Traveling and even more so backpacking East Timor is more challenging than you’ll find it in most other destinations in Southeast Asia.
Information is scarce.
And to boot things are constantly changing.
This travel/backpacking guide for East Timor aims to give you as many details as possible — based on my experience traveling for two months all over Timor-Leste — while providing you with the necessary tools to research the status quo when you are heading out on your East Timor trip.
For travelers, Timor-Leste offers generous access to the country. Citizens of Schengen countries (with the exception of Ireland and the UK but including Switzerland and Iceland) — such as Germany — fall under the visa exemption and can stay in East Timor visa-free for 90 days.
Citizens of other countries have to pay for their East Timor visas.
The cost for an East Timor visa is USD30 for up to 30 days (at the discretion of the border official) or USD20 for 3 days (practical for anyone seeking to do a visa run from Bali or elsewhere in Indonesia).
Note that visas on arrival are only available when arriving at Dili airport or via boat. If you wish to arrive via the land borders you will need a so-called Visa Application Authorization, available in West Timor from the East Timor consulates in Kupang and Atambua.
While you are nominally required to show proof of funds for your stay (cash or credit card access) and an exit ticket, I was asked for neither, both, when I arrived at Nicolao Lobato International Airport in Dili by plane from Bali and when I returned from Oecusse via the Batugade land border with Indonesia two months later.
Talking about Oecusse and the land borders: Using the combination of East Timor’s and Indonesia’s visa exemption rules for Schengen citizens traveling overland (by bus or your own transport) to the enclave Oecusse is a breeze as it requires no pre-arranged visas and no visa application authorization.
First step to backpacking East Timor: Getting there
You can travel to East Timor either by plane arriving at Dili international airport (Nicolau Lobato) or
Those looking for just a brief impression of Timor Leste can visit the country as part of a few select cruises from Australia, such as P&O’s Indonesian Explorer.
Flights to East Timor
The easiest way to get to East Timor is by plane. There are currently two confirmed and two theoretical flight connections to Dili:
From Bali, Indonesia
Nam Air, Sriwijaya, and Citilink each have a daily direct flight from Bali (Denpasar) Airport to Timor-Leste.
Note that Nam Air and Sriwijaya cooperate on these flights and that, depending on their bookings, they might scrap the earlier of their flights.
Also, I found the Sriwijaya website the only one that works for my European credit card.
Flights include up to 20 kg of checked in luggage and a meal.
I paid USD69 for each of my one-way tickets.
From Darwin, Australia
Airnorth/Quantas flies 5 or 6 times a week from Darwin to East Timor. Tickets cost USD175+ (one-way with check baggage allowance).
There is supposedly a direct flight from Singapore on SilkAir. While I met travelers who have used the service I was not able to find any current info on schedules or fares online. Travel in East Timor is in constant flux. Therefore the service might have been canceled like the Kupang flight.
From Kupang, West Timor
For a brief moment, Air Timor ran a flight from West Timor’s Kupang to Dili. However, as locals have told me, it turned out that it wasn’t priced adequately and therefore the flight was scrapped until further notice. So if you want to travel between Dili and Kupang you’ll have to use the bus.
How to travel overland
Where there is an East Timor, there must be a West Timor. West Timor is part of Indonesia and has four official land border crossings with Timor Leste:
- Motaain/Batugade in the North is the easiest way to get to Dili and the North coast.
- Motamasin/Suai in the South is harder to get to but great if you are mainly interested in Suai and the less populated South coast.
- Wini: The main route into Oecusse, less than 20km down the coast from Oecussi’s only city, Pante Macassar.
- Near Oe-silo: The mountain route into/out of Oecusse. Great if you want to check out the mud volcanoes outside Oe-Silo.
Since buses are not allowed to cross between the two countries you will be taken to the border, walk across (with your luggage!) and get on another bus whenever you reach the other side.
Money & ATM
Conveniently and annoyingly, East Timor uses the US dollar as her official currency. To be more precise, it uses US dollar notes and centavo coins.
This leads to higher prices, which are often even more inflated for foreigners. If you go to the market don’t be surprised to be quoted prices in 1-dollar increments only. It takes some practice to find out what the actual produce prices are and it’s always handy to have some coins.
