Breathtaking views. Untouched beaches. And no. Tourists. At. All. Timor-Leste – uhm, can I please stay forever?!
So last week it was time for my first visa run from Bali – full-time travel life, yo! Instead of following the masses to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, I followed the cheapest flight tickets – to Timor-Leste.
If you’re up for one of the world’s last off the beaten track adventures in Asia’s newest country – away from the snap-addicted tourists – this is your perfect choice. Here’s all our experiences and good-to-knows for your carry-on!
An Introduction To Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste, or East Timor, (the “Leste” refers to “east” in Portoguese”), is the fourth newest country in the world, independent since 2002. The history causing this is bloody; the country having been a Portuguese colony until 1975, and then fighting the Indonesian occupation until 1999, when a vote for independence succeeded.
Also the population is one of the youngest in the world: Around 60% of their 1.2m inhabitants are under 25 years old.
Today, next to the official local language Tetum, Portuguese and Bahasa are widely spoken. Around 97% of the population is catholic. And the official currency is US-Dollar (which I’m referring to throughout the article).
Where To Stay
When initially searching for accommodation, you’ll find these super expensive hotels and resorts coming up on booking.com and – if your finances are tight – might be wondering like us whether to just stick to camping and canned ravioli.
Your best budget bet will be to look on facebook. A lot of guesthouses, hostels and backpackers don’t have a website or references anywhere else.
We booked the DaTerra Hostel just with a quick facebook message (no CC details or anything required). 14 $ a night in a 4 bed dorm, including breakfast and drinking water.
Don’t expect WiFi, hot water or anything fancy. But you get a clean bed in an adorable little place with the friendliest staff ever! We desperately tried to figure out how to take them back with us in our carry-on. But couldn’t quite figure out the math…
Things To Do
As soon as you visit Timor-Leste, you’ll see this one everywhere: One of the most popular things surely is the Cristo Rei statue North-East of Dili. Grab your swimsuit, spend a lazy afternoon by the empty beaches (seriously looking like postcard series of untouched paradise come to reality), and hike up the hill for sunset.
BUT be prepared to walk among running locals. Men, women and kids alike sweating off calories up and down the stairs on their “Jesus run”. In fact, whenever you walk along the waterfront in Dili you’ll be surrounded by those super fit gorgeous tanned dazzling people working out. We half successfully suppressed thoughts of the amount of fried chicken we had for lunch and continued climbing with sandwiches and wine innocently sitting in our backpacks.
Generally, Dili makes for good exploring and wandering around. There is a few fruit, fish and textile markets, the Resistance Museum about East Timor’s 24-year struggle against the Indonesian occupation, and the always sunny promenade. If you’re rather up for spending dollars and enjoying some AC, try the country’s only mall: The Timor Plaza Mall in West Dili. A good day to do so is Friday. In the evening, the rooftop “Sky Bar” is THE sunset place while getting pretty much the country’s only (international) party vibes going. Don’t expect any big going out culture, let alone clubs. Other nice bars for a sundowner are the Castaway Bar or Dili Beach Hotel and Bar.
The country is a secret tip for snorkeling and diving, wohoo! Away from the tourist masses you find 2 hours west in the Gilis, Timor offers untouched coral reefs, an entire color palette of exotic fishes and dolphins fooling around just off shore. Check out this diving center for a fun day in the sea!
If you want go get further out of town, there is the so-called One-Dollar-Beach about an hour East of Dili – apparently, the drive from Dili was, once upon a time when the country was founded, just 1$.
It is absolutely gorgeous and absolutely deserted.
Personal paradise conquered! To get there, talk to your receptionists to find a mini van or get a quote for what you should pay a taxi. We had local friends take us there, but it’s really in the middle of nowhere, so be prepared – or happy to spend more time and hitchhike!
The must-do for my next visit (aren’t I lucky to need to do a visa run every 30-60 days) is hiking up Mt Ramelau (or Tatamailau) in the main island’s center – Timor-Leste’s highest mountain with an altitude of 2986 meters. On clear days you can see the entire coastline in the distance. So time to rise n shine early peeps, this hike is especially recommended before sunrise! Find information on hiking Mt Ramelau as well as many other hikes here. For the best chance of clear views, hike during the dry season from May to November.
How To Get Around
In Dili itself, public transport is surprisingly well organized (well, once you figured it out). You’ll see the yellow taxis pretty much in every street, as well as the colorfully sprayed mini vans. Each number means a different route, and for 25 cents they’ll drive you all over town. There are also a few long distance vans going to other villages – just make sure to confirm before, as most drivers don’t really speak English.
You can easily rent a scooter in Dili, but the roads outside of the city are pretty awful, and I wouldn’t recommend riding those unless you’re really experienced.
