TO MAKE an argument for visiting East Timor you can’t rely on the staples of Asian tourism — low cost and exotica. The world’s newest nation is more expensive than many first world countries, and with its colonial legacy many of East Timor’s physical aspects will be familiar. Still, there are a million reasons to visit soon. East Timor’s people are her greatest attraction. Outgoing, tolerant, fun loving and family-oriented, the East Timorese are the perfect vacation hosts.
Wherever you go you will feel welcome and respected. Ninety-five percent of the people are devout Catholics, crime is rare and all essential services are functioning. You’ll get by with English, Bahasa Indonesia or Portuguese but try to learn the greetings of the indigenous language, Tetum (pronounced Tetun).
Allow at least two weeks to sample what East Timor has to offer. Tourism is in its infancy so there are no package tours, but the freshness of the experience will delight you. Sensible health precautions include the usual travel shots and avoiding malaria and dengue fever by taking malaria prophylaxis and using insect repellent day and night.
On arrival at the airport, pick up a free copy of Discover Dili — a brief up-to-date guide to tourism in East Timor with handy contact numbers. There are two public Internet cafés charging $2 for 15 minutes.
Where to stay:
Expect to pay between $15 and $120 per night. Within Dili a budget option is The Purple Cow on White Sands Beach at $15 per night including breakfast. Just a ten-minute taxi ride from Dili Central, it’s a new well-maintained beachfront restaurant, nightclub and small hotel that rocks on Friday and Saturday nights. I rate it three stars. Or for backpackers try the JC PAV Community Centre near Taibessi Market, Dili, with its new, clean rooms starting at $14 per night (email: email@example.com).
The newest resort hotel is the Esplanada at Coconut Beach, ten minutes from downtown Dili. With its swimming pool, cool green tiles and indigenous carvings the $100 rooms are reasonable value.
Top of the scale in the luxury market is the Portuguese-owned Hotel Timor in the downtown area. Opened just in time for independence celebrations in May, the hotel claims five stars and rooms start at $120 per night. The lobby with bar/restaurant is cool, spacious and invitingly decorated in a mix of Portuguese classic and modern East Timorese chic.
You don’t need to book all your accommodation in advance, reserve the first couple of nights and then check out your options as more accommodation comes on-stream weekly. An interesting-looking resort hotel is being built on embassy row — Rue Alve Aldeia.
Dili is a busy city with many of the sights within walking distance. Mikrolets (minibuses) cost a few cents. Taxis are plentiful and charge just one dollar within the city limits for all trips regardless of the number of passengers. Thrifty is the main car rental company but their prices are outrageous. Instead try Dili Rentals for four-wheel drives at $50 per day — you’ll need one if you plan to explore beyond greater Dili. The days are a hot average 31°C so keep out of the sun and stay hydrated on bottled water.
East Timorese love their meat, especially BBQ and the seafood is plentiful and good value. Try the seafront restaurants for dinner and watch the sun slide into the sea. Classic eateries are The Dili Club with its pizzas, burgers, Indian curry and perfectly chilled beers, City Café, and Angelo’s $5 all-you-can-eat buffet. Expect to pay between $4 and $10 for main meals and $1 to $4 for drinks. There are some low price options such as the Singapore Coffee Shop, but you won’t find the variety of street stalls you’d see in Malaysia or Singapore. Sports fans worried about missing their matches can view them in comfort at The Monkey Bar with its four big screen TV sets under a large thatched hut. During the World Cup it did a roaring trade in Ronaldo Rolls and Beckham Burgers.
Read the local news before you go at www.easttimorpress.com, East Timor’s independent online news service.
Things to do:
For shoppers the local markets hold the most interest. Three markets sell local produce — stock up on organic coffee, creamy coconut soap, fashionable woven handbags and high quality handloom cloth in a range of bright colours, shapes and sizes costing between $2 and $60. You’ll be contributing directly to the local economy where it needs it the most.
When you’ve exhausted the sights of Dili’s markets, beaches, nightclubs, monuments and historic sites, such as Santa Cruz cemetery, it’s time to head to the hills, islands or coastline. Hill towns like the coffee-growing district of Ermera and beautiful Maubisse offer cool, scenic retreats. Overnight at the Pousada de Maubisse, a large white bungalow four-star guesthouse with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains for $33-77 a double.
Coastal diving is said to be among the best in the world and you can charter a yacht to visit the islands and bays. Dive Timor, Free Flow and Dili Dive are a few local companies.
A spectacular two-and-a-half hour drive east of Dili brings you to Baucau where another comfortable Pousada awaits. Baucau’s beach rivals Tahiti and the town is worth at least two nights. Much more lush than Dili you will enjoy Baucau’s contrast between the colonial architecture and traditional thatched houses.
Timor Lorosae (the Tetum name for East Timor) will struggle economically until her oil revenue streams are established. Why not support this nascent nation now by having the holiday of your life!
(NB: All figures are in US dollars, East Timor’s currency.)