Timor Leste (East Timor) is one of the least-visited destinations on the planet – despite its beauty and thriving coral reefs. Going here is truly an adventure, and there is nowhere else like it. The unique history and culture of the Timorese combined with the lack of tourism means that you’ll have an authentic experience that has yet to really be tainted by outside (tourism) influence.
The best time to go to Timor Leste
Timor Leste has two seasons – the wet season (from December to April) and the dry season (May to November). Since the country is not a tourist hot-spot yet, there’s nothing wrong with visiting in the high season. In January, when I visited, the weather was surprisingly dry and great. However, East Timor is known for being the best from April to August.
Health and safety in Timor Leste
For the past decade, the conflict in Timor Leste has settled and there have been few major incidents. However, demonstrations or places where large gatherings occur can escalate into violence quite quickly. Avoid large crowds and take the typical travel precautions. Don’t flash expensive items, cameras, or money – or else you risk being a target for theft.
Women traveling alone might also feel uncomfortable at times. I was uneasy walking past groups of young men loitering and preferred to walk in a group. Once I left Dili (especially beyond the statue of Christ), I felt much safer.
There are also mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria, zika, and dengue as well as food-borne illnesses like Typhoid. Bring mosquito-repellent treated long-sleeved shirt and pair of pants when you visit and plan to wear it often – especially in the more inland and remote areas of Timor Leste. I took doxycycline leading up to my trip and during it as an anti-malarial, but always consult your own travel doctor for advice.
Many insurance companies will not cover travel to Timor Leste, so read the fine print before you purchase. World Nomads was the cheapest insurance provider for me, and InsureandGo would not cover my trip to Timor Leste (they included it in a list of countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, and Libya).
If you do need to visit a medical clinic, I recommend Stamford Medical Center in Dili. They helped treat my severe cellulitis infection.
If you’re outside of Dili and in dire need of medication, you might find it at the public hospital in Bacau. I would not let them do any invasive procedures, however.
How to get to and around Timor Leste
Getting to Timor Leste: You can fly from major hubs of Southeast Asia. It might be cheaper to buy one leg to Singapore or Bali and then to Dili if you’re coming from Australia — rather than connecting through Darwin. You can also cross overland from West Timor, Indonesia.
The roads in Timor Leste are great in some areas and pot-holed gravel in other parts. Timorese drivers have a loose interpretation of road rules. Driving laws seem to be more like suggested guidelines.
If you’re going any real distance, you might need to hire a driver with a 4×4. There is public transportation, but it’s basically a truck with locals thrown into the back. The easiest way to get around is with a motorcycle – but only for those who know how to drive one. Timorese police stopped us to check for motorcycle licenses (probably in hopes of getting a bribe). Scooters won’t be powerful enough to push through the steep hills and chunked-out roads.
Oh, and don’t be shy to honk your horn.
Where to stay in Timor Leste
Hostels and hotels are sparse outside of Dili, the capital of Timor Leste. Here are some hotels worth visiting if you – like me – travel adventurously and on a budget.
Barry’s Place, Atauro Island: 9.5/10. Barry’s Place offers off-the-grid beach bungalows with views of the sea and solar powered fans (a lifesaver on hot days). Three buffet-style fresh meals are included with your stay. This ended up being my favorite place in Timor Leste.
Tel: (+670) 7723-6084
Mario’s Place aka Adara Eco Resort, Atauro Island: 7.5/10. Mario’s Place also offers beachside bungalows and three freshly cooked meals for around $25/night. The only downside is that the beds aren’t as comfortable or as clean as Barry’s, but you can’t beat the location, customer service, and the beach. You’ll need to walk a way to access this hotel.
Tel: (+670) 7795-7272
Hakmatek Eco-accommodation,Maubisse: 8/10. If being amidst nature is your jam, you’ll love the Hakmatek Eco-accommodation. There are a handful of two to three-person bungalows and one communal bathroom. Simple living. Breakfast is included and you can arrange other meals in the dining area as requested.
Tel: (+670) 7751-3490
Hotel Wailakurini,Viqueque: 7.5/10. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere is Hotel Wailakurini, a comfortable to rest at after driving through some of the country’s bumpiest roads. This eco-lodge has multiple two-person rooms with private bathrooms and serves meals upon request. You can hike to the nearby Loi Hunu River and go swimming.
Tel: (+670) 7656-0577
Where to eat in Timor Leste
Most meals were made ourselves or were served at our hotel. We did try a few restaurants in Dili that had either a great view or decent food. As a vegetarian, it was easy to find a simple vegetables and rice dish almost anywhere. Because of its Portuguese influence, you can find interesting Southeast Asian-Portuguese fusion dishes at many places.
During the wet season – dubbed the “Hungry Season,” there are often food shortages throughout the country.
