Aipelo, Liquica and Maubara
Three locations on the north coast of East Timor
west of the capital Dili
towards the border with West Timor, Indonesia
. All three have associations with earlier phases in the colonial history of the country, but also a few links to the more recent, and darker, late 20th century period.
Even though East Timor had been a colony of Portugal
since the early 16th century, the borders with the Dutch-claimed western half of the island were only finalized in 1916. Part of what is now the western section of East Timor was at one point still Dutch, including Maubara. The Dutch built their fort there in 1756.
As part of the Treaty of Lisbon
, Maubara was finally handed over to the Portuguese, in exchange for Flores (see Komodo
), which until then had been in the hands of Portugal. Both Flores and West Timor thus became part of Indonesia
when it claimed independence from the Netherlands
shortly after WWII
Maubara was the place where the infamous pro-Indonesian militia Besi Merah Putih (BMP) was founded in 1998. This was to become one of the most notoriously violent militia that, with direct support from the Indonesian Army, wreaked havoc in East Timor before and in the wake of the 1999 independence referendum (see history
). One especially noteworthy incident was the church massacre in Liquica perpetrated by the BMP in April 1999 in which between 60 and 200 civilians were killed.
Liquica, located in between Maubara and Dili, was Portugal's first capital of its Timorese colony before the colonial government was moved to Dili
. Hence several grand colonial building survive in Liquica (albeit in pretty bad condition – see below
). During the occupation of Timor by Japan
, Liquica was the location of a Japanese internment camp for the remaining Portuguese inhabitants. During Indonesia
's occupation of East Timor
, Liquica was one of the districts with the largest decline in population (the people were either killed, deported to concentration camps
or fled). It was also one of the areas witnessing some of the worst violence in 1999 (see history
Aipelo was the location of a prison built by the Portuguese colonial powers in the late 19th century to incarcerate both common criminals and political prisoners who had rebelled against Portuguese colonial rule. The then Governor of Portuguese Timor, José Celestino da Silva, who was seeking to tighten his empire's grip on this far-away colony, had forged alliances with local liurai (chiefs/kings) in the Liquica area, hence the location of the prison here must have seemed natural. It also served as a military barracks, customs post and administration centre.
Prisoners were both locals, including liurai
who would not co-operate with the colonial powers, or people who refused to do forced labour or pay their taxes, but there were also political prisoners sent here from either the homeland, i.e. Portugal
, or other Portuguese colonies such as Macao.
The prison remained in operation until 1939. It is now recognized as an important historical landmark and is undergoing preservation work as well as a process of “musealising”. The latter, however, even though originally earmarked for completion by the end of 2012, had still not been completely accomplished when I was there in late August 2014.
What there is to see:
As you drive west from Dili
, the first historical landmark you come across is the ruins of Aipelo Prison
. The main building is an imposing structure (in a rural Timorese context at least) of grey, castellated stone walls on a kind of platform that steps lead up to on three sides.
There is nothing inside. It's just an empty shell. The same is true for the larger of the two outbuildings behind the castle-like main edifice. The kitchen buildings to the east at least still have roofs. Goats graze on the lawns between the buildings.
The site is commodified by means of a series of information panels on either side of the main building. In fact you can discern two different types, older (and quite faded) and newer. The texts are trilingual, in Tetum, Portuguese and English (and the quality of the translations is generally good, especially on the newer panels). The content covers briefly all phases of the history of the place from the late 19th century to WWII
and the subsequent abandonment of the prison and also touches upon the period of Indonesian occupation and East Timor
(re-)gaining its independence.
The whole thing is only a temporary stand-in for a proper museum project that is to be developed here. The project was already way behind schedule when I visited, presumably due to lack of funding, so when the grander plans for a proper museum at this site will ever be realized is anybody's guess. Inside one of the roofless outbuildings there were remains of yet more text-and-photo panels, partly singed and bleached by the sun, that had obviously been dumped here. Overall, it seemed that the heritage preservation and “musealisation” plans were quite out of keeping with the reality of this remote and lonely place.
A short drive further west you get to the town of Liquica
, a sprawling little provincial district capital, but once the centre of Portuguese colonial power (before the capital was moved to Dili
). A few rather grand colonial buildings have survived, including the registry building and former HQ of the colonial Administrator of Liquica district. It still fulfils some kind of official governmental function today, so you can't go inside and check out the interior. But the outside with its sturdy columns on the neoclassical front facade and the church-like high windows is impressive enough.