If you bring US dollars into the country make sure they are in good condition and were issued after 2006. You should be able to exchange pre-2006 bills at the central bank office in Dili but businesses will not accept them.
ATMs are widely available in the capital Dili. They range from local banks such as the BCTL to the Timor Leste branch of Australian/New Zealand ANZ Bank. Withdrawal fees depend on your home bank.
Outside Dili, ATMs are harder to come by. However, I have found that every district capital (such as Lospalos, Ainaro, Gleno) has at least one BCTL ATM somewhere near the market/city center.
The maximum withdrawal amount is USD300 (USD500 in rare exceptions such as at the ANZ ATM at Timor Plaza, Dili) and you will usually get the full withdrawal amount in 20-dollar notes.
Taxi drivers, bus conductors, and market vendors seldom have change. So try to break your larger bills in big supermarkets, (Western) restaurants or when paying for your accommodation.
Credit cards are only rarely accepted. Where they are accepted, a 3% service fee is applied. Some expat-run businesses such as Atauro Dive Resort offer payment by PayPal in lieu of credit card facilities.
Phone & Internet access
WiFi is very hard to find in East Timor. Many Dili hotels offer free WiFi but the speeds are a far cry from what you might be used to from Bali or other destinations in Southeast Asia. Few restaurants or coffee shops offer unlimited free Internet, and where they do it tends to be slow. Outside Dili, there is generally no WiFi at all, not even in the more expensive pousada hotels.
Because of this lack of WiFi, you will find that a SIM card is necessary for backpacking East Timor. Beyond access to online info, you will often need to call accommodation to make a booking or stay in contact with a driver or guide. WhatsApp is also widely used to stay in contact.
Which East Timor SIM card to buy
There are three phone providers in East Timor:
- Timor Telecom is the national company and most widely used. Click here for Timor Telecom data packages.
- Telemor is run by Vietnam’s Viettel. Click here for Telemor data packages.
- Telkomcel is run by Indonesia’s Telkomsel and least widely used. Click here for Telkomcel data packages.
Timor Telecom and Telemor have similarly good coverage throughout the country. 4G is available almost everywhere (unless you have a pre-X iPhone).
There are two major differences I found when using them: While
Where to buy SIM cards
SIM cards are available in Timor Telecom and
There are Telemor and Telkomcel shops at Dili airport.
However, if you’re going into Dili, simply stop by Timor Plaza on the way, where you have the choice of all three providers.
While Timor Leste is absolutely no digital nomad destination if your business requires cheap, fast Internet, both, Timor Telecom and Telemor, offer unlimited Internet packages, per 1 day, 1 week, or 1 month (30 days). The high-speed data rate is capped in both cases. Expect to pay around USD1/day or USD25/month.
iPhones (apart from the iPhone X) are currently not licensed to utilize Timor Leste’s growing 4G network. So bring an Android phone or expect slower data speeds.
Where to buy credit
Credit (called pulsa) for all networks is available in shops and from hawkers on the street.
The process starts by adding credit to your phone and then buying (selecting) the package you would like to use with that added credit.
If you are planning to get a large data package I recommend getting those in official phone company stores as the hawkers and small shops usually only have USD1 vouchers, which makes adding the needed credit a cumbersome process.
Which language is spoken in East Timor?
East Timor has two official languages: Portuguese and Tetum.
Most people speak Tetum (or Tetun) in addition to their local tribal languages (there are 15 of them). The Timorese language blends those tribal languages with Portuguese and Bahasa.
Common Tetum phrases you should know as you will hear them all the time:
- (Bom) dia! — Good morning!/Hello!
- (Boa) tarde! (pronounced Tardee!) — Good afternoon!
- (Boa) noite! — Goodnight!
- Obrigada (used by women) and Obrigadu (used by men) — Thank you!
- Ba ne be? (pronounced Bahnabae?) — Where are you going?
- Di’ak ka lae? (pronounced Yakelai?) — How are you?
Other Tetum words that are useful:
- Ba [destination]. — I’m going to… — Very useful for the taxi or bus but also when you’re going for a walk. Ba Dili!
