In war-ravaged East Timor there are hundreds of beautiful, sandy beaches just waiting to be re-discovered, but there’s one in particular that caught my attention. Worryingly, this isn’t the first time I’ve made a journey for a funny name.
How to Get to Dili, East Timor?
At the time of writing the only regular flights to East Timor (or Timor-Leste) were from Bali and Darwin, plus the occasional flight to and from Singapore or Jakarta. The Bali flight, which we took, is a lot more regular and (usually) cheaper. Alternatively, you can come in overland from Kupang in West Timor (Indonesia) but you need to get all your visas sorted out in advance, which I sadly didn’t.
Arriving at Dili’s Nicolau Lobato International Airport, you’ll be swarmed by taxi drivers offering you a ride for as cheap as $5 per person, but walk to the main road and catch a mikrolet (shared taxi; you want the number 10) and it’s only 25c. (East Timor is on the US dollar.) I’ll never understand why most travellers opt for the taxi, or the $18 airport shuttle. Sure the mikrolets can get a little crowded, but if you’re not in East Timor to experience the local lifestyle and culture, what the hell are you here for?
Dili’s Colour-coded Mikrolets
The mikrolets are basically a bunch of kids with converted vans who took it upon themselves to become Dili’s (and East Timor’s) sole public transport system. There are currently 10 routes and each van is painted and numbered accordingly.
|09||Blue (with yellow trim)|
A (Ridiculously) Brief History of East Timor
- Back in the day (’60s and early ’70s) Portuguese Timor was a stop on the overland “hippie trail“.
- 25th April 1974, Portugal saw a (carnation) revolution and effectively dropped its colonies.
- Political parties formed in East Timor…
- …but civil war was soon to follow.
- Indonesia invaded, backed and supplied with weapons by the communist-fearing USA, UK and Australia.
- East Timor spent the next 24 years fighting a guerrilla war for its independence…and losing. Hundreds of thousands died. Like Sri Lanka, this is a country that was getting fucked for decades, and only saw the end of it in the 2000s. Torture, murder and disappearances were common thanks to the secret police.
- East Timor’s plight only caught the international media’s attention in ’91, when an independence activist was murdered and Indonesian police were caught on camera massacring protesters. (They admitted killing 19, then 50…actually it was more like 280.)
- 1998. Indonesian president Suharto resigned and his successor, B. J. Habibie, gave East Timor a referendum.
- Indonesian military forces and pro-Indonesian militia threatened, intimidated and terrorized East Timor into rejecting autonomy…
- …yet a brave 78.5% of the East Timorese public voted, not for autonomy but for total independence.
- On their way out, an Indonesian company destroyed all the infrastructure they could: roads and bridges, telephone lines and power stations, businesses, government buildings, homes. They sent tens of thousands running for the hills and even attacked the UN, forcing them to withdraw and leaving East Timor defenseless. This means no employment, no canneries, no breweries…Everything from the police force to the roads to the entire economy would have to be built from scratch.
- East Timor only became a country in 2002.
- NGOs and aid workers flooded in.
- Trouble still flares up every few years.
- The UN only withdrew again on New Year’s Eve, 2012.
If you’re interested, check out the Resistance Museum and the Chega! exhibition in Dili.
Nowadays, East Timor only gets around 1500 tourists a year, which works out to around four a day. I’m not sure how they work out who’s a “tourist”, but there was only one other whitey (non-Timorese/Indonesian-looking guy) on the plane, so the shit checks out.
Where to Stay in Dili?
The accommodation situation in East Timor is ridiculous. (As is pricing generally.) The oxymoronic East Timor Backpackers offers dorm beds for $12 and doubles for $25, and that’s probably the cheapest accommodation you’ll find in the whole of East Timor. These days it’s packed almost every night and is in desperate need of some competition.
If heading for the Backpackers’, and unless you speak Tetun, ask for “Mandarin“, which I gather is the area of town, and jump off just after “Tiger Fuel” and just before the hideous clock-tower.
