East Timor’s capital is the city of Dili, located along the northern coast of the country. It’s by far the largest city in East Timor with a population just under 200,000 people. Even though the city is built along the coast, rising mountains a few hundred meters inland give Dili both flat and hilly areas. From one of the higher vantage points of Dili I took this photo above, which makes it look more like a seaside town than a nation’s capital.
When I visited Dili it was still recovering from a brutal civil war, but I didn’t really notice any signs of destruction. The new government now rules from this building known as the Governor’s Palace. I didn’t get the best photo of it, but this is probably one of the most impressive buildings in this tiny country!
With invasions from Indonesia and then a civil war that followed, East Timor has seen some violent times in recent memory. With the help of the UN and other international organizations, calm has returned to the country. In addition to the UN and other organizations, I also saw several uniformed police officers from Australia as well. UN patrol cars seem to be almost as popular as taxis. Below is a symbol of unity of the UN and Timor Leste’s police forces.
Timor Leste grievances with Indonesia were largely based on the fact that Indonesia is a Muslim country while Timor Leste is Christian. Merry Christmas, Boas Festas, and Santa Claus are part of the culture here. These seasonal greetings were found painted along a wall in Dili just before Christmas. Other temporary Christmas decorations were also popping up, but I think these paintings are here to stay throughout the year unless someone paints over them.
While East Timor is 99% Christian and 1% Muslim, I found several Stars of David around the capital and the words Israel marked in various places. I’ve not been able to find slightest bit of information about a Jewish population living in East Timor, but signs appearing in the city were so common it made me wonder. Even some taxis had Israel painted on it.
Many people openly wear Christian crosses around their necks, so its easy to determine what religion they are. Determining their continent was a little harder, and I actually had a small mental debate if they should belong to Oceania or Southeast Asia. I researched the continental plate the island was on, language and culture, and ethnic groups of East Timor. At the end it seemed like Asia was an obvious choice, and I’m glad I was able to make the decision with confidence. Some people in East Timor do look more like Pacific Islanders rather than Asians, so there seems to be a good ethnic mix here. Above and below photos of two young guys I saw in Dili.
From the first photo I have of Dili on this page, you can probably gather that Dili doesn’t have much of a skyline or developed city center. As a matter of fact, downtown Dili didn’t have much about it that stood out. There was definitely a large busy commercial area here, with this photo showing one of the busiest parts of the city. Believe it or not, but the photo below showed one of the main shopping areas of the city, perhaps this is Dili’s own Fifth Avenue!
Most of the shops in East Timor don’t look impressive from the outside, but once inside you can find some decent clothing shops and even a few nice but expensive restaurants. Vintage men’s shirts here were reasonably priced, and there was a large variety of women’s clothing. For some reason shops in East Timor seemed determined to compete with who could sell the most backpacks. Some businesses seemed to have half of their shops dedicated only to backpacks. The ironic thing is I very rarely saw anyone wearing a backpack in Timor Leste unless they were a foreigner.
I might have contradicted myself about nothing that stands out in the city center actually. There was this massive mall I saw, but because I never went inside I can’t say what it was like. There didn’t seem to be any of the traditional chains that have taken over much of southeastern Asia already, but it still looked like it had a ton of businesses here. The photo below shows a nice cafe that I went to one night for a late snack.
This is a bit random, but amidst all the random shops in the city there was even a pet store. I’m sure there are no laws in the country for owning pets, so if you could transport a gorilla here you’d probably be free to keep it. Most of the pets of course were pretty simple ones that you’d find in western stores. I think these guys were doing the fish version of a sad puppy face and screaming adopt me. Another surprise in the capital was a place selling artwork.
True to its beach atmosphere, there are several nice bars here, many with their own rooftop or outdoor seating. You won’t have trouble finding a place to grab a drink, but you might have issues trying to get some nachos. I got nachos in Dili and have to admit they were the worst I’ve ever had. It seriously seemed like after I ordered them they didn’t know what nachos were, and tried to do a quick internet search. I got the impression they went to a vending machine and bought some fritos, and then covered them with anything that might expire. The fritos had some things like green peas and corn on them for example, gross!
So not having quality nachos is actually a good thing. It means this country is still untouched and hasn’t been westernized. You can easily find some nice establishments in Dili, but you can also find several abandoned buildings as well. I’d assume most of these were a result of the recent conflicts, and that they’ll be on their way to renovation one day. In one of the abandoned buildings I explored I came across two people who decided to follow me around. Not sure what that was about, but they seemed harmless and after not finding anything significant I moved on without issue.
