Timor Leste – also known as East Timor – is a small country in South East Asia, Located about 1 hour flight from Darwin, Australia and Bali, Indonesia. Timor-Leste is an exciting new tourism destination and now is a special time to visit. Timorese with beautiful smiles will welcome you to their country and all it has to offer.
This tiny nation after its recent turbulent past has recently become a peaceful democracy 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 and Buddhist temples, then Timor Leste will certainly offer you something completely different…
Timor Leste ticks all the boxes for the extreme traveller and earns maximum bragging points for those travellers’ tales exchanges. Its land mass is only 14,609km2, with a population of just over one million people.
There is barely any tourism. A couple of three-star hotels, no golf courses and one shopping mall. You won’t find the travellers’ huts and hippie markets that you find elsewhere on the backpacker circuit. Yet those few adventurous souls who come here will find a very special place – empty beaches, spectacular diving, sleepy fishing villages, jagged mountains, wooden-hut villages, forests and monstrous rock formations.
Autoro Island, Local Market
Timor Leste: Basic Travel Info
- Currency: US Dollar
- Capital city: Dili
- Main religion: 90% CATHOLIC
- Main language: Portuguese and Tetum are the official languages and Bahasa Indonesian & English are working Languages.
- Telephone code: +670
- Time: UTC +09:00
- Emergency numbers: Ambulance 3310541, Police 112 & Fire 3324019
TETUM Language Essentials
- Hello: Ola, Oi
- Thank-you: Obrigadu (male) Obrigada (female)
- How are you?: O di’ak ka lae
- Can I have the bill please?: Hau bele hetan recibu husi ita?
- How much is this?: Ida ne’e folin hira?
- I don’t want it thank-you: Hau la presija. Obrigadu/a
On the ferry from Kupang, Indonesia to East Timor
Timor Leste Visa Information
- Tourist Visa – Air or Sea Entry: Visitors from any nation can effortlessly acquire a 30-day tourism and business visa on entry to Timor Leste at Dili Airport or Dili Seaport by filling in a straightforward form and paying US$30.
- Tourist Visa – Land Border Entry: Except for Indonesian and Portuguese Nationals, all travellers arriving at the land border (West Timor) must apply for a “Visa Application Authorization” This can be done online here or in person at the Consulate General of Timor-Leste office
Kupang – Indonesia, Jl. Eltari II, Kupang, NTT, Indonesia:
Phone: + 62 8133 9367 558 / 8133 9137 755
Fax: +62 380 8554 553Once you have received the “Visa Application Authorization” you can proceed to the land border and pay US$30 for a 30-day tourism visa.
- Visa extension: Visa extension applications must be submitted directly to the Immigration Service in Dili, Timor-Leste. Extensions cost US$35 for up to 30 days, or US$75 for between 30 and 60 daysNote that a Class I Tourist visa may only be extended up to the total cumulative stay period authorised by law, that is, 90 days stay in total.
Getting the ferry from West Timor to East Timor
When is the Best Time to Visit East Timor?
Timor Leste enjoys a hot and humid climate (tropical). June to October is the Dry Season and preferred time to visit with temperatures averaging 27ºC with average humidly of 70%, December to April is the wet/monsoon season with the temperatures averaging 30ºC, heavy rain during this period can hinder road access and transport services. Higher altitude areas experience far cooler temperatures.
Major credit cards and charge cards are only accepted in some major hotels and international businesses. Craft markets, local shops and restaurants will only accept cash. ANZ ATMs can provide currency to foreign cardholders. Visa and MasterCard are accepted in many of the larger hotels and by tour and dive operators. There are also ATMs located at Hotel Dili, Timor Plaza, Nicolau Lobarto International Airport and Tiger Fuel.
Public telephones are not available in Dili. Wi-fi is available at Dili Beach Hotel, Esplanada, The Cove Backpackers & Marine Resort, Timor Plaza and Hotel Dili. Some international roaming services may not function here but it is possible to buy local SIM cards on the street and from official stores. Be aware that buying a SIM on the street will be significantly more expensive. Read this for more on SIM cards in East Timor.
Things to see and do in East Timor’s Capital, Dili
Dili, the capital city of Timor Leste, nestles itself at the base of the surrounding hills, which are lush and green in the rainy season, revelling a terracotta-coloured earth in the dry. A charming city with a definite twist of Portuguese. Dili looks out to the sea and a beachfront road that runs very close to the surf line links the whole city.