- Di’ak! (pronounced Yak!) — Good!
- Bele! —
OK!/Go ahead!/Fine! — Usuallythe reply when you ask whether you may take a photo.
- Lae! (pronounced Lai!) — No! — Sometimes the answer when you ask to take a photo
- Ha’u — I
- Ita — You (formal)
- Malae (pronounced
malay) — foreigner— That’s what everyone will call you if they don’t call you Mister! Yes, female foreigners are called Mister! as well.
While you won’t find Tetum in Google Translate you can download a Tetum – English dictionary from several websites such as:
The second official language in East Timor is Portuguese. It is used in official documents and on official buildings. But outside the government, few people actually speak the language. Eu
Due to the 25 years of occupation up until 2000 and the wide-spread availably of Indonesian movies, TV, and music, many people speak at least a bit of Indonesian Bahasa. Strangely enough, prices in the markets are usually quoted in Bahasa instead of Tetum (
In Dili, many people speak a bit of English. That’s due to a large number of UN and NGO personnel stationed in East Timor until 2012. Outside Dili, things get difficult if you don’t speak Tetum or Bahasa, and communication happens via signing and — if you have data on your phone — Google Translate (no Tetum, Bahasa only).
The youth is eager to learn English. Any parent who can afford the USD25 to USD40 per month sends their children to a SOLS school after high school. Their programs are for most the only place to learn basic English.
If you have some time, find the nearest village SOLS and offer a question-and-answer session for students to practice their English.
*I speak a little Portuguese.
What to wear in East Timor?
The vast majority of the people of East Timor is Catholic. That Christian faith is often mixed with animistic faith elements. People are conservative in their beliefs regarding clothing and behavior.
While there is no need to cover up and leave your shorts and t-shirts at home, I recommend that female travelers in East Timor go a little looser in their outfits and always cover at least one: shoulders or knees. That’s how most local women dress.
Beyond local customs, wearing loose-fitting tunics and trousers and carrying a scarf can be useful to protect yourself from the sun.
Up in the mountains at 1,000m and above in coffee country but also in Tutuala in the East, temperatures drop significantly once the sun disappears in the evenings and on rainy days. Therefore, you always want to have at least a sweater with you.
In Maubisse, I ended up wearing all my clothes and buying more socks because it just got so cold on a rainy day.
Needless to say, that when you climb the 3,000m to the top of Mt. Ramelau you’ll need warm and waterproof clothing along with sturdy walking shoes.
With many of the roads being dirt roads or under construction, a face mask (or a scarf) is another handy accessory when you travel East Timor by bus.
Photographing people in East Timor
East Timor has been strange in terms of photographing locals.
Almost everywhere I went when people saw my camera they’d ask me to take their picture and were happy when I did. Some didn’t even want to check their photos out on my camera.
It took me a while until I figured out that I could share the pictures with my “models'” smartphones via Bluetooth but that gesture sure made a lot of people quite happy.
Another option would be to ask for people’s WhatsApp and send photos once you’re back at your computer (make sure to send smaller image sizes).
Food & Drinks
Food in East Timor is quite similar to Indonesian food.
Nasi campur — a scoop of rice with a choice of vegetables, meats, curries from a buffet — and bakso — a chicken broth served with rice noodles and meatballs or fried tofu — are common restaurant foods.
At home, families will often cook any kind of green/leaves as a vegetable and eat it with rice, eggs, and fish.
Fresh fish is available along the coast. A favorite is
Even though you will see an abundance of pigs and goats, pork and goat meat are kept for special occasions and are even more expensive than beef.
Note that many local dishes are flavored with chili. Ai-manas is the local sambal, spicy sauce, and chefs are proud when they can make you cry with their ai-manas (or at least sweat).
Fresh fruit juices are widely available but usually mixed with sugar water, so make sure you ask for “no sugar” if that’s our preference.
In Dili, my favorite spot to get a load of local foods (including desserts and fruit juices) is the area outside
In the capital, you also have a large choice of international restaurants catering to expats and travelers. My favorites are:
- Osteria Dili: They have amazing, thin-crust pizzas and other Italian dishes. Sundays all pizzas are USD10 only.
