I could change my Australian dollars. I was then informed that the bank didn’t have a license to perform foreign exchange and that no bank in Timor-Leste is licensed to conduct foreign exchange! Huh??

I asked the bank staff where I could change my money, they directed me to the unofficial money changers on the street.

Apart from the guys on the street, you can exchange foreign currency at the Dili branches of Western Union and MoneyGram , which are located on the ground floor of the Timor Plaza shopping centre. While both allow you to exchange your cash in the security of an office setting, their rates are abysmal compared to those offered on the street.

e.g. 

  • On the street: A$100 = US$62
  • At MoneyGram: A$100 = US$55

It’s very important that you prepare your finances prior to arriving in Timor-Leste.

You should bring enough, post-year-2000, USD cash, to cover all your travel expenses while in the country. If you do not have a Visa card you will need to settle all bills (including hotels), in USD cash. There are some work-around’s for paying hotel bills, which I cover in the ‘Accommodation‘ section below.

The now-closed Dili branch of the Australian bank, ANZ, which once offered services for MasterCard credit card holders.

The now-closed Dili branch of the Australian bank, ANZ, which once offered services for MasterCard credit card holders.

The only bank, which once offered services for MasterCard credit card holders, was ANZ, an Australian bank. Sadly, the bank has now closed its only branch, which is still in place on the ground floor of Timor Plaza, and shut down its ATM (which use to accept MasterCard). The bank still offers banking services to Timorese account holders but no branch service.

Credit Cards

Visa card is the only credit card which is accepted in Timor-Leste.

Visa card is the only credit card which is accepted in Timor-Leste.

As mentioned, VISA credit card is the only credit card accepted in Timor-Leste! If you rely on your trusty MasterCard, American Express card or any other credit card for withdrawing cash from ATM’s and paying travel expenses, you will instead need to use USD cash.

Bring lots of USD cash – do not bring any other currency! 

Alternative Money Options

If you are short of cash and cannot access your hard-earned savings, there are a couple of options which can save the day:

  1. Use the online service of Western Union or MoneyGram to transfer money to yourself.
  2. Use your online banking service to transfer funds from your bank account to your hotel’s bank account.

Costs

The drinks menu at the Spa Cafe in Dili.

The drinks menu at the Spa Cafe in Dili.

One thing you can be sure of in any country which uses U.S. dollars, no matter how poor the country, the cost of everything will be higher because everything is priced in dollars rather than a local currency.

It’s much easier for a taxi driver in Dili to quote USD$5 for a short journey around town, whereas, next door in Indonesia, a taxi driver would find it difficult asking a customer to pay 78,000 Rupiah, the equivalent amount, for the same journey.

Likewise, hotels, restaurant and travel agents are all able to quote higher prices thanks to everything being priced in dollars.

For many years, Dili was home to a small army of high-earning UN consultants and aid workers who had money to burn. During this time, locals learnt that easy money could be made from foreigners. Today, anything geared towards foreigners is expensive, including cafes, restaurants, hotels.

Daily Travel Budgets

The following provides a rough indication of daily travel budgets:

  • Budget: Less than USD$50
  • Mid-range: Between USD$50 – 150
  • Top-End: More than USD$150

Sample Travel Costs

The menu at Burger King in Dili.

The menu at Burger King in Dili.

Sample costs: 

Some of the best bargains in Timor-Leste are the hand-made crafts, such as this basket at the Tais market.

Some of the best bargains in Timor-Leste are the hand-made crafts, such as this basket at the Tais market.

Shopping

Colourful hand-woven Tais cloth for sale at the Tais Market in Dili.

Colourful hand-woven Tais cloth for sale at the Tais Market in Dili.

Affordable, beautiful, hand-made local crafts can be found at two outstanding boutiques in Dili and the ever-popular Tais Market.

Boneca de Ataúro

The wonderful staff at the Boneca de Ataúro boutique in Dili. A 'must-visit' shop for anyone spending time in the capital.

The wonderful staff at the Boneca de Ataúro boutique in Dili. A ‘must-visit’ shop for anyone spending time in the capital.

A village cooperative from the offshore island of Ataúro, the beautiful, hand-sewn crafts which are sold at the Boneca de Ataúro boutique in downtown Dili are made by a team of marginalised women on the island.

'Resistance Leaders in Camouflage' dolls, only available at Boneca de Ataúro in Dili.

‘Resistance Leaders in Camouflage’ dolls, only available at Boneca de Ataúro in Dili.

The co-op currently employs 60 women, who manufacture a range of merchandise, including some unique dolls, with my favourites being ‘resistance leaders in camouflage‘.

The project, which is now 10 years old, has opened a boutique in downtown Dili (next to Fatima Cafe on Rua José Maria Marques) which is staffed by some of the friendly woman from the co-operative.


