If you’re using the Southern border crossing with West Timor, Suai is the first city you’ll get to, 30 km into East Timor.
At first glance, the largest city on East Timor’s Southern coast offers more of the same as the North coast but with fewer people: pristine beaches, coral reefs just off the coast, crocodile warnings, fresh fish, sleepy eateries, Portuguese ruins, and coconuts.
Down by the sea, you can visit the remains of a small Portuguese fort, and have fresh fish in the many restaurant huts. You’ll see a few fishermen bringing in the days haul and you can watch locals fish in the mangroves as the tide goes down.
And if you venture further West or East, away from Suai, you’ll find salt fields.
Suai Loro – between Suai city and the sea – allows you probably the easiest access to a traditional Timorese village.
Almost all of the houses here are large, stilted family houses with thatched roofs overhanging terraces, pigs lounging in the shade, and sleeping mats hung out in the sun to dry and ward off fleas.
Since there aren’t many tourists here, you’ll probably get invited to sit down, have a chat (despite not speaking each other’s languages), and take a few photos. If you have some spare time, head over to the SOLS to give students the opportunity to practice their English.
By bus from Dili (USD15 one-way, USD10 from Maubisse)
From Dili, direct buses leave from Taibessi bus station early in the morning (until about 7 or 8 am). The journey can take anything between 6 and 12 hours depending on the route the driver chooses (there is a new shortcut going along one of the large river beds down to Dili) and how he navigates the more crumbled, narrower roads in the mountains.
My journey from Suai to Dili took exactly as long as my journey from Maubisse to Suai three days prior.
The last bus from Suai to Dili leaves at 7 am.
Before leaving the South coast, it cruises around town to pick up passengers.
However, the soccer field in walking distance of all the hotels is where the bus drivers park for the night and it’s a good spot to either catch a passing bus or at least have one of the drivers waiting there call his mates.
The Western route to Suai via Maliana
Coming to Suai from Maubisse, I had hoped to loop around via the Western route, Maliana, and Balibo, back to the North coast. People in Dili had ensured me there would be buses or at least anggunas.
That’s not true.
And I learned in Suai that the road to Bobonaro and Maliana is so bad that only cars with 4WD or motorcycles will attempt it. So I ended up going back to Dili and visited Balibo from there.
By Plane from Dili
If you are short on time or want to spare yourself the journey along the bumpy mountain roads, you can fly to Suai from Dili.
Between Monday and Saturday, ZEESM TL flies daily.
Tickets are available from the ZEESM TL office next to the airport Burger King and cost USD41 or USD51. [this info is based on chats with ZEESM staff at the airport in June 2018]
Where to stay
Suai’s hotels and guest houses seem to be primarily set along the flashy new road connecting the airport and the border.
I opted for the Hotel Suai, which seems to be the NGOs place of choice.
For USD10 you get a bed in the 4-bed dorm, USD25 (my choice) pays you a motel-style room with air
All rooms include a simple breakfast.
The Eastern Dragon hotel a few meters down the road is a more modern hotel run by a Chinese family that also has a big store and a restaurant.
Room rates start at USD40.
The Frontiera Guesthouse seems to have closed shop. At least, when I passed by the location marked on Google Maps, there was no sign of an accommodation.
Where to eat
Suai is very much spread out and, typically East Timor, more a collection of villages within a large radius than an urban center.
Similar to the hotels, the restaurants are also almost exclusively set along or within a short distance of the new border highway.
My favorite is about 200m from the roundabout, walking toward the beach. Dishes like stews, meat, and vegetable mixes last as long as they last but you can always get fried rice or fried noodles with vegetables and egg and fresh fruit juices never paying more than USD5 for the whole meal.
Down by the beach, there are two spots with rows of simple restaurant huts: one at the Eastern end of Suai Loro beach and one on the Western end by the fort. They all serve the same meal: small palm leaf packages with rice (4 for USD1) and fried fish (depending on size USD1 or USD2 per fish).
If you come at the right time, you can also buy fresh catch of the day directly out of the boat from the fishermen.