The Borobudur sunrise took my breath away. There was something so intensely spiritual that I was touched to the core. An 8th-century Buddhist stupa and temple complex, Borobudur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated around 90 minutes away from Yogyakarta, I visited Borobudur on one fine Java dawn. It was a Saturday; starting of a long weekend and I had plans to leave for Bromo the next morning. An Indonesian co-worker brought up the idea of a Borobudur day trip at the office and I happily joined in.
Table of Contents
A quiet, empty drive to Borobudur
We left Yogyakarta or Jogja as it is popularly called around five in the morning and rode through cool, misty fields and a star dusted faint sky in peace. The Kedu Plain was lush, verdant, and inviting. Somewhere in the horizon, an active volcanoes loomed. The sky slowly lit up the dew-drenched Indonesian and we watched the spectacle while puttering along partly broken empty roads. The tropical warmth slowly melted the veil of mist from the bordering palm trees, canals and bamboo bridges and the silence of the night was broken at the quaint hamlets. The village dogs, disturbed by our noisy intrusion came barking at us and we quickly zipped into intrepid rural lanes to escape from them.
You may also like: My Java stay in a nutshell
Borobudur is a historical enigma
Borobudur was quiet and tranquil when we reached there. After a thorough security check, we stepped inside the complex which opened up expansively in front of us like a fully bloomed lotus. Beautifully laid out gardens and walkways surrounded the monument and in that pre-dawn dim light, peace prevailed there in hushed silence. The first thing which struck me about Borobudur was its sheer size. Built in tiers, Borobudur was nearly 35 meters tall and spread over an area of over 200 square meters. The completion of the construction took 75 years and yet for a structure of that magnitude, its history is dismally unclear. Constructed during the reign of the powerful Sailendra Dynasty, there is no documented record as to for/by who and why was Borobudur was built. It was probably built as a religious site and the history of Borobudur’s abandonment and rediscovery are equally dramatic. The site was abandoned sometime around the 14th century for reasons yet to be known and layers of volcanic ash and dense jungle concealed Borobudur from the world.
The mysteries surrounding this UNESCO Heritage site
It was re-discovered by the then British governor of Java, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who lovingly got the monument complex restored stone by stone. Borobudur once again saw the light of the day and got listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. To my novice eyes, everything about Borobudur seemed to be shrouded in some kind of impenetrable mystery. Loosely meaning, “the temple of Budur near the Bore village”, the name Borobudur was supposedly coined by Sir Raffles himself as its original name was never found. Although many theories exist behind its mysteries, Borobudur till today remains a nameless, identity-less enigma. Located at an elevated area between the twin volcanoes Merbabu-Merapi and Sumbing-Sundoro and the two rivers, Progo and Elo, Borobudur towers over the surrounding “Garden of Java” or the Kedu Plain. According to some scholars, the three Buddhist temples of the area Borobudur, Pawon and Mendut were positioned along a straight line for some ritual unknown to us. Kedu Plain too is believed to have been an ancient lake on which Borobudur was built to represent a floating star. Despite the surrounding fairytale-like theories, not much has been found out about Borobudur and to me, there’s nothing more enticing than a historical puzzle.
Suggested Read: Why I Loved Indonesia
Borobudur was mind-blowing and there’s no overrating it
I remember falling in love with Borobudur even before I walked up to it and in my eyes, the site contained more than just beauty. From up close, Borobudur seems intimidating because of its sheer size and I was totally out of breath by the time I reached the topmost level. Comprising of a jumble of stunning reliefs and 504 Buddha statues, Borobudur is located on six square andesite stone platforms topped by three circular tiers. 72 beautiful stone Buddhas smile serenely from perforated stupas on the main platform and the main dome stands in the middle. Borobudur was mind-blowing and there’s no overrating it. A stunning confluence of Javanese Buddhist architectural styles, the temple also demonstrates a heavy influence of India’s prevailing Gupta Dynasty’s voluptuous contours. It takes its visitors to a time when maritime traders and Buddhist monks from India, frequented the Javanese soil.
Recommended Read: Lombok Island travel guide and tips
This is a Mandala in stone
Thus it is no coincidence that throughout my entire Indonesian stay, I never felt too isolated from my country. Jataka stories, laws of karma, the birth of Buddha, many indigenous forgotten folklores etc are carved along the relief panels of Borobudur and it is bamboozling how nobody yet has historical explanations regarding their creation. Riddled with symbolism, stairways, corridors and balustrades, Borobudur is rumoured to be a historical mega puzzle with clues hidden at its every niche. Its 4 sides face 4 points of the compass and I luckily caught a most magical sunrise at its summit. The dark grey stone monument overlooked a huge fertile plain and the rising sun draped a golden haze all the way to the smoking Mount Merapi.
My Borobudur sunrise experience
The young Javanese sun rose like a golden orb flooding the Kedu Plain in shimmering light. Complete silence prevailed and I found myself catching my breath to maintain that noiseless peace. Only the Buddhas sitting snugly inside the stupas smiled brightly. They filled the area with more beauty than the rising soon. In that golden light, they seemed almost animated as if ready to shed their tightly held mysteries in a heartbeat and for a few seconds, I almost imagined a feeling of oneness with them. I could almost feel the stony statues waking up from slumber, stepping out of their stupas, and handing out nuggets of their mysteries to the dreamers around them. However, they remained stoic, as they have done for thousands of years and the fleeting moment of animation vanished, as the sun started casting shadows across the monument. The longer the shadows expanded, the more the stony Buddhas seemed to recede into their inner chamber of secrets.
