Borobudur is the jewellery in the Javanese historical crown. It has the most exquisite architecture, magnificent carving, and spectacular location of any ancient site in Java.
Built one thousand years ago by Buddhist monks, back when Java was partly Buddhist. It’s a pyramid, 118m by 118m, whose sides are decorated with the engravings that tell stories and give lessons. At the top, meant to represent Nirvana, are stupas, each with a Buddha inside them, and a massive central stupa. Borobudur’s stupas are even the image of my guidebook’s front cover, beating the whole of the rest of Indonesia to it.
Yeah. It was worth a look.
The only negative thing about Borobudur is that everyone in Indonesia also knows how astonishing it is — as do everyone in the world. So although it’s a breathtaking masterpiece, you’re not alone in enjoying it.
The way most foreign tourists experience Borobudur is by going to a nearby village at sunrise and seeing the mist rise above the nearby mountains and the temple itself. And so we found ourselves climbing a candlelit path up the side of a muddy hill and standing in the milky light, looking for the stupas to rise through the mist.
Obviously, us being us, the clouds and mist was as thick as a duvet.
When we jumped in the minibus on the way back down, a man from the local village sat playing the drum and singing to us, but at a distance, surrounded by chikdren. Already a bit fuzzy from the early hour, I found this a bit confusing: what did he want? He was too far away for money. Was he just… being nice? Being normal?
Next up was the temple itself.
It opened at 6am and our tour headed in through the foreigners’ entrance, where we had a complimentary cuppa in exchange for paying the outrageous sum of 200,000IDR each to enter. Our first Borobudur tour the previous day did not turn up at 4am as scheduled, so we lost the ability to use the multi-pass ticket for both sites. Grumpy. (Although this meant we only wasted just over £10, so I should have really had more perspective.)
Again, the site reminded me a lot of the Taj Mahal: hundreds of people there essentially for a photo shoot. Teenage boys were taking group shots, pursing their lips and looking cool like bands on an album cover; elderly women were staggering up the path, holding their relatives’ hands; little kids were running around, too young to engage, being pushed into poses to have photos and staring at me and Matt as we walked past, open-mouthed.
It was as busy as a market. When places are this busy it helps you feel as though you’re looking with someone; that you’re not just checking out a pile of rocks alone, but it also makes it much more tiring.
We followed the established route of walking clockwise around the temple, ascending a level each time. We didn’t fork out for a guide, having done so for Prambanan, so we didn’t understand the stories, fables and legends that were engraved — but we knew they were beautiful. When I see carvings like this, what always gets me is when they contain some emotion — dancing, or crying, or embracing. To be able to look back one thousand years and feel what the carver of the image intended you to feel just blows my mind. And they just went on and on and on, all so detailed and exquisite.
As we climbed higher, the subjects of the stories were beings that were higher and higher karma reincarnations, until the final layer, which was solely bodhisattvas (enlightened beings, like the Buddha). The top was packed with people; any hope I had of taking a photo as beautiful as the ones on Google was dashed, as well any hope of just being able to sit there and enjoy the historical atmosphere and the view.
Something the guidebook didn’t mention was how outrageously beautiful the scenery was around the site, as well. As Matt said, we could have made a whole day of it: slowly processing each set of engravings, then spending time at the top seeing the scenery change with the moving sun. But we were on a deadline, so we couldn’t — and after two hours, we found that we couldn’t process what we were seeing eventually either. It’s like when you’ve spent too long at a museum, and your enthusiasm for the subject hasn’t changed, but your mind can’t take in any more.
We were also exhausted for another reason: it was barely ten minutes before we had our first request for a selfie. That makes us sound like celebrities, but I promise you, that’s what it’s like. People took photos with us perhaps a dozen times during the time we were there.
At one point, two girls who were perhaps twelve years old approached us and gave us comprehensive interviews, recorded on their phones, which included asking for our suggestions on how we could improve Indonesia and asking how much we made a month. It was adorable to see them grimace when they forgot their lines, or pronounce things strangely and let us correct them, but it was also incredibly annoying.
We missed our deadline by about five minutes, and had to wolf down the tiny complimentary breakfast provided by a hotel within spitting distance of the temple. Getting up at 03.15 for a second day had been torturous, and we slept all the way back to the hotel, and then two hours when we got there.