However, when we wanted to head home from a bar one night, we weren’t able to find a single taxi and walked. It was fine but felt a little sketchy to be honest, hence just have the bar or restaurant get you a taxi at night.
Other Things To Know
Always bargain. Heavily. As soon as you leave the cute little airport hall, you will be greeted by 4932 guys shouting “TAXI??”. Get any, but don’t pay more than 5-8$ to get into Dili center. They will ask ridiculous prices like 25$ – don’t fall for that. When getting a ride inside town, don’t pay more than 3$ for 3-5 kilometers. Either they will agree, or there’s likely already another taxi behind you waiting its chance to give you a ride.
In a local street-side shop, you can get Nasi Goreng for 1,50$ and a small water for 25 cents. In more Western oriented restaurants, you pay anything between 8$ and 25$ for a meal, 3$-5$ for a fresh juice, and 4-10$ for a cocktail.
Our accommodation was 14$ a night including breakfast and water. It was simple, but lovely. There are other guesthouses or backpackers for around the same price, but hotels are quite pricey, starting from around 70$ a night.
It’s rainy season from December till April. Even though it makes the landscapes super lush and more gorgeous than they are, it’ll also make a lot of the districts unaccessible. They are working on building proper drainage for the streets, but as we learned this will still take a long long time. So, best to go between May and November, while especially from September to November it’s whale watching season!
If you rather want to buy your own food, plan your time wisely. There is just two or three big supermarkets in Dili, meaning, in the entire country (IMAGINE). Otherwise it’s just small side stores where it’s always a lil gamble what you’re gonna get in the end.
But what you definitely should get is mosquito repellant. We didn’t hear of any recent cases, but Malaria and Zika have been present in Timor-Leste in the past, so just don’t take the risk.
We, two traveling girls, felt entirely safe in Timor-Leste. Even though walking home alone at night was sketchy, nothing happened. We came across so many absolutely lovely people, who took us in and showed us around even though we just exchanged names. Expect to be constantly stared at and talked to, but not in an uncomfortable way. Most of the time, my friend and I were the only white people around, and thus quite an “attraction”. But always travel with a realistic sense of keeping yourself and your things safe.
Why You Should Definitely Visit Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste hosts some of the nicest and most genuinely interested people I’ve met on my travels. On our first day, we hitchhiked back to Dili after watching the sunset from the statue. An incredibly sweet couple picked us up; Elisa and Eddie. She works as an interpreter for the UN and helped in the electoral committee during the recent elections, while he is managing a cement factory and working together with some international companies. They hence spoke amazing English – and were super helpful.
The next day, they picked us up – they both took a day off work – and drove us around the North coast for a bit, showed us nice beaches, local food, and introduced us to their friends.
So peeps. If you really want to get off the beaten track, Timor-Leste is your destination. Adventurous roads, beautiful hikes, a local passion for good Timorese coffee – this country still offers a genuine, uncommercialised experience.
Which of course doesn’t mean it’s easy – but that’s half the fun!
Haitham GamalDecember 31, 2018 at 2:14 am
Thanks for this Great Blog i really happy to see those pictures
of this beautiful country i hope to visit it soon
Haitham Gamal / Egyptian Man
Danette DApril 17, 2018 at 6:42 pm
I think I just found our perfect honeymoon! Timor Leste and Bali! Thanks for a great post that got me so excited about this off he beaten path destination!
FloOctober 28, 2017 at 1:51 pm
Elisa and Eddie sound like such sweethearts – I can’t believe they took a day off to show you around! There’s not many places where people would do that for visitors. Timor-Leste sounds like such a hidden gem, I’d love to visit it one day (and stuff my face with $1.5 nasi gorengs!)
ChristinaJanuary 14, 2018 at 9:21 am
Hahaha yeah that’s one of the best things you can do there. But this whole experience also exactly one of the reasons why I started and keep going to write. To share these beautiful stories of beautiful people who otherwise end up unheard. Happy you enjoyed the read!
KanaOctober 25, 2017 at 2:56 am
The hammock just looks dreamy! I shamefully didn’t even know where Timor-Leste was, so I’m glad you’ve broadened my knowledge!
ChristinaJanuary 14, 2018 at 9:24 am
Honestly, before I discovered the cheap flights, I just remembered talking about it briefly back in some 7th grade geography class. But definitely worth a visit!
KatherineOctober 11, 2017 at 12:29 am
Like LC I remember the Indonesia/Timor-Leste conflict of the 90s too. Except I was a kid so I only remember snippets from the news. Timor-Leste looks gorgeous and seems to be right up my alley, travel-wise. I love wandering around on foot and going hiking when I can. And i’ve been talking about going diving for years!
