What makes Timor-Leste a unique country to travel to?
Occupying 5,743 square miles on the eastern half of an island in the Timor Sea between Indonesia and Australia, Timor-Leste has a population of approximately 1.1 million people. Timor-Leste became independent on May 20, 2002, and is a democratically-governed, independent nation with an elected President and Parliament. Following successful presidential and parliamentary elections and a peaceful change of government in 2012, UN and Australian-led peacekeepers departed Timor Leste.
Decades of occupation and periodic eruptions of post-independence violence – most recently in April 2006 – have left Timor-Leste with extremely poor infrastructure and limited economic opportunities. Electricity, telephone and telecommunications, roads, and lodging remain unreliable, particularly outside of the capital. Timor-Leste's economy relies largely on revenues from offshore oil and gas production.
Crimes such as pick pocketing, purse snatchings, residential and automobile break-ins, and theft occur throughout the country but are more frequent in Dili, the capital. These crimes often occur in recreational areas and facilities frequented by foreigners. If you become a victim of these crimes but resist, you may end up facing physical violence by perpetrators. There is occasional gang-related violence, which, at times, has affected foreign nationals. Stone-throwing attacks on vehicles occur during periods of gang conflicts and civil unrest and have resulted in serious injury and death in the past. You should avoid travel at night or alone in unfamiliar areas. Women should avoid traveling alone, especially at night, because sexual assault or banditry is possible. Timor-Leste is socially conservative and you should avoid wearing revealing clothing, particularly in crowded public areas such as markets.
Don’t buy counterfeit or pirated goods, even if they are widely available.
While you are traveling in Timor-Leste, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different from our own, and criminal penalties vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States. You can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Timor-Leste, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are.
Based on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, bilateral agreements with certain countries, and customary international law, if you are arrested in Timor-Leste, you have the option to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the U.S. embassy of your arrest, and to have communications from you forwarded to the U.S. embassy.
Portuguese and Tetum, the local language, are both official languages. Bahasa-Indonesia and English are also used in commercial and government spheres. English is often used in academic and non-government spheres. In school, it is still debated whether to focus on written Tetum, or Portuguese.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Although limited emergency medical care is available in Dili, options for routine medical care throughout the rest of country are extremely limited. Serious medical problems require hospitalization and/or medical evacuation to Australia, the nearest point with acceptable medical care, to Singapore, or to the United States, and can cost thousands of dollars.
Safety and Security
If you are in Timor-Leste, you should exercise caution, use common sense, avoid large gatherings, remain alert with regard to your personal security, and avoid travel after dark to the extent possible. Exercise caution in public places, including, but not limited to, clubs, restaurants, bars, schools, places of worship, outdoor recreational events, hotels, resorts and beaches, and other locations frequented by foreigners.
You should maintain a high level of security awareness while moving around in Dili, be alert to the potential for violence, and avoid demonstrations, large political gatherings, and areas where disturbances have occurred. Demonstrations can occur at or near symbols and institutions of the Government of Timor-Leste, including government buildings, police stations, and houses belonging to prominent politicians. Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence with little or no warning.
Timor-Leste has experienced several episodes of violence since independence. The most serious was in April 2006, when civil order broke down and the government requested the return of international security forces to help restore order. More recent instances of unrest included sporadic, localized violence following national elections in August 2007, and an attempt to assassinate former President Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in February 2008. There have been no major country-wide civil disturbances since 2008 and international peacekeepers departed from the country at the end of 2012.
Timorese security forces occasionally establish security checkpoints along roads. These legitimate checkpoints are intended to enhance security and should be respected. There are also occasional illegal checkpoints which you should avoid but which to date have been primarily targeted at Timorese. If you are traveling in Timor-Leste, you should remember that despite its small size, much of the territory is isolated and can be difficult to reach by available transportation or communication links.
All U.S. citizens should always ensure that passports and important personal papers are in order in the event it becomes necessary to leave the country quickly for any reason. The U.S. Embassy in Dili is not able to issue emergency passports and has only limited capacity to process passport renewals.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Timor-Leste, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States.
All traffic operates on the left side of the road, and most vehicles use right-hand drive. Roads are often poorly maintained, and four-wheel drive may be required in some areas. Non-existent lighting and poor road conditions make driving at night hazardous. Driving in Dili is especially hazardous, with large trucks and military vehicles sharing the streets with vendors, pedestrians, and livestock. Many cars and, especially, motorcycles operate at night without lights.
Taxis, small buses, and mini-vans provide public transportation in Dili and elsewhere. However, public transportation is generally overcrowded, uncomfortable, and below international safety standards. Public transportation operators have been known to unexpectedly drop passengers at locations other than their destination due to the operators’ fears about certain areas or hours. Disagreement about fares has occasionally led to hostilities. Public transport is generally inadvisable and is generally unavailable after dark, although there is a growing presence of night taxis at select locations.
During the rainy season from November to May, rain showers can severely damage cross-island roadways, making roads particularly risky. You should use caution when traveling on the cross-island roadways in the mountain areas of Aileu, Ermera, Manatuto, Ainaro, and Manufahi provinces.
Accidents occur frequently. When there is an accident, you should contact the police. Bystanders sometimes attack the driver perceived to be responsible for a traffic accident. This is more common in rural areas and in accidents involving Timorese drivers, but crowds have occasionally attacked expatriate drivers at the scene of an accident. If you are involved in an accident and believe that there is a threat of bodily harm from people at the scene of the accident, it is advisable to drive to the nearest police station before stopping.
While it is required to obtain insurance for vehicles in Timor-Leste, compliance with this rule is limited and many drivers are uninsured. Most traffic accidents are settled informally between those involved.