To Borobudur And Beyond!
23 May 2014
Will and I had our first stop at Borobudur, on Indonesia’s island of Java. It is home to the largest Buddhist monument in the world. Constructed in the 8th and 9th centuries and abandoned somewhere around the 14th century, Borobudur was largely forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1814. It is the most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia, and is still a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.
Borobudur is about 45 minutes from the much larger city of Yogyakarta, a city of half a million people that most visitors to Borobudur use as a base. We had heard that the monument is best seen at sunrise, when the first rays of the sun illuminate the 72 stupas. To make sure we were able to get to the top of the temple by sunrise, we traveled by taxi to a nearby village and spent the night in a hotel on the outskirts of town. At 4:30 the next morning and met our becak driver at the front gates of our hotel for the 15 minute drive to the entrance of the national park.
The grounds of the park don’t officially open until 6 a.m., but sunrise was at 5:03 a.m. How was this going to work? Answer: An office is actually located on the grounds of the Borobudur Temple Complex, and sells tickets for a special sunrise tour that gets you into the park before any other visitors are let in.
We bought our tickets at $38 each and received our two complementary flashlights and the mandatory sarongs to cover our legs for modesty reasons, as befits a visit to a Buddhist temple. Then we began the long climb up the many stairs to the top, in the dark.
There were about 30 people at the top of the monument, but the structure is so large it didn’t feel crowded. Most of the visitors took up positions along the east side, so they could look out over the horizon for the coming sunrise. I was running around with my camera and tripod, trying to capture the scene of all the stupas in the gloaming.
The sun showed itself right on cue a few minutes after 5 a.m. and was fully up and in the sky a few minutes later. After another hour of walking around and taking photos, we started to head down the monument, stopping at each level to walk around the perimeter and look at the carvings, which apparently told the story of Buddha’s life and enlightenment.
The stonework for the walkway on each level is made up of hand-carved bricks, all perfectly fitted with their neighbors. Amazing.
By 6:30, we were down on the ground and, with the grounds now officially open, the crowds had started to arrive. We walked back to the hotel, dropped off our borrowed sarongs, and picked up our complimentary breakfast of fruit juice and a croissant at a restaurant with a nice view of the monument.
Our driver, Lukini, offered to take us around to see some temples the afternoon we got to town.
I asked Lukini if he had any other tips, and he suggested this: “Bring snacks.” Keep in mind that he offers this suggestion for literally every situation, but there you go: bring snacks, and maybe a bottle of water. There is a cursory bag check, and liquids are nominally prohibited, but we had no problems bringing a water bottle and a few granola bars.
If you’re addicted to serious photography, a tripod or some type of support system for long-exposure shots is crucial. A wide-angle lens would come in very handy when you’re trying to capture the breadth of the monument. I had an 18mm lens that didn’t feel nearly wide enough. A fisheye would be awesome, but who really travels with those? Hehe. One of your biggest challenges is going to be trying to keep the power lines and lighting poles that encircle the monument out of your shot. Move your feet, crouch down, move the camera a few feet in one direction or another, and try to get them blocked by one of the stupas, or prepare to spend a lot of time in post-production removing power lines from your photos. The stupas provide a fun opportunity to practice light-painting with a flashlight when it’s still dark before the sun comes up. But you may want to bring your own flashlight to do this.
After the Borobudur experience, we flew back to Jakarta, booked our trip via Shangri-La mobile app and spent a fabulous stay at Shangri-La, Jakarta Hotel! Life is good! ;)