Although the city is recovering and might not be the most beautiful in Southeast Asia at the moment. Timor Leste has a huge amount of potential. I can imagine the city one day being modernized and having new streets decorated with some amazing local trees such as this flowering red giant I saw in the middle of Dili. Although the poverty is surely a result of the recent conflict, the direct signs of war already seem to be gone.
I really wanted to learn details of the war, but the Armed Resistance memorial and museum was closed for renovation. I was pretty disappointed that I couldn’t visit it, but at least I tried. The best I could do was watch this film called Balibo which was extremely popular in East Timor. This is a photograph I took of one of the posters advertising it. The film tells the true story of the invasion of East Timor, that also lead to the deaths of five Australian reporters who were covering the conflict.
The war memorial and museum is the most popular and important place to visit in East Timor. Since the country isn’t much of a tourist destination yet, the only other known place to visit in the city is the Tais market. Here you can buy traditional clothing, scarfs, and other textiles all created by hand. The market is a great place for souvenirs, but more importantly it is a place where locals can buy high quality clothing that is used for events like weddings, funerals and other formal occasions.
Dili did seem to have a defined downtown, but I’d say their port might even be a better place to visit aside from shopping or dining. At first there might not seem to be a lot going on, the port from a distance didn’t really grab my attention, and as I got closer I could only see a few random ships anchored off the coast.
Dili’s port is home to the Farol lighthouse; a small but a well known landmark in the city. It’s also a great reference if you’re walking around Dili and find yourself lost. Below is a large ship that either the lighthouse failed to guide or it ran aground for other reasons. It looks like it created an artificial pier for these fishermen, so it’s still in use!
For a real beach, you should definitely venture outside of Dili, but if you can’t wait you’ll find plenty of swimmers and families playing in the waters close to the port. These kids were enjoying their time in the water, and to my surprise there were even a few guys selling souvenirs here! These were probably the only true souvenirs I saw in the country aside from Tais market.
I’d say pretty much all over the city you’ll see people selling things like these guys above and below, but of course along the port you’ll see a ton of people selling fish. One of my biggest travel regrets ever occurred here. Someone in the evening was trying to sell me avocados, and approached me with almost an angry tone. He was really aggressive and naturally I reacted by rejecting all his offers. He kept lowering his price, to such a low number when it was all over I realized the guy was not doing well and just desperate. If I could have gone back in time I seriously would have purchased the whole rack from him…
This guy wasn’t exactly smiling but those selling fish at stands along the port were in much better spirits. They even tried to have a friendly chat with me and encouraged me to take some photos. I lost the originals somehow, so all I can share are these resized versions. I’m not a seafood eater, so there’s nothing here that would bring me any pleasure, but I was most impressed by these fish with cheetah style fish tails.
Even though Dili is right along the coast and I visited in the beginning of the rainy season, all the major rivers in Dili were dried out. In mid November, it rained a bit in the evening and late at night, but never during the day. From this bridge I could see people and truck in a dried out river bed. I’ve no idea what they could possibly be doing, but they were always there every time I passed.
A bit away from the city center I came across a part of town where I could see nothing but rusty metal roofs and shacks that went on quite a distance. I would have assumed it was just a residential area, but after passing through I found what I’d assume is the country’s largest food market. Everything from fruits and vegetables to live chickens and a few things I had never seen before were available here.
Timor Leste and the surrounding areas have always been known as the spice islands. Some spices like nutmeg, mace and cloves were part of the reason Europeans took an interest in the region. I was a bit surprised though to find raw coffee beans here in the market. Apparently these have a reputation in the coffee industry, and I was even surprised to see coffee Timor Leste at a Starbucks after my trip here!
Without a list of places to visit, I’d say the vast majority of my time here was exploring random parts of the city. I went through several areas that had pretty humble homes. Luckily in the tropics, you don’t need complicated houses to protect you against the elements. Some of them have gotten creative though, the house below even used a broken down car as part of their fence!
Despite the poverty here, everyone I came across were extremely friendly. I learned a long time ago that being rich or in poverty has nothing to do with happiness. Not only where the locals friendly, but they often encouraged me to take photos. I found these people grilling some corn one night, I tried talking to them but had a hard time with the language barrier. Either way I’m happy for them, and I hope things continue to improve for this new nation, and that East Timor has a bright future that it deserves.