Tiger Fuel used to be a good place for food but since changing ownership is only good for expensive, disgusting pizzas. However, ask at the hostel and they’ll direct you to where you can get Indian, Thai and so on nearby. There’s also a bar at the hostel, where they can prepare various rice dishes for $1-3, and a whole-in-the-wall down the road where you can split a $5 rotisserie chicken.
For a long time, East Timor has seen only NGO and aid workers, who aren’t paying for their own accommodation and therefore couldn’t give a crap what they’re charged. This has created a huge disparity between the prices of goods and services (such as accommodation) and what the local people (a huge percentage of whom are still unemployed and/or living on aid) can afford to pay. There’s no way, with the East Timorese economy in its current state, and without aid, that the people could afford to buy food at the outrageous prices in their own supermarkets.
Oh and to make matters worse, the average mum has gone and had seven or eight kids.
If you can, stay with friends, or locals, or just rock up with a few dollars and see what happens. East Timor will need to get budget-traveller-friendly, fast (not to mention sorting out the rest of its economy) if it’s going to stay afloat once the NGO and aid money dries up.
What to Do in Dili?
Not much. No infrastructure means no commercial tourist attractions. I actually love places like this!
East Timor has so many beautiful, untouched beaches, many of which could rival the best in South East Asia. There is also a series of coral reefs that run along the North coast of the island, often within swimming distance, placing diving and snorkelling at the forefront of East Timor’s diaper-clad tourism industry.
Dili is such a small city, and with such little commerce and activity, that it has to be one of the quietest, most tranquil capitals in the world. A very odd place.
Even the city centre has many peaceful, unmolested stretches of beach, where Timorese kids play football silhouetted against the sunset. Dili’s coastline stretches approximately 15 km, from the airport to the Cristo Rei statue at Cape Fatucama.
Starting at the western end, there is a row of stalls where you can eat fresh fish or chicken, local style, on the beach. We were having trouble finding them so I mimed a chicken and a fish and the universal motion for “eating” to the locals (who, to be fair, have had quite a few languages to learn – Tetun, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia and one or more of 20+ local dialects – without having to worry about English too). We got two fish and portions of rice wrapped and cooked in banana leaves for only $1.50 each.
Walking along the seafront, you won’t find a lot of business, but there are one or two lonely bars, such as Castaway, popular with the expats, but with Western prices to match.
What you will find are shitloads of foreign embassies, and you can’t help but think that maybe these countries have taken the piss just a little when they decided to buy up huge lots of prime, central, beachfront property that could have been used for something much more appropriate and beneficial to Dili’s citizens. Oh well.
Walking around Dili Harbour you’ll pass the Farol lighthouse and the sleepy but still operational port, which feels like a trip back in time. Centuries-old banyan trees grow amidst a very recently renovated waterfront esplanade. This area is misleadingly well kept (a security guard told me to get off the grass) while the rest of the city remains a complete dump.
There are also a few fancy hotels. We went into one for advice on internet access and were greeted by a lavish welcome party intended for the arrival of the Portuguese President (or maybe it was Prime Minister), whose visit coincided, almost to the minute, with ours. The troupe of Fataluku dancers, poised to serenade us, gave me a strange look when the noticed my torn jeans, broken flipflop and bleeding foot. It turned out that this was a conference of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries. They closed the main road all the way from the airport to Area Branca (exactly the way we were walking) so we continued to run into the delegates of various Portuguese-speaking nations (as well as their security convoys and police escorts) throughout the course of the day, as they went about their business, stopped for lunch, saw the (carefully chosen) sights and whatnot. Apparently the President of Brazil had better things to do, so sent his Minister of Foreign Relations instead.
“Oh my God, it’s Equatorial Guinea!” I yelled, a little too loud. Their faces betrayed pride…and shock, that someone had actually heard of their country.
We stopped in Lita supermarket – one of only a handful in the capital – where food shortages are commonplace and the selection of beers tells you more about the country’s foreign relations than anything else: Sagres, Bintang, Heineken and of course Tiger, the quintessential Asian lager. No Timorese beer as of yet.
We ate our tinned fish and bread on the beach and then met a fellow traveller, named Giora, as we both attempted to put our rubbish in the otherwise empty public bins. Bins are a great place to meet other foreigners, we realised, as we’re the only ones here who use them. Giora was also staying at the Backpackers’ and had quite a story of his own.
