When I told my friends I was traveling to East Timor, most of them had no idea where it was. Some had never even heard of this country. Understandably, since it has only been an independent country for 11 years. Find out more about it here. The country is located in Southeast Asia, but most SEA travellers skip this destination. Of course, that meant I had to go check it out. There was very little travel information to be found online, so I arrived there with little expectations.
I quickly discovered that East Timor is not a travel destination for everyone. If you’re looking for a cheap and easy Southeast Asia experience, this country is absolutely not for you. Or at least, not yet.
East Timor is expensive for a traveler.
At least if you compare to its neighbouring countries. The room rates start at $25 for a very basic, dilapidated double room. There is one backpackers place in the capital Dili, where you’ll pay 12$ for a dorm bed. Again, I’m not talking about fancy dorms…
For food in Dili, you can eat at ‘local canteen style eateries‘ and pay 2-3$ for a full plate of meat/fish, rice and vegetables. Expect 4-5$ at a cheap Indian joint. Go to a basic western looking restaurant and your prices will range from 5$ for a sandwich to 12$ for a fish dish. That’s more than double what you’d pay in Indonesia!
Conclusion: you can economise on food if you want, especially once out of Dili where western restaurants become scarce. However, accommodation will take a big bite out of your budget unless you stay put in Dili. Which brings me to my next point…
It’s hard to get around the country.
There are several towns that have semi-good connections by public transport. There are some ferries and busses/trucks. If you want to get anywhere beyond these places you either need a car (which can be difficult to drive since the roads are in such bad condition) or you need a suitcase full of money. Let me give you an example. Four of us were traveling to a town called “Maubisse”. It took us over 4 hours to drive 70 km. Once there two of the travellers decided to go to the next village so they could climb Mt. Ramelau, the country’s highest peak. This village was located 20km away. The journey took them almost three hours and cost 50$ each, traveling on the back of local motorbikes which broke down every half hour.
Timor-Leste is a small country but you need a lot of time and patience to get around it.
There’s quasi no tourist infrastructure.
Sure, there are a few dive centres in Dili, some restaurants offering good food, bars with live music during the weekends, a couple of club and a few emerging tour companies, but once you leave the capital, you’re pretty much on your own.
Particularly for a woman traveling solo, it definitely felt that way. Even as an experienced traveler, if I may call myself that, who has been in war zones and post-conflict areas several times, I was set on not traveling around the country all by myself as it felt quite uncomfortable. Therefore I traveled with at least one companion and encountered no problem whatsoever.
There is a huge language barrier.
Although English is one of the official languages, most people don’t speak it nor do they understand it. Same goes with Portuguese. In fact, the locals are quite annoyed saying: “we don’t understand why Portuguese tourists come here and speak to us in Portuguese expecting us to understand what they’re saying. They think we still know their language but the colonial days are long gone…”
If you know some Bahasa Indonesian, you won’t have a problem communicating, as it is the language Timorese are taught in school. Tetum and other indigenous languages are widely spoken, but I assume those are probably not in your language repertoire.
That being said,
I LOVED EAST TIMOR
And I loved travelling there. It’s a beautiful destination. Very real, very rough.
Just like the other travellers you’ll meet in your backpackers hostel. You don’t hear the classic “I’m taking x months off to do a RTW/SEA trip” or “I’m on a two week holiday”. Here you meet travellers doing internships for NGO’s, people doing freelance work translating for Chinese business men, people hitchhiking through the Middle East, Africa and Asia for an indefinite amount of time, people with an impressive list of ‘off the beaten track’ destinations like Socotra (Yemen), Albania and Pakistan.
The country and its inhabitants keep on surprising you; the religion, the culture, the people, the landscape… I’ll be posting an entry on that soon.
I’ve made it a point to return to East Timor and use the knowledge I have acquired to discover the country in a more thorough manner AND scuba dive. Can’t wait to watch one of thee amazing sunsets again!