The capital city of East Timor
and the country's only largish conurbation (though at ca. 200,000 its population isn't large by international standards). Dili also serves as East Timor's sole hub of government, finance, education, transport and so on, including the only international airport on the island. This makes it the principal first port of call for foreign visitors too. For the dark tourist, Dili offers both a base for excursions further inland as well as several significant sites within the city that are related to the dark history of the country
, including the main museum exhibition on this history.
What there is to see:
Dili doesn't exactly boast a pretty cityscape by any stretch of the imagination; it rather has the character of a bland sprawl of functional buildings, punctuated occasionally by grander-looking edifices, such as the Palace of Government. You have to remember, though, that large parts of Dili had to be rebuilt after the destructive chaos of 1999 (see under history
). You can still see several ruins. The setting, along the coast and against the backdrop of steep hills, however, is quite pretty indeed.
The main points of interest to the dark tourist, which are therefore given separate chapters here, are the following:
Besides these sights there is also the Max Stahl Audiovisual Centre
, but at the time of my visit most of the staff were out to lunch and we couldn't see much. I had the impression it was more aimed at journalists anyway, not really a visitor centre for tourists. But I may be wrong. Max Stahl, by the way, is the journalist, TV presenter and war correspondent (real name Max Christopher Wenner) who shot the famous video footage of the 1991 massacre at Santa Cruz cemetery
that helped bring the atrocities committed by the Indonesian occupiers in East Timor
to the attention of a wider audience around the world.
One particularly poignant image from that footage served as the model for a large statue on the waterfront opposite Motael church to the west of the harbour. This Santa Cruz Massacre Monument consists of the bronze figures of a badly wounded man in the arms of another who's propping him up while looking around in anguish. The real characters depicted actually survived the Santa Cruz massacre.
itself was also the site of clashes between the resistance and the Indonesians. It was here that Sebastião Gomes was shot whose funeral procession at Santa Cruz cemetery
was the starting point of the protests that triggered the massacre committed by Indonesian troops.
Another modern monument can be found on the eastern waterfront as part of the landscaped promenade park north of the Xanana Reading Room
and Lecidere Park. The monument, officially named Memorjal da Paz
or International People's Park
, consists of a circular space with an image of a dove “bisected”, as it were, by the shape of the map of Timor (with the East Timorese half in red), and a kind of gate at the far end over a plaque that expresses the Timorese people's gratitude for the international intervention to restore peace. Another marble plaque at the entrance to the memorial circle explains this in English too.
The most striking revolutionary monument in Dili is likely to be the first thing visitors to the country see – namely because it stands in the middle of a roundabout just outside East Timor
's international airport. The large bronze statue depicts the first Falintil leader Nicolau Lobato
in an almost Fidel-Castro-like, prototypical revolutionary pose. Lobato, who was killed in action (well, assassinated by the Indonesians) in 1978, also lends his name to the airport itself.
There are various further monuments dotted around, but the two largest and most prominent ones lie a bit outside the city itself. First and foremost there is the large Cristo Rei
statue atop a hill on the coast a few miles to the east of the city. This wouldn't be of any dark interest if it wasn't for the fact that it was actually a “gift” to the Timorese people by the Indonesians. In a way they thus acknowledged the Timorese's adherence to Christianity, but at the same time it also aimed to cement integration with Indonesia
. The globe on which Christ stands includes a map of Indonesia with East Timor as part of it. The almost 90 feet (27m) high monument was unveiled by Suharto himself in 1996. Despite its shady history it is regarded as the principal landmark sight of Dili.
The other statue is one of Pope John Paul II
on another hillock to the west of the city just beyond the outskirts actually, but within view of the airport. The significance of this, and the reason it is also vaguely linked to the country's dark history, is the fact that the Pope visited East Timor
in 1989, thus bolstering better international awareness of the plight of the suppressed East Timorese (in a similar way he had also helped along the demise of communism in his home country of Poland
). At the bottom of the hill is a large space with a kind of chapel that resembles a replica Timorese holy house at the centre. Apparently this was the location of John Paul's mass sermon back in 1989. He is still revered in East Timor, as evidenced by T-shirts with his name on that I saw some people wearing in Dili (shirts with the usual big names in football are still much more widespread, though).
Back in Dili itself, my half-day city tour there also included a short stop outside the compound of former president José Ramos-Horta – which he had built to a striking design incorporating traditional Timorese elements. I am not sure whether looking at somebody's home can really count as a decent tourist activity, though. In any case, the only dark connection is that it was at this place that Ramos-Horta was attacked in 2008 (cf. Xanana Reading Room
) and badly injured so that he had to be flown to Australia
for treatment. He's recovered well since then, though – in fact he was visiting his homeland at the time I was there (he now works as a UN
envoy in Guinea-Bissau). I actually saw him on our flight to Singapore
just a day after we'd stopped outside his house. I wonder whether he would have been in …
If you keep your eyes open you can also still spot several ruins of houses that were torched during the 1999 troubles. Furthermore you can see interesting graffiti, many incorporating images of the Timorese flag and Falintil/Fretilin symbols (see history
Overall, walking around Dili gives you a weird mixture of off-the-beaten-track calm and at the same time an edgy, outposty, end-of-the-road and far-from-civilization kind of feeling. It can be exhilarating to a degree, but only for a short period of time. Most visitors, as well as foreign workers, soon get itchy feet and want to get out of Dili …
on the north coast of East Timor
, about one third of the way from the border with West Timor to the eastern tip of the island.
