From Dili to Aileu: Deep into the heart of Timor Leste

After taking a couple of days to see the sights around the city center of Dili, the capital of Timor Leste, I knew I had to make my way deeper into the country to understand it better.


Sure, Dili was the capital and the most urban part of a country that was already one of the least visited countries in the world. But there was much more to Timor Leste than that. And I was determined to find out.

Further Reading: A walk by the beaches of Dili, Timor Leste

Riding a motorbike in Timor Leste

Which was why I rented the motorbike. A day ago, I had rented a taxi to take me to the outskirts of Dili and see the giant statue of Pope John Paul II. And I had ended that trip believing that I could actually get around Timor Leste on a motorcycle.


I asked around at the place we were staying: East Timor Backpackers, which was the only backpacking place in Timor at that time. And were directed to a small mechanic store, which also rented out one of 2 available motorbikes. The prices were a little astronomic – 35 dollars per day, and a deposit of 100 dollars! But then, this was Timor Leste. And there were not too many touristy options around.

Further Reading: My arrival into Timor Leste itself was an interesting story, with one of the shortest landings in Dili Airport.

Once I collected the motorbike, the question of where to ride it came up. There was the option of riding the coastal road all the way until Maubara, but I decided to do it another day. It was summer, and the weather was pretty humid. So, I decided to go deeper into the country. Or rather, climb deeper into the country.

Toward Aileu. And if the weather is willing, further to Maubisse.

Aileu of the highlands

The center of Timor Leste is entirely composed of highlands, and most of it is in the Aileu and Ainaro districts. The main township in the district of Aileu itself is called Aileu, and I found out that back in 1999 – when Timor Leste became independent – there were temporary plans to make this the capital of the country. Eventually, Dili won this title, but this bit of trivia had given me enough curiosity to start my ride towards Aileu.


The ride from Dili to Aileu was only 45 Kms. But little did I know, that this would take more than 2 hours.

Dili to aileu timor leste

Looking back at Diil, while climbing the road to the highlands


Once I left the growing township of Dili behind, there were suddenly no roads. There was only a dirt track. I did have a slightly offroad-ish bike, so the road condition wasn’t really worrying. But the height was. I had left Dili without doing much research about the temperature in Aileu, dressed in a sleeveless jacket and shorts (duh!). And as me and the motorbike started climbing higher and higher, the highlands started engulfing me with cold, misty winds.


Oh, the mist! It soon came to a point where I only had a 5 meter visibility of what lay ahead of me. And these were highlands, with steep cliffs on the side of the road. I kept my speed to less than 30KPH, kept 2 fingers on the brake at all times, and moved really cautiously. To compensate for this, every time the mist cleared I was presented with the view of a widely spread, verdant side of Timor Leste.


Road to aileu

Misty roads on the way to Aileu

timor leste highlands

The highlands of Timor leste

Was I the first tourist in Dare?


My first stop was a little town called Dare, at the beginning of the highlands. It was not a planned stop. I had been climbing the steep roads, and within 30 minutes my fingers started to hurt from all the clutching and braking. I was looking for a place to make a quick pitstop, and that’s when a market turned up in the middle of nowhere.


It was bright yellow in colour, accentuated by the fact that it was almost entirely full of bananas. A banana market, maybe? I don’t know, but I stopped there to have a banana. Actually, an entire bunch of bananas, which cost me only a dollar.


It was like the entire market had stopped in time and turned to stare at me. Nothing hostile about the stare, just purely wonder. Was this a tourist? A brown tourist? There is a small group of foreigners who live in Timor Leste as part of UN groups, but most of them are Australians. I did not look like a UN volunteer, and I was too brown to to pass off as one of the Timorese themselves if only I was able to speak a little bit of their language. I could see that they were perplexed by the mere sight of me.


I went around to one of the shops and tried to make small talk. But language was a real barrier here. Nobody spoke English, at any length. But they all continued to stare at me like I was an alien who just landed into earth. With the most beautiful of smiles on their faces.

yellow banana market dare

The yellow banana market in Dare

Dare shop timor leste

One of the shops in Dare.

Dare children timor leste

The shy, but super happy, kids in Dare.

Riding on towards the Aileu market

From Dare, I continued the ride towards Aileu. It was a difficult one and a half hours, with nothing much on the way except periodic mist and a lot of villagers who carries long-ass machetes which were used for cutting bamboo and other forest produces. I did think of stopping a couple of times along the way, to take a picture of the villagers. But the sight of the machetes made me continue riding.


And eventually, I rode into the town of Aileu and the Aileu central market. And I was lucky, because it was a market day today!

Aileu statue

This statue greeted me outside the Aileu central market. I am not sure what it represents though.

Entrance to the market in Aileu

The entrance to the market in Aileu


The Aileu market is not the picture of a giant bustling market. It was quite laidback, even a little quiet. But Timor Leste is a simple country, and it would be too much to expect its markets to be flamboyant affairs. But it did pack some interesting things for the curious traveller who ventured here.


Most of the stuff in the market were vegetables and fruits – a lot of bananas, again – but there were also some Tais. Tais are traditionally weavings of the Timorese, usually in the shape of a scarf or a loose sarong. I had no interest in buying one, so I found myself a street shop that sold grilled chicken thighs.


And again for 1 dollar, I had a chicken thigh for my lunch. And then proceed to make my way back towards Dili.

Inside the market in Aileu

Inside the market in Aileu

Timor leste marketplace

Marketplace scenes in the highlands of Timor Leste

Timor leste photography

One of the my favorite portraits of the day.

Note: I had the option of riding further from Aileu to another town called Maubisse, but the weather did not look favourable for it today.


This post is part of my stories about Timor Leste. Click here to check out other amazing travel stories from Timor Leste.

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About Abhi Surendran

Abhi quit his corporate job, and decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. He is currently working on a book of his experiences, and a dream road trip through South Asia. Both in a haphazard fashion. He blogs at Iamnothome and you can also catch him at times on Facebook and twitter.

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