Under the shadow of temperamental Gunung Merapi, one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes, the ancient Buddhist monument Borobudur emerges majestically from the surrounding jungle and farmland.
Comparable in importance and magnificence to the temples of Angkor in Cambodia and Machu Picchu in Peru, it’s truly one of the world’s great treasures and is an unmissable stop when you visit Central Java. Two smaller nearby temples, Mendut and Pawon might appear comparably insignificant, however they are both worth checking out when you are in the vicinity.
On first impressions, the rather squat grey mass of volcanic stone that makes up Borobudur may not seem as impressive as other towering structures—the temple has no chambers you can enter. Instead, the massive complex envelops a small hill, which when viewed from above follows the form of a giant mandala.
The lower, almost-square-shaped base stretches approximately 120 metres each side, topped by six concentric square terraces decorated with 2,672 exquisitely carved relief panels and 504 Buddha sculptures, leading to an upper trio of circular-shaped levels topped with 72 bell-like stupas, culminating with a large dome at the centre. By walking the ancient pilgrims’ path, roughly five kilometres clockwise around each level, past the lower galleries with images of “desire” to the levels of the teachings and life of Buddha, and finally to the realm of “nothingness”, you can appreciate the sheer splendour of this antiquity, the world’s largest Buddhist monument.
Little is known of Borobudur’s ancient history, and some archaeologists speculate that the site may predate Buddhism and perhaps have had earlier Hindu or even early Javanese religious significance. It is believed construction of Borobudur began about 760 AD during the peak of the Shailendra dynasty, advocates of Mahayana Buddhism, and evolved through several phases over some 70 years. There is some confusion over the prevailing Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms ruling central Java at this time, as to whether they lived a peaceful coexistence or were rivals. Nearby Hindu Prambanan temple was constructed during a similar period, and significant Hindu and Buddhist influence can be seen in both.
Within a century of its completion, Borobodur was abandoned. While the reasons remain unclear, contributing factors may have been a series of volcanic eruptions and a shift of power towards East Java (with the former perhaps influencing the latter). For centuries, Borobudur lay almost forgotten, buried in volcanic ash and consumed by jungle, fading to the realm of folktale, until the early 19th century when those stories reached the ears of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant-Governor of British Java, and more famously, later founder of Singapore.
With piqued interest, Raffles sent H.C. Cornelius, a Dutch engineer (along with a bunch of locals who knew of its whereabouts), and the monument was bought to world attention though Raffles’ book, The History of Java. The site became a source for treasure hunters, and many sculptures were looted or even used for local building materials. Notably in 1896, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) of Siam visited Java and removed a number of artefacts now on display in the National Museum in Bangkok.
At the time of its rediscovery, Borobudur was in a poor state, but has since been preserved through several restorations. During one of the renovation projects, a series of hidden reliefs was discovered buried below the visible base. These panels bear short inscriptions, possibly instructions for the sculptors, and depict “karmic law”. The sculptures were photographed before the renovation continued when they were rehidden by stones to support the structure. Today the photographs are on display in the Museum Karmawibhangga, within the complex. The largest reconstruction project, taking almost ten years, commenced in 1973 when UNESCO and the Indonesian government undertook a mammoth effort that involved totally dismantling Borobudur to stabilise the foundations, after which the monument was eventually granted World Heritage status.
Borobudur has faced threats from both terrorism and nature with bombings by an Islamic extremist group in the mid 1980s as well as more recent threats by ISIS in 2014. The latter incident has resulted in greater security at the monument. While the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake left Borobudur unscathed, a number the eruptions of Mount Merapi resulted in a potentially damaging coverage of a thick blanket of acidic volcanic ash, so the temple was closed for the ensuing cleanup.
Today Borobudur is Indonesia’s number one tourist destination, and with that brings concern for the integrity of the complex. Since late 2014, wooden stairs have covered the stone surfaces to avoid erosion. In the past it was possible to reach through one of the latticed stupas to touch a “lucky Buddha”, but this practice has been stopped to avoid damage to the sculpture. As tempting as it may be, please don’t touch any of the reliefs or other sculptures when you visit.