Access and costs: not too difficult to get to by plane, not necessarily cheap.
Getting to Dili from abroad is perhaps the easiest part, at least when flying in – see under East Timor
. Getting to Dili from any other part of the country is not too tricky either as all roads in the country lead to Dili … if you want to call them “roads”, that is. Those within the city area and surrounding district are fine, as is the main road leading east and west. But beyond those it can get very rough.
Getting around within the city is facilitated by taxis – but beware of pushy drivers and scam attempts. Within the very city centre there is no need for transport, as much of it is walkable. For greater distances, such as to the Cristo Rei statue or the airport and shopping mall, however, you will need some form of transport.
Accommodation options are more plentiful in Dili than anywhere else in the country – and that by quite some margin. There are now a number of quite decent places to stay in. I picked the Discovery Inn, which is a true oasis in the dusty, mildly chaotic and bland sprawl of central Dili and also boasts one of the best restaurants in town. While not overpriced as such, it is however within a price range you'd also expect in Europe – and that in what is technically a Third World country. You can spend even more on some grander places, but you can also find more affordable guest houses.
Other eating out options are also numerous and varied, though few places would meet gourmet expectations. Prices vary widely.
Dili is also the place to do some shopping, either for getting provisions before heading out into the country or for stocking up on souvenirs before leaving for home (see below
Time required: To see the places outlined here a day to a day and a half could suffice. And there is little reason to stay much longer than that in Dili.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under East Timor
– the closest place to Dili is the Dare memorial
, which could be reached by taxi or even motorbike. It also offers one of the best views over Dili.
are each within a couple of hours drive from Dili and both are well connected by public transport to the capital as well. Anything beyond requires more effort or an organized tour (see under East Timor
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Dili doesn't have that much to offer in terms of mainstream tourism. It simply isn't such a tourist destination. Most of the prime attractions also fall under the dark heading and are covered above.
In addition to these one could mention the beaches that are quite near the city or even within the city limits, or the few vestiges of colonial architecture. The latter includes the main university building (formerly a school) or the Casa Europa, once part of the Portuguese fort and a military barracks, now the European Union's seat in East Timor, and of course the grandest building of them all, the Government Palace (Palacio do Governo), which isn't that old, however (dating back to the 1960s) and was substantially rebuilt in more recent years.
Shopping is another mainstream tourist activity that in East Timor can only really be had in the capital Dili. Shopping for traditional crafts, in particular the distinctive woven tais of East Timor (they basically are to the Timorese what tartans are to Scots), can be done at a dedicated tais market (also general souvenirs – you have to haggle!) or even better at a charity NGO called Alola Foundation (pricier but for a good cause). General shopping needs are met at the incongruously flashy new Timor Plaza Mall. The latter is some distance from the city centre, closer to the airport but easily reached by taxi. Having been around East Timor and then stepping into this mall is like being teleported into a different country … the contrast couldn't be greater. They even have branches of some of the internationally dominating fast-food chains here.
For more sights further afield see under East Timor
- Dili 01 - eastern half
- Dili 02 - western half
- Dili 03 - Government Palace, and Cape Verde flag
- Dili 04 - Max Stahl Audiovisual Centre
- Dili 05 - Santa Cruz Massacre Monument
- Dili 06 - agony
- Dili 07 - Motael church
- Dili 08 - peeking inside
- Dili 09 - Memorjal da Paz
- Dili 10 - aka International Peoples Park
- Dili 11 - memorial to victims of the 2006 troubles
- Dili 12 - UN relic
- Dili 13 - Nicolau Lobato giving a revolutionary greeting by the airport
- Dili 14 - Cristo Rei on his hill
- Dili 15 - one of the stations along the approach path
- Dili 16 - Jesus on top of the world
- Dili 17 - note how they put Timor too close to Indonesia
- Dili 18 - looking down onto an eastern beach
- Dili 19 - looking over the bay
- Dili 20 - John Paul II statue
- Dili 21 - he is still revered here
- Dili 22 - Pope celebration square west of town
- Dili 23 - the airport seen from Pope Hill
- Dili 24 - Ramos-Horta compound
- Dili 25 - ruin from 1999
- Dili 26 - graffiti
- Dili 27 - graffiti
- Dili 28 - graffiti
- Dili 29 - colonial architecture
- Dili 30 - Casa Europa
- Dili 31 - less grand old architecture
- Dili 32 - shacks on the hillside on the edge of town
- Dili 33 - waterfront
- Dili 34 - looking over towards Atauro Island
- Dili 35 - crocodile clock
- Dili 37 - ferry port
- Dili 38 - tais market
- Dili 39 - outgoing Indonesian president and wife on a state visit
- Dili 40 - the old ties cannot go away