Besides making dolls, the creative folks at the co-op have also made an award-winning short-film, which you can view here:


According to the company website, the ‘Boneca‘ is a rag-doll born on the island of exile; a doll that crossed the sea and many borders to travel around the world.

The staff at the Boneca de Ataúro boutique in downtown Dili.

The staff at the Boneca de Ataúro boutique in downtown Dili.

It’s a wonderful story and a great cause, with the shop selling a range of unique gifts which make for the best souvenirs of Timor-Leste. You can view their full range of products in their online catalogue.

'Palm-Leaf' boy and girl dolls sell for US$25 each at Boneca de Ataúro.

‘Palm-Leaf’ boy and girl dolls sell for US$25 each at Boneca de Ataúro.

Things and Stories Boutique

Ana, one of the friendly staff members at Things and Stories boutique, modelling a beautiful dress made from Timorese Tais cloth.

Ana, one of the friendly staff members at Things and Stories boutique, modelling a beautiful dress made from Timorese Tais cloth.

Not to be outdone, ‘Things and Stories‘ offer a carefully curated selection of high quality Timorese products through their boutiques at the Hotel Timor, Dili International Airport, Museum of Resistance and Timor Plaza.

Tais Market

Bundles of colourful Tais cloth for sale in Dili.

Bundles of colourful Tais cloth for sale in Dili.

The big daddy of craft markets in Timor-Leste, the popular Tais market is a great place to pick up a bargain piece of colourful Tais cloth. You should always check the provenance of any piece before you buy as many are made in Indonesia. 

A store owner weaving Tais cloth at the Tais market in Dili.

A store owner weaving Tais cloth at the Tais market in Dili.

Tais cloth is a form of traditional weaving created by the women of East Timor. An essential part of the nation’s cultural heritage, Tais weaving’s are used for ceremonial adornment, a sign of respect and appreciation towards guests, friends, relatives, home decor, and personal apparel.

Tais is an object of great importance to the Timorese and something that is used on many different occasions.

Colourful Tais cloth at the Tais market in Dili.

Colourful Tais cloth at the Tais market in Dili.

The stores at the Tais market are stacked high with piles of colourful, hand-woven Tais cloth – it’s a photographer’s dream. The many children at the market love to pose for the camera as are the weavers, who spend their time demonstrating their craft.

My very special 'Oecussi-style' Tais cloth which I purchased at the Tais Market in Dili.

My very special ‘Oecussi-style’ Tais cloth which I purchased at the Tais Market in Dili.

Of all the colourful pieces, I was most attracted to a subtle, almost monochrome piece of ‘Oecussi-style’ Tais. Each region in Timor-Leste possesses its own distinctive style of tais.

A piece of Tais cloth featuring a Salt-water crocodile, which are common in the waters surrounding Timor.

A piece of Tais cloth featuring a Salt-water crocodile, which are common in the waters surrounding Timor.

Sightseeing

The wonderfully retro 'Centro de Informação Turística' (Tourist Information office), which is located on the waterfront in Dili.

The wonderfully retro ‘Centro de Informação Turística’ (Tourist Information office), which is located on the waterfront in Dili.

Note: Due to my trip to Timor-Leste being cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, the only part of the country I was able to explore was the capital, Dili. Once the world returns to normal, I will return to Timor-Leste to explore other parts of this wonderful country.

Dili

Dili, also known as the City of Peace, is the capital, largest city, main port, and commercial centre of Timor-Leste.

Dili Waterfront

The Monument to Our Lady in Fatima Park is surrounded by a slurry of mud which washed down from the mountains during a flash flood the day before. The mud covered the entire city.

The Monument to Our Lady in Fatima Park is surrounded by a slurry of mud which washed down from the mountains during a flash flood the day before. The mud covered the entire city.

Dili waterfront is the centre of life in the capital, attracting hordes of locals who come to exercise, watch the sunset, relax on shady park benches and shop at the fruit and vegetable markets.

Portuguese cannons line the waterfront in Dili.

Portuguese cannons line the waterfront in Dili.

The centre of action is the Largo de Lecidere, a park area which boasts shady trees and free Wi-Fi. Across the road, another park, Fatima park is a formal garden which has a Portuguese-era monument, the Monument to Our Lady (pictured above) as its centrepiece.

Cristo Rei

The iconic statue of Cristo Rei, which is located on the summit of Cap Fatucama.

The iconic statue of Cristo Rei, which is located on the summit of Cap Fatucama.

Just as Rio has its Christ the Redeemer statue, so too, Dili has its Cristo Rei monument. Located on the summit of Cap Fatucama, the 27-m high statue of Christ standing on a world globe is the landmark of Dili with the statue being the most popular tourist attraction in the country.

