*This post is a part of a series. Click on the link to read more of the story. – Ancient Temples of Java, Indonesia – Prambanan – (Part I)
About 1.5 hours outside of the city of Yogyakarta lies the town of Borobudur, home to the largest buddhist temple in the world. It was ‘discovered’ with the help of local Javanese men, in the year 1814, by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a British ruler of Java.
After many years of looting and mismanagement, it was eventually restored to it’s full glory between the years of 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian government and with the help from UNESCO. The restoration cost $6.8 million and took over 600 workers to bring it back from a pile of rubble.
It was then listed as a World Heritage site in 1991 by UNESCO, and is one of the greatest achievements in World Heritage restoration projects in the world. Thanks to this, it helps bring in over 2 million visitors annually and gives Indonesia a much needed economical boost.
We arrived in town after a bus ride from Yogyakarta, and were dropped off at a bus depot, west of the temples. Since we weren’t sure how far we were from the town center, we hailed a motorcycle (with a cart attached to the back) to get us to the town center.
We discovered very quickly, that we really could have walked the distance instead, but we appreciated the lack of strenuous labor.
We were dropped off at a place called Lotus I Guesthouse, which was about 2-3 blocks from the temple entrance. It had a nice friendly staff and very basic accommodation. Breakfast was included and they had a very good lunch and dinner menu as well. Our room however lacked screens on the main windows, so it was a bit stifling at times. Other than that, it had all that one would need for a night’s rest.
We had arranged a trip to see the temples at sunrise on our own, (you could easily arrange it with your hotel), to pick us up first thing in the morning by motorbike and visit the temple before sunrise.
The following morning, we walked from our hotel down to the entrance to the temple complex at 4:00am and waited outside for a few minutes. Seeing that no one was around, we started to worry that no drivers would take us up. With a bit of luck and patience, we were approached by a few men and asked if we were looking for a driver to the viewpoint.
They offered a steep price, so we haggled for a few minutes before agreeing on a price we could afford. In retrospect, it would probably have been better to arrange this through our hotel.
We headed towards our destination by each of us hopping onto the back of a motorbike and started our journey through the neighboring villages in the early morning darkness. It took about 20 minutes to reach the path leading up to the sunrise viewpoint.
There is a booth at the base of the path that take payments for the sunrise view, and a parking fee for our motorbike drivers. We paid for our ticket and off we went up the hill. We passed quite a few tourists on our way up, taking about 15 minutes to reach the top.
Once we made it up, we vied for a clear shot of the temple in the distance. I managed to set up my tripod with few hitches, and had a clear go at it as the light peaked out from over Mount Merapi in the background. It was beginning to get a bit crowded as time passed, as there was a steady flow of tourists arriving.
The sunrise was a bit skewed by clouds and we wanted to be on time to reach the entrance when it opened at 9:00am.
We waited a few minutes for the right light, got our fulfillment of photos, and then started our decent back down the hillside. After about 10 or 15 minutes, we reached our motorbike drivers, and they took us back to the entrance of the temple.
Luckily we were able to beat the crowds coming back down, and got a little of a head start into the temple structure. You are able to pay extra to enter the temple before sunrise, but we chose to enter at the normal time.
The temples themselves have taken a beating or two over history, including earthquakes, volcano eruptions, and terrorism. While we were visiting we ourselves noticed that ash was falling on us from a minor eruption from Mount Merapi volcano.
We read about the eruption later to confirm that ash is what we saw. A more severe eruption in 2010 had covered the temple in volcanic ash and required a cleaning of it’s drainage system before it was eventually reopened.
Later on in 2014 (after our trip), the terrorist group ISIS made threats of its destruction. This helped to raise the level of security at the temple that included night patrols and added security cameras. Thanks to ISIS, it got the added protection that it deserves and to ensure it’s preservation.
This wasn’t the first time that the temple was threatened or attacked. In 1985, a right-wing extremist group bombed stupas with 9 bombs, damaging the structure and forcing it’s closure for a short time.
Each layer of the temple itself represents the three realms of Buddhist cosmology. Each level that you ascend represents that layer, with the reliefs depicting the corresponding concepts. The lower level is called ‘Kamahatu’ the world of desires, the second is called ‘Rupadhatu’ the world of forms, and the top level is called ‘Arupadhatu’ the formless world.
Each level is designed to get closer to reaching the ultimate goal of nirvana. Built in the 8th century, it is engineering feat of amazing proportions. Watch a video of an example of the bas relief here.
After visiting Borobudur I can see why the Lonely Planet used it for its cover photo on its Lonely Planet Indonesia 10th Edition guidebook. The temple is magnificent! Being the largest Buddhist temple in the world, having the most reliefs that are intact, and it’s location amongst gorgeous volcanoes & mountains surrounding it on all sides, it’s no wonder that it’s the most visited place in all of Java.
After visiting the temples, we strolled through the two museums on the property. One of the them contained a ship that you can see carved out on the relief of the temple (we missed the relief carving somehow). It was engineered using only clues on the relief itself and then built and sailed by a team of sailors!
After it had been sailed to Ghana and back, it was disassembled & reassembled and then placed in the museum at Borobudur for display. By performing it’s construction, this had proven that international trading routes existed and were in place in 8th century Indonesia.
In retrospect, Borobudur is a must see for anyone visiting Java and definitely should be included into anyone’s itinerary. I would recommend putting this on your bucket list!