Where I’m At: May, 2014 – Dili

Travels in Bali, Flores, and Timor (West and East)

Greetings from Dili, East Timor. I’ve spent the last week in the Island of Timor; West being in Indonesia; East being the independent nation of East Timor.


I spent two weeks in Bali, and my opinion has changed for the better since I was last there 4 years ago. I ended up spending more time exploring the beach area in Seminyak-Kerobokan-Canggu, which has a completely different feel to the holiday area of Kuta-Legian. The internet has improved, and with that there are more expats living there now running online businesses.

I will be writing some notes on living in Bali in the coming weeks. I can’t see myself spending as much time there as I have in Ho Chi Minh City, but I could definitely see myself coming back to Bali as a base to explore more of Indonesia. For example get a one month visa, spend 2 weeks in Bali and then 2 weeks in Sulawesi or one of the many outlying islands.


Labuan Bajo, Indonesia was the starting point for my trip across Flores and Timor (West and East).

James at Komodo Labuan Bajo Airport - Flores
[Komodo Airport, which is not actually on Komodo Island but in Labuan Bajo on Flores.]

There are over 17,000 islands in Indonesia and I try and visit a new island every time I come back, though most of those islands look like this:

Islands near Labuan Bajo - Indonesia
[3 of the 17,000+ islands that make up Indonesia.]

After being in Saigon for months and then returning to the familiar Bali, Labuan Bajo felt like being back on the road proper. I hear the call to prayer, and my guesthouse bungalow had a squat toilet and fan, and practically every little kid I on the road offered a salutation in the form of a wave, smile, or “HELLO MISTER!”

I spent two days on a boat in the Komodo National Park, which is made up of Komodo and Rinca island and lots of islands and islets in between. I got to see the eponymous dragons as well as more marine life I have seen by snorkelling than I thought possible.

Island Hopping in Komodo National Park
[Island Hopping in Komodo National Park.]

Despite only having a week in Flores I got to visit the Komodo and Kelimutu National Parks, which have both been elevated into my Top-5-highlights-of-Indonesia list (not that I keep such lists). The island of Flores is stunning and surprisingly undeveloped. I haven’t seen a single palm oil plantation anywhere, which if you have travelled to Sumatra, Borneo, and Peninsula Malaysia you will be depressingly familiar with.

Danger Is My Business
[Danger is not actually my business.]

I ended in Ende, which is where I finished my Flores trip. I had planned to spend more time in Flores but what I didn’t plan was an East Timor visa. You can get an East Timor visa at the consulate in Bali but it slipped my mind to even do that. Instead I went to Kupang in West Timor to get my visa there.


Kupang – in West Timor – is not exactly somewhere people linger, but if you need a visa for East Timor you will find yourself here. My visa was processed in 24 hours so I didn’t need to stay any longer. I was planning trip to the nearby island of Rote if it was going to take any longer.

In Kupang there is a great night market for food, and the sunsets here are ridiculous.

Sunset, Kupang - West Timor
[Another glorious sunset in Kupang, West Timor.]


Indonesia - East Timor Border
[New Country Day: East Timor (Timor-Leste) 24 May 2014.]

Once I got my visa I headed to Dili in what was a 14 hour bus day. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve been to a new country, and East Timor marked my last unvisited country in Southeast Asia.

My original plan for coming to East Timor was to island-hop my way back to Australia as there are direct flights from Dili to Darwin. The going back to Australia plan fell through, but I kept the East Timor plan. I never thought about how close East Timor was to Australia until I saw this map showing which countries are closest to Australia:

Countries closest to Australia
[We’re neighbours! (Image via Reddit).]

East Timor is one of the worlds newest countries, having gained independence from Indonesia in 2002 (read here for a brief introduction). I was pondering this fact at the border crossing while looking at what differentiated East from West Timor.

The language is the most noticeable difference, with Bahasa Indonesian giving way to Portuguese. I was also noticing all the details like the badges on the uniforms and vehicle number plates; all these things had to be designed from scratch 12 years ago.

And of course there is a new currency to replace the Indonesian Rupiah. East Timor has adopted the US Dollar as the official currency, though it issues East Timor centavo coins (via the Portuguese national mint) for $1 and less.

