More than a week ago, I took a spur of the moment trip to East Timor. This 10-year old country is probably the least known in Southeast Asia, and everyone – from the manager of the hostel during my transit in Bali to other travelers I met in Indonesia who didn’t even know there was such a country – couldn’t help but wonder why I wanted to go there. East Timor has never been in my priority list of destinations, and until a few months ago, I didn’t even think I would go there. Last July, I hatched up a personal goal to visit each of the 11 countries in Southeast Asia and it was for this strange, if not childish reason that I went.
Although I am not particularly proud of the reason why I went or the timing in which I made my journey, I am glad that I did visit this relatively isolated, often misconstrued country that only gets 19,000 tourists per year. East Timor may be extremely impoverished, war torn and lacking in tourist infrastructure, but I can say that those who visit are ultimately rewarded with the nation’s natural and relatively unspoiled beauty, warm and friendly people as well as cultural variety.
the magnificent view from the Jesus Christ statue
I booked my ticket to Dili, East Timor’s capital upon landing in Bali Airport. East Timor has air links with just 3 destinations (the others are Singapore and Darwin) and flying through Bali is the cheapest option. I found that it is usually okay to buy tickets on short notice except for weekends when NGO workers in East Timor may decide to fly to Bali for leisure trips. Before boarding, I met this Filipino guy who was flying to do some rural development consulting in East Timor. He gave me his contact details and asked for mine just in case I got affected by possible instability – but he was quick to add that East Timor was generally safe despite its bad reputation. The flight to Dili from Bali took about 1.5 hours and was largely uneventful except for some nice views of Indonesia’s volcanic islands along the way.
on the way to cristo rei…
As the plane was making its descent, the brown rolling hills of East Timor’s northern coast came into view. Before I knew it, the plane landed at Dili’s Nicolau Lobato Airport. The airport looked very similar to other airports except that the security presence was very much evident. Helicopters and other small planes carrying the UN logo were parked aplenty at the runway, and policemen from all over the world (Philippines included) scrutinized us as we made our way to the arrival hall.
Cristo Rei, Dili
I took a taxi upon exiting the airport and went straight to East Timor Backpackers Guesthouse, reputed to be the only backpacker accommodation in the country. The taxi ride on the way was a testament to the laidback and carefree culture of the country, as the taxi driver stopped midway to pick up his friends who were traversing in the same direction. I thought at first that I was getting mugged right then and there in my first taxi ride in Dili but I later realized that it was just a normal part of day-t0-day life in Timor.
a rotunda in dili
The rooms and bathrooms at the backpackers place were on a sharing basis – all I got was a bed. At US$12, I thought it was pricey but then most things in East Timor are expensive anyway. I literally just dropped my bags and went straight to Cristo Rei, said to be the second largest Jesus statue in the world after Rio’s and probably the most recognizable landmark in East Timor. The statue was perched high on a hill, but the climb was not so bad and I passed several stations of the cross along the way. Just before making my last climb, one of the construction workers in the site called me and indicated that he was going to climb with me. We chatted a bit and I later learned that he was earning $4 a day carrying bricks back and forth to the hill top as they were renovating the site. I reached the summit in no time and found the statue freshly painted. The construction worker revealed that China was shouldering the costs, and there was indeed a Chinese guy surveying the base. The view from the top was magnificent – I could see a beach with clear blue waters to the east and west, as well as towering mountains in the center.
examples of colonial architecture – the university in dili (top) and the palacio do governo (bottom)
Going down from Cristo Rei, I went to Dili’s downtown. For all the city’s shortcomings, it does have a charming waterfront. The water was clear and there was a beach just a few minutes away from the main square. Dili has several notable buildings with obvious Portuguese influences such as the Palacio do Governo (Government House) and Casa Europa. A lot of foreigners, mostly aid workers from the UN and other NGO’s, prowl the streets of Dili. That may be true but the locals couldn’t help but stare at me, with a camera-strapped-around-my-neck look that screamed tourist. Despite this, nobody did try to con me or solicit something from me, which is a welcome departure from my experiences in other more touristy countries. In fact, I found the locals to be pretty honest. I unknowingly dropped my camera case once and someone nearby alerted me of the mishap.
colonial building in dili
After making the rounds in Dili’s center, I went to an Indian restaurant beside the guesthouse for dinner. It was already the cheapest place I could find at that time but it still cost me $4.50. After dinner, I called in an early night and went back to the guesthouse. During that night, there were only 2 other guests – a German girl named Stefanie and an Indonesian man. I chatted up quite a bit with the former, whose bed was just beside mine. Apparently, she’s done the whole bit around Nusa Tenggara – starting with Bali, then to Lombok, Flores and West Timor. Although she admitted that the other islands may have better scenery, she told me she was staying in East Timor longer. She loved the country so much she even volunteered to do some charity work in Oecussi (enclave of East Timor). We ended up exchanging travel stories the rest of the night, although mine certainly were nowhere as adventurous as hers.
tree on the road to cristo rei
To be continued…
How to get there:
Dili, the capital of East Timor, is not as isolated as one may think. Direct flights are available from Singapore, a major transportation hub, as well as from Bali and Darwin, Australia. I took the flight from Bali which is usually the most economical option by air. Otherwise, the cheapest option – if you don’t mind traveling for several hours – is to land in Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia and take a long bus ride to Dili.