As our plane came in to land at Dili’s small airport, the first thing I noticed about the city was its height. Or lack of it. There are none of the tall buildings that define most capital cities these days. Instead the city’s buildings were dwarfed by the dust-coloured mountains behind them. The city looked more like a provincial outpost than a capital. For a long time it had been, as East Timor was an often forgotten and overlooked Portuguese colony for hundreds of years.

The international airport had a distinctly local feel. We queued at what looked like the entrance booth to some forgotten and remote tourist attraction to pay our US$30 visa-on-arrival fee. After gaining independence in 2002, East Timor adopted the US dollar as its currency. The visa fee must be paid in cash, as there are no ATMs before you get outside the tiny airport, which of course, you can’t do until you have a visa. Ironically, the only person in our queue who hadn’t brought the US$30 was an American. She got a bit of a shock when she realised the situation. I’m not sure how it would have been resolved otherwise, but I lent her the money until we got to the ATM immediately outside the airport. As we walked away from the airport we were swarmed by taxi drivers vying for our attention.

Dili airport Dili airport visa on arrival

Getting around

The taxi drivers wanted US$10 to bring us into the city, but having read that it should be closer to US$5 we haggled with one of them before settling for US$7. Away from the airport, getting a taxi is more straightforward. As long as you know roughly how much it should cost, you can tell the driver the price. Once they see that you have an idea of the standard prices, they seem to accept it. It should be about US$2-3 for a short trip within the city, US$5-7 to and from the airport, and US$5 from the city to the bottom of the steps leading to the Cristo Rei, the giant statue of Jesus atop a mountain along the coast to the east of Dili. These prices are for the more common unmetered yellow taxis. There are also newer blue taxis that have meters but they usually cost more.

There is a network of local buses (actually small converted vans) called microlets that cover some of the city. They run quite regularly but it is not always easy to know where they are going. Some of the routes are mapped at www.dilimicrolets.com. You will often see them packed with people and sometimes with some of the passengers leaning out the door and holding on. It is worth taking them, even if just for an insight into local Dili life. They usually cost about 25 cents and you pay when you get out.

Language barrier

East Timor has two official languages, Portuguese and Tetum, with about 20 languages and dialects in use throughout the country in total. However, Tetun Dili, a creole of the native Tetum and Portuguese is the most spoken language, especially in and around Dili. English does not seem very widely spoken beyond a few words and phrases. The exception being the staff of hostels, hotels, tour companies and others who regularly deal with foreigners.

Palacio do Governo, Dili
The Palacio do Governo in Dili with the official name of the country in Portuguese.

Other foreigners

Not many tourists visit East Timor. In fact, it is the least visited country in Asia. You will still see quite a few foreigners in Dili though, mainly people who work for aid and development organisations. There are people from all over the world, but many are Australian, which is not surprising given the country’s proximity.

The reason for all the aid is that East Timor in general is a very poor country, something that is evident all around Dili. The city has a lot of open sewers, missing manhole covers, potholes and uneven footpaths. There are also still lots of homes in Dili without electricity, although not nearly as many as outside the capital. According to the UN Development Program, less than 40% of East Timorese people over the age of 15 are employed and nearly half (46.8%) of the population live below the international poverty line of US$1.90 per day.¹

Resistance Museum

The Archives & Museum of East Timorese Resistance is a must-see to truly understand the harrowing history of East Timor, especially the brutal occupation of the country by Indonesia. It is open from 9am to 4.30pm every day except Monday, and costs US$1. The museum tells the story in detail and with lots of photos and some videos, although there are not many artifacts. Everything is written in Portuguese, Tetum and English.

East Timor had been colonised by Portugal in the mid sixteenth century. In 1974, following the Carnation Revolution, Portugal began to relinquish control of its colonies, including East Timor. A civil war quickly broke out between the newly formed East Timorese political parties. It was won by Fretilin (an abbreviation of Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente or the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor), who then declared the country independent on 28th November 1975.

Just 9 days later, Indonesia (then led by the dictator Suharto) invaded and annexed East Timor with the permission and implicit support of the governments of the USA and Australia. The Indonesian military killed up to 200,000 people during the invasion and subsequent occupation.² Falintil, the military wing of Fretilin, fought a guerrilla war against the Indonesian military, and it took the Indonesians 4 years to gain full control of the small territory.

One very memorable and haunting exhibit in the museum is a video of the Australian journalist Greg Shackleton reporting on the situation at the time of the invasion and relaying the questions of East Timorese people as to why Australia, Portugal or the UN won’t help them. Shackleton, along with 4 other foreign journalists, was later killed by the Indonesian special forces. The video is also on Youtube. The murdered journalists are now known as the Balibo 5.

Resistance Museum, Dili Resistance Museum, Dili

Santa Clara Cemetery

In 1991, at a funeral of an independence supporter killed by Indonesian troops, a demonstration for independence broke out. The Indonesian military opened fire on the protesters, killing at least 250 people in an event that would become known as the Santa Clara massacre, named after the cemetery in which it took place. British journalist, Max Stahl, managed to film some of the attack, and the film was later smuggled to Australia and broadcast around the world.

In response to the Santa Clara massacre, activists around the world organised in solidarity with the East Timorese. Eventually pressure grew from governments around the world, in particular Portugal and later Australia and the United States. In 1999, the Indonesian government agreed to hold a referendum in East Timor, with the population being able to vote to become a special autonomous region within Indonesia, or for independence. Over 78% voted for independence which was finally gained in 2002.

