Just like Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar, Borobudur is the crown jewel of Java in Indonesia. Built some 1200 years ago, in a region known as the garden of Java, Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world and a symbol of the greatness in Indonesia’s past. Its many indigenous carvings and reliefs give Borobudur an undeniably Indonesian character and style.
To best appreciate this magnificent temple, we opted to see it during sunrise. Normally, the public entrance to Borobudur only opens at 6am, just a tad late for sunrise; however, the Manohara Hotel and Center of Borobudur Study offers a special sunrise ticket. With entrance to the grounds beginning at 4:30am, it gave us more than enough time to prepare ourselves for the fantastic views as well as explore the temple for an hour and a half before the mass crowds joined the party.
In preparation for our visit, we booked a round trip van from Yogyakarta that left before 4am, arriving in Borobudur at around 4:45am. We got our tickets from the Manohara hotel and proceeded to the temple grounds, walking up to the top of the stupa-like temple with only our flashlights lighting the way in the otherwise pitch black darkness. Walking through such an exotic temple while it was still dark had quite the explorer and mysterious feel to it.
At the top, we joined the many other people already waiting, grabbing our own spot for the event. At around 5:30, the sky started shifting from pitch black to dark purple and eventually to a beautiful orange tone. But the ever changing colours of the sky were only part of the spectacular views. On the ground, the sunlight slowly revealed the many bell-shaped, perforated stupas surrounding us and the misty forests beyond the temple.
We sat there and admired the view for quite a while. Every minute, the sky seemed to transform the tiniest bit, making everything look just a tad different and even more beautiful than before. We couldn’t look away.
After becoming restless from sitting in one place for so long, we circled around the top levels of the temple, stopping every now and then to appreciate the scenery from all the various directions. One particular favourite location of ours was an exposed Buddha statue (not covered by a stupa), popular for the iconic sunrise silhouette photo.
At 6am, with the sun already high in the sky, the gates opened to the general public, resulting in a wave of people rushing to the top for the last views of the sunrise. We took that opportunity to slowly make our way down to the lower levels and explore the temple. Even though we had to get up before the crack of dawn, it was more than worth it for the stunning sunrise. It felt like the ultimate redemption after trying and somewhat failing three times for sunrise at Angkor Wat. This time we got it in one, and it was spectacular.
Borobudur was built with a total of nine levels. Just like many Buddhist pilgrimage sites, walking towards the top represents the ascension to nirvana – the three bottom levels represent the world of desire, the next three the world of forms, and the top three levels, the world of formless and nirvana. Since we began at the top to watch the sunrise (our nirvana), we slowly made it to the bottom and back to the world of desire, circling each level in the process.
The top three levels were circular in shape, filled with bell-shaped, perforated stupas. One of the first things we noticed, looking closer at each stupa, was that there was a Buddha statue inside each of them! Each level’s stupas had differing perforations. We’ve been to a lot of temples by now, but we’ve never seen structures like these. They’re quite elegant.
Leaving the world of the formless, we joined the world of forms. Each of the three levels in this world were square in shape with no stupas. Instead, the walls on both sides were beautifully carved with intricate reliefs. The low sun rays of the early morning further embellished the relief panels in a golden light. While Angkor Wat had huge galleries spanning entire walls, Borobudur had multitudes of smaller reliefs lined in several levels along the walls. Each depicted a different scene, humans and deities alike, even animals and plants.
From the 2000+ precisely carved relief panels found in Borobudur, over one thousand depicted Buddhist tales – with some of the most famous ones showing the birth of Buddha and the law of karma. We tried to find the most famous panels in each of the levels, but it was difficult with so many. We did manage to find the one where Queen Maya (pregnant with Siddhartha Gautama) rides a carriage to Lumbini in Nepal to give birth to prince Siddartha Gautama.
Descending to the three bottom levels (also squared), the many galleries continued even as the outer perimeter increased. Buddha statues were interspersed throughout the square levels, though in wall niches as opposed inside stupas. While all of them appear similar, the position of their hands differ. This reminded us of that Amazing Race episode where they had to count the number of Buddhas in each hand position. I can now personally attest that it was no easy task!
Our Borobudur visit concluded in a very special way. Usually we first approach a temple as a whole, then upon entry, slowly delve into its details. This time, due to the sunrise circumstances, we did it backwards. Our first glimpses of Borobudur in the light were of its most inner sections, from which we slowly drew out to the bigger picture. This meant that we didn’t see Borobudur as a whole until the very end… and it took our breath away.
Had we not been impressed already, seeing the expansive monument would have more than wowed us. It looked like a thousand smaller mini-temples on top of one another, forming one large layered structure. From up above in the top levels, it was easy to forget how immense the whole temple is. From below, however, it was extremely humbling. We couldn’t have asked for a better final image to take with us when we finally walked away five hours later.
Everything worked out perfectly for our Borobudur sunrise. Even with temple-fatigue (we’ve seen so many!), Borobudur was amazing and one of the greatest temples in the world. Unlike the multi-day marathon that was Angkor, the single temple of Borobudur was short and sweet in comparison. Now we understand why it’s by far the most popular tourist destination in Indonesia. That’s another place that I never imagined I would get to see in person anytime soon off the list!
For more pictures from Borobudur, please visit the gallery!