Never heard of it? I don’t blame you! Timor Leste or East Timor is a small country just North of Australia, sharing an island with Indonesia. It was brand new Shark territory!
I was met with a lot of question marks when I was telling people we would go there. I only had a vague association myself from my childhood with some sort of unrest, but I wouldn’t have been able to point it out on a map or had a clue really on what had happened there.
What a little gem to find though! Dili – the capital city – is set beautifully between the sea and the mountains, a Christ statue overlooking the city and such friendly locals! It felt truly different from any other place we have been to so far.
It’s probably human nature trying to categorize everything in your head to something you know. Driving through Dili I tried to categorize my impressions into “Yep, that’s just like in Indonesia” or “I know that from somewhere else in Asia”, but it didn’t work at all. Even though there are of course parallels to Asian countries it does feel very different. The population is put together by a number of different tribes that don’t resemble their Indonesian neighbors at all. References to their Portuguese past can be found everywhere across the city, mostly in churches as the Portuguese missionaries had been pretty busy here back in the day.
The first thing that really strikes you though on arriving in Timor-Leste is the genuine friendliness of people. Walking the streets literally every person you come across in the streets will greet you with a ‘Bom Dia’.
Timor-Leste is a poor country (one of the poorest worldwide in fact). Jobs are scarce and the majority of the locals live a subsistence lifestyle. You won’t however find beggars and very rarely will you get hassled to buy a souvenir or anything else.
As it comes to tourism it is relatively untouched and is missing the infrastructure to attract many foreign tourists. Seemingly 99% of the foreigners you come across here are Australian due to it’s close geographical situation. Out of the Australians you’ll meet only a few are actually full blown tourists. The majority of the foreigners here are research or university groups coming to the island researching … stuff! Diving and snorkelling are the most popular activities for tourists. There is quite a bustling expat and volunteer community in Dili due to it’s extremely high density of foreign aid organisations and embassies you’ll find at every corner.
How to get there?
Dili airport is precious! It’s very small and given the very limited connections the locals still seem to be in awe by incoming and outgoing flights, quite a few watching from outside the fence. The departure and arrivals board usually only has one, maybe two flights shown at a time.
The three main connections to Dili are from Darwin (Australia) with Air North, from Denpasar – Bali (Indonesia) with NAM Air or Citilink and from Singapore with Silk Air.
Air North: www.airnorth.com.au
We flew in from Darwin with Air North! Fabulous Airline that covers all the weird little places in Australias Outback and Timor Leste. Great plane, loads of space and a little snack and baggage was included in the flight fare! The flight time from Darwin is only about an hour to Dili!
NAM Air: www.traveloka.com
Since we didn’t return to Australia but continued on to Bali we used NAM Air to fly out of Dili. The best place to book NAM Air is through the Traveloka website. Traveloka is a really handy and easy to use platform to book not only flights but accommodation, activities, trains and even data packages for your phone. Pretty much everything you need in and around Asia!
We had never heard of NAM Air before and our flight was scheduled for Friday, 13th! Can’t help but being a bit suspicious, I guess. We did make the 1 hour 50 minute flight in one piece and I have to say that there wasn’t anything to complain about. It was a decent plane, the food was included but probably the worst I have ever had on flight. But really – on a not even 2 hour flight, who cares?!
Alternatively there are also flights between Denpasar and Dili with Citilink www.traveloka.com.
Where to stay?
Now that was a surprise! We had booked Casa do Sândalo Boutique Guest House in Dili via Booking.com (they don’t have their own website, only Facebook contact). The pictures on the website looked fabulous and matched 100% what we found in real life! We had the airport transfer arranged with the guest house directly and the guest house manager came to pick us up from the airport. The trip between the airport and the guest house takes about 20 – 30 minutes depending on traffic and route. So, we are driving around Dili, chatting along when we turned into a street and I remarked “Oh look, it’s the Mexican consulate” and he said “Yes, that’s where you stay”. So the consulate gates opened and there it was, Casa do Sândalo! The check-in took place in the actual consulates office with Mexican flags all over the place, a heavy important-looking desk and many pictures of the consul himself with all sorts of dignitaries! HOW COOL IS THAT????
The guest house does look like a Mexican ‘hacienda’ (I guess?!) with a beautiful courtyard and a fountain in the middle. The rooms are situated around the courtyard and are equiped with a fridge, tea and coffee facilities, air-conditioning and a bathroom with a shower.
We paid about 55 USD a night and the airport transfer cost 10 USD per transfer. You can get breakfast there of course as well which will set you back 7 USD. We didn’t try the breakfast, so I can’t say if it is any good. The staff was extremely helpful and always there for questions. The shark loved it, so did I! Plus – where else do you stay in an actual working Mexican consulate????
Casa do Sândalo Boutique Guest House – www.booking.com
How to get around?
Taxi: We were advised by our host to rather take the blue taxis in the city as they use the meter and to avoid the yellow taxis where you have to negotiate the price before you hop in. In our entire time in Dili we barely ever spotted a blue taxi meanwhile every second car was a yellow cab. Therefore we used the yellow cabs without any issues.
We paid pretty much anywhere in the city 2 USD per trip, to the Cristo statue we negotiated 3 USD as it was a bit further, but ended up paying voluntarily about 4 USD because it was a longer drive than expected.
If you are afraid of fast and reckless driving Dili is your dream destination! The top speed of any vehicle seems to be about 30 km per hour – tops. The drivers are taking in the scenery, chatting to friends and acquaintances along the way, meanwhile pumping some beats through their speakers. There were times where we could have easily jumped out of the taxi, bought a snack and hop back in without breaking into a sweat. Who cares, we weren’t in a rush to get anywhere!
The taxis also seems to have a weird obsession with air fresheners. The maximum we counted in one cab was 4 limp plastic bags dangling from the roof, one of them slapping my face ever so slightly. Delightful! At least a good smell was guaranteed at all times.
Microlets: If you are a bit more adventurous and want to get around like the locals do – jump into one of the Microlets. They are little minibus taxis that stop anywhere for anyone. I am not sure how to find out the exact routes they are taking, but we gave it a try a couple of times and succeeded! We only had a vague direction as destination and it worked perfectly fine. We also realized how small and petite the locals are compared to our big Western fat asses! I felt like a brute giant sitting in a fully packed Microlet next to the locals. Great experience and it only sets you back 0.35 USD cents per person no matter if you hop on for 2 or 20 minutes.
If you enjoyed this and would like to know what to do and where to eat, drink and be merry in Dili- stay tuned and follow us! We have 2 more blogs to come on Timor Leste before we move on to our next destination. The second part of our Dili experience is on the way!
See again next time!
S. & M.