You can visit the cemetery where the massacre that led to this chain of events took place. A plaque commemorates the massacre. Other than its historical significance, the cemetery is not particularly unusual but the style of the tightly-packed graves is mildly interesting.

Santa Clara Cemetery, Dili

Dili’s Waterfront

A walk along Dili’s popular but dilapidated waterfront area is an interesting way to explore some of the life of the city. The sights consist of the boat-filled harbour, a local fruit and vegetable market, the occasional bar or restaurant and local people playing football, shopping, preparing fishing boats and just hanging out in the shade.

Dili's waterfront

Market, Dili
A fruit and vegetable market on Dili’s waterfront.

Cristo Rei

Looking east from anywhere along Dili’s waterfront you will see this 27-metre high statue of Jesus atop a globe overlooking the sea. It is located on Cape Fatucama, 7 kilometres east of the city. Nearly 600 steps lead up to the statue so it is definitely worth making the trip there early to avoid the heat of the middle of the day as you climb. From the top there are wonderful views all around, including back towards Dili.

A taxi to the bottom of the steps should cost US$5. The number 12 microlet (minibus) runs regularly from in front of the central Palacio do Governo (Government Palace) and costs 25¢.

Cristo Rei, Dili
Cristo Rei
Cristo Rei Statue, Dili
The Cristo Rei statue looking out over Dili and the sea.

View from the Cristo Rei, Dili

Jesus Backside Beach

When you visit the Cristo Rei statue, you will see another set of steps leading down the opposite side of the hill from about halfway up. These steps lead down to a beautiful and often deserted beach, known by Dili’s international community as Jesus Backside Beach for obvious reasons.

Jesus Backside Beach, Dili

Stairs down to the Jesus Backside Beach, Dili
Stairs leading down to Jesus Backside Beach.

Jesus Backside Beach, Dili

Atauro Island

Atauro Island can be seen in the distance from all along Dili’s waterfront. It is an interesting place for a day trip or longer. Diving and snorkelling are the reason that many people visit. Compass Charters organise day trips that include diving and snorkelling. If you plan to stay longer than 1 day I definitely recommend a stay at Barry’s Place, a small eco-friendly piece of paradise.

More: Barry’s Place on Atauro Island, East Timor

Atauro Island
Atauro Island in the distance.
Atauro Island, East Timor
Atauro Island

Accommodation

Strangely, despite the poverty in East Timor, it is not a particularly cheap place to visit, with accommodation in particular being relatively expensive and in many cases, poor quality compared to other southeast asian countries. One of the better places in Dili is the Dive Timor Lorosae Hostel and Guest House. It is located to the west of the centre in an area with lots of embassies. A dorm bed in the hostel costs US$20 while a double room costs between US$45 and US$60. They also have a nice pool. There is a supermarket a short walk away and Castaway Bar is upstairs. Castaway serves good burgers, pizzas and other western food as well as cold beers. They also have a nice view out to the sea just across the road.

The only issue we had with the hostel was, like everywhere in Dili, there are a lot of mosquitoes. Try to keep the door to your room closed as much as possible and make sure to bring plenty of mosquito repellent. Mosquitoes in East Timor can spread malaria, dengue fever and zika, so it is best to avoid them if possible.

Dive Timor Lorosae Hostel and Guest House
The pool at Dive Timor Lorosae Hostel and Guest House.

Food & drink

The local food in Dili has been influenced by Indonesian and Portuguese food. It is generally served from small warungs. They are very cheap but I do wonder about their hygiene standards. There is also a surprisingly good range of international food for a city so small and remote. Unfortunately, we only got a chance to try a few of the restaurants. Restaurant Bidau serves up good Thai and Taiwanese food, including a delicious Tom Yum. Some of the best western food can be found at the popular Castaway Bar, which is also one of the best and liveliest bars to check out.

If you come to Dili from Bali, like we did, it’s nice to see a few Portuguese beers for variety alongside the mediocre but ubiquitous Bintang. However, the drink that East Timor is famous for is coffee. In 2013 organic coffee actually accounted for 90 percent of the country’s non-oil exports.³ Letefoho Specialty Coffee Roaster is regarded by many people in Dili as the best place to sample the local coffee.

Internet

Wifi is available in a lot of the hostels and hotels, but it is often slow and extremely unreliable. The best option is to buy a SIM card with data. Telkomcel and Timor Telecom both have kiosks at the airport. Prices are quite reasonable, with SIM cards costing US$1. These can then be topped up with a whole range of data deals at different prices. More information on the different SIM cards and data prices available can be found on the Prepaid Data Sim Card Wiki.

Conclusion

Dili is an interesting city precisely because it is so unknown to the first-time visitor. It is a destination for people who like to see new things and witness how people live in a different part of the world. I don’t want to discourage people from visiting, but Dili is not a good choice if you like your holidays to be relaxing and easy. I’m glad that I visited Dili and increased my understanding of its history and culture but I probably won’t be rushing back any time soon.


  1. UNDP Human Development Reports – Timor-Leste
  2. Australia let Indonesia invade East Timor in 1975, The Guardian, September 2000

  3. Where the wild coffee grows, Al Jazeera, June 2013