The border region in the West of East Timor is one of the most remote areas of the country. The one main road is hard to navigate, narrow, and full of potholes as soon you turn left from the northern coast and gets worse once you pass Maliana to head to the southern coast. Balibo, a small mountain village comprised of little more than the main road and the market, is where local farmers go to sell their produce. But it’s also a site of historical significance.
For Australians, Balibo is probably the best-known place in East Timor. In 1975, on the eve of the Indonesian invasion, five Australia-based journalists covering Timor-Leste’s path to independence were killed in the small mountain village. What followed was a cover-up of what really happened to the Balibo Five that was neither for the Indonesians nor for the Australian government a very good look.
These days, the house where the journalists stayed – dubbed Flag House for the Australian flag they had painted on the exterior wall hoping it would deter Indonesian troops from attacking the building – is a community center with a Balibo Five museum, a shop selling local crafts, a coffee shop, and a learning center. Balibo.org
The ruins of Portuguese barracks sit on a hill across the street from the Flag House.
Balibo Fort also has a small museum. One room is dedicated to the history of the fort and the other one showcases a few East Timorese cultural items such as photographs and royal accessories.
Beyond its history, Balibo is also a great spot for hiking/trekking.
Shorter hikes lead past a few small caves to Raihun lake in the West or North up to Morutaumorubara Caves and yet another Christo Rei with an outdoor church and an artificial cave.
The Balibo Fort can provide guides for day hikes in the area.
Balibo market sees farmers from the surrounding villages set up shop along the main road, spilling out of the market area.
Marobo Hot Spring
Disclaimer: I did not go to Maliana. But I still would like to put the region on your East Timor explorer map if for nothing else than Marobo Springs.
I’ve seen photos and it looks like nothing else I’ve seen in East Timor.
The hot spring near Bobonaro, about 2 hours outside of Maliana, can only be reached via a narrow mountain road and is a favorite weekend getaway destination for initiated Diliaites.
The water coming out of the rock is piping hot, in fact, hot enough to boil an egg, but several man-made rock pools cool it down to a comfortable jacuzzi temperature.
There used to be a resort here that offered rooms but these days you’ll either have to bring a tent or stay at Maliana, which is the only place in the region with
BTW: If you can’t make it to Marobo, there are other hot springs in the country, most notable in the Lospalos region. However, none of them are easily accessible on public transport.
To get to Balibo and Maliana, catch the buses leaving Dili’s Tasi Tolu bus station early every morning.
If you miss them you can try hitchhiking. I recommend taking a microlet out of the city, for example to Maubara, and put your thumb out from there.
I had great success with that and never had to wait more than 30 minutes for someone to stop. The first ride I caught outside Maubara introduced me to Atabae.
The second driver who took me from Atabae was a former teacher who, among other things, runs a guesthouse in Maliana and can organize a car to Marobo Springs for you.
Note, that due exceptionally poor roads – even by East Timorese standards – there is currently no bus service between Bobonaro/Suai/the South coast and Maliana.
Where to stay
Balibo currently offers two accommodation options:
The small guest house by the market (ask around or go back to the main road, walk about 20m to the North, and look left; there’s a small sign in the first floor of one of the buildings) charges USD15 per night for very basic rooms.
Balibo Fort, built by the Portuguese, was renovated with Australian funds and is now a small hotel. The clean, minimalist rooms combine the historical exterior with modern amenities. The restaurant serves some of the best pizza I’ve had in East Timor (bested only by Osteria Dili) in a lovely garden setting. And the stunning views reach all the way to the coast. Rooms are USD95/night.
Maliana has has a few guesthouse options:
The Pousada Maliana, as usual, is set with a stunning view above the city.
Ramascora Resort sits on the Northwestern end of town.
Hotel Risky is the central guesthouse as it’s right by the market/bus stop.