Borobudur, Java, Indonesia
Borobudur, on the Indonesian island of Java, has been high on our to do list of ancient site visits for a number of years, particularly after visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia. While it is not as extensive as the sprawling complex of Angkor Wat, the opportunity to climb on to the world's largest Buddhist Temple, in order to experience a spectacular sunrise, was a highly anticipated adventure.
Visiting iconic sights is always daunting. Expectations are invariably high – countless images have been seen before, and much has already been read. And you know the reality will most likely involve crowds and queues and miffed photo opportunities. But you hope the hype is justified…
We can confirm - Borobudur is worth the hype. While not as well known or oft-visited as Angkor Wat, it has a unique beauty and mystique that make it well worth the journey.
Borobudur is in central Java, an hours drive from our arrival airport of Yogyakarta. As we depart Yogyakarta, the sprawling city slowly gives way to the volcanic mountains and terraced rice paddies of the verdant Borobudur region. Bathed in misty low cloud on the afternoon of our arrival, it is serene and atmospheric.
We are staying at Villa Borobudur (see our upcoming review shortly) - a boutique property nestled in the lush hills above Borobudur. Here our vast private pool hangs out over the jungle, and there are mesmerising views through the valley to Borobudur and the volcanoes beyond.
We are here to see Borobudur, and so shortly after our afternoon arrival, we are heading back down the hill for our first glimpse. At this time of the day, the temple complex is uncrowded, and we wend our way over and around the temple.
Unlike other temple complexes around the world, and elsewhere in Indonesia, Borobudur is really only a single temple, a pyramidal stack of nine concentric platforms, six square and three circular. Each stone platform is decorated with elaborate carved reliefs and Buddha statues, but it is the uppermost level, with its iconic bell-shaped stupas, that is the most impressive. We stay until closing time, for the last of the afternoon light.
The next morning, we return well before dawn, but this time we are not alone - there are fellow sunrise-seekers peppering every available vantage point, torches and mobile phones twinkling in the gloom. There are overheard conversations about which way is east. Selfie-sticks clash like light sabers. And everyone is trying to work out the perfect angle for the perfect shot.
As dawn approaches, the excitement (and overcrowding) builds. It is not a mystical experience by any stretch of the imagination, more of an enthusiastic cacophony. But the 5:45am time of sunrise comes and goes with no ecclesiastic burst of light - just an almost imperceptible change from dark grey to slightly lighter grey - the clouds are thick this morning. There is a collective exhalation, a communal disappointment. Cameras click in resignation, selfies are snapped to record the moment, if nothing more.
The monument clears quickly - the "sunrise" tour is finished and the tour groups depart shortly after 6:00am - back to the hotels for breakfast or to depart in minivans. While not empty, the temple is now much more peaceful, and it is possible to appreciate the atmosphere of this ancient wonder. And photos become feasible. We wander over the uppermost platform, capturing its many beautiful facets.
And then, wondrously, sunrise part II happens - the sun, still low on the horizon, burns through its cloud cover and illuminates the monument in spectacular colour, revealing the warmth of the stone and the many hues of the carved stupas. It is glorious and ethereal, and definitely worth the wait.
Know Before You Go
How to Get to Borobudur
Borobudur is located approximately an hours drive northwest of Yogyakarta, itself an hour flight from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, or an hour and a half flight from the popular tourist destination of Denpasar in Bali.
Many hotels, including our hotel Villa Borobudur, include transfers from Yogyakarta in their accommodation packages.
The entrance to the site is via the Manohara Hotel which is actually in the grounds of the Temple. The daily sunrise tours leave from the hotel's Witarka Resto (outdoor restaurant).
On your journey to or from Borobudur, don't miss the almost-as-impressive Hindu temple complex of Prambanan, located 20km northeast of Yogyakarta.
The Temple of Borobudur
Borobudur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the world's largest Buddist temple.
The temple consists of nine stacked levels with a central dome cap. The levels are variously decorated with Buddhist reliefs and statues.
The reliefs include the depiction of the story of Prince Siddhartha and his journey to becoming the Buddha including his first encounter with an "old" man, his 49 days of meditation and ultimately his "Enlightenment".
The central dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a stupa (one stupa has had its top half removed to reveal the Buddha inside) and it is these stupas that provide the most iconic images of the temple, and are most in demand for that heart-worthy Instagram post.
Visiting the Temple of Borobudur
Sunrise is clearly the most popular time to visit, and the truth is it can be difficult to achieve that perfect shot with the sun just rising over a stupa without also capturing a number of equally eager, and sometimes equally frustrated, tourists.
Predicting the crowds, we actually choose to explore the temple over three separate occasions all at varying times. The first was in the afternoon to soak up the atmosphere in the light of the golden hour. The second was the obligatory sunrise visit. The third was mid-morning (after breakfast) accompanied by an enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable guide who provided us with detailed explanations of the history of the temple and the meaning of the reliefs. If you have the time to spend in Borobudur, we would highly recommend a two night stay, which allows this approach (plus also some downtime at your enticing accommodation - see our upcoming review of Villa Borobudur).
If you are visiting at dawn, be patient - tour groups depart shortly after sunrise, and then the beautiful early morning light can be appreciated without the crowds.