In the forecourt an old UN
4x4 jeep stood abandoned in a corner under a tree, bumpers, wing mirrors and other bits missing – also the “U” in the UN sign had gone, but the remaining “N” and the white colour of the body made it easily identifiable as a former UN mission vehicle.
Another colonial architectural gem is a complex of several buildings nearby at the main crossroads and square of Liquica. The villa by the roadside boasts grand curved stairs at the front but the windows were whitewashed and the place looked abandoned. Round the corner was a gate in the fence so you could go in and explore more. There's an almost empty, debris-strewn swimming pool and a couple of side buildings, all mostly empty and quite forlorn looking. I peeked in through a window and all I could see was two clusters of plastic chairs around simple tables and ceiling fans that were actually rotating. This suggests that at least at some point the space must still be used for some kind of gatherings/events. But at the time of my visit there was absolutely no activity nor anybody else about anywhere.
The state of the old buildings was rather sorry, with peeling paint and ceilings about to collapse. Whatever plans for structural preservation of these heritage landmarks there may be, as proclaimed by an information panel by the roadside, they are way behind schedule. Nothing much seems to have even been begun here.
My guide pointed out that there is an underlying reason that could explain this: apparently the native Timorese don't like old houses since they believe that the ghosts of the dead former residents still occupy them – so the older the house, the more ghosts, hence the more scary it is to the living. And if nobody wants to use these older houses, the reluctance to invest time and money in their preservation becomes a bit more understandable.
Travelling on further west you will eventually come to Maubara. The old Dutch fort faces the seafront, where a few shacks selling snacks and souvenirs try to partake in the small-scale tourism trade at this location (handmade baskets seem to be a particular local craft speciality). The fort itself is not much to shout about, basically just a rectangular plot with a thick stone wall around it and two cannons pointing out to sea from the two waterfront-facing corners. Inside is a low building that dates from much later and was probably a Portuguese customs office. Today it serves as a tourist reception, souvenir shop and restaurant/cafe.
To me the Maubara Fort was proof that the simple equation “old building = tourist sight” does not always work. To be quite honest, if you give the place a miss altogether you won't lose out too much. It's only worth a brief stop if you're passing by anyway.
Further west still you will eventually come to the border with Indonesia
, i.e. the province of West Timor (capital Kupang) at the town of Batugade. In the town itself is a former checkpoint and a “migration service” office by the central square, which is also a small trading post. Here fishermen sell their small catch – even to Indonesian border soldiers who appear to have the right to come over into East Timor just like that. I found that a bit strange, really.
The actual border crossing point is a mile and a half (2.5 km) further south-west, but obviously you can only go there if you actually intend to cross the border. This is in fact the larger of the only two proper land-border crossing points between East Timor and Indonesia (the other, much more remote one is near the south coast).
Aipelo, Liquica and Maubara together form the most “touristy” bit of the western part of East Timor and are a standard excursion from Dili
. It's worth doing even though from a dark-tourism perspective there isn't all that much to see, other than the atmospheric dilapidation of the old colonial buildings and the former prison. But it is certainly the easiest option for a day trip from Dili. Anywhere beyond and into the hinterland of rural Timor the roads become so rough that it's more an expedition – see under East Timor
in the western part of East Timor
, along the main coastal route between Dili
and the border to West Timor, Indonesia
Access and costs: fairly easy by car, otherwise more complicated; apart from costs for transport and accommodation no entrance fees.
To get to all of the locations described above in a single day you need private transport, a car with a driver/guide ideally, although on these roads it would be possible to get behind the wheel yourself, as the main road west of Dili
is amongst the best in the country and was being further upgraded with a new smooth layer of tarmac at the time of my visit in August 2014 (esp. the very westernmost part, which is now first-world grade). The only alternative to a car (or motorcycle) would be the public buses running west of Dili. Liquica, Maubara and the border town of Batugade are regular stops. You could ask to be dropped off at Aipelo, but you'd then face the problem of how to travel onwards after visiting the old prison.