The height of 27-metres is full of symbolism, a reference to the integration of Timor-Leste as the 27th province of Indonesia. The statue was constructed in 1996, when Timor-Leste was then a province of Indonesia. The then-President of Indonesia, President Suharto, unveiled the monument as a gift to appease the predominantly Catholic Timorese.

A view of Back Beach (left side) and Areia Branca (right side), two dazzling beaches which can be visited from Cristo Rei.

A view of Back Beach (left side) and Areia Branca (right side), two dazzling beaches which can be visited from Cristo Rei.

A staircase to the summit passes fourteen ‘Stations of the Cross’, which attracts a steady stream of locals on weekends. Visit during the week and you’ll have the place to yourself.

A view of Areia Branca, the terminus for the #12 mikrolets and the starting point for the climb to the summit.

A view of Areia Branca, the terminus for the #12 mikrolets and the starting point for the climb to the summit.

The views of the beaches either side of the cape are stunning, with the isolated Back Beach being accessible from a path which leads down from the statue. If you’re looking for somewhere to swim, this is the place, with both beaches offering pristine water and few crowds.

A view of the wonderfully isolated and pristine 'Back Beach'.

A view of the wonderfully isolated and pristine ‘Back Beach’.

Mikrolet #12 shuttles between Dili and Cristo Rei, costing just 25 cents.

Archives & Museum of East Timorese Resistance

The lobby of the Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum.

The lobby of the Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum.

Housed in the former Portuguese ‘Timor Court of Justice’ building, which was burnt down during the 1999 Timor-Leste crisis, the Archives & Museum of East Timorese Resistance documents the Indonesian invasion of Timor-Leste, the country’s subsequent occupation and finally its bloody struggle for liberation.

While the displays are interesting and engaging, photography is not allowed inside the museum. The staff did allow me to take one photo of the museum lobby which I’ve included above.

Church de Santo António de Motael

The most popular place for Sunday mass in Catholic Timor-Leste is the Church de Santo António de Motael.

The most popular place for Sunday mass in Catholic Timor-Leste is the Church de Santo António de Motael.

Overlooking the port, the Church de Santo António de Motael is the oldest Roman Catholic church in East Timor. While the current church dates from 1955, the original church was built around 1800 by the Portuguese.

If you attend one Sunday service in Dili, this is the place to do it, with the surrounding streets being barricaded by police to keep the masses of worshippers safe from traffic.

The church has been at the centre of many events during the struggle for independence from the Portuguese and the Indonesians. At the time of my visit, the Holy See (Vatican) were busy constructing an Embassy next door.

Farol do Porto de Díli (Dili Harbour Lighthouse)

Storm clouds gather over the Farol in Dili.

Storm clouds gather over the Farol in Dili.

Located around the corner from the church, the Farol do Porto de Díli (Dili Harbour Lighthouse) is a colourful lighthouse next to the beach on the west side of the harbour.

Constructed by the Portuguese in 1889, this simple construction consists of a concrete base, upon which a 17-m metal tower supports a lantern gallery, which is accessed via an exposed spiral staircase which winds its way up around the centre of the metal tower.

Arte Moris

The entrance to Arte Moris which is fronted by a Portuguese-era cannon.

The entrance to Arte Moris which is fronted by a Portuguese-era cannon.

Housed on the former premises of the National Museum in Comoro, a short distance from Dili airport, Arte Moris is the first fine arts school, cultural centre and artists’ association in Timor-Leste.

The campus at Arte Moris is full of colourful, surreal artworks which use everyday objects as their canvas.

The campus at Arte Moris is full of colourful, surreal artworks which use everyday objects as their canvas.

The school was founded following the violent Indonesian occupation. Its aim was to use art as a building block in the psychological and social reconstruction of a country devastated by violence.

Xanana Gusmão Reading Room

The museum at the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room complex is housed in a Portuguese-era building.

The museum at the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room complex is housed in a Portuguese-era building.

Established in 2000 by the wife of Xanana Gusmão, the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room (XGRR) is a complex which is comprised of a museum, which is housed in a Portuguese-era colonial building, and a modern reading room, which is located at the rear of the property.

A portrait of Xanana Gusmão dominates the displays in one of the rooms at the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room complex.

A portrait of Xanana Gusmão dominates the displays in one of the rooms at the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room complex.

The museum houses memorabilia of Timor-Leste’s first president, Xanana Gusmão, and includes artworks he painted while imprisoned in Jakarta.

Not so spacious! A replica of the tiny prison cell in which Xanana Gusmão was imprisoned.

Not so spacious! A replica of the tiny prison cell in which Xanana Gusmão was imprisoned.

