I’ve had a few friends visit me since I moved to Timor-Leste, I’m hoping for more (hint), and I thought it’d be useful to both my prospective visitors and perhaps you to put together a short survival guide for a first few days in Dili.
Can you drink the water? How do you get a SIM card? What should a taxi cost? How much English do they speak in Timor-Leste?… the things that of course feel natural and self-evident when you live in a place, but are complicated, confusing and essential to know before you arrive.
If you also live in Dili, I’d love to hear your thoughts! What have I missed, and what did you wish you knew when you first landed here?
Phones and internet
I’ve made each of my visitors get a local Timorese SIM card, even if they’re just here for a few days; even my sister who came for 40 hours. Free public wifi here is almost non-existent, and while people are friendly, helpful and earnest, you can’t rely on your English alone to help you with directions, finding new places, or getting around. Your own phone is key.
Pre-paid SIM cards cost about US $1 and can be bought in English and air-conditioning from the shiny stores of each of the country’s three telecommunications companies — Timor Telecom, Telemor and Telkomcel — or for a slightly inflated price from the guys who sell pulsa, phone credit, on the streets.
Timor Telecom and Telemor are more popular than the Indonesian-import Telkomcel, but really any of them will suit. Telemor’s coverage is better if you’re out in the mountains, but can be patchy in certain small areas of Dili. Find Timor Telecom and Telkomcel at Timor Plaza, the enormous shopping mall on Comoro Road near the airport, and the bright-yellow Telemor office just a few minutes east on the same road (update: Telemor now also has a shop at Timor Plaza). Ask someone to help you change your info message language to English and to load your first round of pre-paid credit, then buy subsequent recharges from any of the guys who say pulsa? to you outside Timor Plaza and on street corners.
Taxis and transport and Dili microlets
If you don’t have a friend to drive you around, taxis and public mini-buses make fine substitutes.
The clunky, crunchy yellow taxis will crawl you anywhere in Dili for $2 or $3 (or $5 if you’re going all the way out to Cristo Rei, because of the distance and the fact that the driver likely won’t pick up a return fare). When I take one I ask the price first, usually get quoted $3 or $4 for a distance I know is $2, suggest $2 and get the driver’s agreement — but inflated prices in Dili never feel to me exploitative; so I do often pay whatever they say. The blue taxis have meters and a phone number you can call to book, in English, a ride, but the wait at night is so long it makes me want to walk home (a terrible idea).
The microlets, the tiny, colourful public mini-buses, are one of my favourite things about living in Dili. A ride of any length costs 25c, there are designated routes but no specified stops, and you jump on and off whenever you feel like it. Hail the microlet like a normal bus — etiquette says to take your seat as close to the back of the bus as you can, so you’ll brush sweatily past every single occupant on your way down — and tip-tap your coin on the metal bar inside the roof when you’d like it to stop. Pay the driver or the person sitting next to them at the end of your ride.
From this sign you can catch the light-blue number 12 microlet to Cristo Rei.
The website Dili Microlets has a few-years-old map of most routes, and the magazine Lafaek, actually a children’s educational resource produced by the NGO Care International, shares helpful route guides on their Facebook page. Generally, I’ve found it most useful to either taxi to the place I want to visit and then observe which microlets are running in the area, or to just jump on one and sit there for its entire route (every route is a loop so you’ll eventually return to your starting point — perhaps pay 50c and prepare for a strange look from the driver as you disembark).
And Timor-Leste now has its own ride-share app! The application Lais is the Uber of Dili. I haven’t used it but have heard good things about clean, safe cars, cheap rides and prompt drivers (update: I spoke too soon; Lais’s license hasn’t been approved yet and they’ve had to cease operations for now).
Most people living here get around on scooters or in their own cars, both of which are available to rent. I think scooters are reasonably priced — around $20 per day — but cars cost upwards of $60 per day, and over $100 if you want a four-wheel-drive.
Water and health
Nope, you can’t drink the tap water, and I’ve got six months of prolonged stomach problems to prove it. Carry a water bottle with you and refill from gallons, those big 20L water dispensers (most guest houses and hotels have them for guests to refill for free, so you don’t throw more plastic into Timor-Leste’s oceans). You can also buy and bring water filters, or boil (on a rolling boil for ten full minutes) the tap water.
Despite that aforementioned stomach bug (which came about I think because a a gallon in my house got contaminated while being washed and refilled), I’ve actually had very little trouble with water and food in Timor-Leste. I’ve never gotten sick from ice or washed lettuce, I eat room-temperature food from warungs most days, and I eat copious kangkung, the skanky spinach grown in Dili’s sewers. Be careful here, of course, but don’t fear you’ll get sick from a cup of coffee.
Without being too flippant, Dili’s as good a place as any to get sick. The large foreigner population means there’s high-standard health care to match (if you don’t mind paying cashed-up foreigner prices, or finding a Tetun-speaker to escort you to a local clinic). Singaporean-run Stamford Clinic is the premium choice and I’ve heard great things about the Malta Clinic, too.
