One of the last south-east Asian countries, Timor Leste is nowhere on the banana pancake trail. In fact, many people dont even know of this country, which became completely independent only in 2002, and still receives less than 10000 tourists annually. I made my plans to visit it when 2 friends in the couchsurfing community had informed me that this was one of the best countries they visited.
Travelling to Dili, the capital of Timor Leste, can be quite interesting in itself. If you are low on budget, the cheapest way is to travel by land, from Kupang in Indonesia to Dili. But this will mean that you need an advance visa.
If you are short of time, like I was, you could instead fly into Dili. That, I assure you, will be a really interesting flight!
First of all, there are direct flights to Dili only from Singapore (silk Air), Darwin (Airnorth) and Bali (Merpati and Sriwijaya). All 3 options are expensive, but the first 2 are astronomically expensive. So, I choose to fly from Singapore to Bali and then take a flight to Dili, using Sriwijaya Air or Merpati Nusantara Airlines. The timing of the flights, and the marginally better airline safety rankings finally made me choose Sriwijaya.
Update: This turned out to be a really lucky break!! The first news I got when I reached East Timor, was that Merpati had cancelled all their return flights for the next 1 month due to very low booking! Oh yeah, it happens all the time in this part of the world.
I met up with 2 other friends in Bali, again from the couchsurfing community, and we left to the Nguh Rai International Airport in Denpasar, Bali. We arrived a hour before the flight, and killed time.
Apparently, we had to kill a loooott more time than we thought, because the flight was delayed. And the airport staff could not give any estimates on when the flight will be arriving. Luckily, after an hour of delay or so, the Sriwijaya airline was finally in the airport. I took a look out of the window, and was reassured almost immediately. Everybody had scared me of flying Sriwijaya, but I saw a decent Boeing 737 outside. So much for irrational fears! We boarded the flight, and the take-off was smooth and uneventful.
But it was only when I reached Dili when I figured out that the previous travellers were scared not of the flight itself, but rather, of landing in Dili Airport! The runway of the President Nicolau Lobato International airport is only 1600 metres long! When you compare this to Bali with nearly 3 KMs and Singapore with nearly 4 kms, there will be a distinct difference in the landing process. The Sriwijaya flight almost made a vertical drop to reach the start of the runway, and my ears almost cried with the drop in pressure. And the fact that when you look outside the window, you may feel like you are going to hit the water, is a scary proposition too. The runway is that close to the sea. But like I said, all these fears are irrational, including mine.
It might not be a surprising thing to find a high-ranking government official of East Timor in your flight. (Like I found that the Defense secretary was on my return flight to Bali). If that happens, it would mean that you had to wait until his entourage arrived and he got off the flight, before you can get down from the flight to the tarmac. Once you have made it to the tarmac, you take a short walk to arrival/immigration/baggage area, all rolled together into one.
The immigration was a super-funny process. Almost every country has Visa-on-arrival for Timor Leste, but the kick is that there is no defined duration for the visa. So, the immigration officer asked me (!!), how long would I like to have a visa! I had no clue. I stared him in the face. He must have sensed my doubt, for his next question was if I have booked my return flight already. Yes, I said, departing in about 5 days. Very well, I shall give you a 10-day visa, he said. And that settled it.
After collecting my baggage, we hailed an airport taxi to East Timor Backpackers, which was about 15 minutes away. The price of the taxi? A whopping 10 USD, which is astronomical for this part of the world. Turns out that this is a fixed price among the taxi drivers for any ride from the airport to the city, so I wasn’t singled out to be scammed. That relieved me.
East Timor backpackers is in Avenida Almirante Americo Tomas, and right next to the Tiger fuel station. As far as I know, this is the only backpacker location in the entire country of East Timor, and for $12 a night, comes very cheap. Especially if you compare the other options in the country. We settled in, had a couple of beers, and started deciding how to spend the rest of our trip in this country where we had almost no information of what to do.
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