ChristinaJanuary 14, 2018 at 9:37 am
Then this might be just your perfect destination! Like I said previously as well, I’m so happy I could change a few people’s perspective on the country by this post, and hope you’ll get a chance to visit. It certainly has a lot to offer, away from the major touristic paths (so far). Happy travels to you!
KatieOctober 10, 2017 at 10:46 am
Until reading this, the only thing I knew about East Timor was of conflict (I’m an Aussie & we sent military there during it all so it was on the news a lot). I’m really glad I came across your post though because it has offered me a whole different perspective and makes me want to visit!
ChristinaJanuary 14, 2018 at 9:30 am
Thanks for your words Katie! Honestly, this makes me very happy to hear and realize… and that’s why I still believe in the value of blogs, in the value of my writing, if it has the power to only change one person’s perspective on the world. To tell stories of positivity and beauty and share a bit of the magic of the world, opposed to what we otherwise see in the media. I hope you’ll get a chance to visit!
Liana MooreSeptember 19, 2017 at 6:06 pm
What an adventure! I’d never even heard of Timor-Leste but it sounds like a fabulous destination. I’d love to whale watch there.
ChristinaJanuary 14, 2018 at 9:34 am
Haha yeah, whale-watching is something I still haven’t done yet. I wanna be sure it’s in a proper place where animals aren’t harmed. Funnily enough I’ve been to many of such regions, just never at the right time…
KristenSeptember 3, 2017 at 3:19 am
This looks like a gorgeous, off-the-beaten-track destination! I didn’t know anything about it prior to seeing your post. Thanks for sharing!
ChristinaJanuary 14, 2018 at 9:30 am
Thanks for your comment Kristen! Very happy you liked the post and hope you get a chance to visit 🙂
EdwardSeptember 2, 2017 at 9:59 pm
This is one of the few countries I have yet to visit in SE Asia – thanks for giving us a peek inside!
ChristinaJanuary 14, 2018 at 9:33 am
Happy I was able to do so – enjoy your travels!
JennaSeptember 2, 2017 at 6:41 pm
I would love to take this kind of trip! This is a very thorough article and this place looks amazing. It’s awesome finding beautiful places that aren’t overran with tourists and you can pretend you’re just another local!
ChristinaJanuary 14, 2018 at 9:33 am
Or at least make experiences that come very close to a local’s life 😉 I met amazing people, even if very briefly, we shared a good time together. However, my freedom in just coming there, having a few days of vacation, and then leaving back to my life in Bali in a nice house, a scooter at my disposal, going to cafés and bars and basically not having to worry very much, was very opposed to the life people led there. They often don’t even have the choice to leave their island… thus I’m happy if I can motivate others to come visit and support those in need over there – hope you’ll get a chance one day!
LinaSeptember 2, 2017 at 2:20 pm
Looks beautiful and really calm. Love untouristic places❤️
ChristinaJanuary 14, 2018 at 9:19 am
It was indeed! Really nice get-away from the busy days in Bali.
SorayaSeptember 2, 2017 at 11:12 am
How absolutely amazing! I would love to do such an off the beaten track adventure like this. To be honest, it’s never really been on my to-do list but I think it totally should. I think it’s so great you went and did something different on your visa run!
ChristinaJanuary 14, 2018 at 9:26 am
Haha thanks. You know, I believe I’ll easily get the chance on some future layover or travel through SEA to explore Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. They are more along the standard routes, and also more easily to reach when traveling overland (which I plan to). But East Timor – that was something completely different, which I enjoyed a lot!
LisaSeptember 2, 2017 at 5:58 am
I was just there in June. Got to further parts of the country but that was no easy task by public transportation. You’re right about the no tourists. I saw 4 in the 6 days traveling out of Dili!
ChristinaJanuary 14, 2018 at 9:18 am
I met a couple of other travelers who went to explore further inwards, amongst others a guy who did hike Mt Ramelau – I hope I get a chance to do so next time 🙂
LCSeptember 2, 2017 at 5:44 am
I’m Australian and remember well the conflict and subsequent separation from Indonesia that Timor-Leste went through in the 90s. As such, it’s not somewhere I contemplated visiting until now! It looks gorgeous and anywhere in SEAsia that isn’t overrun by tourists is probably somewhere worth venturing to! Lovely photographs as well. 🙂
ChristinaJanuary 14, 2018 at 9:35 am
Thanks so much! 🙂 I’m so happy I could give you a new perspective on this beautiful country – even if there’s a lot more to discover for myself as well. It will surely get more touristic over time, as anywhere in SEA, so I hope you’ll get a chance to visit, I certainly want to go back soon haha.