At the heart of the city’s waterfront is the imposing Government House (Palacio do Governo) building with the country’s parliament at the rear. This part of Dili is centre for activity from dawn to dusk. There are pedestrian walkways along the central harbour, shaded by gigantic banyan trees offering a great place to cool down while you enjoy a fresh coconut juice.
Fishermen unload their delicious catch on the beach, peddlers sell cold drinks and snacks and students spread out in Largo de Lecidere Park to take advantage of the free Government sponsored Wi-Fi. You can often watch a game of football or volleyball and perhaps join in which is a great way to meet the local people.
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 Timor Leste’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. 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.
View from the Jesus Statue in Dili
This museum commemorates the 24-year struggle against Indonesia, brought to life with photos and exhibits of the weapons and tools of communication the Timorese used in their fight for independence. The museum occupies the location of what formerly was the Portuguese Court of Justice, which was destroyed in the violent events of 1999.
Quote on the wall at Dili Resistance Museum
Dili boasts a number of beautiful beaches very close to the city centre, the most popular of which is a sheltered cove at Areia Branca (White Sands) Here there are a number of restaurants, a small hotel, and a backpackers resort right on the beach for $15 per night. This is also a good spot for watching spectacular sunsets over the Indonesian Island of Alor, which is silhouetted in the distance.
Things to see and do in the Districts of East Timor?
Timor-Leste is an endlessly fascinating blend of diverse environments, from the coastal strip with its sparkling blue waters and spectacular beaches, to the lush forests of the interior and the rugged mountain ranges that dominate every panorama; a paradise for trekkers. This natural beauty serves as a backdrop for the cultural, historical and built heritage of Timor-Leste.
A journey into the country’s diverse districts is also an adventure in time, taking you back to the origins of ancient traditions and cultures, through the era of colonialism and resistance and into the Timor-Leste of today. Whether you choose to take a guided tour or travel independently, on four wheels or two, or even on foot, your Timor-Leste experience will be unique; this country does not cater to mass tourism, but offers so much to travellers seeking adventure in the midst of nature.
The best way to cool off is to head for the hills. The village of Dare is only half an hour away from the capital, yet you will find yourself driving through the clouds into another world. The vegetation is lush, with massive trees and stands of giant bamboo. You will feel the temperature drop as you make your way up the winding road to this hillside gem, enjoying magnificent panoramic views of Dili on the way.
You will also pass the official residence of the President, which is reminiscent of a fairytale castle perched on the hillside. The people of Dare are renowned for their horticultural skills; many of the houses have stalls displaying beautiful tropical plants, which they also sell at the daily gardener’s market in Dili’s Mandarin neighbourhood.
At the local fruit and vegetable market
WW2 Dare War Memorial & Museum
The Australian 2/2nd Independent Company conducted guerrilla operations in Timor from 1942 and their success and survival depended on the support of the Timorese people. The memorial was built in acknowledgement of the bravery and friendship of the Timorese in helping the company and is a reminder of the strong, lasting links between the Australian military who served in Timor during World War II and Timor Leste’s indigenous population.
The district’s capital, also named Baucau, is the second-largest town in Timor-Leste. Set high on a breezy plateau overlooking the sea, the main part of the town derives a decidedly Portuguese flavour from the hotel (the “Pousada de Baucau”) that was built in the 1960s and the beautiful old market square with its restored colonial buildings. The “Pousada” also has a large swimming pool.
The white sand beach is a short drive or 30 minutes’ walk from town through clusters of thatched houses set among coconut groves, rice paddies and the occasional sandalwood tree. One of the country’s most important mountains is in Baucau district: the 2,315mt-high Mount Matebian (the Mountain of Spirits or Souls), which is considered by local people to be a sacred place. Matebian was also a resistance stronghold during the Indonesian occupation.
With its forests, waterfalls, resistance hideouts and the Mundo Perdido (lost World’) Mountain Range, the district of Viqueque presents visitors with the opportunity to engage with some of the most fascinating chapters of Timor-Leste’s living history in a breathtaking natural setting. The tiny village of Loihunu has an eco-lodge that serves as a base for treks into the forest to visit the caves where Falinitil guerrillas used to hide from the Indonesian army during the struggle for independence.
There is also plenty of architectural evidence of the Portuguese era in Viqueque’s schools and churches. The beach in Viqueque looks out across the Timor Sea (the “Tasi Mane” or “Male Sea”) on the island’s south coast and is more suited to windsurfing and sailing than the gentler waters of the northern “Female Sea” or “Tasi Feto” or Wetar Strait.