Going to restaurants is where the wealth gap between foreigners and East Timorese was most obvious. Dishes ring in around $5, and I rarely saw anyone else besides my group dining in. Most East Timorese cannot afford dining at restaurants because of the price inflation and low local wages. Malnutrition among the East Timorese is rampant. Menus are catered to tourists.
There are restaurants all along the coastal road of Dili where it might best to just stop at whatever building (and view) looks good.
Restaurante de Montanha, Aileu: By far my favorite place we ate in all of Timor Leste. This café is surrounded by beautiful local artwork and is staffed by young artists eager to speak English. The food is fresh and delicious, so you might not ever want to leave! Learn more about the project, Projeto Montanha online.
Kafe Aroma, Dili: Supports young at-risk women and artists who staff this café. The girls here learn hospitality skills and generate an income to hopefully open their own businesses someday.
Little Pattaya,Dili (Thai): Thai Cuisine on Dili’s beach front. Great atmosphere, sweet view, strong-enough cocktails, and fair prices.
Arriba, Dili (Mexican): Fresh Mexican food (well, as close as you can get on this side of the planet) served in generous portions. Opt for the enchiladas!
Osteria, Dili (Italian): An Italian venue in the middle of Dili. If you’re coming off of a big day of adventure, you can refuel on a huge pizza.
Adventurous things to do in Timor Leste
Climb to the top of Cristo Rei (The Jesus Statue): The second largest statue of Jesus Christ in the world. Come here for panoramic views and some cultural insight (the statue was a gift from former occupiers, the Portuguese).
Spend your time at the beach: The beaches in Dili, especially the ones that surround the Jesus Statue are very popular with locals. If nobody is swimming – stay out, there could be a crocodile.
Scuba dive, snorkel, or freedive around Atauro Island: There’s no shortage of coral and fish on this interesting little island – by far one of the best places to dive in Asia.
Join the Tour de Timor: The Tour de Timor is a five-day cycling race where you can join hundreds of cyclists in crossing the country by bicycle.
Cycle around the country: Not keen to join an official race? You can cycle along Timor Leste’s main roads and stay at the few tucked-away lodges in the region.
Trek to the top of many mountain peaks: There are so many places to go hiking in Timor Leste – that are rarely trekked by anyone else! Check out Trekking Timor Leste for an in-depth roundup of where to go. The region surrounding Maubisse and the walk across Atauro Island are personal favorites.
Cultural things to do in Timor Leste
Visit the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili: In 1991, 250 pro-independence East Timorese demonstrators were shot by Indonesian officials. The demonstration was peaceful and mostly comprised of young students. This was a part of the Timor Leste genocide, where nearly ~150,000 East Timorese were killed. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to make it here during my stay.)
The Archives and Museum of East Timorese Resistance: One of my favorite sites in Timor Leste, this museum features personal anecdotes and footage of the East Timorese resistance movement – that led to their independence from Indonesia. The museum has done a great job of laying out an easy-to-understand timeline of events and will give you a better understanding of one of the world’s newest countries.
Browse the works of Xanana Gusmao: Xanana Gusmao was the resistance leader of Fretilin, the political party, and former Prime Minister of Timor Leste once it gained independence. He was also a prolific author, painter, and poet.
WiFi in Timor Leste:
WiFi in Timor Leste is basically non-existent. You can get a SIM card for your phone with internet data for around $5 per GB. Surprisingly, considering the frequent power outages, there is great phone service and data coverage throughout most of mainland East Timor. In remote places like the island of Atauro, expect no coverage at all.
Other essential facts about Timor Leste
Language: Thanks to multiple occupations, people in Timor Leste speak mostly Tetun (the local language) as well as a little Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesian. English is not widely spoken – though you can often find someone willing and happy to practice.
Religion: Timor Leste is a predominantly Catholic country. Churches are common and nativity scenes are placed everywhere during Christmastime.
Knowing how to do the sign of the cross comes in handy when you’re praying for safety on East Timorese roads!
Currency: The currency is the US dollar. Everything is inflated thanks to expat salaries and foreign aid money – turns out, the locals can barely afford to live in their own country. Expect Timor Leste to be more expensive than most other Southeast Asian countries.
Visa: The easiest way to get into Timor Leste is with a US $30 Visa on Arrival. Double check the conditions of entry in advance online on the official immigration website.
Packing tips: A portable mosquito net and long-sleeved clothing will come in handy to prevent bug bites. Shops can be sparse so it’s worth carrying ziplock bags or collapsible containers for bringing snacks. The roads aren’t smooth, so schlep your stuff in a backpack rather than a suitcase with wheels if you plan on visiting a few parts of the country. Dry bags will save your camera during rain storms and ferry transfers.
Would you ever visit East Timor/Timor-Leste? Is there anything else you’d like to know?