Mendut and Pawon Temples
On an easterly axis leading from Borobudur, two smaller temples, Mendut and Pawon, form a direct alignment over a three-kilometre stretch. It’s likely the relationship is significant, however exactly in what way is a mystery yet to be uncovered. Folklore suggests a road linked the three forming an ancient pilgrimage route, which continued across the Elo and Progo rivers, symbolically purifying the pilgrims as they journeyed to Borobudur. If indeed a road existed, the route is replicated by modern day Buddhist pilgrims on Waisak (Vesak) Day, the festival commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha, said to have happened on the same date based on the lunar calendar, usually falling in May.
Mendut is the oldest of the three, built in the early ninth century. The diminutive square-based temple only stands about 26 metres tall, however it contains three magnificent sculptures. The large central seated Buddha is depicted with hands positioned in the “Dharmachakra mudra”, a gesture also known as turning of the dharma wheel, along with the two accompanying bodhisattvas sculptures (divine beings who have obtained enlightenment), the trio represent some of the best preserved and finest examples of Buddhist art in Java. The interior is not well lit, so bring a torch for a better look.
Like larger Borobudur, the raised square terrace surrounding the temple is meant for clockwise circumambulating. Outer walls are adorned with bas reliefs of Buddhist divinities including a depiction of Hariti, popular among Javanese as a fertility symbol, often visited by childless couples to pray for offspring. To one the side of the temple, a collection of stones are part of the unfinished jigsaw puzzle from the missing front chamber and rooftop stupa, and to the other side a majestic ancient sprawling banyan tree adds to the serene ambience. Nearby, peaceful Mendut Buddhist Monastery welcomes guests to join daily meditation and longer retreats.
Positioned between Borobudur and Mendut, Pawon is the more modest of the group, yet the small solitary temple is still noteworthy. Similar in shape to Mendut, the empty inner chamber may have once contained a statue. Decorated with detailed reliefs, and crowned with a collection of small stupas, as with its siblings, the simple symmetrical temple remains an enigma.
Even though they are essentially part of the same complex, entry to Mendut and Pawon temples requires a separate ticket from Borobudur, however it’s a relatively inexpensive 3,500 rupiah for a combo ticket. To avoid diminishing comparisons with their significantly more monumental sibling, it may be wise to make a short stop at Mendut and Pawon prior to visiting Borobudur.
Unlike Borobudur there are no local guides at either temple, so if you would like an in depth explanation of the monuments, you’ll need a guide from elsewhere. A bunch of stalls outside the temples sell the usual tat, however sellers are less pushy than at Borobudur, and a simple no thanks seems to work. A toilet is available at Mendut for 2,000 rupiah.
Borobudur is truly a masterpiece. Drag yourself out of bed early to see the temple in its best light and dodge the hordes, or take your time and get there in the late afternoon. Either way, allow at least two to three hours to get the most out of the site. During the day, the complex becomes crowded with domestic tourists, especially school groups there to learn about the temple and also to hunt down foreigners to practise their English. Prepare to be asked to pose for many photos and to help giggling teenagers improve their English conversation skills.
Nowadays Borobudur has regained its role as an important place of pilgrimage for Indonesian Buddhists. Visitors should be respectful of this and avoid wearing skimpy clothes. Those in shorts will be asked to wear a temple sarong. Note that the complex is especially busy during major Buddhist holidays.
Entry tickets are available from separate entry booths, one for domestic tourists (on the right) and within a fancy air-con reception hall for foreign tourists (on the left), perhaps to soften the blow of the huge disparity in the fee. Foreign entry fees are quoted in US dollars, but charged in rupiah. Entry fee for foreign tourists (over 10 years old) is US$20, while students with a valid international student card and kids under ten are US$10. A combo ticket for Borobudur and Prambanan, valid for two days, is an excellent deal if you plan to visit both temples. It costs US$32, or US$16 for students and kids under 10. Cash, Visa and MasterCard are accepted, payable in Indonesian rupiah only (even though your printed ticket is in US dollars). Your ticket includes free weak tea, weak coffee or a small plastic bottle of water (please avoid the plastic). Clean toilets are available in the reception hall (as well as within the park). Entry fee for Indonesians is 30,000 rupiah, and kids aged four to ten is 15,000 rupiah. Sunrise entry at 04:30 is available for 400,000 rupiah / 200,000 rupiah kids and discounted for guests of Manohara Hotel for 250,000 rupiah / 125,000 rupiah for kids. Sunrise entry for Indonesians is 270,000 rupiah / 135,000 rupiah. Sunrise entry fees include hire of a torch, a snack and tea and coffee.
