Borobudur. Google this name and you will find thousands of images of a monument flanked with many perforated bell shaped stupas. If you have been here, or seen these pictures then I am sure you will nod in agreement with me when I say that this is the leg of our travels out in Indonesia that I have been looking forward to with eager anticipation: ascending the various levels of this beautiful temple and watching dawn break from the very top platform of the monument amongst these stupas. Welcome once again dear Wanderlusters, to my lil corner of the interwebs as I ramble on about my footsteps in this beautiful part of the island of Java.
But first, a lil wandernugget of history about Borobudur. This is the largest Buddhist temple and pilgrimage site in the world and has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monument is still used as an active pilgrimage destination today, with devotees starting their journey at the base of the temple and winding their way up to the central dome which is meant to signify the achievement of “Nirvana”. The temple is stacked up on a total of nine levels, built on six square and three circular platforms rising from ground up and graced with a central dome in the middle. The levels stack up together to make one large, stunning monument, built to resemble a lotus flower synonymous with the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana. The central, or topmost dome is surrounded by 72 Buddhas each sat inside perforated bell shaped stupas – with the Buddha in the only open Stupa facing the sunrise in the east.
You could ascend Borobudur and experience the temple from when her doors open to the world at 8 am, however, there is an even better way to soak in the magic of this place: watching the inky darkness turn into day whilst at the top of the monument, with the first rays of the sun shining directly on the sole Buddha facing the east. My wanderlustmate M and I have a thing for chasing the sun. Back home, we are the laziest people alive and getting us to wake up at sunrise is met with a response of “are you crazy?!” But while Wanderlusting if there is a prospect of a beautiful sunrise in a spectacular setting then we are up and about, bright eyed and bushy tailed chasing that sun! Up until recently, the only way to access the temple before the crack of dawn was by spending the night at the Manohara, the sole hotel situated in its actual grounds, however, it is now possible to book a slot in one of the coveted sunrise tours for USD 34 a pop through your hotel, which is exactly what we did.
Alas, the morning of our ascent we were graced with a light drizzle and a cloudy sky, and the prospect of watching day break with the sky awash with beautiful colours but a mere hope. Determined that this was the Universe’s way of putting my positivity to a test, I convinced myself that as it was just 4 am, there was still time for this weather to turn between the logistics of getting to the temple and actual breaking dawn. The chaps at the Manohara were nice enough to give us flashlights which came in most useful trekking through the grounds of the hotel in the murkiness of the night, and approaching the silhouette of the temple, rain or not I could feel a tinge of excitement mixed with some hope as I trudged up the temple stairs through its various levels in the misty rain which, thankfully stopped just as we reached the topmost platform of the temple with its bell shaped stupas circling it. Given that there were only a handful of us on this tour, which is quite unlike the hoardes that graced the sunrise at Angkor Wat or Bagan there was no scramble for coveted spots around the stupas. Perhaps it was the time of year but whatever the case, it isn’t often that one gets a stunning monument to themselves and so gloomy weather or not, I enjoyed ambling around and finding the perfect place to perch myself to grace the waking world.
It was indeed quite breathtaking to be sat amongst the bell shaped stupas, close to the open stupa with the back of the Buddha facing me and His face looking towards the rising sun, waiting for day to break amidst the mist curling itself around the nearby Menoreh Hills. The cloudy sky meant no fiery shades of colour but it still broke into beautiful hues of blue and yellow and this made for a completely different kind of sunrise from Angkor Wat and its pinks and purples or Bagan and its oranges and reds. Plus, there was something quite special about watching the stupas come to light from the inky darkness of the breaking dawn, and seeing Borobudur wake up in all her splendour.
I can’t say that I was forever enlightened by this experience, but for a moment in time, the world and my monkey brain stood still as I watched night turn into day and what was a couple of seconds ago a black silhouette of the Buddha turn into a statue illuminated by light now greeting the morning. If only all mornings could be as peaceful and serene as this! Once it was fully light we had a good 2 hours within which to explore the monument in solitude, before it opened its doors to the general public at 8 am. The first task was to get a better look at at the bell shaped stupas that I had seen only in pictures, but was now amongst! The stones that make up the stupas remind me of those chessboard cookies, with their various hues of brown. Peeping into the perforations you can just about make out the silhouette of a Buddha sat inside. There’s a myth that says if you manage to touch a Buddha inside a stupa and make a wish, your wish will be granted but it is near impossible to get anywhere near the image with your hand because of the way in which the stupa is constructed and the Buddha is placed….but I must confess that I did try! You can’t really see the Buddhas too clearly inside the stupa so my genius wanderlustmate very carefully took a picture of the Buddha using a GoPro!
