We’ll forgive you if you’ve never heard of Prambanan until now, as Borobudur certainly steals the limelight when it come to antiquities in Central Java. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed temple complex of Prambanan however is captivating in its own right.
Perhaps due to its lack of fame internationally, the temples here offer delightful surprises and constantly charm visitors—believe us, you’ll be in awe. The complex contains the greatest legacy of ancient Hindu and Buddhist sites in Indonesian built between the eighth and tenth centuries when the ruling Hindu Mataram empire and Buddhist Shailendra kingdoms of Java were in their heyday.
Prambanan Temple Complex encompasses the temples of Prambanan (locally called Loro Jonggrang), Lumbung, Bubrah and Sewu. Outside the fenced compound, other temples (requiring separate entry fees) include Plaosan, Kraton Ratu Boko, Sajiwan, Kalasan, Sari, Sambisari and more. Perhaps there are still yet relics of the ancient metropolis beneath the silt and sands. You could spend days exploring the area, but make the most of your entry ticket and make the effort to see all within the Prambanan Temple Complex itself. We certainly weren’t disappointed.
The magnificent Hindu Shivaite temple, Prambanan is by far the most commonly visited and the most complete in regards to restoration. The architectural style looks to a degree similar to Angkor Wat, with a number of tall slender somewhat jagged spires, the largest soaring 47 metres. Based on a square mandala plan, it once comprised more than 240 temples. Two hundred and forty. Many of the smaller shrines are still in ruins, and the slow jigsaw puzzle of reconstruction is ongoing. Extensive damage in the 2006 earthquake hampered this process, however the main structures are restored to their former glory.
The central courtyard is dominated by three towering “trimurti” temples, the largest dedicated to Shiva, flanked by temples dedicated to Visnu and Brahma. Facing these, three smaller shrines are devoted to the mythical vehicles of their respective gods (vahana): Nandi the bull (Shiva), Hamsa the swan (Brahma), and Garuda the eagle (Vishnu). The superb Nandi sculpture, carved from a solid block of stone, is unfortunately the only statue remaining of the three (our guide suggested that as they are birds, the others flew away). Within the chamber, Nadi is accompanied by smaller but lovely statues of Surya and Chanrda, the gods of the sun and moon. Two smaller temples flank the inner courtyard at the north an south gates, it’s unclear, but speculated that they may have been dedicated to Saraswati and Lakshmi.
Intricate relief carvings depicting scenes from the Ramayana adorn the main walkways and the interiors contain some extremely fine large sculptural works. Take a torch as the cambers of the shrines are unlit. The four chambers of the commanding Shiva temple showcase statues of a large four armed Shiva, Agastya the guru, elephant-headed Ganesh, and a rather voluptuous statue of Durga, Shiva’s consort. Local legend is that the Durga statue is in fact the princess, Loro Jonggrang. The story goes Loro Jonggrang was forced to agree to an unwanted marriage to Prince Bandung Bondowoso, the murderer of her father. She posed an impossible condition: her suitor must build her one thousand temples in only one night. Being the dastardly evil chap that he was, the prince enlisted the help of demons who quickly built 999 temples. Worried, quick-thinking Loro Jonggrang started a huge fire in the east, causing the cocks to crow and the demons to believe it was dawn (who subsequently fled). Angry and not to be bamboozled, he turned her to stone — the one thousandth temple.
Sewu and the Northern Temples
In an almost direct line north from Prambanan sit two small Buddhist temple complexes, Lumbung, Bubrah and larger Sewu temples, all older than Prambanan. This group is less visited, but well worth taking the time to explore. A small train will drop you 800 metres away at Sewu temple (or stop for five minutes for a quick look), passing the others on the way. The train is included in your ticket for foreign tourists and 7,500 rupiah for domestic tourists. If you have plenty of time, it’s an easy walk to explore all three. Alternatively bicycles can be hired for 10,000 rupiah or 20,000 rupiah for a tandem.
Beautiful Sewu is the second largest Buddhist temple complex in Indonesia and predates larger Borobudur (although Sewu covers a lager ground area). The temple is in the slow process of reconstruction, and guarded by two well preserved dvarapala statues, replicas of which stand in the central courtyard of the Kraton in Yogyakarta. The name in Javanese means “one thousand temples” however it’s a bit short of the mark as there are *only* 249 temples and is most likely a reference to the Loro Jonggrang story. The wonderful transcendent atmosphere coupled with the absence of tourists makes this a worthwhile detour.
Plaosan is another large and sublime temple complex, approximately three kilometres by road northeast of Prambanan, and requires a separate ticket. Interestingly it’s a Buddhist temple allegedly built by a Hindu king for his Buddhist wife, and like most in this area is an architectural blend of styles. The temple flanks two sides of the road with a larger Lor (north) complex and smaller Kidul (south) complex. Ticket is by “donation”; we were asked to contribute 5,000 rupiah. We visited in the late afternoon and the temples appeared to be a spectacular red colour, howerer we were told it was just a trick of the light.
