When Bali topped the list to kick off David’s “3-month birthday party,” I knew I had to add Borobudur Temple in Central Java to our itinerary. I first heard of Borobudur 15+ years ago from a Frenchwoman at a conversation group in Paris. Her description of this once-lost magnificent Buddhist temple in the jungle sounded magical. An Internet search confirmed everything she said. Now, after all these years, Borobudur was going to be a short flight away from where we planned to be. The opportunity was irresistible!
Planning months in advance, I had my choice of hotels. The most logical first choice seemed to be the Manohara Hotel, located next door to the temple and the sole source of Sunrise Borobudur tickets. At around $140, it was expensive by local standards, but more of a turn-off were the mediocre reviews of rooms and the restaurant. The grounds looked lovely and the location couldn’t be beat, but the rest looked uninspiring. Hmm. Searching further, I hit on the Amata Borobudur Resort, a place that looked romantic and that seemed more like my ideal of a Javanese retreat.
Amata offered free transportation to Manohara (a ten-minute drive) for Borobudur Sunrise, which was the ticket I wanted. Post-sunrise tickets are cheaper, but also more crowded…and minus sunrise! (The sunrise ticket also includes the loan of a flashlight, a post-temple snack at the hotel and a souvenir batik scarf.) Our mini-van driver walked our little group into the hotel and stood in line to buy the tickets for us which we reimbursed him for in cash or credit card. Tickets are unlimited, so are sold on the morning of entry. Another advantage of the sunrise timeslot is that, while popular, the price and hour mean the crowds are less. (Cruise ships even run tours here from the port at Semarang, which I gather is about a 3-hour drive each way. That means hordes from a ship could descend later in the morning. I’d check online port schedules if doing Borobudur later in the day.)
Sunrise admission to the temple starts at 4:30am. It was a short walk from the Manohara Hotel to the stairs that lead to the top of the 8-9th century temple, which is an atypical structure for Buddhist temples, consisting of a large square pyramid with 72 Buddhas in open, lattice-style stupas on the topmost levels. (“Stupa” is Sanskrit for “heap” and refers to those bell-shaped holy structures common to Buddhist temples.) Borobudur Temple (or “Candi Borobudur” in Indonesian) consists of three tiers comprised of a base of five concentric square terraces, a cone-shaped center with three circular platforms and a large stupa at the very top. When we arrived at the next-to-the-top level, just below the giant stupa, a fair number of people were already waiting in the dark for sunrise. It was not so crowded as to be a problem, disturb the peace of the place, or hinder photography to any great extent.
We were blessed with a perfect morning; blue skies and sweet, fresh air. Birds sang and roosters crowed in distant farms as the sun rose. A light mist filled the valley below. Volcanoes rose in the distance, becoming clearer as time passed. I found the changing light and its effects on the scene mesmerizing and could not help taking way too many photos.
With the sun fully up, we descended, following the pilgrimage trail created by the temple, only in reverse. The lower levels are lined with elaborate relief carvings. In fact, Borobudur boasts the largest and most complete collection of Buddhist reliefs in the world.
We took our time, admiring the carvings and the view. More people began to arrive at the temple as time passed. A few hours was plenty to arrive before dark, enjoy sunrise, and make a leisurely descent. The temple is large, but a single edifice and nothing on the scale of, say, the temple complex at Angkor.
The base of the temple pyramid is surrounded by a stone terrace. The temple is so large, that we had to walk a distance out to be able to take it all in. To our pleasant surprise, the temperature remained delightfully comfortable throughout our visit, another benefit of the sunrise visit. I was totally braced for another sweltering day and expecting to be a sweaty mess a la Angkor in Cambodia (and most places we’d been in Indonesia), so couldn’t have been happier.
Tip for exiting Borobudur: One of the complaints I read repeatedly in reviews of Borobudur was that there seemed to be no way to exit the complex without being routed through a maze of tourist stalls and pushy hawkers. Some claimed it took them 45-minutes to get through this gauntlet. To avoid this, take a path which is to the left of the top of the stairs in the photo below, ignoring the “Exit” signs which direct you to the opposite side of the temple, and follow the signs to Manohara. Even if you did not buy the sunrise ticket, there’s no reason you can’t exit this way toward the hotel and avoid the vendors.
The exit to Manohara routed us to an open-air restaurant on the hotel grounds where we were offered coffee, pastries and a souvenir batik scarf. It was a nice gesture, but we only nibbled. Given our early start, we were back at our hotel in time for an 8-8:30 breakfast.
Practical info: Tickets for Sunrise Borobudur are available through the Manohara Hotel or “Center for Borobudur Study” as it bills itself. The cost is 450,000 idr (about $32pp) for foreign visitors, 325,000 for domestic visitors, and 275,000 (about $19.60pp) for visitors staying in the hotel. Manohara also offers sunset tickets for the same prices. Tour operators may also supply these tickets, but they’re buying them at Manohara.
Regular (not sunrise or sunset) tickets to Borobudur Temple cost 325,000 idr (about $23.15) per adult in 2018. Combo tickets for Borobudur, Mendut and Pawon temples are also available, although we found tiny Pawon temple (which we visited the following day) was open and free with not much to see. Mendut, which we could walk to from our hotel, cost a negligible price at the site. I think less than a dollar, but am not sure.
This post is long enough (all those photos I couldn’t resist!), so I’ll do a separate post on our hotel, Amata Borobudur Resort, just after this one.