My first stop in Indonesia welcomed me with just the kind of torrential downpour you might expect from any tropical nation’s rainy season. It’s possible you’ve never heard of Yogyakarta (I hadn’t until a few months ago) but the main reason for my brief visit here was to see Java’s Borobudur. Though you’ve probably never heard of Borobudur either, you’d likely recognize it in photos. It first appeared on my radar when the Amazing Race teams went there a few years ago. When I decided to spend some time in Indonesia this year, it shot straight to the top of my priority list.
Getting to Borobudur isn’t the easiest since it’s not really located near a major city (like Angkor Wat in Siem Reap). However, diligent research showed that the city of Yogyakarta was the most convenient for a visit.
Further solidifying Yogyakarta as the base for my stay on the island of Java – direct flights from Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia and the fabulously-zen-looking Sheraton Mustika Yogyakarta Resort & Spa. Once I decided on the hotel, I did a little research about the best times to visit Borobudur and came across an exclusive sunrise tour offered through the Manohara Hotel which is located right on the edge of the temple grounds. Borobudur opens to the public at 6am daily, but if you want to see the sunrise, you’ll have to shell out a few extra rupiah (380,000IDR, about $32 US) and arrive at the Manohara Hotel no later than 4:30am.
After my magical sunrise experience at Angkor Wat on RTW #4, I was definitely keen to see the sunrise views of this Indonesian beauty. I contacted the hotel to inquire about availability and luckily there is no limit to the number of tickets they sell daily, any day you want to show up at 4:30am and pay the fee, you can go in. I figured I had just two shots at this (a sunrise un-obscured by clouds is never a guarantee) and my general experience with these sorts of things told me to go for it on the first day despite the current dire state of the weather. It was a gamble considering it was a 90-minute drive from the hotel which would mean leaving at 3am (the only time I ever get up at 2:30am is for the Honolulu Marathon) but I figured if I tried on Day 1 and struck out with the weather, I’d just pay the $32 plus transportation and try again the next day. Getting up at 2:30am two days in a row is a price I was willing to pay to see Borobudur at sunrise.
The Sheraton suggested using one of their drivers instead of taking a taxi both ways. The cost for a full-day tour of Yogyakarta (including Borobudur) was about $65 for 10 hours. A taxi round-trip would have been about $40 so for the extra $25 I could have the driver take me around to all the places I wanted to see in Yogyakarta after I was done with sunrise. It seemed like the perfect way to maximize my limited time in the city.
Of course, when you start your tour at 3am that means your 10 hours is up at 1pm so it really amounted to a half-day tour but if the weather cooperated it should be enough. So, with the next day sufficiently organized, I spent the afternoon exploring the Sheraton and settling in to my beautiful suite. Not surprisingly, I called it a night pretty early in preparation for my ridiculous 2:30am wake-up call.
Sunrise at Borobudur
The next morning, or should I say the middle of the night, came awfully early but I was excited to hit the road and get a good spot for the sunrise show. My driver was ready and waiting at 3:00am and the Sheraton had been thoughtful enough to pack me a breakfast box for the drive. At this hour, the driver said it should only take an hour to reach the temple and I immediately thought that I could have used that information the night before. Regardless, after an easy drive, we were pulling into the gates at the Manohara Hotel just after 4am.
I was surprised that there were only a handful of other people there as I remembered sunrise at Angkor Wat was packed with tourists. Perhaps this would be a more tame affair. At 4:30am, the hotel guide handed us each a flashlight and a yellow sarong to wear (the men and the women, regardless of whether you had long pants on or not – everyone who enters the temple has to wear one) and then led us a few at a time through the hotel grounds to the temple entrance gate.
Along with Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar, Java’s Borobudur is considered one of Asia’s “Big Three” temple experiences. Built by the rulers of the Sailendra dynasty somewhere between AD 750 and AD 850 it must have taken a huge workforce to complete. It’s believed that the name Borobudur is derived from Sanskrit words meaning “Buddhist Monastery on the Hill.”
Borobudur was abandoned for many years before the Dutch began to tackle restoration in the early 20th century. In 1973, a massive Unesco-sponsored restoration project began and in 1991 Borobudur was finally declared a World Heritage Site.
Once inside the grounds of the temple, I was on my own. I had a flashlight (so I was one step ahead of my Angkor Wat experience) but again I had no idea exactly where to go. It was pitch black outside and my tiny little flashlight beam mostly just kept me from killing myself by tripping over a stone; it provided little in the way of navigational advice. I splashed the beam of light across the temple structure in search of what I’d seen in the pictures of Borobudur, the giant bell-shaped stone structures. Nada. Hmmm, where could they be?