The most easterly district of Timor-Leste, Lautem has a wealth of natural and cultural assets of interest to the visitors, especially within the Nino Konis Santana Marine and Terrestrial National Park. Whilst there are no large-scale tourism facilities in Lautem, there are a number of charming local guest houses, and the “Ethical Tourism” beach bungalows at Tutuala, which are administered by the Timorese environmental NGO Haburas Foundation. Independent travellers can make arrangements here to have local guides show them the many attractions this fascinating district has to offer.
The diving is good and the beaches are exquisite: the easternmost point of TimorLeste’s territory, Jaco Island, can be reached by hiring a local fisherman to make the brief trip by canoe. There are traditional “spirit houses”- a cultural icon of Timor-Leste – set on stilts, with their thatched roofs, which contain the precious sacred relics of the animist spiritual belief system.
There are also ancient cave paintings at Ili Kere-Kere and numerous stone sarcophagi and animistic shrines throughout the district. The mountain landscape is wild, unspoilt and rugged – great terrain for trekking. Many of Timor-Leste’s endemic birds – 200 non-migratory species – are to be found in Lautem, especially around Lake Iralalaro.
The drive from Dili southwards into the mountainous heart of East Timor is spectacular – and not the for the faint-hearted. Steep climbs and tight curves lead you through a lovely area of rain-forest (watch for staghorn ferns and pepper, clove and cinnamon plants) and a coffee plantation into rugged hills dotted with thatched huts. Wear something warm – the temperature drops noticeably with altitude.
Journeys across the country usually involve the noisy ‘disco bus’
For many visitors to Timor-Leste, the trek to the summit of Mount Ramelau is the high point of their trip; in this case, literally, as this towering mountain peak is the country’s highest at 2,963 meters. Many people stay at the charming old Portuguese “pousada” in Maubisse before setting out on their trek to the village of Hato Builico, the base for a 3-hour, robust hike to the summit. Arrangements can be made with the local community for guides to take you to the top.
The peak punches through the cloud cover, offering a memorable view of the sunrise and breathtaking coast-to-coast panoramas on a clear day. Timorese people make the ascent to attend religious services at a shrine with a 3-metre statue of the Virgin Mary on the mountain’s higher slopes. Ainaro is also steeped in Indonesian-era history as a hub of resistance operations during the struggle for Independence.
The main border crossing post to West Timor (Indonesia) is at Batugade, where there is also a fortress marking the frontier between the former Portuguese and Dutch territories. This is horse country, a legacy of the Portuguese cavalry which bred and trained its mounts here. Rice paddies and fruit orchards lead the way to the district capital, Maliana, which has walled houses displaying distinct Portuguese accents contrasting with the cone-shaped thatched traditional houses of the Tetun people high on the flanks of Mount Loilako. Trekkers can take a soothing break to bathe in the hot springs in Marobo.
Bobonaro district suffered severe damage during the 1999 conflict and part of its sad heritage is the killing in October 1975 of five members of the Australian- based media, who were monitoring the Indonesian invasion – the “Balibo Five” – the subject of a movie starring Anthony La Paglia. The Balibo house was the last refuge of the journalists, who painted the Australian flag and the word Australia on the wall, believing it would protect them from attack. The house where they stayed is now a community center http://balibohouse.com but the painting is still there, though faded. There is also a 400-year-old Portuguese fort at Balibo.
Same is the capital of Manufahi district and serves as a base for exploring the breathtaking surrounding landscapes. A trek to Mount Kablaki through forests and small villages surrounded by dense vegetation is an ideal way to enjoy the outstanding natural beauty of this district, which also has a pleasant cool climate. The weather and terrain are suited to the cultivation of Timor-Leste’s famous organically-grown coffee. The road is fringed by plantations and guided tours can be arranged for coffee enthusiasts; the red coffee “cherries” are harvested between June and September
Liquisa is the closest district to the west of Dili and offers the visitor a combination of hill walks and coastal activities. There are good scuba diving sites near Maubara, which also has an unusual saltwater lake populated by pelicans. There is a 17th-century fort on the beach road which was used by the Portuguese as a look-out point to the sea. This has now been converted to a community-based handicrafts centre and restaurant.
The women of Maubara are renowned for the production of hand-woven, colorful basket work. The hills above Liquisa are also used for the cultivation of coffee and there is a vanilla orchid plantation near the village of Basartete. There is a great serviced camping ground Caimeo Beach Resort right on the Black Rock Beach with supplied tents from $20-$50 per night.