Official Borobudur guides are available for 100,000 rupiah for 1-4 people; 150,000 rupiah for 5-20, and 200,000 rupiah for larger groups. Guides speak English, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, Dutch, French, Spanish, German and Indonesian. For languages other than English and Indonesian you may have to book in advance. We highly recommend hiring a guide, as not only can they give you insight into what you are looking at, they know the best spots for photos.Luggage storage is available at the information Centre. If you arrive by private transport, parking is 10,000 rupiah for cars and 5,000 rupiah for motorbikes. Note that motorbike parking is outside the complex. An ATM is near the park entrance.
If you plan on visiting Borobudur with kids in tow, Via Via (30 Jalan Prawirotaman, Yogyakarta; T: (027) 437 2874) run kids tours including a Borobudur treasure hunt, so parents can explore the temple in peace while the kids are entertained. An official Borobudur guide and a guide from Via Via will look after your kids from 250,000 rupiah (max 4 kids), excluding transport and entry fees.
Your ticket includes entry to the Borobudur Visitor Centre and two museums within the complex. An interesting 20-minute documentary screened in the Visitor Centre is worth a detour. Museum Karmawibhangga showcases Borobudur’s history, archaeology and architecture, and Museum Samudrarska pays homage to the ancient “cinnamon” trade route linking Indonesia to Africa. Brit Philip Beal noticed several panels depicting sea vessels in the reliefs of Borobudur and based on one of the designs reconstructed a ship and retraced the original route. The ship and artefacts are housed in the museum.
Within the grounds of the temple, elephant rides are offered on three sad looking beasts. We discourage this. For more humane rides, a mini-train is 7,500 rupiah or bike hire is 10,000 for 30 minutes, or 20,000 for a tandem bike.
When you leave the temple, you will be bombarded by an overwhelming number of hawkers. A polite ’no’ is usually enough to make them back off, however the exit signs lead you through a Kafka-esque labyrinth of seemingly neverending stalls. To avoid the 15-minute journey though the maze (we are not exaggerating), don’t follow the exit signs. Instead walk around the barriers along the path inside the temple complex, and return to the foreign entry point, where there’s a small exit gate. It may seem a longer walk, but it will save you five minutes and your sanity.
To maximise your Borobudur experience, we’d recommend an overnight stay nearby. Manohara Hotel, as well as having the best address in town directly next to the temple, includes unlimited entry to the temple during normal operational hours. Cheaper (and more expensive) options are also available in the vicinity. Watch Borobudur’s website for occasional cultural events.
For a journey from the sublime to the ridiculous, the bizarre and kitsch Chicken Church (Gereja Ayam) is a 15-minute drive from Borobudur. Be sure to visit Yogyakarta’s other UNESCO World Heritage-listed temple, Prambanan, one and a half hours from Borobudur, or one hour from central Yogya.
How to get there
Borobudur is in Magelang, 40 km northwest of Yogyakarta. The journey takes about one and a half hours by car, slightly longer by public bus.
Public buses (Cemera Tunggal and Ragil Kuning) from Jombor terminal in the north of the city leave regularly to Borobudur between 06:00 and 16:00, and cost 30,000 rupiah (1.5 hours). TransJogja buses will link you to Jombor terminal via routes 2A (sky blue) and 2B (green) (3,600 rupiah), you may have to connect to these routes via another TransJogja route. The last bus back from Borobudur leaves at 16:00. Borobudur terminal is a 10-minute walk from the temple complex, or becaks and taxis will be willing and waiting to transport you.
Alternatively you can catch a Cemera Tunggal bus from Giwangan terminal in the south of the city (2 hours), although these leave less regularly and only operate 08:00 to 15:00. TransJogja links to Giwangan terminal via routes 3A (yellow), 3B (red), 4A (purple) and 4B (orange).
Entry to the bus terminals is 500 rupiah (you wondered what those coins were for).
Travel agents in Yogyakarta offer a door-to-to minibus service leaving at set times (usually 05:00) starting at 75,000 rupiah return. A combo trip with Prambanan is 100,000 rupiah.
If you’d prefer a little more freedom, a car with driver (return) will set you back around 500,000 rupiah or a motorbike taxi around 200,000 rupiah.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 6th December, 2016.