Java’s ancient temples.

Our third day and final day in Yogyakarta began really, obscenely early. We were up at 3:30 am for our earliest departure yet to see the sunrise at Borobudur Temple, an hour and a half outside of Yogyakarta. We picked up a breakfast box left by the staff at the homestay, and stumbled outside in the dark to a driver who ushered us inside a small van occupied by another couple who might have been French or Dutch. We swayed back and forth and slept for a while before arriving at the destination. At 4:30 am, we disembarked and ended up in an outdoor lobby with many other tourists, some looking wide awake, some very quiet and obviously just waking up. We paid our money and received tickets, a map of the complex, a sticker to wear, and a small hand flashlight, as it was still hours from dawn, and then proceeded slowly through the complex. Though the temple doesn’t officially do sunrise tours, the Manohara Hotel, which is on the grounds of the temple, allows people to visit before sunrise for a more expensive ticket price (450.000 IDR or $30 USD per person). Though easily the biggest expense we’d made so far (besides lodging and travel), it was totally worth it. We were able to make our way up the gigantic ziggurat-like structure of the Borobudur temple in near-darkness, with a trail of bobbing flashlights above and below us. After fifteen minutes of hiking up some of the biggest stairs I have ever encountered, we were at the top. 

Borobudur is an ancient Buddhist temple, dated to the 8th century AD. It was rediscovered in the 1800s by Sir Thomas Raffles, and subsequently repaired and renovated, eventually becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one single structure, like a ziggurat, with ascending square-shaped tiers eventually giving way to circular tiers, culminating in one large bell-like structure with a handle on top called a stupa. At the top, the main stupa is encircled by dozens of other smaller ones, and each holds a statue of a Buddha inside with a different pose. It took us fifteen minutes with a bit of resting to get to the top, and after the sunrise, we took another two hours, leisurely surveying all the wall friezes, which depict the life and teachings of the Buddha. The tiers in themselves also symbolize the progression toward nirvana.

In the predawn darkness, all we could see at first was the surrounding mountains and some towns in the rural region around us. It sounded eerie, but if you listened for a moment, you could hear hundreds, maybe thousands of roosters crowing the dawn. Everyone was quiet and hushed as they walked around, taking some photos in the darkness if they had good cameras, and generally trying to find a good spot to await the sunrise. The whole experience gave us a taste for visiting these majestic structures in relative quiet and privacy (there were about fifty to sixty people, and most were clustered at the very top). When you have hours to watch the sunrise, you begin to appreciate how slowly your surroundings lighten, and when colors change from black and white and shades of grey to the delicate shades of gold and rose and pale blue that color the morning sky. It makes you feel that this is the way ancient temples and holy sites were meant to be visited – in hushed reverence and with respect and time to take in the full scale of the majestic sight before us. At the same time, we could feel and smell the lush green surroundings of the temple coming to life around us in the morning, and the smell of humidity that means it’s going to be a very hot day. We were both entirely enchanted by the time the sun rose behind Mount Merapi, the inactive volcano that is directly east of Borobudur. We took some dazzling photos of the rim of orange sun that had risen, framed by the stupas and surroundings, before walking down to seek some more solitude and fully explore the complex now that we could see it!

Borobudur really is beautiful. We walked counterclockwise from the very bottom, slowly winding up. Many of the friezes have been repaired or replaced so that you can get a better sense of what it looked like originally, even if the art isn’t original. We saw many carvings of the Buddha, as well as animals including elephants and birds. The wall friezes were arranged in long walkways around the square tiers, with many twists and turns. It felt like we were alone in exploring a huge maze, only occasionally encountering fellow tourists. By the time we finally wound our way back up to the top, the morning’s tourists who ordinarily entered at 6 am had begun to overwhelm the top, and it was no longer possible to take a picture of the surroundings that didn’t have fellow tourists in it! We saw a number of tourists from China and Japan, as well as many from Australia and Europe. For whatever reason, there weren’t that many Americans. Also present were many local Indonesian tourists, a lot of high school and college students dressed in matching uniforms and hijabs and greeting us with a lot of shy curiosity. Several accosted us to ask us some questions in English and practice their language skills. They were studying to be tourist guides, and were definitely slowly getting to be skilled in English! It was very sweet to meet a few and talk to them, although this perception changed as we found ourselves overwhelmed by more of these young Indonesian students later on in the day. At some point, there are only so many selfies you can take, no matter how well-meaning they are!

