Beautiful, breathtaking Borobudur

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August 11th 2017
Published: August 20th 2017
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We woke up at 4.15 in order to be ready for the meeting time of 4.50, when we sleepily dragged ourselves onto the minibus, accompanied by the call to prayer. Through the darkness, we could make out the blurry forms of worshippers heading to the mosque, the traffic far less frantic than it had been on the previous evening. We devoured our pack-up breakfasts in the way that only the sleep-deprived can, and soon we were out of the city as the sky began to lighten around us, a faint pink beginning to appear in the inky dawn.

As the sun began to rise, we were able to see more of the scenery around us, and soon the imposing form of Mt. Merapi emerged from the darkness, a plume of steam rising from it, tinged a vibrant pink by the sun's early rays. We stopped to take photographs, the bright green paddy fields in the foreground contrasting with the reddening sky behind and the volcano itself which had begun to glow orange. Mt. Merapi is the most active volcano in Indonesia - quite a claim on an island with so much seismic activity. After passing time just staring at the beauty of the mountain, we were soon on our way, the sky around us looking promisingly clear, ready for a day of temple exploring.

We arrived and were greeted with coffee and western toilets, always a good start! Suitably refreshed, we met our guide and headed to the monument itself. Borobudur, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest Buddhist structure on Earth and was reclaimed from the jungle less than 100 years ago. As we approached it, we were awestruck by the sheer size of the imposingly beautiful structure. A series of terraces led up from the ground level to a huge stupor at the peak. As we neared it, we were greeted by brightly coloured umbrellas, strung up above us, creating a frame for the temple, its base surrounded by palm trees and lush green vegetation, in the distance.

The structure in front of us looked like an elaborate sandcastle, each square-shaped layer decorated with different shapes protruding and archways and alcoves cut into the rock. As we got closer, our guide began to tell us the history of the complex. We hauled ourselves up the first set of steep stairs, designed to force any visitors to automatically bow their heads in deference to Buddha. He led us along the ancient pilgrimage route, from the bottom layer, representing desire and suffering, in a clockwise spiral from terrace to terrace, explaining the various stories intricately carved into the stones, creating murals that explained the Buddha's life, as well as his teachings. Stacey and some of the other less mature members of the group sniggered as the guide told the story which culminated in "and then the elephant came into his mouth" I was, of course, too absorbed in the story to have noticed! 😉

Every time we turned a corner, we were greeted by more carvings lining the corridor which was backed by jungle and mountains on three sides. It was beautiful. We finally clambered onto the final terraces, where vast numbers of stupas decorated the final two layers, each one originally holding a statue of Buddha. We weaved in and out of the stupas, capturing the different angles on camera, as the early sun was reflected in the stone and made the whole place almost seem alight. Borobudur is most visited by tourists from the far reaches of Java, many of whom have never seen a westerner in the flesh, and so we became quite a focal point for the other visitors. People kept stopping us and asking if they could have their pictures taken with is, one woman grabbing me and one of the Germans and managing to capture the holy grail of a blonde and a red head in one shot!

After a hefty climb down and one last look, we were back on the minibus and en route to the Sultans's palace. I'd read about it on Trip Advisor and it had mediocre reviews, but as the whole group were going, and we had some time to kill before our afternoon excursion, we went along. It probably deserved the lukewarm reviews. Even with a local guide we picked up at the entrance, it was still a confusing and rather uninspiring experience. We meandered from room to room looking at dusty relics, displayed rather unimaginatively in faded cases. And that's really all there is to say about it!

Our lunch was in a restaurant adjacent to the palace, with every other dish seemingly the "sultan's favourite"! The food was ok and the setting was fine, but I think we were just very tired from our early start, and none of us could really muster up any enthusiasm. When our guide suggested we go to the Water Palace, the answer was a resounding "No!" There was a pool at the hotel and we had a couple of hours R&R, the first of the trip, that we could use to recharge the batteries ready for more temples later that day.

We were collected at 3 o clock for the tour to the Prambanan temple complex, a large Hindu site which was destroyed hundreds of years ago and then began to be reconstructed by the Dutch in the later 19th century. There are still over 200 smaller temples surrounding the main one to be rebuilt. Each one takes a year to complete, so nobody in our lifetime will ever see it fully reconstructed. However, even without being a complete version of its original state, it is still an awe-inspiring place to be. As we arrived, we saw the three main buildings, dedicated to the three main Hindu deities, rising in front of us, backed by gorgeous blue skies, boding well for the sunset view we had arrived for.

Each of the pyramidal structures had been carefully rebuilt, with each stone having a unique key to connect it to the next one. Now that they were standing, we could see that they were topped by layers of statues, all leading up to a beautifully carved apex. The structures reminded me of the temples at Angkor, with stairs leading up to a flat terrace which ran around the outside of each structure. These terraces were, like at Borobudur, decorated with stories, this time from the Hindu faith. More stairs took you inside the temple itself, where there would be a statue relating to the deity or person the temple was for.

Our guide was hilarious, asking other tourists to move out of the way once he had deemed their photography time enough, making up stories of his own, telling everyone he met that he was from their country, and generally acting like the class clown. We passed two hours wandering around, taking in the atmosphere and appreciating the painstaking work that must have led to its existence (both times!) The light, which had been gloriously perfect when we arrived and lit up the carvings on each temple, had now begun to change colour as the sun began to sink behind the main building. We clambered onto one of the terraces and watched as the sun turned the rocks pink and then orange, a huge red ball painting the sky and creating a dramatic backdrop as the buildings became shadows in front of us. We didn't want to leave, but the sun sets so rapidly here that it was quickly dark and the complex was beginning to close.

We headed home, full of awe and wonder for the beautiful temples we had seen today, both so incredibly different in style, scale and atmosphere, and enjoyed sharing photos and stories over dinner before we all headed home to bed.


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