Considerably further along, you’ll come to Area Branca, a beautiful beach area, once firmly planted on the hippy trail and sure to be the centre of backpacker tourism in East Timor whenever it picks up again. There are several plastic-chair bars and “restaurants” – such as the popular favourite, Caz Bar – where you can get a can of beer or a fresh, chilled coconut for a dollar.
After Area Branca the road is bare and exposed as it winds its way to Cape Fatucama.
Rounding one such bend, we caught out first sight of Jesus, looking out to sea…towards Jakarta.
The Cristo Rei Jesus Statue
The Cristo Rei (Christ the King) statue is reminiscent of the much larger and infinitely better known Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) that stands over Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. (There’s also a Cristo Rei in Lisbon, Portugal.) In many ways, Dili and the landscape of East Timor is not dissimilar to that of Rio. Perhaps it was typical of the Portuguese, when scouting locations for their future cities, to choose those that already came with heavy natural fortifications.
The climb to the Jesus statue is made up of 500-ish steps and lined with a series of shrine-like grottoes that tell the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, including such important moments as “Jesus falls first time”, “Jesus falls second time” and my personal favourite, “Jesus falls third time”.
I practically flew up the steps, shirtless in the sun’s heat…and quickly became the subject of much laughter from groups of locals, who insisted on having their photo taken with the pasty, half-naked white guy and his infinitely more attractive companion.
It was in a similar state that we ran into Darran and Olivier, who we’d met at the Backpackers’.
At the top you become aware of Jesus’ epic proportions and the views of Him, Cristo Rei Beach and the surrounding landscape are incredible - the best we saw in East Timor – the green mountains folding like dog’s paws into the blue slate ocean.
We sat perched on a dusty, Algarvesque outcrop, taking in the view, but this wasn’t exactly what I’d come for. Rumour has it that behind the Jesus statue is another, often empty beach that due to its unfortunate positioning has been coined Jesus’ Backside Beach.
Sure enough, back down the main steps there’s another path. It’s really not the stuff of secrets and rumours at all.
Jesus’ Backside Beach
As we descended this second trail, Jesus re-emerged on his hilltop and as the sun set it passed behind him and plunged us into some much appreciated shade. A local couple with motorbike gear idly leant and watched as a giant, Jesus-shaped shadow enveloped the beach below, until it had dissipated completely.
We took photos of the Messiah’s backside, then rushed down to catch the last rays of the sun. Though devoid of visitors and covered in white-gold sand, like all beaches in East Timor, it could’ve used a good clean up.
While we hadn’t managed to find a snorkel for sale anywhere in Timor (no shops; there’s a business idea for you) and we’re not the sort to fork out for a diving tour, we had managed to procure and adapt a child’s pair of goggles (don’t ask) and dove in. The water was too shallow, but it was cool yet warm, blue yet clear. Though far from being East Timor’s finest, most-swimmable, snorklable beach, it was the perfect example of what is sat waiting all over the country.
Walking back along the winding Cape Fatucama road, rose-red sunset lingering on our right, we spotted Darran and Olivier and joined them for a beer at Caz Bar (or the equally good bar next to it – it’s difficult to tell which one you’re ordering from when you’re sat on the beach). These were two of the most insightful people I’ve met on my travels and it’s always a joy to chat with guys like that. (Call me a travel snob, but I often find that hard to reach or seldom visited places separate the most interesting travellers from the general mob.)
We found a place serving food and more beer and also got talking to a local Timorese guy who’d lived and worked as a chef in Oxford for nine years. It turned out he lived almost opposite the Backpackers’ (which we realised was about to lock its gates any minute now) and he offered to give us a lift. On the way, we had to laugh when he told us that the waterfront parks, clock-tower and so on had only been renovated a couple of days ago, for the Portuguese President’s visit.
Back at the hostel, he refused to take any money. The caretaker was just walking away from the locked gates as we arrived and had to open them again.
We said goodnight to Darran and Olivier and then ran into and got plastered with Stuart and Neil…