CastAwayRestaurant & Bar: This is a staple right next to the Osteria and has been around for almost 20 years. Their burgers are a must-try.
- Thai Herb: Original Thai cooking in a secluded setting (they also offer Thai massages).
Pante Macassar, Oecusse, was a welcome exception. It not only has another great pizzeria (Cafe del Mar) but also a great coffee shop in the gardens run by the Dominican Sisters.
If you need to urgently fill a hole in your stomach, you will always find small shops selling Mie Pop Cups for about 50 cents each: mee noodles with spices in a polystyrene cup only requiring hot water, which is usually also available at the shop.
East Timor accommodation (what to expect and where to book)
While backpacking through East Timor I found accommodation to be the biggest roadblock to moving freely.
However, once you leave the Timor-Leste capital behind things get a bit more tricky as you will find barely any accommodation on the booking platforms.
There are three major sources to find your East Timor accommodation outside Dili:
- East Timor tourism websites such as the ones listed at the bottom of this post,
- fellow travelers, and
- Google Maps.
I swear by the last method as most hotels and guest houses, including the pousadas, are registered in Google Maps and you will at least find their location and often a phone number to call.
The more expensive options catering primarily to travelers — such as the beach bungalows on Atauro or the Balibo Fort Hotel — also run their own websites with more info on the regions, prices, and contact details.
Calling the accommodation will likely be a challenge if you don’t speak Tetum or Bahasa. Ask your current hosts to call and make arrangements for you at your next destination.
Prices vary vastly but are generally higher for less quality than in other Southeast Asia backpacking destinations.
I am including details on available accommodation in my blog posts on individual things to see in East Timor. But just to give you a rough idea:
- I have stayed for USD12.50 in a simple room with breakfast, external bucket shower and fan at Blue Ribbon Guesthouse in Baucau.
- I have paid USD35 for a bamboo hut barely bigger than the bed without
fan, with a bucket shower 50m across the property, and with an extra USD5 charge for breakfast at Valu Sere Beach (Jaco Island).
- I have paid USD95 for a sleek, modern room with all amenities and a large breakfast at the historical Balibo Fort Hotel.
Make sure you bring a sarong or a sleeping bag liner as the local guest houses will usually just provide a fleece blanket or a duvet without a cover.
Sarongs are also a great tool to help you cool down on Atauro and along the coast where accommodation often doesn’t offer air conditioning. Simply cover yourself with a wet sarong when you go to bed.
What is a Pousada?
As I mentioned before, East Timor used to be a Portuguese colony. While the Portuguese never bothered to create a full infrastructure they did build guest houses in strategic places.
A few of these guest houses have been renovated by the Timor-Leste government and reopened for business under private management.
The Maubisse and Baucau pousadas are on the more expensive side with nightly prices of USD60 and up, while the pousada in Tutuala (sometimes and confusingly also called the Lautem Pousada) is more simple and offers rooms with breakfast for as little as USD25 per person.
Traveling within Timor-Leste
The roads in Timor Leste are in a very, very bad state.
Something to look forward to: a current nation-wide infrastructure project promises to have the routes Dili to Lospalos, and Dili to Ainaro massively improved by May 2019.
Until then and beyond those routes, you can expect narrow, winding roads with frequent potholes or no asphalt at all and lots of standing water in rainy season.
Bus, Microlet & Angguna
The one means of mass transport in East Timor is the bus. All bus routes emanate from Dili. They are:
- Dili to Lospalos (via Baucau) from Bekora bus station
- Dili to Viqueque (via Baucau) from Bekora bus station
- Dili to Suai (via Maubisse and Ainaro) from Taibisse bus station
- Dili to Same (via Maubisse) from Taibisse bus station
- Dili to Maliana (via Balibo) from Tasi Tolu bus station
- Dili to Ermera (vis Gleno) from Tasi Tolu bus station
Tickets cost between USD4 (Dili – Baucau) and USD20 (Dili – Suai).
There are no public buses to Indonesia (West Timor). If you want to cross the border, you have to either buy a ticket from bus operator Timor Tours & Travel in town (about USD25 for the journey Dili to Kupang, leaving daily at 8 am) or you go to Batugade in the North or Suai in the South with the regular buses listed above and cross the border on foot.
