Dili, Timor Leste – stunning beaches, bloody massacres; worth visiting?


Dili, capital of Timor Leste, was for several hundred years a sleepy, peaceful city. Then the 20th Century rolled around and things got nasty.

During WWII the city was occupied by Japanese forces, And in 1975 the Indonesian army invaded and annexed the country, leading to 25 years of violence and bloodshed.

Timor Leste entered the 21st Century once more in control of its own destiny, and for the most part Dili has returned to its former existence as a sleepy, peaceful capital.

Founding of Dili

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Humans have been living on Timor for thousands of years, the island connected to the outside world through an ancient trade network that stretched to India, China, and the Philippines.

Timor’s most prized export item was sandalwood.

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Portuguese came to learn of Timor’s sandalwood reserves and decided they wanted some of those riches for themselves.

They landed on these shores in 1520 and founded the city of Dili.

Between 1702 and 1975 Timor Leste was a colony of Portugal.

Palacio do Governo, Dili

‘Palacio do Governo’ by David Stanley, 2011. Available online at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Palacio_do_Governo_2011.jpg under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

The Palacio do Governo building is the headquarters of the former Portuguese governor. Since independence it has become the office of the Prime Minister of Timor Leste.

Timor Leste declared themselves independent of Portugal in 1975.

Resistance Museum, Dili

The Indonesian army invaded Timor Leste just nine days after they announced their independence in 1975. The newborn country suddenly found themselves annexed to Indonesia.

The country’s inhabitants spent the next 24 years opposing Indonesia’s rule. The campaign of resistance often turned violent. Tens of thousands were killed.

The Resistance Museum, a.k.a the Archives and Museum of East Timorese Resistance, provides a wealth of information about the years under Indonesian occupation and the fight for independence.

Motael Church

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Motael Church is the oldest Catholic Church in Timor Leste. It became a nexus for resistance during Indonesian occupation, and it was here that freedom fighter Sebastião Gomes was shot by the Indonesian military in 1991.

Sebastião Gomes’ funeral was held at a Santa Cruz cemetery. The political demonstration that followed the funeral service ended in the Santa Cruz Massacre, in which more than 250 people were killed by Indonesian forces.

Santa Cruz Massacre Memorial Monument

Photo credit: Benjamin White

This monument, constructed opposite Motael Church, depicts the shooting of freedom fighter Sebastião Gomes. It’s a memorial for all the lives that were lost in the Santa Cruz Massacre.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Immaculate Conception Cathedral is the main church in Dili. It was completed in 1988, while Timor Leste was under Indonesian rule.

It was officially opened by Indonesian president Soeharto and seats 2,000 people.

Tais Market

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Tais Market has become (or perhaps always was) a bit of a tourist market. It sells all manner of local handicrafts, including a large selection of tais (a type of long woven fabric).

Dili Waterfront

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Dili waterfront is lined with picturesque beaches. The sand is generally clean and uncrowded. The hind beach area contains as few ex-pat and tourist-friendly bars, and there is at least one dive shop.

Cristo Rei Statue

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Cristo Rei is a 27 metre tall statue of Jesus Christ built by the Indonesian government in 1996. The statue was a gift to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the annexation of Timor Leste.

The statue is 27 metres tall as Timor Leste was – at the time – the 27th territory of Indonesia.

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Cristo Rei statue is located approximately 5km outside of Dili, on the tip of a local promontory.

It has become one of the landmarks and icons of Dili.

Cristo Rei Beach

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Cristo Rei Beach is a stretch of clean white sand with some remnant coral immediately offshore. It’s worth bringing your snorkel along – you’re bound to see a few pretty fish; don’t expect too much though, the coral is pretty trashed.

Cristo Rei Backside Beach

Photo credit: Benjamin White

If Cristo Rei Beach is just too mainstream for you, then you can continue around the headland to an equally beautiful stretch of sand known as Cristo Rei Backside Beach.

Cristo Rei Backside Beach is even sleepier than the front beach, and not a bad spot to lie up with a good book and while away a day.


Is Dili safe?

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

It’s hard to give a definitive answer to this question having spent just 5 days in the city, but I can say that I never once felt threatened in Dili, and that includes walking all over the city, including tackling plenty of back lanes and alleyways.

I would say Dili is probably one of the safest capitals in Southeast Asia.


Is Dili worth visiting?

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

Dili doesn’t have much in the way of tourist infrastructure. If that doesn’t dissuade you then I definitely recommend visiting Dili.

It’s an attractive city, with nice beaches. There are several interesting sites in town, and plenty of worthwhile day trips that can be undertaken using Dili as a base.


Practical information and how to reach Dili:

There aren’t many international carriers that fly to Dili these days, and what flights do exist can be quite expensive.

At the time of my visit (May 2019) there were international flights to Darwin, Bali, and Singapore. More transport info here.

Or visit my crappy capital cities page.


More on Southeast Asia:

Indonesia:

Jakarta – Dutch Batavia and Soekarno’s Last Erection

Prambanan – largest Hindu temple in Indonesia and rival of Borobudur

Malaysia:

Batu Caves – guarded by giant, gilded Lord Murugan

Gunung Kinabalu – Borneo’s highest peak: paradise for pitcher plants

Philippines:

Manila – earthquakes, Xmas typhoons, crime; is it safe?

Puerto Princesa – a deafening and gold-plated cave tour

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