Thursday, January 17, 2013

Backpacking Timor Leste (East Timor)

Unspoilt natural resources. Nonexistent skyscrapers. Grieving aged walls. Palm-fringed sandy shores. Beachside bars minus Bob Marley clichés. Unadulterated fresh seafood on the grill. Pink sunsets. Mikrolets. Dusk-colored leathery skin. Genuine smiles. Malaria. U.S. dollars. UN workers. 

The Democratic Republic of Timor Leste is Southeast Asia's youngest.

Like my home country the Philippines, it is further afield from the banana pancake circuit. Its lack of tourism however is partly blamed on recent years of oppression and turmoil. Even with Timor Leste's almost eleven years of independence, the country is still struggling to - not get back on its feet - but find its feet.

Handwoven basket sold in Maubara.
And while the nation is preoccupied picking up the pieces, with Dili's inhabitants diligently catering to UN workers and other foreign NGO volunteers, it seems little attention is paid to promoting the country's tourism. No catchy slogans, no colorful banners, no earworm-worthy jingles.

Dutch fort in Maubara Village, Liquiçá district. One of the few historic structures left standing.
I assume it is for such reason, alongside the lack of literature online, why off-the-beaten path wanderers are drawn to Timor Leste. The country's rugged features are virtually unheard of. The pristine beaches are reminiscent of how Phuket was in the 70s and Boracay in the 80s. Its people, the shyest we've met. 

If Timor Leste is on your bucket list, I reckon the time to visit is now. In the last quarter of 2012, UN workers started pulling out. It was actually then that we traveled the country for we deemed that the dust has finally settled. A lot of holiday apartments were already vacated and are longing for new settlers or short term tenants. Although the high expat population is still evident, our Australian homestay host remarked that the number is dwindling quite rapidly.

UN van parked in Timor Plaza, Dili's lone big-ish mall.
Now who's going to buy all those packs of Gardenia wholemeal bread in the supermarket's freezer when the expats have gone (More on that frozen bread in a future post.)? That could be you, my fellow travel junkie.

Here's a rough guide to backpacking in Timor Leste/East Timor.

When To Go

Dry season is from June to October. But even during the wet season, the climate is hot and humid on the low lands.

Getting In

Visitors can obtain a 30-day tourist visa on arrival at the airport for $30. Come armed with dollars.

Except for Indonesians and Portuguese, all travelers arriving at the land border must apply for the "visa application authorization" beforehand.

Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport's only belt.

Commercial airlines that fly to Dili are:

Merpati Nusantara Airlines from Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia. 986,000 IDR* (about $100) one way. Flight duration, 1 hour 30 minutes. Flies daily. Includes an okay meal.

Batavia Airlines from Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia. $135* one way. Flies daily. Flight duration, 1 hour 30 minutes

Air Timor from Singapore. $457* one way. Flies Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Flight duration, 2 hours. Website has a cool song on loop!

Airnorth from Darwin, Australia. $290* one way. Flies six times a week. Flight duration, 1 hour 15 minutes.

*Price at the time of writing.

Cab drivers charge $5-10 for a 10 to 15-minute drive from the airport to the city center.


Portuguese and Tetum are the official languages of Timor Leste. However, Tetum is spoken by only a quarter of the population. East Timorese can also speak Bahasa Indonesia. A limited number can understand English. 

Obrigado is commonly used to say thank you. Don't forget to accompany it with a smile. Knowledge of numbers in Bahasa Indonesia will help you in haggling.


More than ninety percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Timor Leste is one of the only two, the other being the Philippines, predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Asia.

Health Risks

If you're from a Southeast Asian country like me, you're most likely not terrified of Hepatitis and Rabies. But you might need to take Malaria a bit more seriously when visiting Timor Leste. In the neighborhood where we lived for eight days, we met a handful of kids with Malaria. Consequently, I slathered a thicker layer of mosquito repellant on every inch of Luna's skin every day. If you can't take an antimalarial drug prior your trip, bring a tropical strength mosquito repellant.


US dollars. Travelers are advised to arrive with US dollars in cold cash. All ATM machines belong to ANZ and can be found only in Dili. There's one on Av. Presidente Nicolao Lobato, one in Leader supermarket and one at the airport.

The Timorese mikrolet.
Public Transport

The country has a poor transport system. Outside Dili, you may spend hours waiting for a bus. It is important to ask locals about the schedule. But even so, schedules may change without prior notice. Roads are generally in a bad condition. And buses are often insanely packed.

Cars can easily be hired in Dili. Before you hire, be reminded that vehicles are right-hand drive. Cabs can be hired too for sightseeing. Rate for half-day rental is $40-60, depending on your destination and haggling skills and charms.

For short rides, take the mikrolet. Quickie cab rides around the city center is $1-2.


220V, 50 Hz. Schuko plug (two round pins), and Australian three-pronged plugs. Bring adaptors for both if keen on charging gadgets.


Best budget option is East Timor Backpackers. Dorm $12, single room $20, double room $25. Good location and has slow but free wifi. It's one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest, in town. If you want something fancier, expect to pay about $70-$100. And that ain't even first class.

We stayed at an Aussie volunteer's home near the U.S. Embassy. Our spacious room has an aircon. Bathroom is shared. Having access to a kitchen's a big plus. The house sits in a quiet neighborhood, and has a breezy front yard. Host charges $20 for a single room and $30 for a double. Comes with toast-and-jam brekkie. Shoot an email if you'd like to contact her.  

Timor Leste barbie and my fave, katupa. Rice steamed in woven palm leaves.

