Dili, East Timor

Photo: Nick Hobgood (Uploaded on Flickr as Dili and Atauro Island) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Colonial towns. Deserted beaches. Crystal water. Undisturbed scuba-diving spots. Densely forested mountains. No tourists. Where is this undeveloped paradise? In the Indian Ocean, of course.

East Timor shares the island of Timor with West Timor. Until a few years ago, no one was traveling to this Southeast Asian country. The Portuguese first arrived in 1520. By 1769, Dili had become the capital of Portuguese Timor. The East Timorese people eventually declared independence in 1975. Nine days later, they were invaded by neighboring Indonesians. A guerrilla war followed. It lasted for more than 20 years and destroyed much of the small country’s infrastructure. True independence didn’t come until 2002. The rebuilding process has been slow due to widespread poverty. But tourism, led mostly by adventurous Australians, is slowly developing.

As the home of the country’s only international airport, Dili is your entrée to East Timor. Most flights arrive from Bali. They currently only transport about 500 people each month. So Dili, on the island’s north coast, still feels vastly undiscovered. The capital is home to less than 200,000 people. Many of its colonial buildings were destroyed by the Indonesians; some of them remain gutted to this day.

The grand Palácio do Governo (Government House) is the heart of the city. It’s bordered by government buildings and the waterfront. The Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum, a fascinating place to learn about the long struggle for independence, is nearby. The Mercado Municipal (Central Market) is to the south. The Dare Memorial Museum is in the mountains beyond that. Colmera and Lecidere, two waterfront neighborhoods, spread out to the west and the east, respectively. While Cristo Rei of Dili, an 88-foot statue of Jesus, stands guard over Cape Fatucama, which juts into the ocean.

It’s near Cristo Rei that you start to relax in Dili. Two beaches, Areia Branca and Jesus Backside, straddle the peninsula. The C-shaped beaches are lined with palm trees, open-air restaurants, and sandy bars. Warm, nearly transparent water laps against the soft sand. A couple of kids are kicking a soccer ball at one end of Areia Branca. Otherwise, it’s empty. The perfect scene could be on Bali, Lombok, or the Gili Islands. But, amazingly, you feel so very far away from those popular spots.

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