Other displays include a replica of the tiny prison cell (the size of a cupboard) in which he was detained by the Indonesians; his two presidential cars (he modestly chose to drive regular cars rather than anything presidential as the country couldn’t afford anything else); artworks, sculptures and photography.

The two, very unpretentious, Presidential cars which were once owned by Xanana Gusmão. The one on the left still bears the scars (and bullet marks) of a failed ambush.

The two, very unpretentious, Presidential cars which were once owned by Xanana Gusmão. The one on the left still bears the scars (and bullet marks) of a failed ambush.

At the rear of the complex, a modern building houses a library (the ‘Reading Room’) which is open to all and provides free Wi-Fi, reference and reading material.

The Xanana Gusmão Reading room is a free library, which is popular with young Timorese students.

The Xanana Gusmão Reading room is a free library, which is popular with young Timorese students.

National Parliament

The National Parliament building in Dili. Not open to visitors, photography is only allowed from the street.

The National Parliament building in Dili. Not open to visitors, photography is only allowed from the street.

Located in the heart of Dili, The National Parliament is the single chamber (unicameral) legislature. It was created in 2001 as the Constituent Assembly while the country was still under the supervision of the United Nations.

Visitors are not welcome and any photography must be done from the street.

Scuba Diving

This stock photo, supplied by Dive Timor, provides a glimpse of the amazing amount of marine life which awaits divers to Timor-Leste.

This stock photo, supplied by Dive Timor, provides a glimpse of the amazing amount of marine life which awaits divers to Timor-Leste.

There are a few dive operators in Dili. I chose to dive with the excellent team from Dive Timor Lorosae who operate out of a waterfront dive shop which is attached to Timor Backpackers, a hostel offering a range of accommodation options.

While in Timor-Leste, I did two dives with the excellent Dive Timor Lorosae.

While in Timor-Leste, I did two dives with the excellent Dive Timor Lorosae.

Most of the dive sites near Dili are easily accessible from the beaches which are strung along the east and west coasts. The best diving in Timor-Leste is said to be on Atauro Island. I did plan to spend time on the island but, due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, I instead had to quickly leave Timor-Leste. In the words of General MacArthur – “I shall return“!

A view from the north coast of Timor-Leste with Atauro island in the background.

A view from the north coast of Timor-Leste with Atauro island in the background.

Because of the limited number of tourists in Timor-Leste, dive shops tend to dive only on weekends when local expats organise dive trips. I went diving with 6 other divers, all of whom were local expats, who often went diving together with Dive Timor. It was the local dive club and I was the token ‘tourist’.

Dive Timor Logo

We travelled in a mini-bus, one hour east of Dili, to a stretch of the north coast which is lined with pristine beaches and colourful, onshore reefs.

A view of the Dive Timor van parked on the beach at the very remote 'Dirt Track' dive site.

A view of the Dive Timor van parked on the beach at the very remote ‘Dirt Track’ dive site.

The first dive of the day was at a dive site known as ‘Dirt Track‘, which gets its name from the short dirt track which leads to the entry point – a remote pebbly beach. A one-hour drive east of Dili, the site is considered to be one of the most beautiful reefs along the coast. The reef lies just a few metres from the pebbly beach with good diving down to 20-25 metres.

Getting ready for our dive at the 'Dirt Track' dive site.

Getting ready for our dive at the ‘Dirt Track’ dive site.

While the harbour water in Dili is heavily polluted and full of muddy run-off from the rivers which pour down from the mountains which surround the capital, the water at the dive sites is totally pristine and especially clear due to the lack of sand and total lack of rivers in the area.

The beautiful 'Dirt Track' dive site is located a short paddle from the shore.

The beautiful ‘Dirt Track’ dive site is located a short paddle from the shore.

The second dive of the day was conducted at a site known as ‘Secret Garden‘. This unmarked site is accessible from a beach (30 km east of Dili) which is lined with a dense forest of towering palm trees.

As with the first site, Secret Garden is a short walk from the shore and is easily accessed during high tide. The site is a colourful, sloping reef which descends to 40 m, offering a profusion of hard and soft corals.

A stock photo, supplied by Dive Timor, shows the kind of reefs which can be seen along the coast of Timor-Leste.

A stock photo, supplied by Dive Timor, shows the kind of reefs which can be seen along the coast of Timor-Leste.

I enjoyed my diving with Dive Timor Lorosae and look forward to one day returning to explore more of their pristine sites.

Accommodation

There’s a good range of accommodation options in Dili, although rates in Timor-Leste are higher than in neighbouring Indonesia.


Note:

It’s important to note that hotels accept payment only in USD cash or with a VISA credit card. 

If you do get caught, you can transfer funds to your hotel via inter-bank transfer, Western Union or MoneyGram wire transfer. 

In the case of the Timor Plaza Hotel & Apartments, the hotel will allow guests to settle their bill using a MasterCard, with payments being processed in their Darwin office.