A handful of restaurants serve good intercontinental cuisine, primarily to cater UN workers and other NGO volunteers. If you're on the hunt for "authentic" Timor Leste food, come by Dili's esplanade (east of Esplanada Hotel) late afternoon where the beach is turned into an al fresco food court. Barbecue stands sell grilled chicken wings ($1), pork belly ($2.50), and fish of varying sizes. Pair these with katupa ($.50), glutinous rice with coconut milk steamed in woven palm leaves. Imported beer can be bought for $2.

Other East Timorese dishes are caril (chicken curry), tapai (fermented cassava or rice) and ikan sabuko. But eateries that sell such dishes may be difficult to find. You're more likely to stumble upon an Indonesian warung or a Filipino carinderia.


Head over to Tais Market in Dili for weaved textiles. Handmade baskets are worth a buy too but might be fragile to transport. Think twice before buying that humongous hamper.

On weekends, wood carvers sell their products along Avenida De Portugal, across Cast Away Bar. While some local merchandisers are shrewd, a few haven't really grasped the tricks of the trade. I remember buying a $12 wood-carved product and handing $20 to the seller. He suggested I take the $8 one instead because he didn't have change for it. Uhm, hello?

Sights And Activities

Sights in East Timor are mostly free to visit, if not, very cheap. There's no admission fee to enter Cristo Rei, Areia Branca Beach, Maubara Fort, Dollar Beach (though it got its name from the one dollar entrance fee that locals used to charge), Ai Pelo Prison, and Santa Cruz Cemetery. A dollar is charged to get in the Timorese Resistance Archive And Museum.

This will be further discussed on a separate post.


Darn $2 an hour.

Backpacker's budget per day: $25-$30. More if you hire a car or eat at an expat hangout where meals are $10 up.

Have you been? Any tips, suggested itineraries you'd like to share?

This page was viewed times.


Jherson Jaya said...
January 17, 2013 at 12:06 AM

its quite expensive to travel there as compared to other SEA countries...

Gaye @ Pinay Travel Junkie said...
January 17, 2013 at 7:37 AM

It is actually one of the most expensive.

joan | the backpack chronicles said...
January 17, 2013 at 8:52 AM

Endemic din pala sa kanila ang Malaria? Buti pala at marami kayong stock na mosquit repellant.

I'm interested din na pumunta dyan someday per ipon ipon muna dahil medyo mahal nga.

Gaye @ Pinay Travel Junkie said...
January 17, 2013 at 9:35 AM

Yes, we looked it up. I didn't take it seriously at first since there's Malaria in the Philippines too. But since I met sooo many kids with it, we really took precautions.

ihcahieh said...
January 17, 2013 at 10:41 AM

Thanks for this. Very useful considering the lack of info online. Will try to do it in tandem with Bali, pero baka ihuli ko na lang. Ang mahal e! :)

Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap said...
January 17, 2013 at 11:43 AM

Awesome post! Will be visiting Timor-Leste next month =)

Gaye @ Pinay Travel Junkie said...
January 17, 2013 at 11:51 AM

Coolness. How long will you be there for?

Gaye @ Pinay Travel Junkie said...
January 17, 2013 at 11:53 AM

Yep, would be wise to do Bali-East Timor.

Anciro C. Romana said...
January 17, 2013 at 12:51 PM

informative post kaso medyo mahal ang mag punta pala dun.

disqus_DyETRyKGJI said...
January 17, 2013 at 9:44 PM

I always thought the Maubara Fort was from the Portuguese times....
Going to Timor Leste and not going to the Jaco Island, is like going to Rome and not seeing th Pope....
Thanks for your post!

paul | walkflypinoy said...
January 18, 2013 at 11:20 AM

This is helluva helpful! Off the beaten destinations close to the PH are always the ones that intrigue me the most.

Gaye @ Pinay Travel Junkie said...
January 18, 2013 at 2:06 PM

Hope you get to visit soon, Paul.

killerfiller said...
January 18, 2013 at 4:51 PM

Bigla tuloy ako napatingin sa map kung saan ang Timor Leste.

Gaye @ Pinay Travel Junkie said...
January 24, 2013 at 8:50 AM

Since the Philippines has a lot of stellar beaches, it would be difficult to please Pinoys. What I do like about their beaches is their rawness. No colossal resorts, no big crowds, no souvenir merchants pestering you while you lay on the sand :) said...
January 27, 2013 at 6:24 PM

ang gandang guide! :)

Gay Emami said...
January 27, 2013 at 11:05 PM

Thanks BFF!

vin said...
January 31, 2013 at 8:53 PM

safe naman sa east timor no? really want to explore this new country. :)

Gay Emami said...
February 1, 2013 at 10:00 AM

We felt safe roaming the streets, but we heard of news about crime and stuff that happened while we're there. It's best to be wary.

Joshua said...
April 18, 2013 at 10:07 PM

its kind of typical that the poorest countries cost the most to explore since there's no competition haha but I hope I get to visit this place soon so that I can close the loop on the countries in SEA.

Neng Mendoza said...
November 7, 2013 at 8:17 AM

what the nice place to visit in Dili

journeyingjames said...
November 7, 2013 at 6:45 PM

thanks for this gay! pwede pala via Bali. ohh yeah! pero parang pilipinas lang talga sya.

Dahlia said...
February 6, 2014 at 5:17 PM

Hi there. This post is very helpful. I will be visiting Timor-Leste for three weeks and I find accommodation quite expensive (like what others said) compared to other SEA countries. May I have the contact details of the Aussie volunteer you mentioned. Thanks!

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...