April 18, 2014

Borobudur. Reaching Nirvana before the tour groups arrive. Java.

Borobudur is one of the most visited sites in Java. Justifiably so, as the 9th century Buddhist temple is a beautiful and inspiring site to visit. It had been on my bucket list for years, and after having my fill of volcanoes, it was time get my history fix.

As with other great temples in Asia, such as Angkor Wat, the temples had been abandoned and lost to ash and foliage. Borobudur was rediscovered in the nineteenth century when Java was under the rule of the British and Sir Stamford Raffles sent out a team to look for a big monument in the jungle which was the source of Javanese antiques being sold to the troops.

I did not realise until I got to Borobudur that the temple had been closed for two weeks after the Kelud volcanic eruption. There were fears the ash and acid rain would damage the monument, and it had been covered in tarpaulins. It had re-opened only the day before I arrived.

I wanted to get to the temple early, as I had heard it was over run by many thousands of tourists later in the day. I arrived the previous night and made my way to a decent sounding hotel, Lotus II, recommended by a friend. It was also featured in the Lonely Planet, which should automatically mean avoid due to the popularity and price increases that occur after recommendation. It did look nice, but it was totally full. Walking into the centre of town I bumped into Joko Supriyono (see Far Flung Travel Tips below for contact details) who organises both home stays in the villages around Borobudur, and stays in locally owned hotels (big business from Jakarta has begun to dominate many of the hotels in town). The hotel he arranged was remarkably cheap, had great wi-fi, and my room overlooked tranquil rice paddies, with the top of the temple visible in the distance.

Getting up early I was first in line when the temples opened at 06:00. You can actually pay 300,000 Rupiah (US$30) to get into the site even earlier at 4:30 from the Hotel Manohara, which borders Borobodur, for a sunrise tour. It may be worth it at certain times of the year, but in March, sunrise was just after the temples normally opened and I could see no benefit. I walked up and around the temple, which is built as a step pyramid, admiring the beautiful stone carvings before I reached the top, Nirvana to the faithful, where many stone stupas are arranged in circles. There were only a handful of people with me, and most left after taking shots of the sun rising. I stayed, sitting and watching the mists slowly evaporate, and felt a huge amount of inner calm. It was the most peaceful and spiritual place I have ever visited.

At 08:00 on the dot the tourist hordes arrived; day trippers from Yogyakarta, school children, and local and foreign tour groups who distinguished themselves by each having a tour leader shouting through a megaphone. It was time to leave.

Far Flung Travel Tips

* Avoid weekends and public holidays if you can. The temple gets so busy you cannot move without bumping into somebody.

* For accommodation, tour guides, advice on where else to visit nearby, arranging transport or just to have a chat with a charming and interesting man, contact Joko Supriyono. His shop is on JL Medang Kamolan, opposite a side entrance to the temple. You will recognise it by the Australian, Brazilian, Canadian and Ukrainian flags on the walls inside. email: jogloborobudur@gmail.com, or phone ++081 3 9243 9747. Totally recommended.

* If visiting Prambanan on your trip to Java, purchase the US$30 joint temple ticket, saving US$10. This is not well publicised, but ask for it at the ticket office at either temple.

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