While Booking.com offer 22 properties in Dili, none of these can be paid for online. Hotels.com offer no properties, while Airbnb.com offer 50 properties which can be paid for online.

Discovery Inn

My spacious and comfortable room at the Discovery Inn.

My spacious and comfortable room at the Discovery Inn.

While in Dili, I stayed at the charming Discovery Inn which is conveniently located downtown, a short walk from all the sights and all the worthwhile cafes and restaurants. For those who love to start their day with a freshly brewed coffee, a branch of Gloria Jean’s Coffees is conveniently located at the hotel.

While a standard room is quoted online at US$80 per night, management were able to offer me a reduced rate for a longer-term stay.

The hotel is home to a popular outdoor bar and the very good Diya Restaurant, whose head chef hails from Pakistan. A good restaurant for those looking for something spicy!

Hotel Timor

The lobby of the Hotel Timor features displays of Timorese art and photography.

The lobby of the Hotel Timor features displays of Timorese art and photography.

Located in the heart of Dili, the 88-room Hotel Timor is the iconic hotel in Dili. Built in 1972, in a prime location, as the premiere hotel in the country, the hotel formerly operated under the name of Hotel Mahkota between 1976 and September 1999, when it was burned and abandoned during the uprising against Indonesian rule.

As a sign of a resurgent Timor-Leste, the fully renovated hotel was opened on the 20th of May, 2002, the day the country became independent. The lobby, which features displays of Timorese arts, crafts and photography, includes a popular cafe and several shops, including a branch of Things and Stories.

A standard double room at the hotel costs US$90 per night.

Timor Plaza Hotel & Apartments

While the Hotel Timor is one of the leading hotels in Dili, the much newer Timor Plaza Hotel & Apartments offers the most expensive rooms in the country with a superior double room costing US$170 per night.

The hotel is conveniently located above the Timor Plaza shopping centre. Unlike all other hotels in Dili, the Timor Plaza hotel will allow guests to settle their bill using a MasterCard credit card. This is done by completing a ‘Credit Card Authorisation’ form, which then authorises the hotel’s Darwin office to process the payment.

DTL Guest House

DTL Guest House, which is the accommodation part of Dive Timor Lorosae is a popular option for backpackers. Offering two different guest houses, rates are posted on their website.

Eating Out

Fruit and vegetables for sale at the waterfront market in Dili.

Fruit and vegetables for sale at the waterfront market in Dili.

The cuisine of Timor-Leste has influences from Southeast Asian foods (notably neighbouring Indonesia) and from Portuguese dishes from its colonisation by Portugal.

Thanks to its Portuguese expat community, Dili is home to some fine Portuguese restaurants including the popular Restaurante Tavirense whose menu is only available in Portuguese and whose, almost 100%, Portuguese clientele can be heard complimenting the chef with the words “Muito boa comida!” The restaurant is especially known for its bacalao, a traditional Portuguese Salted-Cod Stew.

Fish in Dili are sold by roadside vendors who balance their produce on a carrying stick.

Fish in Dili are sold by roadside vendors who balance their produce on a carrying stick.

Thanks to its rich volcanic soil and pristine oceans, Timor-Leste is abundant in produce, all of which can be found in the various markets around the capital. Around dusk, fish sellers line the main road along the waterfront where they sell local fish to passing motorists.

A fish vendor, on the waterfront in Dili.

A fish vendor, on the waterfront in Dili.

Restaurants

Discovery Inn

Chicken tandoori, served with salad and Raita at the Diya Restaurant in Dili.

Chicken tandoori, served with salad and Raita at the Diya Restaurant in Dili.

Located at the Discovery Inn, The Diya Restaurant offers a menu of international favourites along with some Indian-inspired curry dishes, all of which are prepared by the Pakistani head chef. Prices are not cheap, with main courses between US$20-25.

I ate here a few times and the food is OK, although I once ordered Risotto which was made using Pakistani Basmati rice! Not quite the same thing.

If you’re staying at the Discovery Inn, a (mediocre) complimentary breakfast is served at the Diya restaurant each morning. The best part of breakfast is that your coffee is made at the Gloria Jeans Coffees cafe which is located on the street-side of the hotel.

Timor Plaza

My chicken satay lunch at Timor Plaza, which cost me US$6.

My chicken satay lunch at Timor Plaza, which cost me US$6.

The greatest concentration of restaurants in Dili can be found at the Timor Plaza shopping complex. Here you will find American-style fast food outlets, Indonesian, Japanese, Indian, Chinese restaurants, kebab houses and more.

Starco Cafe

My lunch at the Starco Cafe, which offers Padang cuisine at a very reasonable price.

