When visiting Indonesia most travelers tend to make a beeline to the tourist mecca of Bali. However, since it is significantly more expensive to fly directly into Bali, I opted to start my trip in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. Not only did this save me a couple hundred bucks, but it gave me the chance to explore the cultural and natural wonders of the island of Java. If you’re visiting Java, the tourist trail will eventually lead to the city of Yogyakarta, the base for visits to the world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobudur. Borobudur was built around 800 CE and with thousands of intricately carved relief panels and hundreds of awe-inspiring Buddha statues, it still stands out as an impressive architectural and artistic feat of human history. A stop-off at this ancient wonder is pretty much obligatory and will likely be one of the most memorable experiences of your trip.
The temple appears to have been abandoned sometime in the 14th century, coinciding with the decline of Hindu power and the rise of Islam on Java. Borobudur was lost for hundreds of years, buried under thick jungle and volcanic ash until it was finally rediscovered in 1814. After a series of restorations, the temple was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 and is now the most visited tourist site in Indonesia. And, from my experience, it’s well worth a visit.
As some of you already know, I’m not really a big fan of package tours so I planned on visiting the temple independently from Yogyakarta. However, I’d also heard rave reviews from fellow travelers about seeing the temple during sunrise. Unfortunately, taking public transport at such an early hour was not really an option, since I wouldn’t have arrived until well after sunrise. The only other affordable choice would have been to rent a motorbike, but since Yogyakarta is located 25 miles (40 km) from the temple, I didn’t really trust myself to navigate a foreign city’s streets at 3:30 in the morning. So I opted to take a tour.
If you’re based in Yogyakarta, most tour agencies offer two tours to Borobudur. The “sunrise tour” (400,000 rupiah) leaves at 3:30am and buys you access to the park before it actually opens so you can witness the sun come up from atop the temple. The second option (280,000 rupiah) departs around 5am and gets you to the park at 6am when the park opens, just after sunrise. I opted for the latter, since it was cheaper. This option includes minivan transport and admission to the park – it does not include a guide.
By the time we got to the temple there were dozens of other minivans scattered around the parking lot. Thankfully, I was traveling during the low season, so there weren’t too many tourists that morning. There was something quiet and peaceful about the grounds and as I walked around Borobudur I was in awe. It’s beautiful and it’s astonishing that this cultural relic survived for over a millennium. The pyramid-shaped structure is made up of nine platforms. I spent over two hours walking slowly around each layer of the temple, taking in the 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. Borobudur is absolutely amazing. And trust me when I say it is truly worth the trip to Java.
- Free coffee – There is free coffee inside the ticket office. This was kind of necessary given the early hour!
- Bring your student ID – I wish I would have known this beforehand, but there is a substantial discount on the admission fee if you have a student ID. The rate for foreigners is 230,000 rupiah versus 110,000 rupiah for foreign students! If you’re a student, don’t buy your ticket from the tour agency. Simply pay 75,000 rupiah for a seat in a minivan and buy your ticket at the park. (Note: My student ID is long expired but I use it anyway!)
- What to wear – While visiting cultural sites in Indonesia, I constantly stressed about what to wear. Given the intense heat I always wanted to wear shorts and a tank top, but since this can be culturally insensitive in a Muslim country I always covered up. However, at Borobudur all tourists are wrapped in a sarong, so don’t worry if you’re wearing shorts. You won’t be turned away.
- Bring an umbrella – Borobudur is entirely outside and there is no protection from the elements. It started pouring as I was leaving the park. Better to be safe than sorry!
- Visit the museum – The museum has really interesting photos and paintings of what the structure looked like when it was discovered and the work that went into restoring it. It also gives a good idea of the meaning and history behind the monument’s reliefs, statues and design.
- Think about getting a guide – I was too cheap to hire a guide. However, I do regret not getting one as I would have learned a lot more about this amazing relic.
Are you a temple fiend, like me? What’s the most amazing temple you’ve visited during your travels?