Indonesia, Travel

A weekend in Borobudur

I’ll start out by saying that this this trip is something that I did on a whim, rather than something that I had planned over a long period of time. Having moved to Asia in March 2016, I realised that I now had the opportunity to visit the region with a lot smaller investment in time than it would require when travelling from Melbourne. Borobudur appealed to me as a destination that would allow me to take some photographs, and get away from the urban life of Singapore.

I didn’t do much research on the destination, and had set my sights on visiting Borobudur temple. I’d seen a few images online, and – being the photography enthusiast that I am – was intent on doing a sunset and a sunrise visit to the temple. What I didn’t realise was that I could have had the full experience of both sunset and sunrise, and allowed myself more time to rest while I was there.

Borobudur is served by Yogyakarta airport. It is located in Central Java, and is a two-hour flight out of Singapore. I traveled on SilkAir flight 152 and landed there at 9:50am local time (Yogyakarta is an hour behind Singapore). Yogyakarta airport is small. There are no air bridges, and you walk off the plane onto the tarmac and into the terminal building. They have three counters for immigration, and while the lines look long when a flight lands, you get through pretty quickly. The immigration officers are polite and professional, and after duly stamping your passport, will welcome you to their country.

I was travelling with carry-on baggage only, and walked straight out into the arrivals foyer. A cab driver looking for business got my attention, and offered to drive me to my hotel in Borobudur. The cab fare was IDR400,000 (around SG$45).

I forgot to mention, the Indonesian Rupiah is a high denomination currency. When I changed SG$250, I got the small matter of 2.4 Million Indonesian Rupiah, and it took a bit to get my head around. For a town the size of Yogyakarta, it certainly has a high density of traffic. The roads are good, but they’re not particularly wide. Highways are rarely more than two lanes wide in each direction. The 40km drive from Yogyakarta to Borobudur took two hours.

The place that I was staying at was a resort called Villa Borobudur. A friend of mine had recommended another resort, which was fully booked out on Expedia, so I ended up staying here, based on recommendations. It was a fairly new resort – open for about two years at the time – and directions were not particularly clear. My cab driver got me to within 3km of the resort, at which stage, I had to call them and have my cab driver give them our location. They then sent out a vehicle to come and collect me!

Arriving at Villa Borobudur was a pleasant surprise. As I drove up, their staff lined up on either side of the vehicle to welcome me. I was partly embarrassed (I’m not one for being the centre of attention) and partly felt a bit like royalty. I was handed a cool towel to wipe myself down, and led to my room. I was amazed at what I was presented with.

Villa Borobudur is perched at the top of a hill that overlooks the Borobudur valley. They have a series of villas with multiple rooms, and self contained single suites. I was travelling on my own and was upgraded to the suite at no additional cost. I could go on describing and raving about the room, but I’ll let the pictures do the talking. In a nutshell, the suite was constructed entirely of timber and tastefully decorated in traditional Javanese decor.

The resort also had an outdoor pool, and two outdoor living and dining areas that overlooked the valley. The most striking thing about the location was how quiet it was, once the calls for prayers had come to an end.

The staff offered me a welcome drink that tasted like papaya (there were heaps of papaya trees all around), and took my order for both lunch and dinner. They also asked me for my schedule and organised a car and admission to the Borobudur temple for a sunset viewing.

Lunch was some fried rice with some marinated chicken that was served fresh off the pan. The portions were just right. Once I’d finished, their staff took my order and schedule for dinner, and escorted me to the car where the driver, a young man called Collis,  was waiting for me.

Borobudur temple (or Candi Borobudur as the locals call it) is about 3km down the road. This is very much in the literal sense… the road from the resort is steep, at a gradient of 1:1 in certain sections. The resort’s 4WD negotiated this easily. I’m glad that I wasn’t walking back with my camera gear on my back. Entry to Candi Borobudur for the sunset viewing is IDR400k for foreigners, through the Manohara centre. The hotel had a package arrangement which also served refreshments at the end of the sunset viewing, and supplied guests with flashlights and a rain poncho.

I’d arrived at the temple at 3:30pm. Sunset wasn’t until 5:54pm that day. Candi Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist Temple. It is no mean feat of architecture. The structure is built entirely of stone, and consists of nine ascending levels. The first five are square with panels of Buddha in slightly varying poses. The next three are circular, with perforated stupas arranged in a circle around the central major stupa that makes up the top level. Each of these perforated stupas contain a sculpture of Buddha, again in a varying pose. I overheard one of the guides saying that it is believed that when people look into these stupas, they see of the image of that deity that they feel most connected with – regardless of what faith they are of.

Candi Borobudur is very popular among tourists, who are mostly locals. There are times when it can get very crowded, with everyone looking to get a selfie or their souvenir picture for their collection.

After about an hour at the temple, I had begun to tire in the heat, and sought refuge in the shade of one of the stupas. Some local children – all young boys around the age 10 – began to get curious and attempted to start a conversation with me. A small crowd of abour 15 of them sat around me, trying to talk to me in English. One of them insisted on taking a picture with me together, and they all seemed to find the experience quite amusing. As this was unfolding, a couple of teenage girls approached me. They asked me if I spoke English, and I responded in the affirmative. It turned out that they had a school project to interview a foreigner, and get a foreigner’s view on what they thought of Indonesia, and Borobudur. They spent a few minutes with me, and then went on their way, after getting me to sign their homework for them.