My lunch at the Starco Cafe, which offers Padang cuisine at a very reasonable price.

Some of the best dining deals in Dili can be found at the numerous Indonesian Padang Restaurants. These are the restaurants where the locals dine, and one of the most popular among the locals is the very clean and friendly Starco Cafe. For just a few dollars you can fill your plate with great-tasting Padang-style food.

Padang food is famous for its use of coconut milk and spicy chilli. The cuisine originated in West Sumatra, Indonesia but has now become one of the most popular cuisines throughout Indonesia and south-east Asia, including Singapore and Malaysia.

Cafés

Now onto my favourite topic – Coffee!

Timor-Leste has a big secret which I am about to share with you! The highlands of the country are home to numerous coffee plantations, where Arabica coffee plants produce the most amazingly flavoured beans. How important is the coffee industry? It’s the national economy’s largest non-oil export.

Coffee plants were introduced by the Portuguese in the early nineteenth century, and while the country’s output accounts for less than 0.2% of the global coffee trade, it is the largest single source, organic, coffee producer globally.

There are a number of fine cafes in Dili where you can sample the local product. In fact, all cafes in Dili, including the Gloria Jeans Coffees chain use only local beans.

If you forget to buy some coffee to take home, a cafe at Dili airport will save the day, with their packs of coffee beans.

My delicious Timor coffee which I carried back to Australia. This was a last-minute purchase from the airport cafe.

My delicious Timor coffee which I carried back to Australia. This was a last-minute purchase from the airport cafe.

Fatima Café 

The best coffee in town is served at Fatima Café.

The best coffee in town is served at Fatima Café.

The award for ‘Best Coffee in Dili‘ goes to Fatima Café which is owned by the wonderful Fatima, who is the best Barista in Dili.

The wonderfully friendly, energetic and entrepreneurial Fatima, owner of Fatima Café.

The wonderfully friendly, energetic and entrepreneurial Fatima, owner of Fatima Café.

While the food selection at Fatima cafe is non-existent, the coffee is the main star of the show and provides all the sustenance required by caffeine addicts. I especially recommend their double-shot Flat white. While you’re sipping your coffee, you can peruse the artworks which adorn the cafe walls. All works, which are produced by local artists are for sale.

A selection of excellent Timorese coffee and the (less-than-wonderful) local chocolate at Fatima Café.

A selection of excellent Timorese coffee and the (less-than-wonderful) local chocolate at Fatima Café.

Apart from selling excellent coffee, the Fatima also sells bars of local chocolate which re worth trying but were not my favourite. The folks at Lindt certainly do not need to fear this competition! I tried a bar which featured almonds on the packaging, however, I found not one almond in the chocolate. Stick to the coffee!

An interior view of Fatima Café, whose walls serve as an art gallery, with works by local artists available for purchase.

An interior view of Fatima Café, whose walls serve as an art gallery, with works by local artists available for purchase.

Fatima Café is a warm and friendly café and is popular with both expats and locals. The cafe is located next to the amazing Boneca de Ataúro boutique, the best place in town for gift shopping.

The Spa Café 

The friendly staff, who always prepared the healthiest of lunches and good coffee at the Spa Café.  

The friendly staff, who always prepared the healthiest of lunches and good coffee at the Spa Café.

Located across the road from the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room, The Spa Café is owned by an Australian expat who has called Dili home for many years. The cafe is attached to a spa/ salon which offers pedicure, manicure, massage, hair cutting and other salon services.

The cafe is something of an oasis in downtown Dili, offering good coffee and lots of healthy menu options, including fresh juices, delicious salads, wraps, smoothies and more.

Hotel Timor Café

The cafe at the Hotel Timor is set in one corner of the up-market hotel lobby, which is less lobby and more art gallery.

The cafe at the Hotel Timor is set in one corner of the up-market hotel lobby, which is less lobby and more art gallery.

Set in a corner of the salubrious lobby of the Hotel Timor is the hotel’s cafe, which is one place in town where you are always guaranteed to find a Pastéis de Nata – a Portuguese egg tart to English-readers.

A very fine Portuguese egg tart, served at the Hotel Timor cafe.

A very fine Portuguese egg tart, served at the Hotel Timor cafe.

No visit to an ex-Portuguese colony would be complete without having consumed one of these egg-y tarts, which are always served slightly warm. From Mozambique, Brazil, Macau and Timor-Leste, I’ve always been able to find a tasty Portuguese egg tart!

Gloria Jeans Coffees 

A branch of Gloria Jean's Coffees at the Discovery Inn in Dili.

A branch of Gloria Jean’s Coffees at the Discovery Inn in Dili.

This popular Australian-owned coffee chain (a better version of Starbucks), Gloria Jeans Coffees has two branches in Dili, one at the Discovery Inn and one at Timor Plaza. Like all other cafes in town, the coffee served here is brewed using local beans.

