When it comes to travelling in Southeast Asia, most people think of Thailand, Vietnam, or Indonesia. But there’s one country in the region that often gets overlooked: East Timor, known locally as Timor Leste. The lack of tourists and therefore the lack of tourism infrastructure makes East Timor seem fresh, new and authentic.
Strangely the highlight for me was meeting many expats working for NGO’s, the UN, the European Commission, embassies, and international aid agencies and hearing about how the organisations work and their personal experiences in East Timor. After meeting some people I now consider as friends I was lucky enough to be shown a local side of East Timor.
East Timor Highlights
- The mix of Portuguese, Indonesian, and Melanesian influences in the food, music, art and architecture
- SCUBA diving and the chilled vibe on Atauro Island
- Hiking Mt Ramelau which was once the highest point in Portugal during the colonial era
- Try some of the best coffee in the world by tasting East Timor’s second largest export
- Learn, mourn, and respect this nation by understanding the atrocities suffered by the Timorese
- Meet the very welcoming locals and the equally welcoming expat community living in East Timor
How Was East Timor Formed?
East Timor has a fascinating history with the first remains dating back 42,000 years. The Portuguese arrived on the island during the 16th century and occupied the eastern side while the Dutch had control of the western side. A formal treaty was signed between the Portuguese and Dutch documenting the border between east and west Timor in 1859. Dutch rule came to an end on West Timor in 1945 when Indonesia claimed independence.
The Portuguese rule came to an end in 1975 when East Timor declared independence from Portugal. However, this independence was short-lived; just days after declaring independence, East Timor was invaded and annexed by Indonesia. It wouldn’t be until 2002 that East Timor would finally gain full independence from Indonesia making it Asia’s newest country.
How and When to Go to East Timor
The best time to visit East Timor is during the dry season which runs from May to October.
East Timor is more difficult to get to than other southeast Asian nations which have more international connections and cheaper flight options. I flew from Sydney to Darwin to Dili return for A$780 but used a flight credit I had from a trip to NZ that was cancelled due to covid. It was also a nice bonus to stop overnight in Darwin and catch up with some mates. Pablo and Subi thanks for the night out and a place to stay in Darwin!
Practice your Portuguese
The official languages of East Timor are Tetum and Portuguese and a large percentage of the population speak Indonesian due to their occupation. Some residents of Dili speak English but few elsewhere throughout the country other than touristy places like hotels. I was able to practice my Portuguese while in East Timor although I spent much of the time travelling with an Aussie guy who speaks Portuguese and Indonesian, so we had very little language problems on the trip.
Dili is the capital of East Timor and has the typical Southeast Asia feel to it but with a slight Portuguese influence. The city has a fascinating history and you’ll find some great museums covering the history of the city and East Timor. Getting around Dili is easy as there’s almost constant busses going in every direction and the fares are cheap, just be prepared to be occasionally squashed in. Alternatively, you can get around by taxi which are also easy to find. There’s plenty of food and drink options in Dili for all budgets so you can either sip cocktails with other travellers and expats on the Beach road hugging the coastline or venture closer into the city to find some cheap local restaurants serving local dishes.
Chances are you’ll be arriving into Dili so it’s worth hanging around for a few days before heading off to explore more scenic parts of the country. Read about my time in Dili including the best things to see and do.
Atauro island is a short trip from Dili which you can do on a public ferry, fast boat or plane and is a must when you’re visiting East Timor. The island is home to a variety of wildlife, including turtles, dolphins, sharks and dugongs which can be seen by either snorkelling or scuba diving. The island has an interesting history and plenty to do from diving, hiking, fishing or just hanging out on its white sandy beaches. You can read more about Atauro island including where to stay, where to dive and what to see here.
Baucau is located in eastern East Timor and is known for its Portuguese colonial architecture. The city is home to a number of churches, as well as a fort that was built by the Portuguese in the 17th century. If you’re making the trip to Jaco Island you’ll pass through Baucau and if you’re travelling by public transport you’ll most likely spend a night in Baucau as you can’t travel the entire way from Dili to Jaco in one day. One of the drawcards to Baucau is its public swimming pool which is a refreshing place to escape the heat and chat to some locals.
Getting to MT Rameau is a little more difficult that climbing it which you can read about in the Guide to climbing East Timor’s highest mountain. Mount Ramelau, also known as Tatamailau “grandfather to all”, is East Timor’s highest mountain and offers stunning views of the surrounding countryside. Mount Ramelau is also a site of religious importance. There is a statue of Mary at its summit and an annual pilgrimage occurs in October when thousands of worshippers climb the mountain to attend a mass which lasts until the following morning.
For something a little different, and if you have time, check out Jaco Island. This remote island is located off the east coast of East Timor and requires a few days to get there if travelling by public transport. Alternatively, you can hire a 4wd and make your own way much quicker. However, you’ll still need to leave your vehicle on the mainland as the island is only accessible by boat. Once there you’ll enjoy crystal clear water and dramatic cliffs and a rugged coastline. Jaco Island is also a great place to go hiking and explore the lush jungle interior. You’ll also get to see more of East Timor on your journey to and from Jaco.
The Oe-Cusse District is located in western East Timor and is known for its pristine beaches and clear waters. As there is no land connection between the rest of East Timor you will need to take a ferry from Dili to arrive in Oecusse. I didn’t have the time to make it over there, but you can find details about how to visit in the resources section below.
Avoid the Tourist Crowds in East Timor
East Timor is a beautiful country with plenty to offer travelers although it’s easy to see why it’s often overlooked. Prices are considerably more expensive than Indonesia and there are less flights serving East Timor. However, if you’re in the region, and especially Darwin, it’s definitely worth making the short trip over to East Timor to spend a week or two. Above all, get out of the hotel, chat to the locals, and make the most of this beautiful nation, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful scenery, friendly locals, and an incredible diversity of experiences.
Travel Resources for Visiting East Timor
Oe-Cusse Tourism – The official tourism sit for Oe-Cusse.
Viator – Huge selection of activities, tours and experiences with great cancellation and price match policies.
Get Your Guide – Great selection of experiences from sea, land and air.
SkyScanner – The best place to start looking for flights. They compare prices from a huge amount of airlines.
Hostelworld – Thousands of hostels with millions of reviews. You can also contact other travelers before you arrive.
Travel Insurance – None of us plan to fall off motorbikes or break a leg snowboarding but if it happens make sure you’re covered.
Booking.com – One of the best accommodation booking pages available. This is my benchmark before searching for a better deal (which often can’t be beaten).
AirBnB – Huge range of home to rent across the globe and discounts for longer stays.
RentalCars.com – The best site for renting cars while travelling, they find the best rates and provide great insurance options.