Language and foreigners in Timor-Leste
Bali 2.0 this is not. While a decent number of Timorese people speak good English, and many more have at least a handful of words and phrases, a well-travelled foreigner once told me of the language barrier, “Dili is the only place I’ve ever been where I’ve not felt confident I could get myself out of trouble.”
Every waiter in every beachfront restaurant will take your order in English, taxi drivers and pulsa boys can make their sales with you in English, and you will be able to find a kind native speaker with enough English to help you out any time, but in both humility and practicality it makes a lot of sense to nail some basic Tetun phrases (here’s a list of my favourite Tetun words, and a summary of how I’m going with language-learning). Almost everyone speaks fluent Bahasa Indonesian, too, so if you know Bahasa that will take you far.
It may be slightly trickier to navigate than Seminyak, but in my view it’s totally worth it.
I feel like Dili is over-run with foreigners, but I’ve heard the opposite from visitors, and I do concede that you notice when there’s a tourist in town because they’re so few and far between. I can imagine it must feel isolating and a bit of a jolt to arrive here as a backpacker, pass through that pared-back airport and meet a distinct lack of tourism infrastructure (which, of course, is Dili’s charm, but charming it might not feel when you’re being charged $10 for the 3km taxi ride to town because there’s no airport shuttle and limited competition).
We are here, though, and many English-speakers are happy to suggest activities, give directions, and help translate for you (my favourite foreigner moment in Dili was when a cruise ship was in town and I helped an older guest direct his Dili taxi — very simple Tetun I learned in my first week here, but to his Australian ears I must have sounded fluent — and he praised my English, mistaking me for a very light-skinned Timorese person).
Sunset palms in Pantai Kelapa.
I’ve had no problems being a foreigner in Dili — Timorese people are generally gentle, warm and friendly, and even as an Australia (whose government has for decades stolen millions of dollars in oil wealth from and unfairly spied on the Timorese) I don’t feel in disliked or in danger. The usual warnings about women walking alone at night, and I have been groped and masturbated at (weirdly, that’s only ever happened in broad daylight), but those incidences are few and in general I feel safe and happy as a foreigner in Dili.
Where’s the centre of Dili? Where is…everything?
This is what my cruise ship friend asked me. We were standing outside the port in Colmera, near that huge white building where Rolls N Bowls and Gloria Jean’s are, and I was like, um, I guess we’re in it…?
Pretty views across Pantai Kelapa.
Due to its mountain backdrop, Dili is a skinny and spread-out city — it reaches probably 20km from east to west and barely a kilometre from the coast to the mountains. Colmera used to be the centre of the city, but as development grows, there are little clusters of tourist-friendly restaurants, hotels, markets and coffee shops in: Bebonuk (Timor Plaza and the Pertamina pier area), Pantai Kelapa (Castaway Bar, Letefoho Speciality Coffee, Agora Food Studio), Lecidere (Gloria Jean’s, lol, the Deck Bar, Agua de Coco, the big seaside fruit market), Farol (Black Box, Dilicious, Kaffe Uut, the tais market, Mario’s pizza – best in Dili) and Metiaut (Caz Bar and Beachside), and that Colmera-adjacent area where the Pateo Supermarket complex blooms is also great for coffee, steak and souvenirs.
The areas Bebonuk, Pantai Kelapa, Farol, Pateo supermarket area (what’s that suburb called?) and Lecidere are, coincidentally, all the suburbs that host or have previously hosted an ANZ ATM — the ATM of choice for visiting foreigners, because it’s the only one that accepts MasterCard.
Farol is the Portuguese word for lighthouse, and that suburb — the one in which I live — stretches inland from this point.
ANZ is actually closing all of its retail services as of tomorrow, which means visitors with MasterCards will either have to bring fat wads of cash to pay their way (credit card transactions are nearly non-existent here; almost everything happens in cash), or get a Visa card (those pre-paid debit cards from your bank are usually Visa), which you can use at either of Dili’s other ATM options: from the Indonesian bank Mandiri or the local BNCTL (December 2018 update: MasterCard is still not accepted in Timor-Leste — bring USD cash or a Visa card).
Timor-Leste uses the US dollar (bring the smallest and newest notes you can find; only big restaurants and supermarkets will have the change that lets you buy a $2 item with a $20 note and people don’t accept notes older than I think 2006), and also has its own currency, the centavos, for denominations of $2 and smaller (the centavos has the same value as the USD).
Despite the dollar, tipping isn’t at all common here like it is in the US — it’s not expected, and it’s not rude to not tip.
My last point, which likely should have been my first. Citizens of most countries get a US $30, thirty-day tourist visa on arrival at Dili airport; no need to organise ahead of your trip, and I’ve heard European Union passport holders are actually visa-exempt.
But do check with your embassy, because I’ve heard stories of friends-of-friends who have had to suddenly supply letters from the Timorese government authorising their entrance to the country.
It’s beautiful, easy to get to, and takes barely any planning. Visit Timor-Leste.
I love living in Dili, and I think my life here very easy, but I do remember how difficult it felt in those first early days (you can read more about my first 24 hours and first weekend in Dili). I hope this post makes it slightly easier for any other new arrival — and for those here for a while, please do let me know how I can update this post to make it more useful!