The beauty and solitude of Dili will soothe your soul
“This was supposed to be part of Indonesia,” my heart whispered as I stepped over boundary between Indonesia and Timor Leste. It was about a three-hour trip by car from Atambua, in Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province.
Timor Leste voted to separate from Indonesia in a 1999 referendum and officially became a sovereign state in 2002. The separation was a traumatic event, with a wave of violence unleashed around the 1999 referendum and many families divided, with some choosing to remain in Timor Leste and others moving to Indonesia. While Timor Leste is now a sovereign country, it retains a very distinctive feel of Indonesia.
While Bahasa Indonesia is common, Portuguese and Tetun are the official languages of Timor Leste. But it is mostly older people who were alive when Timor Leste was a colony of Portugal and younger people educated at international schools who can speak Portuguese.
Timor Leste doesn’t have its own currency, using the US dollar. Prices can be expensive. My hotel near Cristo Beach was almost US$120 a night with minimum facilities. Other things are less expensive, like grilled fish on Kelapa Beach for just US$1 and a gorgeous ethnic dress for a dollar.
Dili is the capital of Timor Leste but it has more a small-time vibe than the hustle and bustle of a big city. It is the perfect destination for those looking for a peaceful escape and sweet solitude.
Get a true feel for Timor Leste with a visit to Cristo Rei, or the Statue of Christ the King. Located above Cape Fatucama, the statue and its setting afford glorious views of Dili. The statue was unveiled as a symbol of integration between Indonesia and East Timor when it was still a province of Indonesia, a symbol of peace and hope. Cristo Rei is the second-tallest statue in the world at 27 metres. The tallest is the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at 38 metres.
Pope John Paul II visited Timor Leste on 12 October 1989. In remembrance of this visit, the government of Timor Leste commissioned a statue of Pope John Paul II in 2007. The statue is a pilgrimage destination for Catholics. From the top of the stairs up to the statue there are views of the sparkling blue ocean and golden beach, with a bracing sea breeze bringing relief from the heat.
Timor Leste is framed by beaches. Travelling to Dili from Atambua or Kupang by bus, you will skirt the edges of virgin beaches. One reason tourists fall in love with Dili is the beaches, and Cristo is one of the best beaches in the city. Located near the heart of Dili, Cristo is easily reached. Visitors soak up the sun on the sand or take a dip in the sea or maybe enjoy some snorkelling. There is a range of hotels near Cristo Beach and the area is a favourite for foreign tourists.
Text and Photos by Ester Pandiangan