The colorful buses are usually a few years (decades) old, offer seats for about 25 passengers, are often filled way beyond capacity, and move slowly. The seats are very narrow, and the bus is as much used to transport goods, scooters, and animals as it is to transport people.
Note that it is illegal in Timor Leste to ride on the bus roof. Some locals will do it but only until a police car passes.
Before heading to the bus station make sure that you find out when the buses leave. Even though there are many buses, they might only leave the station in a narrow time window early in the morning (such as the Maliana buses).
And that there are buses all day in one direction doesn’t mean it’s the same on the way back (such as in the case of Dili – Lospalos/Lospalos – Dili).
Anggunas are trucks with benches in the back. They come in different sizes, from smaller Daihatsu vans to full-blown trucks.
Usually, anggunas fill routes that have no bus service such as between Lautem and Com or Lospalos and Tutuala (for Jaco Island). However, on some routes (into Maubisse and Gleno), there are anggunas leaving all day in addition to the morning buses.
Since some anggunas don’t have a roof, make sure you protect yourself against the sun/rain with a hat or a scarf.
Microlets are used for shorter routes along the coast around Dili and in Baucau. A journey costs between 25
Generally, buses/anggunas/microlets leave when the driver deems them full enough and there is no system to put passengers on the next bus due to leave. It is well possible that you cruise through town for an hour to find more passengers before setting out on the actual journey.
To ask for a stop, make yourself heard by either clapping forcefully with your hands, by yelling “Parar!” (stop!), or by yelling “Oi!” No need to rush out of the vehicle, no need to get up before it has fully stopped.
A word on payment: you pay for your
In all other cases, request the stop, collect your belongings once the vehicle has stopped, leave the vehicle, and then get your wallet out. Ideally, you have the right amount of change; as change is notoriously hard to come by in Timor Leste.
In spite of an endless coastline, there are only two official boat routes in East Timor:
- Dili to Oecusse (Pantemacassar)
- Dili to Autauro (Beloi)
The two big ferries operating in the country are the Berlin Nakroma and the Laju Laju. Both offer space for a few hundred people with fairly comfortable seats under the
Information on ferry services is ever-changing but the gist is:
Dili – Atauro Boats
There are four options to get to the island just off the Dili coast:
- The Timor-Leste-run Berlin Nakroma ferry goes from Dili to Beloi (Atauro) every Saturday morning and returns in the afternoon. The journey takes about 4 hours and costs USD4 one-way.
- The Malaysian-run Laju Laju is a ship of similar size doing the Dili – Atauro journey on Thursday mornings and returning on the same day in the afternoon. The journey takes about 4 hours and costs USD5 one-way.
- The so-called Dragonboat is run by the same Malaysian company as the Laju Laju. It goes to Atauro on weekend mornings, returning in the afternoon; sometimes there are additional services during the week. The journey takes about 1 hour and costs USD14 one-way.
- There are a couple of private transfers available if you want to get to Autauro super-fast (or really need to leave). The Beloi Beach Hotel and Compass Diving, for example, run motorboats. The journey takes about 45 minutes and costs USD45 one-way. Note, that you might have to wade in the water to get on board.
Dili – Oecusse boats
The public boats listed above alternate between going to Atauro and going to Oecusse.
- The Berlin Nakroma goes to Pante Macassar, Oecusse every Monday and Thursday afternoon at 2:30, returning the following afternoon. The journey takes 8 to 12 hours and sees you arrive in the early morning hours.
- The Laju Laju goes to Oecusse every Saturday, returning on Sunday.
- The grapevine kept telling me that the Dragonboat also goes to Oecusse (taking only 4-5 hours one-way) but I was not able to confirm the information at the Dragon Star office.
Where to buy boat tickets
Tickets for the Berlin Nakroma are available at the Dili port, either a day before departure or on the morning of.
The ticket of office for Laju Laju and Dragonboat is Dragon Star. It’s located in the small mall near the Timor Hotel, next to the Burger King and the sports bar.
To book the speedboat, contact the Beloi Beach Hotel or Compass Diving directly.