Kraton Ratu Boko
About three kilometres south of Prambanan, perched on a small hill, Kraton Ratu Boko is believed to have been the palace (kraton) of King Boko (of the Loro Jonggrang legend). We were unable to visit this site, however it’s a hugely popular (and probably spectacular) spot for sunset, and at this time the tickets cost a bit less too. Prices include transport from Prambanan.
A spectacular cultural dance performance of the Hindu epic Ramayana story with more than 200 performers is staged near Prambanan most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (do check to confirm), 19:30 to 21:30. May to October the show is performed on an outdoor stage (weather permitting) with Prambanan temple as a backdrop. It’s quite the sight and highly recommended. November to April the venue moves inside to the Tri Murti theatre. Ticket prices start at 125,000 rupiah up to 375,000 rupiah for VIP seats. Bookings can be made from travel agencies in Yogya, with transport around 60,000 rupiah return, additional.
Visiting Prambanan In many other countries a magnificent UNESCO-listed antiquity such as Prambanan would be teaming with foreign tourists. However the complex is a somewhat low-key affair, attracting fewer visitors than much more popular Borobudur. It does stilll draw its fair share of hawkers, domestic tourists and students wanting to practise their English. If you intend seeing just Prambanan temple, two hours will be plenty of time to allow, however we would dedicate at least one full day to explore all the temples within the complex and surrounding areas. Sunset is a popular time to visit and if you plan ahead, is a convenient time to also watch the Ramayana ballet performance.
The temples in and around Prambanan have religious significance for local Hindus. Visitors should be respectful of this and avoid skimpy clothes. Those in shorts will be asked to wear a temple sarong.
Separate ticket booths for domestic and foreign tourists are well signposted at the entrance. Foreign entry fees are quoted in US dollars, but charged in rupiah. Entry fee for foreign tourists (over 10 years old) is US$18, students with a valid international student card, and kids under 10 are US$9. A combo ticket for Prambanan and Borobudur, 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. A combo ticket for Prambanan and nearby Kraton Ratu Boko includes transport between the two and costs US$25, or US$12.50 for students and kids, however this combo is not valid for sunset at Kraton Ratu Boko (entry 15:00-18:00). Tickets to Kraton Ratu Boko alone cost US$13, or US$7 for students and kids. Sunset entry (entry 15:00-18:00) to Kraton Ratu Boko is 110,000 rupiah. Cash, Visa and MasterCard are accepted, payable in Indonesian rupiah only (even though your printed ticket is in US dollars). Your ticket includes tea, coffee or water (you can also refill your water bottle). 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 10 is 15,000 rupiah.
Official Prambanan guides are available for 100,000 rupiah for one to four people; 150,000 rupiah for five to 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 (and recommend our friend Mr Suprix, one of the funniest and most informative there). If you arrive by private transport, parking is 10,000 rupiah for cars, 3,000 rupiah for motorbikes and 1,000 rupiah for bicycles.
Visiting with kids? Who doesn’t love a good story? Your kids might think being dragged to an old bunch of stones is boring, but the folks at Via Via run kids “Stories of Prambanan” tours so they can discover the myths of this magical place while parents can explore in peace. Tours cost 250,000 rupiah (max four kids), excluding transport and entry fees.
Your ticket includes entry the Prambanan Museum. The collection houses ceramics, sculptures and other archeological artefacts. An audio visual room screens a documentary about Prambanan. Closed Mondays.
Near the exit to the complex is a dubious deer enclosure. The animals looked heathy when we visited, we are just not sure why they need to be locked up in the temple grounds.
How to get there
Prambanan lies 18 kilometres northeast of central Yogyakarta or just eight kilometres from the airport. Conveniently, Prambanan is a stop on the TransJogja busway. Route 1A (grey) takes about 45 minutes from central Yogya. The fare is 3,600 rupiah. Alternatively, many travel agents offer Prambanan trips, either separately or bundled with Borobudur or other attractions, starting around 85,000 rupiah for a return trip excluding entry fees.
A terrific way to explore the temple area is by bicycle. Both Satu Dunia Tours & Travel (250,000 rupiah) and Via Via (360,000 rupiah) offer bike tours (or motorbike tours if you are lazy) to explore the area. Options vary so have a chat as to what’s included. Disclosure: both companies are our friends, however they both offer good service.
Via Via: 30 Jalan Prawirotaman, Yogyakarta; (027) 437 2874; email@example.com; www.viaviajogja.com.
Satu Dunia Tours & Travel: 44 Jalan Prawirotaman, Yogyakarta; Jalan Sosrowijayan, Gang 1/70, Yogyakarta; (0274) 414 431; (0274) 580 643; firstname.lastname@example.org
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 6th December, 2016.