Bars

Unfortunately, the only beer which is brewed in Timor-Leste is Heineken, which is brewed at the new Heineken brewery, which is located on the eastern outskirts of town. There are no groovy craft beers, or anything more interesting than Heineken and a few other (generic) international beers from the Heineken stable.

As for bars in Dili, the main hotels offer a place to sit and relax and drink a beer, but the price of a beer is not cheap at about US$5 and most bars were very quiet.

One of the most popular expat bars in town can be found at Moby’s Hotel and Restaurant which is located on the waterfront, around the corner from the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room.

Visa Requirements

My visa which I purchased on arrival at Dili airport.

My visa which I purchased on arrival at Dili airport.

Visitors to Timor-Leste are required to obtain a visa, unless they are travelling on passports from the Schengen Zone, Indonesia or Cape Verde.

All other passport holders can apply for a Visa on Arrival at Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili. The visa, which is valid for a single entry, for 30 days, costs USD$30, which must be paid for in cash.

Note: There are no money exchange facilities at the airport, if you’re applying for a visa on arrival, it’s imperative that you arrive with USD$30 in cash.

Arrival forms for Timor-Leste.

Arrival forms for Timor-Leste.

Visas on arrival are not available at land borders, instead a Visa Application Authorisation must be obtained in advance.

To check your requirements, please refer to the Visa Policy of Timor-Leste.

Getting There

A final view of Dili on my Airnorth flight back to Darwin.

A final view of Dili on my Airnorth flight back to Darwin.

Air

Dawn arrival at Dili airport. Airnorth connect Darwin to Dili on a daily basis, a flight time of 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Dawn arrival at Dili airport. Airnorth connect Darwin to Dili on a daily basis, a flight time of 1 hour, 20 minutes.

All flights into Timor-Leste arrive at Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili. The airport, which is located 6-km west of downtown Dili is a quiet, single-runway aerodrome which receives little traffic.

There are few facilities, with a Burger King, located adjacent to the terminal, a small cafe, one small duty-free shop and one boutique which sells high quality Timorese handicrafts.

Boarding my Airnorth plane at Dili airport for my flight to Darwin.

Boarding my Airnorth plane at Dili airport for my flight to Darwin.

Timor-Leste has no national carrier, with Air Timor operating flights to/from Singapore and Kupang using chartered aircraft. The weekly flight which connects Singapore to Dili, with the return flight to Singapore departing an hour later, is operated by the national carrier of Bhutan, Druk Air, whose Airbus A319 aircraft would otherwise be parked at Singapore’s Changi airport overnight. Once the flight returns to Singapore, it recommences its usual Singapore to Bhutan flight.

The very quiet arrival area at Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili.

The very quiet arrival area at Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili.

Flights to Timor-Leste are not cheap! A round-trip ticket from Darwin to Dili (a distance of 722 km) with Airnorth, costs around A$660.

The good news for oneworld frequent flyers with points to burn is that Airnorth is a subsidiary of QANTAS (a oneworld carrier). Flights from Darwin to Dili, although operated by Airnorth, can be purchased on the QANTAS website using points from QANTAS, or another oneworld carrier.

The average cost of a one-way flight from Singapore to Dili is US$646, while the average price for a round-trip is US$1,657. Such high-ticket prices dissuade visitors from travelling to Timor-Leste. 

The following airlines operate scheduled services to/from:

  • Airnorth – flies to/from Darwin
  • Air Timor (operated by Druk Air) – flies to/from Singapore
  • Air Timor (operated by TransNusa) – flies to/from Kupang
  • Citilink – flies to/from Denpasar/Bali
  • NAM Air – flies to/from Denpasar/Bali
  • Sriwijaya Air – flies to/from Denpasar/Bali, Surabaya
  • TransNusa – flies to/from Kupang

Airport Transport

Most hotels in Dili provide free airport transfers which you must request in advance.

The airport is located on the edge of Dili, just off the main road, with plenty of taxis and mikrolets (micro-buses) available.

Taxis are plentiful but fares must be negotiated before starting your journey, as they are not metered. The fare to any downtown location should cost around USD$5. All taxis in Dili are old, well-beaten, clunkers!

Land

The main land border crossing with Indonesia is at Mota’ain (or Motain), 115 km west of Dili. There are also land border crossings at Salele (near Suai) on the south coast, and into Oecussi at Bobometo (north of Kefamenanu on the Indonesian side) and Wini on the north-east coast of Oecussi.

‘Visa on Arrival’ is not available at land borders, apart from those holding passports of Indonesia, Cape Verde and the Schengen countries.

Sea

There are no regular international passenger ferries servicing Timor-Leste. 