The closest district to the capital, Manatuto stretches from the north coast of the Wetar Strait all the way across the country to the Timor Sea in the south. One of the country’s least populated regions, its beaches, villages and landscapes have remained virtually unchanged for centuries. The district is known as the birth-place of Xanana Gusmao, the resistance leader elected as the nation’s president in 2001, who later became Prime Minister. Highlights for visitors include the bustling Sunday market, the hand-made terracotta pottery workshops and the Portuguese church in Laleia, which was built in 1933.
The island of Atauro which is clearly visible from the city is well worth the short boat journey for a day trip or a longer visit. There is a weekly ferry that runs on Saturday for $10 return or daily water taxi services that charge $45 one way. Check out this tour or choose a day-long fishing, sailing or diving charter. Atauro’s spectacular coral walls are ideal for snorkelling or diving and its likely that you will see huge schools of dolphins all year and migrating whales (Oct-Dec) during the journey.
Once ashore, you can stay at one of the three eco-lodges, Barry’s Place is located right on the beach and cost approx. $45 per person and includes 3 meals (+670 772336084). Enjoy trekking on Mount Maucoco (995mt), take a town tour in a tiga roda (3 whemotorbike bike) and see the famous home of the Boneka Atauro, charming dolls hand made by the local women, or simply kick back and relax.
The capital of Cova Lima district, Suai, is tipped to become the centre of Timor-Leste’s oil and gas industry, drawn from rich reserves offshore in the Timor Sea. In some parts of the district, flames fuelled by natural petroleum deposits shoot from the ground itself.
The forests of the interior of the region can be explored on horseback, whilst the black sand beach at Betano has good waves for surfing. Betano beach was also the place where Australian troops – “The Sparrow Force” staged their final, desperate withdrawal under the onslaught of the Japanese forces of occupation in World War II
Aileu is a mountainous district just to the south of Dili. It has beautiful ribbons of rice paddies running along the valleys between the steep slopes. The views from the road are magnificent as it winds into the mountains past the traditional villages of the Mambai people with their round, thatched houses. Aileu’s town church, Portuguese buildings and the former FALINTIL resistance training camp are all worth a visit
Ermera is the heartland of Timor-Leste’s coffee country. The unique arabica-robusta hybrid grown here is a shade-loving plant which flourishes beneath the large-canopied albezia or “Mother of Coffee” trees. The high quality beans produced are shipped, unroasted, all over the world, although a fairly substantial portion remains on the island as Timorese themselves are avid coffee drinkers.
After the harvest the villagers spread the beans along the roadsides, using the hot tarmac and the sun to dry them. Ermera also has a wealth of tropical fruits including mangoes, mangosteens, passion fruit and pineapple. Letefoho is a pretty village with a combination of Portuguese architecture and traditional Timorese houses and an alternative approach to climbing Mount Ramelau can be staged from here.
Cock fighting is a popular pastime in East Timor
Dive sites in Timor Leste
Timor-Leste offers some of the most pristine and least explored dive sites within the famous Coral Triangle. Reefs run close to the shore along much of Timor-Leste’s northern coast and around Atauro. The majority of dive sites are very accessible with only a short boat ride or swim from the beach required to reach spectacular drop-offs. The marine life is abundant as it is diverse with colourful hard and soft corals as well as a vivid array of reef fish.
Open water species such as tuna and mackerel are encountered along with harmless reef and whale sharks, manta rays and the more elusive dugongs. Local dive operators offer shore and boat dives, PADI courses and overnight dive safaris. Timor-Leste is equally a snorkelling paradise due to clean warm waters offering great visibility.
History of Timor-Leste
The island of Timor has a long, proud history and a rich culture built over many thousands of years. It has been referred to by some as the “cultural funnel of the East”, for the many different ethnic influences which have contributed to the island’s development.
Ancient history and peoples
Archeological excavations and rock art found in parts of Timor provide testimony to its long and significant ancient history. Evidence that new people arrived in the island some 3.500 years ago can be seen in the original influences of the distinct languages and dialects of the districts, a profusion of old paintings in caves and rock shelters, and the presence today of domesticated animals such as the chicken, the pig and the dog, as well as items such as pottery. The history of human occupation in Timor-Leste goes as far back as 43,000 years before the present time. The island of Timor served as a bridge for the first migrations of people from all over the region into Sahul, the old continental mass that used to join Australia to New Guinea.