Legend also has it that if you walk around the largest stupa on the topmost platform nine times uttering a wish at the close of every circumnavigation, each of these nine wishes will come true. I am pretty sure I whispered many wishes, no doubt to do with travel and wanderlust and given that I have since visited some of the places I was lusting after at that time, I am pretty certain that this is more than just myth and legend. Or maybe I have convinced myself it is true but whatever the case, I am a sucker for such myths!
We started to make our descent after the ninth round, passing by decorated bas reliefs and Buddha images sat atop some of the walls, some beheaded in the sad pilfering by idiots who just can’t leave well enough alone and ruin the experience for the rest of us! Still, it was interesting to go round the temple and be told the stories behind the bas reliefs. In the daylight seen from a distance on the ground, this imposing temple exudes grandeur rising up towards the sky with the topmost stupa standing out. You can just about make out the tops of the other stupas on the top platform and I tried to visualize the structure as a lotus flower but I must admit that I couldn’t make the resemblance!
If there is one WanderNugget that I will give you about visiting Borobudur, then it will be that the sunrise tour really is worth the hype not only to watch day break but to appreciate the temple in solitude and quiet before the crowds come in. Once the rush begins, which it does from 8 am sharp everyday, you will be scrambling for space on the narrow stairways and be inundated with the echoes from the chattering of people, mostly the local population that make up majority of the people visiting the temple and in my books this constant humdrum shatters an otherwise pretty special experience.
Our morning of exploring would not have been complete without a stop at the little visited temples of Mendut and Pawon. I can’t say with conviction that after visiting the mother of all temples, Borobudur, that either of these temples fascinated me, but what was interesting is that all three temples: Pawon, Mendut and Borobudur are connected by a straight line for a ritualistic reason. The ancient cultures believed that it was important to cleanse one’s mind prior to making the holy ascent to Borobudur and so Pawon was the temple in which to perform this rite. There isn’t much to see other than the structures of these temples and the old trees in the compound with their roots poking out from the ground however this is a good place to pick up trinkets of the stupas of Borobudur and the like.
Back at our hotel, we can hear the distant pealing of bells and the echoes of voices being carried in the wind from Borobudur. I can indulge in the sweeping vistas of the lush, green landscape of the valley below, the Menoreh Hills rising in the distance and the grand dame Borobudur herself, with her spire from the topmost stupa rising up to the sky from my pool villa, basking in the warm sunshine with a chilled bottle of wine: the perfect setting to while away an afternoon after a successful jaunt of exploration in the morning.
– On getting there:
Borobudur is an hour’s drive away from Jogyakarta and you can easily make a day trip out here however I would highly recommend spending a night or two in the region itself and going for the sunrise tour to fully immerse yourself in the experience of being here.
– On entry:
Normal entry into the temple costs USD 20 per person (IDR 275,000) for an 8 am start. For an extra USD 14 per person you can go for the sunrise tour making it a total entry fee of USD 34 per person (IDR 450,000), however do your research before you go because the prices may have changed between publishing this blog post and now! The only official way of doing this tour (and the sunset tour) is through the Manohara Hotel and this can be organized for you through your hotel, and no prior reservation is needed. We stayed at the Plataran Borobudur which organized everything for us from taking us to the Manohara, ponchos and umbrellas for the rain and picking us up again once we were done.
– On other nuggets:
The number of people on the tour will depend on the time of year, which will also determine the weather you may be graced with however this is also sheer luck. For me, it was totally worth the price for one morning to get the photographs we wanted, albeit without spectacular colours but also without the harsh glare of the sun. Plus the solitude and being able to explore the temple without the crowds and associated din put the price into the “well worth it” category.
More questions? Feel free to shoot me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org or leave me a comment below and I will get back to you!