Bali, batik and Bintangs – these are easily the first associations Australians make when they think of Indonesia. Add the ancient Buddhist temple of Borobudur to that list now, I say.
You hear about the sheer architectural mastery that went in to creating the structures, you learn about the rich history that cradles the monument, you see photographs that document intricate stone carvings etched into walls.
You think you are ready for it.
But really, nothing prepares you for the majestic sight of Borobudur. Bathed in the glorious first rays of the day, she peeps out from behind the veil of fog like a newly-wed bride. The green fronds of the endless expanse of coconut and teak trees assume an ethereal glow, amplifying the grand contrast of solid grey against the lush greenery of the valleys between which she is wedged even more. I had never witnessed such beauty ever before.
Borobodur lays in the city of Yogyakarta, Java island’s arts and culture epicentre. Jogja, as it’s more affectionately known by locals, is a whimsical place where the pace of daily life is in a race only against time itself.
I began my journey in Jakarta, catching an overnight train from Gambir station. It ensured that I made it just on time to catch the magnificence of a Borobudur sunrise. Although travelling economy class might proof to be a bit of a discomfort, it is by far cheaper. Your travel experience will also be much more authentic. Throughout the eight hour journey, touts come on board the carriages at various stops along the way interrupting sleep, as they try to sell their ware – steaming hot black kopi (coffee), crispy goreng pisang (banana fritters) and an assortment of kachang (nuts).
My travel companions and I arrived at Yogyakarta station, 40km northwest of Borobodur. It was 4am. The skies were getting ready to reveal the first rays of sunlight. We were headed to Plataran Borobodur Resort – apparently the best viewing point from which to watch the sun make its grand appearance not just over the monument, but also Mount Merapi; a currently dormant volcano.
Located on the hills of Tanjungan Village, the resort is a five minute drive from the temple itself and an hour from the city centre. We had made arrangements with the resort before we departed Jakarta to send over a driver to collect us from the station. We would not have made it in time otherwise. Of course, the luxury to enjoy an undisturbed moment in solitude comes at a price (Rp200,000), but the addition of a three-course breakfast following the sunrise fuels you up to conquer the long day ahead.
Getting dropped off by a private driver at the foot of the national park is highly recommended. If you are game enough to navigate your own way to the temple though, there are buses that depart from Giwangan bus terminal in Yogyakarta and drops off in Borobudur bus station which is a little over the 1km walk from the temple.
Built in the 9th century, Borobudur exists as both a shrine to Buddha, and as a place of pilgrimage til this day. A testament to the presence of Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms in the region during the time, it is one of many structures that were constructed by the proud ruling dynasties of Java. Power shifts from Central Java to West Java resulted in the abandonment of these temples by the 14th century, and were left to be ravaged by local vegetation and volcanic eruptions.
The absence of written records of its mysterious origins, only serve to add to the temple’s allure. Buried under volcanic ash from neighbouring Mount Merapi, its existence was rediscovered by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1814 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The national park Borobodur is housed in is naturally a thriving tourist attraction, drawing throngs of people both Indonesian and foreign. Hawkers will persuade you into buying the myriad of local handicraft as you walk through the park, but resist the temptation, for you don’t want anything distracting you as you brace yourself for the splendour that awaits, just behind the gates.
Interestingly, there are different ticket prices for foreign and local visitors.
Adult foreigner: IDR 190.000
Registered student foreigner: IDR 95.000
Although a little disheartened that foreigners were being charged higher, I was reassured knowing that the fees would go into the restoration efforts of the structure.
Moving along, a sarong is hastily fashioned around my waist out of respect for the temple, the temple officials inform me. Bear in mind that dressing modestly is the least you could do to show reverence for not just the monument, but also to protect yourself from the scorching midday sun.
Aesthetically, Borobodur is a fusion of ancient Indian architecture and the traditional terraced sanctuaries of Indonesian artistry. Ascending the steep steps to each terrace, I feel myself being led into an intricate cosmology, immortalized in stone. With each step, I hoped to find a revelation. The carvings on the story panels that graced each corridor concern the birth of the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni) and his early life.
My fingers trace the grooves and edges of the story carved into the wall surface. I marvel at the aptitude of the mason who must have painstakingly chipped away at the stone to evoke such spirituality. Did he ever expect his skillful mastery be appreciated by someone like me, centuries on? What a shame, that exposure to harsh weather elements have worn away at the finer details. These walls must hold the echos of all the secret whisperings and prayers of the monks and worshippers from generations past. I look at the row of Buddhas perched on the edge. Some sat beheaded, while others watched over their kingdom, spanning the expanse of the bountiful paddy fields.
My being is pensive, it’s meditative. Calm shrouds me in its protective embrace. Nirvana felt like it wasn’t too far off. My initial wonderment remains intact despite the occasional group of curious Indonesian school children wanting a photograph with me, breaking the spell I was in.
The final tier opens up to the surrounding beauty of the monument’s location. It is comparatively less ornate and intricate to the lower terraces, symbolising the transcendence from earthly forms and desires, to a heightened state of enlightenment. Bell shaped stupas house statues of Buddha – 504 in fact, each one facing out toward the vast landscape. These very stupas have been the structures I had come to associate the most with the magnificent Borobudur. The most impressive stupa of all, close to 10m in diameter, resides at the epicentre of the temple.
As I end my descent, I take one last glimpse of the epic structure, silently bid it farewell, hoping my pilgrimage has earned me the blessings of the benevolent Buddha. The grandeur and complexity of the temple resonated within me. I knew that the images that I had captured would struggle to convey the depth and sense of awe with which I marvelled at. To say that my visit to Borobodur was life-changing would be far-fetched. However, it definitely was mind-expanding. To bask in the presence of one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in the world; still standing strong despite being pillaged by invaders and ravaged by natural elements, was humbling to say the least.
As the day fades past, you might want to consider lunch options. Around the complex of Borobodur itself, there is not much to rave about. Overpriced for the hoards of tourists who come through, it is not worth your time. Upon our driver’s recommendation, we were headed to Saung Makan Bu Empat, an establishment with a bamboo interior and miniature fountains in the entrance (Jl Borobudor, Nyrajek) for a taste of fresh seafood and thirst quenching juices. He sang the praises of their buttered prawns and fried fish. We later found out that it was not at all an exaggeration, with prices ranging between Rp45,000-Rp70,000.
On my way back to the van to lunch, I decided to peruse the handicrafts and souvenirs on display by the endless string of street vendors. There were handcrafted leather bags and sandals, wayang kulit (shadow puppets) made of teak wood and filled in with intricate designs, multi-coloured woven baskets, key chains and other little trinkets on offer.
It is no secret that haggling is an art-form in Southeast Asia. If you’re interested in purchasing something from one of the vendors, keep this in mind, but don’t push it. For most of these stall owners, your purchase determines their livelihoods for the day, so be considerate. Prices range from between Rp50,000 for trinkets to Rp300,000 for leather goods.
As I hand over money in exchange for a pair of wayang kulit puppets, the hawker touts, “Miss, here, statue for you!” shoving a miniature Borobudur replica in to my hands.
I walk away, with a piece of Borobudur with me forever.