I can’t pinpoint when it was that I first realized I wanted to see Borobudur, but it’s been on my list for a while now. Sometimes, when you dream about something for so long, you build it up in your head and end up disappointed when it turns into reality.
This wasn’t the case here.
The hostel was dim and quiet when I walked down to the lobby five minutes before 3:40 AM. I’d gotten probably two hours of sleep, tops, but I wasn’t about to let that get in the way of my plans. The car arrived late enough that I’d worried they’d forgotten about me, but it all worked out. I sat beside the driver and watched the night pass me by as two men chatted in the backseat. Despite the early hour, life stirred on the streets of Yogyakarta, and as we drove closer to Magelang, the more I saw people going about their morning routines.
The sunrise can be viewed from Borobudur itself via Manohara Hotel’s exclusive Sunrise Tour, which gets you inside the temple an hour and a half before the official opening time—for a hefty price of IDR 380.000, that is. Since I was on a tight budget, I opted to watch it from Punthuk Setumbu, or Setumbu Hill.
When we got there, my tour mate Sangsoo and I paid the IDR 30.000 entrance fee then began our trek up the hill. I used my phone’s built-in light to guide me as I navigated the dark, muddy path. My shoes weren’t exactly meant for the 15-20 minute trek, but I made it to the viewpoint in one piece.
Only a handful of travelers had gotten there before us, so we easily staked out our spots and watched as the sky brightened and came to life with streaks of color. At first, it was hard to spot where Borobudur was, because of the darkness and the mist. We soon discovered that it was the structure marked by a point of light.
The sea of mist remained even as dawn broke, but it only added to the magic of the moment. Though more tourists had arrived, there was a blanket of quiet on that hill, as if everyone was soaking in the experience.
Since we wanted to be in Borobudur by opening time before everyone else flocked there, Sangsoo and I left before the sun actually rose. We caught a glimpse of it on the way down and saw that the clouds blocked the sun, so we didn’t regret our decision.
Borobudur was just a quick drive from Setumbu Hill. On the way there, our driver asked us to give him money for the entrance tickets to the temples. However, he quoted us the individual prices for Borobudur and Prambanan when I knew that there was a single-day package ticket that cost much less at IDR 370,000 or $30. See, research pays off! (Additionally, if you have your student ID, you get half off the admission price.)
Sangsoo and I splurged on a tour guide and split the IDR 100.000 price between the two of us. It was well worth it, because he helped us better understand the wonder that is the Borobudur Temple. Plus, he had a trainee with him, so it was like getting two guides for the price of one.
The first sight of Borobudur floored me, much like Angkor Wat did. As incredible as it appeared from the foot of the hill, it became all the more astounding the closer we came to it, especially when I learned the story behind its design and construction.
The name Borobudur is believed to come from Sanskrit words that mean “Buddhist monastery on a hill.” In reality, it’s not on a hill—it’s built around it. Not only is it symmetrical, this monumental structure is also symbolical, representing the Buddhist perception of the universe. It’s known as the largest Buddhist temple in the world and is 300 years older than the Angkor Wat.
To get the full experience, we explored the temple the pilgrim’s way—by circumambulating each level before climbing up to the next. Borobudur is comprised of three main sections, signifying a pilgrim’s journey from earthly desires to enlightenment.
The walls of the temple are carved with incredibly elaborate reliefs. These depict actual Buddhist teachings and everyday scenes of early Javan life. Most of the carvings on the base are “censored” with stone, but a portion on the southern side was uncovered by excavators. This is where our tour guide came especially handy, because he explained what the carvings portrayed.
Hundreds of Buddha statues sit atop the square terraces of Borobudur. Many of them are headless or have missing limbs because of looting. Our tour guide pointed out how the postures of the statues change from one level to the next.
After walking through the narrow, heavily detailed corridors of the main terraces, it felt like a breath of fresh air to reach the temple’s circular platforms. Where the previous levels have plenty of carvings, the top three levels hold so much space and sky—and so many stupas!
Each of the 72 latticed stupas encase Buddha sculptures, but only a number of them are fully intact today.
Only two Buddhas are uncovered, each on opposite sides of the temple. While the stupas on the first two levels have diamond-shaped openings, those on the final platform have square ones. Our guide explained that this change symbolized how, at the end of the pilgrim’s journey, balance and order are achieved. And of course, at the center of it all towers the immense central stupa.
Because I’d traveled to Yogyakarta during the off-peak season, there were few tourists in Borobudur, so I really got to relish the tranquil atmosphere. More than the detailed carvings and the amazing construction, it was the many symbolisms of Borobudur that really made it so memorable and unique to me.
In case you’re wondering how tall those stupas are, here’s how I measured up next to them.
Before leaving Borobudur, we quickly passed by the two museums nearby—Samudraraksa Ship Museum, which housed a huge ship that sailed to Madagscar back in the day, and the Borobudur Museum.
The Borobudur Museum holds hundreds of stones that have yet to be returned to their proper places in the temple. I can only imagine how painstakingly difficult it is to figure out exactly where each of them should go. It’s like a real-life jigsaw puzzle. The museum also showcases artifacts and information about the temple as well as a full gamelan ensemble.
Scroll down for more of my photos at Borobudur!