By 10 am, we made our way back to the Manohara Hotel complex, where our ticket entitled us to a small gift of a batik scarf, a few breakfast items like fried banana fritters and a muffin, and as many cups of scalding coffee and tea as we wanted. It was incredibly delicious to sit there in their shaded pavilion at a table of treats, sipping hot fragrant tea, looking at the temple at the distance and listening to the morning birds in the garden. We felt relaxed and comfortable, even though there were about eighty guests around us doing the exact same thing. Around 10:30 am, our guide picked us up as well as a bunch of other tourists, and drove us back on our way to Yogyakarta. I fell asleep on the ride again, but Steve didn’t get a nap in until we ended up back at our homestay.

In the afternoon, we went for another lunch at the restaurant around the corner, RM Demangan. I sampled their gado-gado this afternoon, a delicious vegetable dish with tempe, green beans, cabbage, sprouts, boiled carrots, and rice cake, all covered with a savory and slightly spicy peanut sauce. We’ve had it before, and it’s just one of my favorite Indonesian dishes. Theirs was excellent, and incredibly cheap at around 27.000 IDR (~$2 USD!). After deliberating, we decided that we had enough energy left for our second ancient temple of the day, Prambanan, which is the other reason many come to Yogyakarta.

This time, another Grab car left us only 30 minutes away from the city in the area surrounding Prambanan. Another fairly expensive ticket (around $25 USD) later, we were walking into a large Hindu temple complex that also dates from the 8th century AD. Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in Indonesia, having come before the spread of Buddhism and of course the relatively recent spread of Islam. These temples resembled some that we had seen in Thailand, with steeper, taller ornate stone tips that reached toward the sky. In the late afternoon, it was actually quite warm around the temple complex, and most tourists (many domestic ones rather than international ones) were standing in the shade or inside the temples, though they were very cramped spaces. We saw several dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, with smaller temples in front dedicated to the animal that represented them. Without a guided tour or even a very robust brochure, we ended up more admiring the architectural and artistic details rather than the historical ones. Being rather tired after hiking up and down the steep entrances to these temples, I actually parked myself by the wall where there was seating, and did a watercolor sketch of a woman seated on some temple steps. It was soothing, and collected some young curious students. At one point, Steve and I had become so inundated with curious schoolboys wanting photos that I ended up telling them they could take just ONE photo. Cue the flood – the boy and all his friends ended up sitting by us and we took one large photo with about thirty kids. It was hilarious.

Soon afterwards, we left the main temple complex to look at the smaller temples surrounding. It took about twenty to twenty-five minutes to walk to the other temples in the complex, so we had left the hordes behind by the time the sun started sinking. The further away temples were in more disrepair, but we could also see scaffolding on some of the sites where renovators were starting to try to reassemble the ruins and repair where they could. We were also only accompanied by a handful of tourists, and at the furthest away temple, called Candi Sewi (Candi is Indonesian for temple), we watched the sun set before walking back to the main entrance and leaving Prambanan. In most other cities or countries, this would be a UNESCO World Heritage site that would take supreme precedence, but it’s overshadowed by the more awe-inspiring Borobudur here in Yogyakarta. Nonetheless, it was a lovely place to visit, and more relaxing to walk around slowly.

When we arrived back at our homestay, we went for a second dinner and drinks at Cubic Bar around the corner. It turned out to be a ladies’ night, where any woman could receive up to four free gin and tonics, which was pretty awesome. Steve and I sat downstairs in the non-smoking section and again got excellent Indonesian dinners of mie goreng (fried noodles) for just 35.000 IDR (~$3 USD). Steve had more Bintang beer, and I ended up having two gin and tonics. When I wanted one, a waiter would wave over the G&T cart, where a smiling attendant took my coupon, and then poured me gin out of a bottle of Tanqueray, added soda, and garnished it with lime. We added a lava cake with ice cream for dessert, and walked away slightly tipsy, our pocketbooks only lightened by about 200.00 IDR (just over $20 USD). Outside of the touristy areas in Indonesia, we are happy to report that this kind of meal was absolutely the norm – as long as you were eating more local food than spaghetti or burgers, you could expect to have dessert and drinks, and leave no more than $20 or $30 on the table. Pretty incredible.

The rest of the night we spent in packing our clothes (we had sent for laundry service the day prior), making sure we had set our alarms, and catching an early night, because we had a very early flight (6:15 am) the next day. We had spent three very excellent days in Yogyakarta, and I highly recommend it to everyone else who’s considering visiting Indonesia!


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