In addition to Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili, Timor-Leste has a number of smaller airports dating back to Portuguese and Indonesian times.
However, most don’t offer regular flights.
The only East Timor airports with national flights from Dili are Suai airport and Oecusse airport in Pante Macassar on ZEESM TL. Tickets are available in Dili at the airport, next to the Burger King.
For a brief period of time, the national airline Air Timor ran a flight from Dili to Kupang, West Timor. However, from what I hear the pricing didn’t cover the cost; so the route was put on hold indefinitely.
Renting a car and riding a scooter/motorcycle in East Timor (outside Dili) should be left to riders with extensive experience riding off-road.
Beyond the issues listed above, frequent rains will turn roads off the main routes, including those to favorite destinations such as Valu Beach/Jaco Island or Hato Builico/Mount Ramelau into steep, muddy, and submerged tracks.
Scooters/motorcycles are available to rent in Dili for around USD25/day.
You can hire a car with driver in Dili via travel agents, tour companies, or even your hotel. Expect to pay around of USD100 per day (significantly more for overnight tours).
See below for a list of East Timor tour operators.
Outside of Dili, it is hard to impossible to find cars/drivers for hire.
There are also no taxis outside Dili.
Some cities, such as Manutoto and Lospalos, run economic development projects with electric tuk-tuks. However, they are limited to shorter distances.
Throughout East Timor, you can find rides on a motorcycle fairly easily; simply ask around, sometimes all you need to do is stand by the side of the road and people find you.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it as you won’t have a helmet in very rough road conditions (technically, the law requires you to wear a helmet, but who’s to check in the country?).
Expect to pay USD20+.
You can also try to convince any angguna driver you find to take you to your destination.
Hitchhiking in East Timor
If all else fails, there is hitchhiking.
While there is no hitchhiking culture per se in Timor Leste, I found that if you look desperate and there are no other options you will eventually find a ride.
However, don’t count on expats or tourists to offer you a ride; instead, appeal to locals.
Note, that on some routes there simply are no cars and hence no hitchhiking in East Timor.
Backpacking Timor-Leste is made even harder by the fact that information is constantly changing. Especially low-cost options seem to disappear as quickly as they are installed.
Community-run guesthouses are set up with the help of NGOs and just as quickly abandoned or scaled down because East Timor tourism outside of diving off the Dili and Atauro coasts isn’t growing nearly as fast as one would hope.
When planning your East Timor trip, I recommend that you check different sources such as Google Maps reviews (keep the date of the review in mind when considering the accuracy of information) and locals.
Try to call ahead on the numbers listed on Google Maps and in tourism pamphlets available in Dili.
Here is a list of websites that might help you organize your East Timor travels.
General Sources for Timor-Leste travel
- timorleste.tl is the official tourism website for East Timor with great basic info on what to see and do in East Timor. However, I have found that a lot of the info seems out of date.
- turismo.gov.tl is a bit more up-to-date but goes less into detail than
- Guideposttimor.com is a Dili-based expat newspaper that also offers maps for Dili, Baucau and some other destinations.
- The Facebook page Visit East Timor is the largest Facebook community dedicated to traveling East Timor. It’s run by the website visiteasttimor.com.
- The hotels in Balibo and Baucau offer info on their respective locations on their websites.
- ataurotourism.org is the site for all things Atauro, including accommodation and boats.
- trekkingeasttimor.org provides info on hiking/trekking/cycling in East Timor; however, it doesn’t seem to be actively run at this moment.
East Timor Tour Operators
- Timor Adventure
- Dive, Trek & Camp
- Eco Discovery
- Timor Unearthed
- If you visit East Timor for diving talk to your dive shop of choice about tours and adventures outside the water. If they don’t run their own tour department they can connect you to drivers, guides, and accommodation throughout the country.
- Also check here for a list with addresses and phone numbers of tour agencies in East Timor/Dili
East Timor accommodation
- CBET for community-based guesthouses in rural areas
- Booking.com (mostly Dili and surroundings)
- Make sure you check the individual East Timor destination guides for my accommodation recommendations.
Dili-based East Timor car rental companies
- Taltabi Motor