Kupang: Indonesia’s Unknown City
Kupang: Indonesia’s Unknown City
I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing in Kupang, aside from trying to get across the nearby border to East Timor. I was visiting the largest city in West Timor, in order to travel overland to the other half of the island, and I had no plans and no expectations. But I was soon finding myself enjoying this relatively unknown and under visited city far more than I’d anticipated.
As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I heard the greeting that would soon become familiar with me during my stay in Kupang. The city sees few foreign visitors, and I soon discovered that anyone who looks foreign is greeted by any local with the phrase, ‘Hello Mister!’ Sometimes shouted from a moving bus, sometimes said nicely while walking the streets. In Kupang, I was almost a novelty.
I was staying along the ramshackle sea front of the city, where I could see the fishermen heading out on the ocean and locals strolling along the sand. Just along the road, I ate regularly at the night market as I waited for my visa from the East Timorese embassy, picking out fresh, cheap lobster one evening and red snapper the next. Soon, in this laid-back city, I was hoping I would have to stay for longer.
I headed out to the surrounding areas too, riding a bike through the rice paddies and out into the green countryside. I found huge, untouched waterfalls in the jungle, bursting from the recent rains, while along the coast I explored some of the most pristine beaches I’ve ever encountered in Indonesia. The whole way, there was not another tourist in sight, a refreshing change from other, busier parts of Indonesia that I’d travelled to before.
I would have stayed longer, enjoying the chilled out vibe of the city and exploring the quiet coastline, but soon I had permission to cross the border, and I set off on the road west from Kupang, on another adventure across this continually surprising island.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Kupang is the largest city in West Timor and also serves as the regional capital of Nusa Tenggara Timur, which encompasses most of the islands east of Bali. It has great connections to the rest of Indonesia, including to important transport hubs such as Bali and Jakarta, but there are no international connections. The airport is small, and it’s easy to find a taxi into the city itself, a journey of no more than 10-15 minutes.
It’s also possible to arrive in Kupang on a long distance ferry. Although not as reliable, fast (or, these days, even as cheap) as flying, it can be an excellent experience or equally a terrible one. There are connections across to other parts of Nusa Tenggara Timur and occasionally further afield on the irregular Pelni ferries.
Many people will find themselves in Kupang as a way to travel further afield across the island of Timor, to East Timor. These days it’s easier than ever before to travel across the land border, and there are buses that run all the way from Kupang to Dili, and take around 12 hours. Ensure you are able to cross the border though before departing and visit the East Timorese consulate in Kupang to check if you need an invitation letter, as things change regularly along this border.
Getting around Kupang is fairly simple, as most of the city can be walked. There are also thousands of minibuses plying the streets, playing loud music and decked out in garish colours. It can be difficult figuring out where exactly they go though. Getting outside of Kupang to the surrounding area is difficult without your own transport, so rent a bike if you are comfortable, or arrange a driver with your accommodation.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Kupang is a lively, young city, a place full of students from across the province and with a charming atmosphere that will surprise you. Kupang is a city that sees very few foreign tourists, and as such, just simply strolling around the streets will give you more a sense of urban life in this part of Indonesia than anywhere else in the region, especially if you’ve just flown in from Bali. There are some lovely beaches along the seafront, and a walk along the promenade will help you to meet the locals and see the impressive coastal scenery.
There’s more to see just outside of the city, as there are quite a few intriguing and very much unknown tourist spots to visit. You will need your own transport to get around though.
Oenesu Waterfall is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in West Timor. It’s found an hour’s drive away from Kupang, and is reasonably well signposted. It’s a beautiful cascade, surrounded by jungle and is most impressive during or just after the rainy season. You will most likely find it is just you here to enjoy this wonderful piece of nature.
Tablolong Beach is one of the best beaches anywhere in eastern Indonesia, and aside from a few locals, it’s almost always empty. It’s a long stretch of white sand to the south-west of Kupang, with views out over the nearby islands, green palm trees and a few charming fishing villages.
