Borobudur, the Indonesian temple that remained hidden for centuries

by Tanja

The ancient Borobudur Temple, on the island of Java in Indonesia, is one of those places I have always wanted to visit. It was the first of the month and I was turning the calendar page on the desk of my first summer job – a travel agency – when I saw the image on the back: Borobudur, the world’s biggest Buddhist temple and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since then twelve years have passed, but I have never stopped thinking that one day I would have walked among its big stupas with the rays of sun light shining on the stone faces of the buddhas.

Borobudur Temple

The back side of the calendar 2006

Finally, with the map of Indonesia open in front of me, I marked with the red pencil my unmissable stage of this journey – Will, for its part, chose the Komodo National Park.

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And now here I am, before the magnificence of this sacred place. A place forgotten by time, hidden by the ashes of a volcanic eruption that for centuries has concealed its existence. A place where nature and vegetation have regained what man had built, erasing all traces of it. A place whose beauty and majesty, however, was not completely forgotten. It remained alive in popular tales catching the attention of the English governor Thomas Stamford Raffles who, in 1814, searched and found the legendary mountain-temple built by the ancient Sailendra dynasty.

I think of the excitement that those explorers must have felt when they found a mountain of submerged rock in the jungle… If I had a time machine I would certainly go back there, or at the time of the discovery of Angkor Wat, the Khmer city-temple rediscovered by the explorer Henri Mouhot in the dense Cambodian jungle.

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When we reach the temple, the shadows of the night still obscure its shape. Following the light beam of the torch we discover it one centimetre at a time, unaware of its majesty. Step by step, the rickety light reveals stone eyes watching us from above. A rain dust moistens the air, anticipating a dawn in pastel colours. While we wait for the sunrise in the fresh morning air, a thick fog rises from the forest revealing the beauty of the surrounding landscape. Enveloped by a magical and ancient atmosphere we explore one by one the small bell-shaped stūpa, in each of which a statue of the Buddha is hidden. A surreal peace surrounds us. The hours pass, but we do not notice it. We begin the descent, enchanted by the beauty of the bas-reliefs narrating the life and teachings of the Buddha. Before leaving, we take one last look at the the architecture, so impressive and so discreet at the same time.

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The meaning of Borobudur temple

It is its incredible significance that fascinates all travellers who visit the Borobodur Temple. Ten terraces represent the ten phases of the spiritual journey towards perfection, the nirvāṇa. Seen from above, the Bodobudur Temple is an extraordinary three-dimensional Tibetan mandala – the symbol of the universe.

Immersed in a very green and mysterious nature embraced by a mountain range, the colossal Buddhist monument was built between AD 780 and 840 on a natural hill covered by a carved stone mantle and decorated with 2672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. The architecture has survived Gunung Merapi eruptions, earthquakes and terrorist bombs to remain enigmatic and beautiful as it was 1200 years ago.

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Visiting Borobudur Temple

About 40 km north-west of Yogyakarta, Borobudur sits on a plateau located between two rivers – Progo and Elo – and two twin volcanoes, Sundoro and Sumbing on one side, Merbabu and Merapi on the other. According to local legends it is a sacred area and one of the most magical moments to visit this temple is the sunrise, which can be observed directly inside the temple or from the top of a panoramic hill, the Punthuk Setumbu Hill.

The entrance to the temple of Borobudur before sunrise takes place via the Manohara Hotel. To purchase the ticket, you must show your passport. Together with the map of the site, the hotel delivers small torches and returning them at the end of the tour you will receive a small souvenir. Entering the temple when it is still night has its charm. The beauty of the site and the surrounding landscape gets slowly revealed. The number of people waiting for sunrise is much higher than we expected, but the atmosphere is relaxing and enjoyable. After 7AM school groups, families and buses full of tourists create a lot of confusion. Despite the clouded sky it was well worth waking up in the middle of the night and paying a higher price.

Borobudur Temple
Borodubur entrance fee (updated to 2018):
  • Borobudur Temple 325,000 IDR. Entrance from 6 AM
  • Sunrise from Borobudur Temple 450.000 IDR. Entrance from 4:30 AM
  • Combined ticket Borobudur + Prambanan 520.000 IDR
    This ticket can’t be combined with the sunrise entrance

How to reach Borobudur Temple

There are several ways to reach Borobudur Temple. The easiest way is by car with a private driver that you can book using the GrabCar app. The journey takes about an hour from Yogyakarta airport to the temple. Many organised tours depart from Yogyakarta and some of them offer a combined day trip of the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan.

Alternatively you can get to Borobudur by bus, the journey will be longer but it is certainly cheaper. Buses (Cemera Tunggal and Ragil Kuning) leave from the Jombor terminal in the north of Yogyakarta. They travel regularly from 6 AM to 4 PM and the cost is 30K IDR (€ 1,80). The route takes about an hour and a half. The last bus returning to Yogyakarta from the Borobudur Temple leaves at 4 PM.

We chose to spend a few days in the Borobudur area and to get to the temple we used the bicycles provided by the hotel. To reach the hotel we used GrabCar at the cost of 190K IDR each way. Given the frictions with official taxis offering rates from 300K IDR upwards, GrabCar can not offer airport pick-up. However the solution is easy. Exit the airport, reach the taxi area, turn right and at the traffic light turn left. About 4 minutes on foot and you will find your GrabCar waiting for you!

Borobudur Temple

Where to sleep around Borobudur Temple

The village around Borobudur Temple is surrounded by rice fields and incredible landscapes. We spent three nights at the Rumah Dharma Hotel, a peaceful oasis, fifteen minutes walk from the temple. A guide cycled with us to the Borobudur entrance and waited on us to cycle back to the hotel. In the afternoon we used the free bikes to explore the area. Along the way we found authentic, hand-made lava stone souvenirs in the Rik Rok store, and we were also invited to a local girl’s birthday party. People here are so welcoming! The restaurant of the hotel offered breakfasts, lunches and dinners based on delicious local food and a swimming pool with panoramic views.

Borobudur Temple

Did you enjoy the story of our visit at the Borobudur Temple?
Why don’t you check out our encounter with the orangutas of the Indonesian Borneo!

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