Just four cruise ships were scheduled to visit Timor-Leste in 2020, but these have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To view the current cruise ship schedule, please refer to the following website.

Getting Around

 

Public Transport

All mikrolets are 'Suzuki Carry Futura' micro-vans.

All mikrolets are ‘Suzuki Carry Futura’ micro-vans.

Mikrolets (micro-vans) are the main form of transport in Dili with a trip anywhere costing just 25 cents. The vehicle of choice for Mikrolet owners is the Suzuki Carry Futura, a ‘micro-van’, which is not even large enough to be classed as a ‘mini-van’. With a 2nd-hand Suzuki Carry costing less than US$8,000, it’s an affordable way to start your own business.

Interior view of a Mikrolet, which includes a tribute to the former colonial motherland.

Interior view of a Mikrolet, which includes a tribute to the former colonial motherland.

These owner-operated vans trawl the streets of Dili, on set routes, picking up and dropping off passengers wherever required. These compact little Japanese vans, which would be spacious enough for one sumo wrestler, can carry a dozen or more Timorese, with passengers squeezed in along two side benches in something that resembles a sardine can.

The Timorese are super friendly, and curious, and it’s all great fun and a wonderful way to meet the locals. Any foreigner riding a mikrolet will attract a lot of smiles and laughter.

The interiors of most mikrolets are often adorned with colourful, plush toys.

The interiors of most mikrolets are often adorned with colourful, plush toys.

Mikrolets operate during daylight hours with services being scare after sunset or on Sundays – when everyone attends church. If you want to board a mikrolet, you wave it down. If you want it to stop so you can disembark, you tap metal on metal. Easy!

The most useful routes are the #10 which runs along the waterfront, connecting the airport to downtown Dili, while the #12 connects downtown Dili to the Cristo Rei monument.

Taxi

A taxi and mikrolet, the main forms of transport in Dili.

A taxi and mikrolet, the main forms of transport in Dili.

Like mikrolets, taxis operate throughout Dili during daylight hours but are scare after hours and on Sundays.

While I rode in many taxis, I never rode in a nice one. Without exception, they are all old, beaten-up clunkers which lack any sort of safety features.

Despite this, the drivers will always try to overcharge foreigners. The is a legacy from the days of the UN administration, when the city was full of over-paid UN workers. The locals learnt that foreigners had money to spend!

Dili taxi drivers are normally friendly and courteous but will attempt to overcharge foreigners.

Dili taxi drivers are normally friendly and courteous but will attempt to overcharge foreigners.

A fare around town should cost around US$3, although drivers will always quote US$5! You need to negotiate and settle on the price before you hop in.

Rental Car

A small sedan car from Rentlo Car Rental in Dili costs around US$35 per day, with a larger 4WD costing US$160 per day.

Tip: Rather than renting your own car, it is often cheaper, and safer, to organise a car with a driver through your hotel in Dili.

Motorbike

A Timor-Leste motorbike license plate.

A Timor-Leste motorbike license plate.

At the Hotel Timor, one company advertises motorbikes for rent for US$25 per day or US$50 per day with a local rider/ guide. The company can be contacted via the reception desk or by telephoning +670 7714 6858.

Ferry

Storm clouds looming over the Berlin Nakroma ferry in Dili harbour.

Storm clouds looming over the Berlin Nakroma ferry in Dili harbour.

The Berlin Nakroma ferry links Dili with Pante Macassar, in the East Timorese exclave of Oecusse, and with Atauro Island. The ferry, which is owned and operated by the Government of Timor-Leste was gifted to the country in 2007 by the German government.

The ferry departs for Atauro island every Saturday at 8:30 am, arriving at the island settlement of Beloi beach 3 hours later. The ferry returns to Dili at 3:00 pm the same day. A one-way ticket costs US$4 and can be purchased directly at the port.

On other days, private companies operate (much faster) speed boats between Dili and Atauro Island. One company which was recommended to me is Compass Diving, who run daily shuttles for US$45 one-way or US$80 return, with the trip taking around 1.5 hours.

 


That’s the end of my travel guide for Timor-Leste. I look forward to hearing from anyone who uses this guide in planning a trip to this wonderful country – one of the world’s newest countries. 

 

Safe Travels!

Darren


Further Reading

Although not a part of the Pacific region, Timor-Leste lies on the doorstep of the Pacific. Maybe you could be inspired to continue your journey further east.

Following is a list of my travel reports from the Pacific region:

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Author: Darren McLean

Owner of taste2travel.com – an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer and adventurer.

I hope you enjoy reading my content.

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Timor-Leste Travel Guide
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Timor-Leste Travel Guide
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A Timor-Leste Travel Guide by Darren McLean - covering culture, sights, accommodation, restaurants, getting there & getting around and more.
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