Suggested for you: Lesser-known Gili Islands travel guide and tips
I would go back in a heartbeat
The sun finally rose fully and the spell was broken. I turned around trying to grasp any remnants of that animated magic, but it was gone, at least for that day. Perhaps, it will return the next day, reveal itself to another dreamer like me, but for that morning, Borobudur again transformed itself into a pile of stones. I have never experienced a sunrise so soul touching and the memory of its magic mesmerizes me till today. Some places have magic. That is what I believe in from the bottom of my heart and Borobudur is one such deeply spiritual place.
Borobudur Travel Tips
How to reach Borobudur
You have to first reach Java to visit Borobudur. The cheapest way to reach there from Yogyakarta is by public bus. The most convenient method is hiring a taxi.
The nearest airports are Yogyakarta’s Adisucipto International Airport and Solo’s Adisumarmo International Airport. These airports are well connected by domestic flights. Internationally, you can fly into them from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. Fixed-price taxis are available from Yogyakarta airport for Borobudur.
Borobudur is easily accessible from Yogyakarta by public bus. Buses for Borobudur depart from the Jombor Bus terminal in Yogyakarta. There are many daily departures and the bus terminal is reached either by taxi or by taking the Trans-Jogja buses 2A or 2B from central Yogyakarta. Ask around for the correct bus for Borobudur ar the Jombor terminal. The bus ride to Borobudur takes about 60-90 minutes. Once you get down at Borobudur, it is a 10 minutes walk to the entrance.
Private tour operators of Yogyakarta run daily Borobudur packages. These include van/minibus transfers as well and some of them combine Borobudur and Prambanan in a single day. Hunt around and bargain for a suitable tour.
There is no train station at Borobudur and the nearest train station to Borobudur is the Yogyarta railway station. It is located in central Yogyakarta and is well connected with other Javanese cities like Jakarta and Surabaya. Inside the archaeological park, there is a toy train shuttle transfer which takes you to the foot of the monument. There is a small fee.
Where to stay
Most Borobudur visitors prefer to stay in Yogyakarta, where there’s a wide variety of accommodation options available. These options suits all budgets and travel styles.
Adult Foreigners: 280,000 Rp (USD $25) and $15 USD for children aged 3-10. There is a free entrance for kids under 3. A combined ticket for Borobudur and Prambanan temples cost $45 USD per person, plus $27 for kids. There are daily Borobudur Sunrise Tours available for $35 USD.
Adult Indonesians & Holders of Indonesian Work Permit: 30,000 Rp (USD $2)
Non-Indonesian Registered Students: 110,000 Rp (USD $8)
Extra tips for visiting Borobudur:
- Arrive early – Arrive early to avoid the crowd. You can choose a sunrise tour or arrive before 6 am and wait for the gates to open.
- Avoid the weekend – Borobudur is most crowded on weekends, so time your visit on weekdays if possible.
- Dress comfortably – Dress appropriately and wear sensible shoes. Flashlights and sarongs (if required) are provided for Borobudur early birds. Sunrise time at the top of the temple is a bit cold in winter, so wear a light jacket or sweater.
- Bring water – Bring your own water and snacks.
- Opening Hour – The site is open for visitors from 6 AM-5 PM. A lot of guest houses and hotels provide Borobudur Sunrise Tour which takes visitors up to the topmost level before dawn for a spectacular view and quiet contemplative moments.
- Rent a bike – Cycles can be rented from them to explore the village and surrounding area around Borobudur.
- Borobudur Festivals – Vesak (May) and the dance festival of Mahakarya Borobudur (June) are the two festivals which make the experience more magical. Vesak is a colourful festival culminating in a candlelight march. It celebrates Lord Buddha’s birthday and Mahakarya Borobudur is the site’s official dance festival which portrays its conception and construction.
A brief orientation of Borobudur
- The main architectural design of Borobudur is of a step pyramid. The steps or platforms tower up to a maximum height of 35m, measured from the ground to the top of the central stupa on the uppermost tier. When viewed from above, the monument resembles the pattern of a mandala, a Tibetan Tantric Buddhist symbolic representation of the cosmos. Borobudur is often referred to as the Mandala in stone.
- A visitor’s journey at Borobudur begins at the base of the temple and follows a path through the three levels of Buddhist cosmology. These are namely Kamadhatu (the world of desire), Rupadhatu (the world of forms), and Arupadhatu (the world of formlessness).
- When the Buddhist pilgrims circumambulate the monument and go up the levels, they decipher and contemplate on the life lessons found in the bas-reliefs. The reliefs get harder as they progress higher and guide them on a symbolic journey through the stages of enlightenment.
- There are four stairways leading to the uppermost level of the monument. One stairway goes in the center of each side of the monument. Every stairway passes through several ornately carved archways.
- The main entrance is on the Eastern side of the monument. This is used by all the visitors who enter through the main gate.
- Check out these websites for more information on Borobudur – Two Birds Breaking Free, Nomadic Matt.
Follow the rest of Indonesia series
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE