Borobudur, Indonesia – Java’s Monumental Buddhist Stupa
Borobudur is the Angkor Wat of Java, the Indonesian island between Bali and Sumatra. The world’s largest Buddhist monument, it is colossal in size, decorated with splendid sculptures and elaborate bas-reliefs, and looks like a lotus flower from above. It was the reason we went to Indonesia.
If you were heading to Bali this week or you’re there now and planning to escape due to the supposedly “imminent” eruption of the Mount Agung volcano – for the first time in 50 years – then consider hightailing it to Yogyakarta, just over an hour’s flying time, on the neighbouring island of Java.
Lively Yogyakarta is a compelling city, with some fascinating sights, fantastic markets and brilliant shopping, terrific street food, as well as super affordable accommodation with swimming pools, from luxurious five star hotels to small boutique hotels with character and style.
But Yogyakarta is best known as a base for visiting beautiful Borobudur (above) and Prambanan, sprawling Buddhist and Hindu temples to rival Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, as well as lush tropical forests, abundant rice terraces, coffee and tea plantations, and empty beaches. It’s Bali without the crowds.
Borobudur, Java’s Monumental Jungle Buddhist Stupa
I’d wanted to visit Indonesia for Borobudur and Yogyakarta, an hour’s drive from the colossal Buddhist monument, for as long as I could remember. As a child, I recalled my young hippy uncle saying the Javanese city’s strange name – pronounced “Jogjakarta” – as he recounted crazy tales from his travels around Asia, showing slides (remember those?) that he projected onto the walls of our living room.
I sat in a dark purple leather bean bag – it was the 1970s after all – and I was utterly entranced by the image of the enormous squat building that looked like a squashed wedding cake, topped with serene Buddha statues instead of a bride and groom. What made Borobudur even more beguiling was that it sat in a misty jungle, watched over by two immense mountains that I’d later learn were volcanoes – Merapi and Bromo. (Don’t worry, they’re not about to explode.)
I’m not sure why I waited so long to go to Borobudur, but, as those Trip Advisor reviewers seem to be required to say, “it didn’t disappoint”.
Borobudur is the main reason that travellers head to Yogyakarta in West Java, not the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan, which we made a beeline for immediately after arriving to take advantage of the gorgeous weather. It was monsoon season when we visited so we had to make the most of the blue skies that welcomed us.
The first thing that I need to tell you about Borobudur, around 40km to the north west of Yogyakarta, is that it’s not a Buddhist temple as you’ll read time and time again. Constructed in the late 8th to early 9th centuries, the UNESCO World Heritage listed site that is the world’s largest Buddhist monument is actually a stupa – a structure built to hold the remains of kings, monks, nuns, and noble men, that also serves as a site of pilgrimage and meditation.
As the world’s largest Buddhist monument, pyramid-shaped Borobudur is a magnet for pilgrims from all over Asia. On the morning that I finally got to make my pilgrimage, there was a multicultural mix of Buddhist monks from Tibet, Bhutan, China, and Japan, who, after taking in the sunrise, sat cross-legged on the highest level of the stupa, facing the forested covered hills and chanted in Pali.
To travellers like us, Borobudur is a thing of beauty and splendour – a gargantuan work of art and architecture set in a heavenly setting. To history buffs like myself it filled some gaps in my knowledge of Asian history and helped me to make sense of so much that mystifies me around the Southeast Asian region. But to Buddhist monks it’s a site of spiritual pilgrimage.
Thought to have been commissioned by the kings of central Java, Borobudur appears to have been abandoned just over a century after completion when the centre of power shifted to the eastern side of Java – which seems extraordinary when you think of how much trouble they went to in order to build the thing.
In A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices and Tsunamis, Tim Hannigan writes that “the structure – standing at the junction of the Progo and Elo Rivers – amounted to 1.5 million blocks of chiselled grey andesite, and when it was finished it was the biggest Buddhist monument on earth”.
Hannigan writes that construction probably began around 760AD and took some seventy years, and that the stone was quarried from the nearby rivers and hauled up the hill to be set in the shape of a “monumental mandala. Nine concentric terraces were raised, the lower six square in form, the upper trio a set of shrinking concentric circles, culminating in a single stupa”.
Some historians reckon closer to two million stones were used. Either way, they are packed tightly together without mortar or any other adhesive or aid to hold them together, just as the Angkor temples were built.
On the lower levels are galleries featuring some 3,000 beautiful bas-reliefs on decorative panels and carved sculptures, which represent Buddhist teachings, while 500 Buddha statues sit serenely on the 29-metre stupa’s terraces, including 72 smaller perforated bell-shaped stupas, each of which contains a Boddhisatva, and surrounds a central stupa.
This is where the early-risers who have bought a special ticket go to watch the sunrise, after having climbed the steep steps once reserved for pilgrims. Most will erect their tripods in the direction of the sun, however, Terence and I found ourselves on the opposite side taking photos of the misty vistas over the tree canopies to the volcanoes of Merapi and Bromo – which are not about to erupt, don’t worry.
Are you in Bali or considering heading to Bali and worried about the imminent eruption of Bali’s Mount Agung volcano? See this excellent live coverage on Australia’s ABC website. This volcanologist’s site has links to everything from information on Agung volcano, the hazard zones, and the people displaced by the activity to interactive maps with the danger zones. This page explains what to expect from a volcanic eruption and how to prepare and take shelter.
How to Visit Borobudur Temple
Getting to Borobudur Temple
Borobudur is 46kms northeast of downtown Yogyakarta, or around a one-hour drive. You can get there by taxi, hire a car at the airport, or take a public bus from Jombor bus station using TransJogja.
We visited Borobudur temple for sunrise as part of a bespoke itinerary with locally-owned Pamitran Tours, which we highly recommend. Email Charlotte on firstname.lastname@example.org
Borobudur Ticket Prices
US$20 adults / US$10 children Borobudur only
US$32 adults / US$16 children Borobudur and Prambanan, valid for 2 days**
US$33 adults & children 11+ years / US$16.50 children 6-10 years Borobudur sunrise/sunset package 4.30am-6.15pm ***
* these prices are for foreign tourists; check prices here if you’re a domestic tourist.
** the Borobudur sunrise is not included in this package
*** the sunrise package includes coffee and pastries
Borobudur Opening Hours
Borobudur’s standard opening hours are from 6am-5pm. Only visitors who have purchased the Borobudur sunrise/sunset package can enter at 4.30am and stay after 5pm. We highly recommend the sunrise/sunset experience, as it’s cooler and the light is obviously better for photographs.
How Long to Spend at Borobudur
How long you take after the sun rises depends on how you’re feeling after your early start. If you want to do a lap of each level and take your time examining the bas-reliefs in detail, you could easily spend a couple of hours here after sunrise. We noticed that a lot of the sunrise starters were leaving as most standard ticket holders were arriving, perhaps weary from the early wake-up call.
If you’re a history and archaeology enthusiast, you can easily spend half a day here.
Unlike Prambanan temple, which consists of four temples and hundreds of shrines (albeit some little more than rubble), Borobudur is essentially the one monumental temple. We recommend starting with sunrise, but don’t spend your whole time focused on the sun. Wander around the top level of the temple to take in the changing light and fog lifting over the forest with the silhouettes of the mountains beyond. When you’re done, take your time to appreciate the bas-reliefs on each level, then do a lap of the whole temple from the ground to appreciate the colossal size of the temple.