Stepping off the plane in Yogyakarta on Java was a bit of a surprise coming from Bali. First impressions would suggest that it’s much less advanced than its famous neighbor, and you’d be hard pressed to find it on a traveller’s bucket list. And yet, it harbours a secret. Quite a large one, in fact. Shrouded in mystery and mysticism, Borobudur is the world’s largest buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991.
After a one and a half hour drive from the airport, we arrived to the temple grounds. A light tropical rain greeted us just outside the lobby of the Manohara hotel where we’d be staying for the next three days to bring in the new year. As the only hotel inside the compound, the Manohara provides a unique opportunity to connect with this sacred monument. if you could glamp a mere metres from Stonehenge, would you? What about underneath the Bodhi tree? Well that’s the Manohara.
Looking out from the hotel’s restaurant, we saw the temple in the background with what seemed to be an alarming amount of locals. Eager to see the site, we set off for our pilgrimage anyway, expecting to make it through the nine floors up to the top. It didn’t happen. Not this time at least. The ordeal started right at the entrance stairs, surrounded by masses of people euphorically taking selfies the best they could as they held umbrellas with the other hand to cope with the heavy rain and dodge the puddles, seemingly delighted by the dissonant mix of about six simultaneous chants to Allah through loudspeakers all oriented toward the Buddhist “monument”, as they call it.
What a culture shock. We felt like strangers in this land. Not because we were two westerners in a sea of Indonesians, but because we weren’t approaching the temple the same way. Even though it was new year’s weekend, we never imagined that so many Javanese people would be there, especially considering they are 99% Muslim and the temple is Buddhist.
What to do? “Let’s come again at sunset,” Octopus said. When you stay at the Manohara, not only is your entry to the temple included in the room rate, but you also have the option of visiting before and after public opening hours and for a reduced rate. At 5:30 pm, armed with a flashlight, natural mosquito repellent and a camera, we made our way to the entrance gate. “Where is everybody?” A lone guard majestically let us in. We looked around, and that’s when we realized there wasn’t even a single visitor left within the labyrinth. Borobudur all to ourselves.
Astronauts saw it from the moon
The guard closed the gate behind us with a bang. “Locked into enlightenment”, Punk mused. So up we went, level by level, unweaving our way to essence. The Muslim chanting at the eastern entrance disappeared at the western wing due to the colossal size of the volcanic structure. Each time we reached the eastern portal, we climbed again, inspired by the themed carvings all the way up to the top. The sun descended behind the thousands of buddha statues, as they seemed to come alive, passing a message and a story best captured in deep contemplation.
And so we tuned in, adjusting our frequency to capture the magic. Floating at the top of the temple, under a rose-coloured sky, streaked by the last rays of sunlight casting shadows like dragonflies on the active volcanoes and simmering jungle. The high telluric vibration ushered us easily into meditation. No wonder Borobudur is said to emit a glow so strong is can be seen from the moon. Whispers from the land beckoned; a kingdom’s magical creatures appeared in visions. We cast our prayers into the dying light, and made a slow descent, by flashlight, back to our cosy room.
On December 31st, at the stroke of midnight, we were ready for another phenomenon that started only a year ago, another reason to come here for the new year. Even if we knew what the program included, we could never have imagined the beauty of what we were about to experience. 5,000 lanterns, a number difficult to seize in reality, floated suddenly into the air over an illuminated Borobudur and an upbeat instrumental version of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” rang out through the loudspeakers. The sky sparkled with joy and hope, as wishes and prayers ascended to the stars.
We repeated the journey and climbed the temple six times over the course of our three-day stay, always at sunset and sunrise, the latter always busier for some capricious reason. Why was this temple built? Why here? Are there pathways within the pyramid? While the secrets of Borobudur remain unknown, our connection with this magical site will remain forever.
When to go:
May to October it is said, or over the New Year we may add — the rain was mild and was nothing in comparison to the awesomeness of the experience. Were we lucky with the weather? Everybody is in a way now with the dramatic climatic shifts. Let’s also remember Java island is near the Equator and it’s temperature dwells at a balmy and constant 27°C year round.
From Yogyakarta Airport (JOG), a 90-minute ride booked in advance via the hotel
Local buses are also available.
Where to Stay:
- Manohara Hotel for modest luxury and easiest access to the temple. Book in advance as it fills quickly. $$
- Plataran for high end, resort spa experience. Located 15 minutes from the temple by car, this hotel offers amazing views of Borobudur, as well as a nice pool and spa. $$$$
There are other cheaper options in the frenetic village.
Where to Eat:
- Manohara’s Witarka Restaurant for a complete menu of adequate food with a close-up view to Borobudur. $$
- Plataran for a variety of quality Western and Indonesian dishes with resort prices $$$
- Stupa for delicious Indonesian food against a backdrop of rice fields and mountains $$
- Street food stalls just outside the temple grounds, for simple local meals like Nasi and Mie Goreng $
What do do:
- Sunset/Sunrise temple visits $
- Meditate with Buddhist monks at the Mendut monastery (free)
- Visit Mendut temples and gardens $
- New Year’s Eve dinner at the Plataran. They put on a themed show, including delicious Indonesian food prepared on street-like carts of all kinds on the restaurant patio, with traditional Javanese dance and music. $$$
- Bring in the New Year on the temple grounds, and release a candle lantern into the sky. $