Borobudur has had my eye for years. I first learned of the temple during my visit to Indonesia back in 2001. But I didn’t make it anywhere close and ended up chasing (and being chased by) Komodo Dragons on the other side of the country instead.
So I added it to my bucket list, and this time I knew visiting had to be a priority. Photos of the temple regularly end up on those “most interesting places to visit” posts you get on Facebook, and I wanted to see it for myself.
The step pyramid of Borobudur was constructed back in the 9th century, taking an estimated 75 years to complete. It remains the largest Buddhist temple in the world, though once the local population converted to Islam it was abandoned to the jungle. It was rediscovered by the British and Dutch in the early 1800s, which led to various stages of renovation and restoration. UNESCO added the temple to its list of World Heritage Sites in 1991, and the temple is now the most visited tourist attraction in all of Indonesia.
Many people just come to Borobudur as a day trip from nearby Yogyakarta, but staying the night nearby gives you more time to explore the temple out of the peak middle of the day when it is the most hot and crowded. You can even pay extra for sunrise and sunset tours, which some people seem to enjoy, but we didn’t find those to be necessary.
We looked around at the various options, but quickly realized that one of the best deals is to stay at the Manohara Hotel Borobudur, which is right on the grounds of the temple itself. Not only could we see the temple from the dining room, but the the rates included unlimited entry to the temple for two people. Tickets are $20 per person for foreigners, so for us this was a great value. It also gave us free in/out privileges so we were able to spend some time the first evening we were there and then again the next morning before we left. Though we didn’t pay the extra for the actual sunrise tour, by staying on the grounds of the temple we were able to push our entry a bit ahead of the official gate opening time and were up to the top of the temple in plenty of time to catch the mists rising above the jungle around us.
As you approach the temple you are given a sarong to wear, which is traditional respectful dress and must be worn at many temples across Indonesia. It is basically a large piece of fabric which locals fold and roll to secure around their waist. Like many other tourists, we ended up just tying it at the hip, as it was quickly apparent that our folding and rolling skills were not up to par.
The temple was constructed like a Buddhist mandala, with the idea that the pilgrim would, beginning at the base of the temple, walk counter clockwise around. With each revolution, you would look at and consider the stories being told by the stone panels. Each side of each level has an upper panel and a lower panel, so the devout pilgrim would complete four revolutions of each level contemplating each panel series in turn, before moving on to the next upper level. Each series of panels told different stories, or illustrated various ideas of cause and effect, depicted concepts of punishment and reward, or told the history of Buddha. The basic stories were around the bottom, and the higher you got – and, hopefully the more enlightened – the closer you would get to nirvana. The temple has of course seen a lot of weathering and basic wear and tear over the years – not to mention looting by vandals and souvenir seekers. But considering the carvings are something like 1200 years old and have been exposed to the elements all that time, they are holding up pretty well.
The hotel had a film they played for us about the history of the temple. It was produced in the 80s and was amusingly a little dated, but the information was really interesting. One of the techniques the film used was to show a stone panel, and then it would cross fade to a cartoon version of the panel, which would reveal much more detail of what you were looking at. It was really effective at showing you the wealth of information the panels held if you just knew what you were seeing. Some believe that originally the temple was painted as well, which would have added another layer of detail.
We did not make four complete revolutions of each level, but we did at least one of each on our way to the top. Many people skipped the levels and went straight to the top to catch the views before the heat overwhelmed them, but we were glad we had time to enjoy more of what the temple had to offer us.
The top of the temple was impressive, with a total of 72 Buddha statues seated inside stone bell-shaped stupas. The main stupa at the zenith has no opening, but during restoration projects was revealed to be empty on the inside. There are suspicions by some that whatever might have been inside was carried away by the Dutch administrator that was overseeing the initial excavation of the site, but others speculate that it was created as an empty space on purpose.
Over the two days we had plenty of time to enjoy the views and explore some of the nooks and crannies of the temple. I found it interesting that scattered throughout the temple were various signs, like “No climbing” or “No scratching”. But by far the most common sign we saw said “No smoking”. I liked that bit. (We still saw people smoking. Sigh.)
Also amusing is that surrounding the temple are large “Exit” signs. These signs don’t point towards the actual exit, but just toward a strip of vendors who aggressively try and sell you sarongs and stone carvings and other, ahem, tourist treasures. David was curious to see what it was like but we didn’t make it past the first throng of hawkers to even get to the first actual stand before we were overwhelmed with the general unpleasantness of 15 people yelling at you to buy whatever they were holding, and we fled back to the temple. If anyone reading this makes documentaries, I think it would be a great idea to follow one of these guys around to see their perspective on why they do it the way that they do. Are they really that desperate, or is their aggression just an attempt to outdo their rivals? Does the presence of tourist money bring out the worst in people, or is there a cultural component that we just misunderstand? How much do they need to sell in a day to have their efforts be worth it? There are so many of them (ditto the cab drivers) I suspect it is a very low number of sales they need to sustain themselves. So once they sell their one little statue do they then relax and take the rest of the day off? Being the target of their attention is not enjoyable to someone who has no interest in buying anything, but as an observer I’m absolutely fascinated with what is going on underneath the chaos.