US Dollars and East Timor centavo coins
[US Dollars and East Timor centavo coins.]

Crossing over into East Timor and – apart from some flags (probably still up from the recent independence day) – I didn’t notice being in a new country; the villages still look like Indonesia’s East Nusa Tengarra region. Not far into East Timor there is a noticeable depreciation of infrastructure, with paved roads giving way to gravel-and-stone tracks which made the roads of West Timor look like Autobahns.

Most of the road between the border and Dili hugs the coast and for some of the way the road is carved high on a cliff, above the sea. I’m sure one day when this road is paved and safety barriers are erected it will rank as one of worlds great coastal drives. For now though it remains a rather nail biting affair, with a precipitous fall for vehicles that lose its way.

The minibus I was on was having a hard time with the steep climbs of this road. It stalled a few times and the engine sounded angrier after every restart. The bus stalled again and then everyone started yelling; the engine was on fire. We all piled out and waited by the side of the road, watching the fire underneath the engine. It hadn’t rained once in my two weeks of travel around Nusa Tenggara, but it just so happened to be pelting down jungle rain when this happened.

The 12 passengers were standing in the pouring rain while the driver scooped up water from the puddles on the road and splashed it on the engine. Fortunately the fire went out and didn’t spread. I had my day bag with me and it was soaked through.

We stood around for 10 minutes – no one complaining – and lucky for us another van from the same company was passing by. It was full of passengers but everyone made room for us. I was squashed up next to a young man from Kupang and I apologised for being saturated and making him wet too. He laughed and said it is only water.

My next concern was that a van built for 12 passengers was now carrying 24 passengers, but the driver seemed to be handling the extra weight. After two hours we arrived in Dili and I was delivered to my accommodation.

Having travelled around Indonesia, these sort of transportation mishaps are not surprising to me. What I found more shocking at the end of that long travel day was that I hadn’t had a coffee all day. And even more shockingly, I didn’t miss it. When I say didn’t miss it I mean I didn’t get a caffeine withdrawal headache or develop the shakes. This was the first day in years, probably, that I didn’t have a coffee. I was so pleased with myself to find out I am not an coffee addict that I was already dreaming about the next mornings coffee.

While I am not officially not a caffeine addict, it turns out that I am addicted to Extra chewing gum. In my previous travels to Indonesia I’ve noted that I could only find sugary gum here so I always bring enough to last me. This week my Extra stash has run out and I am going through withdrawals.

The hostel I stayed at in Dili felt like a hostel from the old days, filled with intrepid travellers who have seemingly been everywhere.

Like much of the Nusa Tengarra region (the islands east of Bali) East Timor doesn’t see many travellers. It seems to be most popular with those looking to get another Indonesian visa and long term wanderers counting countries. When I was in Kupang (West Timor) waiting to get my visa approval letter I met a few long distance motorbike riders who were riding overland from Europe to Australia. You can get a cargo ship from Dili to Darwin so the island of Timor has become part of the international overland highway to Australia.

Dili has been surprisingly enjoyable for me. It is a sleepy capital city (even more so than Vientiane in Laos) with a big country town feel, and reminders of East Timor’s new-found independence is everywhere. Here is my trip report on Dili.

James and Jesus - Dili, East Timor
[James and the Giant Jesus, Dili – East Timor.]

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  1. Cambodia is a dual currency economy (also using US dollars) – took 2 weeks for me to get used to paying in US and receiving their currency as change. Appreciate the map you included and the bit of history.

  2. I hear the beaches within close proximity of Dili are excellent – you should check them out!

  3. Not a place you hear much about. That sunset is stunning!

  4. Really interesting James, thanks for sharing!

    East Timor is the only SE Asian country left on my list too so hopefully sometime this year I’ll be heading over there.

    The map above is great too, I’m from New Zealand and I had no idea how close I was to PNG until now 🙂

  5. What an introduction to the country with the bus catching fire, glad to see you got out of that one okay! Looking forward to hearing a bit more about East Timor

  6. suddenly I want to go to east Timor and I have not even read the articles on it yet 🙂 Look forward to reading them. the bus ride certainly seemed entertaining

  7. Simone Takahashi says

    Hello James! I want to know how did you get from Komodo to Kupang? I’m now at Gili and planning a boat trip to Komodo

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