At 5:00pm, security guards came around, and ushered everyone away, except those of us who had a sticker on our shirts for the sunset viewing. All of a sudden, the temple was quiet. As the group of about 50 visitors sat on the western side, gazing into the setting sun, I took a chance to walk around to the eastern side, and view Mount Sindara that began to change colour as the sun dropped below the horizon. Indonesia has a large number of volcanoes. Mount Sindara is one of two dormant volcanoes in the area that form the valley. Its eruptions from the past have left the area with very fertile soil that make it perfect for farming.

It was past 6pm before I made it down to the bottom of the temple, to return back to the resort. I had a brief couple of moments to capture the entire temple in its entirety without any tourists in the foreground.

Collis was waiting for me when I returned to the entrance of the Manohara centre, and quickly drove me back to the resort. The team there had already begun preparing my dinner and served it to me within 10 minutes of my arrival – enough time for me to freshen up. They’d also put up the mosquito nets around my bed and deployed electronic mosquito repellents to keep me safe from any mosquito bites.

After dinner, the staff took my order for breakfast for the next morning. They also arranged a car and driver for me at 4:00am. As I retired to my room, I realised that it was only 7:30pm and that I had enough time to unwind, rest and sleep, and still be up at 3:30am the next morning to be ready for my sunrise shoot.

At 4:00am the next morning, as I was getting ready, I heard a knock on the door. One of the hotel staff had dutifully turned up to wake me up and ensure that I did not miss my visit. I was out the door 15 minutes later, and was greeted by Collis, and another one of the staff who had packed some muffins for me, to make sure that I had something to give me some energy. Collis drove me over to Manohara in 15 minutes. There was a decent line already formed for the purchase of tickets, but he’d already got things sorted. Once he got me my ticket, he escorted me to the entrance. As I was about to head up the path, it started raining… not just a gentle shower, but a full-on downpour!

This is something that is very characteristic of the region. Borobudur lies between a series of mountains. Storm systems often develop at sea, and float in at a higher altitude quicker than you might realise. The moment they hit one of these mountains, a downpour will begin with little to no warning. I donned the rain poncho that I had been provided with, and a headlamp that I had brought with me. The downpour began to ease up. I began to make my way up the path towards the temple with a few other tourists.

Sunrise on that particular morning was not as spectacular as it normally is. There was a lot of cloud cover on the low horizon that prevented the brilliant pinks and reds from developing. They did make for some eerie blue skies and mist on the western side, as the valley unveiled itself. By 6:30am, the sun was well and truly up, and I made my way down the steps to Manohara. The staff were already serving some hot beverages and snacks. After grabbing a quick bite and a cup of tea, I met Collis who took me back to Villa Borobudur, where the staff had breakfast ready for me. The staff took my order for lunch, and then arranged for the vehicle to be ready to drop me at the airport. My flight was at 5:50pm. They suggested that I leave by 1:30pm to be there on time to catch my plane.

I spent another hour or so photographing the valley from Villa Borobudur before retiring to me room to catch up on some sleep.

I’d originally planned on heading out of Borobudur early to stop at Yogyakarta to visit the Prambanan Temple. After taking a look at the weather forecast, I decided not to. I spent the rest of the morning catching up on sleep. I was vindicated in my decision. Shortly after I’d retired to bed, I heard the skies open up again, as it poured for another two hours.

At noon, I’d sat down for lunch. The resort manager stopped by to settle my accounts, and provided me with a parting gift from the hotel – a carved Buddha head. She explained to me that it is something that you receive and not something that you buy for yourself.

It was time to leave. The staff had loaded my one suitcase into the vehicle. As I said goodbye, I couldn’t help but reflect on how relaxed the trip had made me feel.

Collis started the car, as we made our way to Yogyakarta airport. It was Sunday, and as he had foreseen, traffic was heavy. The 40km trip normally takes two hours. It took us two detours, and a total of three hours to get to the airport. I still had plenty of time to catch my flight, but nonetheless, it was a lesson learnt for my next visit to Indonesia.

Check-in at Yogyakarta airport was smooth. It’s a small airport, and they only have 6 check-in desks at the international terminal. They’re efficient for an airport of their size, and are very helpful. I discovered that in Indonesia, you cannot carry a camera tripod onto a plane as part of your carry-on baggage. I ended up having to check it in, though they were kind enough to pack it for me, and put  “Fragile” and “Priority” tags on it. It’s also worth noting that Yogyakarta airport does not have any food or coffee stalls once you go past immigration into the waiting room. This is worth remembering in case you’re planning to get a snack before getting on the plane.

Overall, this was a perfect weekend getaway. It’s a bit of a “do it once in your life” destination, but there’s enough of a reason to come back again if you need to get some peace and quiet.

Some final thoughts

When staying at Borobudur, I recommend reaching out to the resort to organise a pick-up and drop off to and from the airport. While it may be a bit dearer, it will allow you a bit more flexibility of organizing activities.

If you fly in on SilkAir from Singapore, you’ll depart Singapore at 8:00am and arrive in Yogyakarta at 9:50am. You could cover this destination in two days and one night, where you’d get picked up at the airport by the resort car, visit the Prambanan temple, and then make your way to Borobudur for a sunset viewing of the temple, before retiring for the evening. You could then do a sunrise viewing of Borobudur, before leisurely returning back to Yogyakarta to catch your return flight to Singapore which departs at 5:50pm.

The accounts in this article are compiled from my own experiences from trips that I paid for myself. This post has not been sponsored – be it by any individual, commercial entity, or any other organisation. The opinions reflected herein are strictly my own.

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