Taking a trip by mikrolet in Timor Leste, aka East Timor, may be the best 20 pence I ever spent on public transport.
This small bus-van is everywhere in the capital city of Dili and the chances are you will hear one long before you see it. That’s because local pop music music is normally blaring from the speakers.
Meanwhile, the exterior bodywork of these vans is covered in stickers and garish paint jobs. My favourite design of all was a triptych on a rear window of Christiano Ronaldo between two images of Christ the Redeemer. (Guess who looked most God-like. That’s right: CR7).
This combo of loud design and pumping music mean there’s no chance of missing your mikrolet when it hoves in to view.
Sticking out a hand is how to hail the driver to the road side and then the passenger clambers aboard through a sliding side door, (in my case, ducking so low that my chin nearly touched my knees). The seating is two wooden benches with passengers facing each other, which encourages familiarity and means foreigners are in no doubt that they’re the subject of conversation among the locals sharing this ride. Up to 10 people squeeze in to the small space and it is cramped. It’s knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder, with no seat belts. The convexly arched roof of a mikrolet means that lofty passengers must lean in, so many oversized foreigners will end up practically cheek to cheek with whoever’s sat opposite.
Chucking out time at the schools causes chaotic scenes, as mikrolets park up kerbside and are swamped by crowds of uniformed kids in colourful scarves, all packing out the vehicles and hanging from doors. The mikrolets then join the traffic and you can almost hear the things groaning under the weight of their excitable cargo.
Tall passengers (that’s me) may want to pay double (40p) to sit in the front next to the driver. This is an experience in itself. In the mikrolets I took, the dashboards were often a mess of sticky-out wires and hollow spaces in panelling where instruments presumably used to be. I found this pretty charming, though you might wonder whether some important functions are no longer available which are useful for, y’know, things like safe driving to preserve the health of all aboard. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that a mikrolet rarely gets much above 35mph. Fewer instruments than the vehicle strictly should have may not be such a big deal, so long as the driver has a good clear view of the road ahead, right? Don’t bet on that. In a couple of the mikrolets I rode in, the field of vision was nothing but a thin strip across the front windscreen; the rest of it being smothered by a decorative array of colourful stickers, hanging baubles and other bits and bobs. It seems like the mikrolet drivers of Timor Leste all mysteriously share a passion for a single style of interior design. Maybe it comes with a sixth sense for anticipating what’s happening on the larger portion of the road ahead, which is hidden from view behind a FC Barcelona scarf hanging right in front of the driver’s eyeballs. Certainly, nobody came a cropper during my several journeys by mikrolet.
Mikrolets certainly won’t be winning awards for safety any time soon. But this economical, highly personal and personalised little van is my most favourite public transport. Hitching a ride in one is essential to do when in East Timor and it’s a great way to get close up (literally) with the local culture.
The photo above is of a modestly decorated mikrolet, which I took in Dili on the way to catch a lift with a travel buddy to the city of Laquica, which is a couple of hours away along the north coast of Timor Leste.
Check out a mikrolet ride I took in Dili. I loooove the music, but have no clue what the song is called.