The crystal cave is another spectacular sight and one that anywhere else in the world would be a huge tourist attraction. It can difficult to find but is not too far from Kupang. Ask around and the locals will guide you down into the cave itself. At the right time of day, when the light enters the cave, the water lights up in vivid shades of blue and green, and the water is crystal clear and great to have a dip in.
Stay – Accommodation
Kupang isn’t exactly on the tourist trail, and while there are several hotels, including a few expensive, luxurious options, most accommodation is aimed at business travellers. There are a few budget options, including the famous Lavalon Guesthouse, a seafront hostel run by a former Indonesian movie star, Edwin, who is an interesting character. It’s really the only place to meet other travellers and they have basic, but cheap accommodation, and a great breakfast. Dorms cost around $10 per night. Feel free to bargain with Edwin though.
Along the coast and with excellent sea views too, a great higher end option is the Hotel on the Rock, which has a great international restaurant and a swimming pool. Rates are around $50 per night.
Further out, in a quiet spot to the east of the city – about 5 kilometres away – the OCD Hostel and Cafe is a relatively new place, with cheap rooms aimed at travellers. Expect to pay around $10-20 per night.
Eat – Restaurants
Kupang is a city with a huge range of food on offer. This being Indonesia, you can, of course, find all the typical Indonesian staples somewhere in the city, from Masakan Padang food – curries and rice – to Nasi Goreng – fried rice. Unusually for an Indonesian city though, Kupang is predominantly Christian, and as such, it’s one of the best places in the country to try pork dishes. Try the suckling pig – Babi Guling – to give you a taste. On the main street that runs parallel to the seafront, there’s a lovely night market every evening, and here you can try cheap and delicious local seafood. You simply point at what you like the look of and they barbecue it up.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
Kupang can be visited year round, however the surrounding area is best enjoyed during the dry season. The dry season is generally from June to September. The worst of the rain falls from December to March.
Safety – Possible risks
Kupang is a friendly and welcoming destination for travellers, even if you are treated as a bit of a novelty. The real dangers are the bad roads, potholes and dubious buses running out of town. There is also a serious danger of crocodiles in this part of the world. Timor is home to one of the densest concentrations of saltwater crocodiles in the world, and they are extremely deadly. It’s not uncommon to see these animals swimming off the coast not far from the sea, so it’s advisable to stay out of the water no matter how tempting it may be to be swim.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Kupang is very much a cheap destination to visit, with good value accommodation and very cheap food. Expect to pay just $1-2 for a full plate of food at a local restaurant or street stall. Even a whole lobster will only cost $5 at the night market. Transport will be the biggest expense, as a motorcycle will cost at least $10 a day to rent, and a driver much more.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Kupang is not the wealthiest place in Indonesia and as such you may want to ensure that you eat and stay local where you can, to get your tourist money into the local economy. Kupang also has a huge problem with plastic waste and garbage. Although some of the beaches are beautifully pristine, and some of the best in Indonesia, many more are unfortunately already covered with rubbish and plastic, and it can be quite a contrast. In this respect, the best way to be responsible is to act from the front, and reduce your own plastic waste when you are in Kupang and West Timor.
Reality Check – Be Aware
Kupang is very much an unknown tourist destination and you will find that many of the travellers you do meet, are simply here to make a visa run across to East Timor. Take the time though to enjoy the city, because this is about as authentic a city as you will find in the east of Indonesia. You will find the locals friendly and at times, over friendly, as they will inevitably shout ‘Hey Mister!’ at you if you look or sound foreign. A few days of everyone doing this can get a bit too much though. Travel on from Kupang can be frustrating as well. There’s not much in the way of tourist information and transport schedules are irregular at best. If you want to explore the rest of the island, it may be easier and quicker to hire a guide and transport, but if you do want to take local transport, be prepared to take your time.
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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
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