Early foreign contact and Portuguese Colonization
Timor attracted Chinese and Malay traders in the 13th century, drawn by the abundance of sandalwood, honey and wax. The same natural resources brought the Portuguese settlers to the area in the early 16th century and they brought with them the Catholic faith, which remains the dominant religion today, although the Timorese still hold onto their traditional animist beliefs.
World War II
When World War II started the Australians and the Dutch, aware of Timor’s strategic position in the region, landed in Dili despite Portuguese protests. The Japanese then used the presence of the Australians as a pretext for an invasion in February 1942 and stayed until September 1945. By the end of the war Timor was in ruins and approximately 50,000 Timorese had lost their lives in their efforts to resist the invaders and protect Australia.
Portuguese decolonization and Timorese independence movements
After World War II, the territory reverted to Portuguese rule; they governed Timor-Leste with a combination of direct and indirect rule, managing the population as a whole through the traditional power structures rather than by using colonial civil servants. This left traditional Timorese society almost untouched.
In 1974, however, the ‘transition to democracy’ in Portugal had a sudden impact on all of its colonies. A decolonization process began in Timor; in August 1975, a civil war broke out between the newly-formed political parties in the country and shortly afterwards, on the 28th November, Timor-Leste proclaimed unilateral independence from Portugal. Ten days later, on December 7, 1975, Indonesian troops invaded.
1975-1999: The Indonesian Occupation
Some 60,000 people lost their lives in the early years of Indonesian annexation – contributing to a total of about 200,000 deaths for the whole period of their administration. The Timorese resistance was fought on two fronts: at home on the ground and overseas through diplomatic channels. The killing of around 250 people by the Indonesian military during a funeral at the Santa Cruz Cemetery marked a turning point in the struggle for independence as the shocking images were beamed around the world. Individuals and organizations started to put increasing pressure on their governments and on international organizations on behalf of Timor-Leste.
The imprisonment of resistance leader Xanana Gusmao in 1992 also put the spotlight on the human rights situation. Indonesia found itself in an increasingly difficult position which culminated in October 1996, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two Timorese leaders, Bishop Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos Horta, adding to the growing assertiveness of the independence movement. Finally, in an agreement reached under the auspices of the United Nations, the Timorese people were allowed to choose between full independence or autonomy under Indonesia, in a popular consultation which took place on August 30th, 1999.
1999: A Vote for Independence
In September 1999 the result of the popular consultation was announced. The people of TimorLeste had voted overwhelmingly – 78% – in favour of independence from Indonesia. Pro-integration militia gangs and the Indonesian armed forces responded with extraordinary brutality, rampaging and plundering across the country and systematically destroying most of its infrastructure.
As a result, two thirds of the population were displaced and between 1,000 and 2,000 people are reported to have died in the violence. A United Nations multinational force (INTERFET) was brought in to restore peace and security. As the Timorese set about the business of building their new, independent nation, the United Nations acted as a caretaker through a transitional administration known as UNTAET.
UN Presence can be seen around the country today
2002: A New Beginning
On August 30, 2001, Timor-Leste had its first free elections – for representatives who were charged with writing a new Constitution. On May 20th, Timor-Leste became the world’s newest democracy and the first new country of the third millennium. The celebrations took place at Tasi Tolu just outside Dili, a former mass grave site, and were attended by dignitaries including United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. President Bill Clinton and perhaps most significantly, President Megawati of Indonesia, who received a standing ovation from the crowds.
At midnight on May 19th, the new flag of Timor-Leste was raised, the new national anthem was sung and Timor-Leste’s long fight for freedom was finally over, Timor Leste became Asia’s newest country.
Today’s Timor-Leste is a country taking its first steps of freedom and true democracy. Timor-Leste’s rich and diverse community reflects its varied and distinct historical influences whilst offering a warm and friendly welcome to all, now that the country has found peace at last.
Paintings on walls in Dili, signify hope and peace
This information was written by: Kym Miller of The Cove Backpackers & Marine Resort and Mr Aquilino Caeiro who is the Director of Marketing & Events from the Ministry of Tourism, Arts & Culture in Timor Leste.
Photos in this article by: Sina and Tom, founders of ‘Travel For More’ who recently made their their way home to Germany from Australia – by land, raising money for just-one.org, a street children project in Nepal and raising awareness of social and political issues in the countries they visit. Find out more about their adventure on Facebook and Twitter.