Aipelo: the complex has an old wall around it with a gate on the stretch facing the roadside. If it's locked you need to get the caretaker to open it for you, but it wouldn't be too difficult to just climb in should he not be around. There is also an alternative entrance on the other, beachfront side of the complex. There are no official opening times posted anywhere and there was no admission fee (though the caretaker may happily accept a small tip).
The old colonial buildings in Liquica can be viewed just from the roadside, and you can wander around the premises of some of them, but there is no official commodification other than simple information panels by the side of the road.
The fort at Maubara has a gate in the thick wall just by the beachfront road – it was open when I got there but I have no idea about any official opening times. There was no admission fee (and I wouldn't have gone in had there been one).
If instead of making it a day return trip from Dili
you want to stay overnight in the area (recommended), the very best choice for accommodation
is the Caimeo Beach Resort. I'm not normally one for beach resorts, but here's an exception if ever there was one. Accommodation is actually in tents, always set up and fixed to the ground, some even with metal roofs over them. The simpler tents offer only the most basic comfort, the larger ones offer space for a whole family and even have private bathrooms. For others there are shared facilities. That may sound basic but in fact these toilet and shower cubicles rank amongst the most praised by Westerners in the whole country (at least outside Dili
, that is) – I've heard of Westerners working in East Timor who booked a night here simply to get the chance to have a proper shower again.
Apart from its practical merits, the place is also an oasis of relaxation and even class – they do killer cocktails at the bar, have a decently-priced wine list and the Black Rock Restaurant serves up fresh local fish and home-made pizzas (both a welcome respite from all the humdrum mie goreng and cold fried eggs which is often the best you can hope for in inland Timor). The atmosphere is “Australian casual” – the place is run by young Aussies and the clientele apart from us was exclusively Australian too as far as I could make out. You can almost forget you are actually in East Timor.
The resort is a bit outside of town to the north. From the main square (with the Portuguese colonial buildings) head north-east, crossing a little rivulet and then turn left until you come to the resort's car park. Prices for accommodation start at 30 USD per night for a simple tent or 60 USD for the larger pavilion-style tents.
If you have a car (and driver/guide) all the points of interest outlined above can be done in a single day from/to Dili
, or better still in two half days, with an overnight in Liquica (see details above).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under East Timor
. If you continue further along the road from the border town of Batugade in a southerly direction you will soon reach the village of Balibo
– which has one of the best-known dark historical sites on offer in East Timor outside Dili.
The most obvious and easiest combination, however, would be the capital Dili
itself, which is also the natural base for excursions to Liquica et al anyway.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The scenery along the west road is quite pleasant – though not as dramatic as the mountainous interior of East Timor
, but you get nice views over the sea from various points.
The principal draw for non-dark tourists in this area has to be the Caimeo Beach Resort – see above
. Apart from the comfort, atmosphere and good food offered there, the place was family-friendly too, and most of the time the little ones and their parents were just paddling or swimming in the sea, while the tougher young blokes of the management could be watched having a go at water-skiing in the morning. Apparently, scuba diving is also an option.
We simply opted for a peaceful stroll along the palm-lined beach towards Liquica and back. Hidden amongst the palm trees just before reaching Liquica I discovered a cluster of Portuguese-style graves dating mostly from the 1940s.
The very best bit, though, was spotting a school of about a dozen dolphins making their way across the bay at breakfast time. At times they were jumping and even turning in mid-air, evidently having great fun. It really was just magical to watch. In season you can apparently also watch whales in the bay.
- 01 - Aipelo prison
- 02 - ex-prison
- 03 - looking out to sea
- 04 - plan
- 05 - commodification
- 06 - ex-commodification
- 07 - outbuilding and grazing goats
- 08 - sign by the roadside
- 09 - Maubara Fort
- 10 - tourist sign
- 11 - inside Maubara Fort
- 12 - old Dutch coastal cannon
- 13 - colonial Liquica
- 14 - former registry building in Liquica
- 15 - car that the UN left behind - but they took the U
- 16 - another crumbling colonial building in Liquica
- 17 - dysfunctional pool
- 18 - old style
- 19 - almost bare inside
- 20 - black beach on Liquica bay
- 21 - small old cemetery
- 22 - local fisherman
- 23 - small fish on sale near the Indonesian border
- 24 - dolphin
- 25 - dolphin jumping for joy
- 26 - sunset over Liquica bay