How to get there
From Yogya, Borobudur is about 25 miles out of town. There are, of course, several options to get there, with most people hiring a taxi or taking a mini-van packed with tourists. These are easy options because they pick you up at your hotel and whisk you there straightaway. But of course, David and I had far more interest in taking the slightly more difficult but immensely more interesting local bus.
We started by inquiring at a surprisingly quiet tourist information center. The center seemed to be staffed with young university students and one regular staff member who was either their teacher or their boss. The kids would get both excited and slightly flustered when we walked in, excited to help us but also a little shy and embarrassed at the same time. It was cute. By the time we got to the counter three different kids had scrambled up from their desks and were just beaming at us, hoping we would pick them to talk to. Their English was pretty good, and when they couldn’t answer a question they would defer to the woman who was sitting behind them and was listening intently to everything they said to us. It was hard to tell whether they were getting credit for practicing their English or for some kind of tourism degree. In any case, they were incredibly helpful and gave us what turned out to be excellent instructions.
The next morning we walked to a local bus station on Malioboro Street, right next to where we were staying. There are two different types of public buses, and we were taking the Trans-Jogja, which picked people up at raised platforms along the street that were run by attendants that collected the fares. The guys running the stop didn’t have quite as good English as the students did, but were friendly and confirmed we were in the right place. Which was good, since we were the only Caucasians on the platform. Even better we only waited about 45 seconds before our bus, the 3A showed up. We took that bus a couple of stops, then transferred to bus 2B which we took for roughly a half hour until we got to the Jombor bus terminal. This part of the trip cost us 3000 rupiah (25 cents) each.
Taking non-tourist transportation is always fascinating. It is interesting seeing how people interact with each other in such a mundane setting, away from the tourists. How they negotiate personal space, which ones are amused by us and who ignores us completely. A pre-teen with a slight physical disability got on board and pretty much everyone made room and gave him a helping hand. He sat next to me and when I offered him a stabilizing hand as the bus lurched away from the curb he gave me a huge slightly embarrassed smile. The bus was soon packed and I loved it.
We finally hopped off once we reached Jombor, with several people helpfully indicating this was the place. Now the way it often works with the more long distance travel is that there is a bus (or sometimes multiple buses/pickups/minivans) that are going to be going a certain route. There is usually a driver, and then at least one if not two guys who ride along, yelling out the stops along the way, yelling at people standing on the sides of the road to see if they want to get on, and collecting fares. They sometimes yell a lot more stuff, but I can never tell what that is about. Anyway, when you find the bus at the station, they usually hurry you on the bus to make sure a competing bus doesn’t grab you first. But the bus won’t actually leave until it is full, or at least until the driver feels like he has enough riders to warrant the drive. I’ve never waited more than an hour or so, but I’ve spoken to other travelers who were caught sitting and waiting on a bus for hours until enough passengers showed up.
So as soon as we stepped off the city bus, just from the color of our skin people knew we would be going to Borobudur. There always seem to be people whose job it is just to wander around directing people to the right bus, so we had about four different guys yelling at us pointing the way to the right bus in the parking lot. I didn’t feel like we were in any hurry, but we followed them to the bus and got on. To my surprise, I had no sooner sat down than the driver started the engine and started driving. That kind of timing just does not happen in Indonesia, and we felt very lucky.
Again the bus filled to bursting as we progressed, and we were sandwiched into our two small seats with our bags in our laps. But it was great just watching people. The driver would come to a complete stop to let the old ladies disembark, but for younger guys he would just slow down and they would jump off while the bus was still moving. To our eyes there was no rhyme or reason to where the bus would stop along the road, but people seemed to congregate in certain areas so there must have been official known stops, and anyone could flag the bus down if they wanted on. We did stop for about 15 minutes at another bus station along the way so the driver and attendant could have a little smoke break. The fare seems to vary a little, on the way there we paid 15,000 rupiah each (about $1.25 USD) but on the way back the attendant asked for 20,000 Rp each, or about $1.65. We tried to negotiate on that, but the attendant was firm. He was also friendly about it, so we didn’t argue much over such a trivial amount, even though we felt a little suckered.
When we finally arrived at our station, we then had to get a tuk tuk to our hotel. We knew the hotel was in easy walking distance but did not know in which direction. Our lack of knowledge cost us – the driver charged us another 20,000 Rp for the three minute drive. But it got us there, so again we didn’t feel like griping too much. (We did walk back to the station on the way home.)
I’m very happy I finally made it, we really enjoyed our visit. It is deeply satisfying to feel this kind of connection with so far back into the past. I wish I could meet the people who designed and built it, how interesting that would be!
Have you been to Borobudur? Would you want to go? Tell us in the comments below!
All photos by Robb Hillman and David McMullin