Borobudur at sunset

The Borobudur temple is one of the main reasons people go to Yogyakarta. It’s a Buddhist temple about an hour outside the city. Actually it’s the biggest Buddhist temple in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Having an accolade like that, it surprised me that I hadn’t really been aware of it before, and we often mispronounced the name (we misprounounce a lot of things, recently telling a taxi driver in Lombok, an island about 500 miles away, that our address on the hill was Borobudur). This was the outsider’s unenlightened ignorance, and we all know the best place to become enlightened about anything is a Buddhist temple.

But I now realise that the temple’s image is often used to promote Indonesia and Java in particular. It’s on the front cover of our Indonesia guidebook, for example, and once in Jogja, it’s clear that going to Borobodur is the thing to do. The most commonly promoted way to see it is with a one day tour along with Prambanan (the Hindu temple where we saw the traditional ballet), which doesn’t make a lot of sense because they aren’t connected in any way and are in different directions once you leave the city. It seemed like it would be a long day, we haven’t had good experiences with organised tours before, and I didn’t want to risk cultural fatigue. Nobody wants to be that idiot who turns up to the world’s largest Buddhist temple and thinks, “yeah, fine, it’s another temple, I’ve seen like 10 of these today”. I don’t really think that is possible now, having been there, but I still prefer to spread things out.

Whether you do it on its own or with Prambanan and other temples, the recurring theme with Borobodur is SUNRISE. Sunrise tours are highly reviewed online, tour companies and locals encourage people to get up early and see the sunrise there. I have no doubt that it’s beautiful at that time, but for various reasons, I decided we’d go for sunset instead.

The practical reason was that Joe is working on this trip, and needs to be doing [insert whatever it is that Joe does] by 7am in this particular timezone. So getting to Borobudur for sunrise and back in time wasn’t really an option, unless we waited until the weekend, and as you’ll know from my last post, we had loads of other stuff to do at the weekend. Like launching my pottery career. I also like to be asleep very early in the morning, and love the golden hour of sunset almost anywhere in the world.

Based on its popularity, I was pretty sure the temple would be swarming with tourists and photographers early in the morning, which is fine, but not conducive to an enlightened, peaceful experience (or the best photographs). I can also tell you something else that isn’t conducive to an enlightened, peaceful experience: being stuck in traffic on your way to Borobudur with the sun quickly setting, thinking you’ve ruined the whole trip by not just doing what EVERYONE told you to do, and going for sunrise.

But guess what? I didn’t ruin it! We made it before sunset and it was absolutely bloody beautiful.

Borobudur.jpg

It’s massive, impressive, imposing, peaceful and eerie all at once. There were a few people there with us, no more than 8, and they seemed to be professional photographers. Borobudur has 9 levels and is quite steep to climb, but there are about 500 Buddhas around to encourage you to keep going. Mostly they are inside the bell-shaped domes, although some of them have been opened up or broken, and you can see their calm sweet faces. I read that it was built around the 8th or 9th century, but spent hundreds of years hidden under volcanic ash and jungle after it was abandoned (presumably due to the volcanic eruption) and I kept imaging how it must have felt to be one of the people who rediscovered it all those years later. It’s an amazing thing to see, even when you know it’s there.

I think my photographs of the temple could be on the cover of a guidebook. I’m obsessed with them. This might sound arrogant, and I just took them on my phone, but I can imagine many people having a similar experience, looking back at their own pictures of Borobudur and thinking THAT LOOKS AMAZING. It’s not that I think I’m an excellent photographer, it’s just that this is one hell of a photogenic temple.

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