Complicating matters, I didn’t see any other people either so there was no one to follow. Eventually, I deduced that it might be a good idea to start climbing the giant stone steps up the temple and sure enough I was rewarded with the stone bells at the very top…yay me! If you could put “middle of the night blind temple navigation” as a skill on a resume I would definitely be qualified to list it.
There were perhaps a dozen other people milling around at the top trying to decide on the best spot so I settled in and started waiting for light. I was encouraged by the fact that stars greatly outweighed clouds in the sky above me. About 5am, the first hues of deep pink appeared in the sky and I knew I was in for something special. The sun’s early glow illuminated the outline of the nearby volcano, Mount Merapi, peeking through the symmetrical stupa as I began to get my first look at the structures surrounding me.
The next half hour was magic. The partly-cloudy sky burned with an orange glow and the temple’s six square terraces came into view one by one. I wandered around in a daze snapping photos and exploring every little corner of the uppermost level. It was an incredible experience made even better by the fact that I would get to sleep in the next day after all. At 6am the gates opened for the general public and they began to trickle in clad in their blue sarongs (the yellow are only for the sunrise tour).
Once it began to get crowded I decided it was time to move on. I’d gotten exactly what I’d hoped for from my morning at Borobudur and I knew there was much more to see in town. As I headed back to the Manohara to meet my driver, I realized I’d grown quite attached to my flashy yellow sarong and I wondered if I would get to keep it or be given the option to purchase one.
My first question was answered when I was relieved of the sarong at the entrance to the hotel. I inquired about purchasing one and was directed to the hotel’s gift shop (which was really just a small counter). The man at the counter had the sarong in a blue or black version with the outline of the temple on it but nothing in yellow. I asked again at the front desk on my way out if I could purchase one of the sarongs and was told it was not possible. This seemed crazy to me as it was the perfect souvenir from my visit and I couldn’t believe I was the first person to ask about purchasing it.
I left the hotel thinking surely I could pick one up in town somewhere later that day but as it turns out, they can’t be found anywhere. The sarongs are apparently exclusive to the Manohara and the sunrise tour and even an e-mail to the hotel later that day yielded no results. Had I known this when I turned in my sarong earlier I might have made a different decision. I’m not telling you what to do but just know that if you visit Borobudur for the sunrise tour and you like your yellow sarong, you will not be able to keep (or purchase) your yellow sarong. Do with that information what you will. This is my public service announcement for today.
With Borobudur happily checked off my list, we headed back toward Yogyakarta to my next destination, Prambanan. Built in the 9th century, the Hindu temple of Prambanan was severely damaged by the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck the Yogyakarta area in 2006 killing more than 5,000 people. A large sign outside the temple entrance shows the striking before and after pictures and explains the restoration of the temple that is currently in progress.
As I walked around the temple grounds, I was shocked to see men climbing near the very top of each pinnacle carefully brushing off debris with tiny brushes. They didn’t seem to be harnessed to anything at all and I was just sure one of them would plummet to his death while I was there but thankfully none of them did.
After wandering in and out of a few of the structures I reconvened with my driver to decide on our next stop. At his suggestion we headed to the hilltop archaeological ruins of Ratu Boko. Not a temple like the other sites we’d visited, Ratu Boko is believed to have been an early settlement though its precise function is still unknown. There wasn’t as much to see here as at the first two stops but the best thing about Ratu Boko is its location on a hilltop overlooking all of Yogyakarta. The views over the town and the rice fields were absolutely gorgeous and I stopped to soak it all in for a few minutes.
As I was appreciating the view, a group of Muslim girls approached nervously asking to take a photo with me. I know this happens to a lot of tourists but I’m always amazed at how often it happens to me, especially in the more remote parts of Asia. I’m told that many of the people visiting the historic sites in Yogyakarta are school groups from more rural parts of Java who might never have seen a tourist in person. They’re always so sweet and shy when they approach me so of course I always say yes (and then I always hand them my camera to take a photo as well so that people believe that this actually happens to me).
After I got back to the car, we decided I had time for one more stop before returning to the hotel. My driver suggested the same place I was leaning toward, the Sultan’s Palace known as the kraton. Located in the heart of the city, this walled city is home to all of the sultans of Yogya, including the current sultan. Considered one of the best examples of Javanese palace architecture, the compound was completed in 1756 and consists of decadent halls, spacious courtyards and numerous pavilions. When you buy your entrance ticket to the kraton you’re assigned a guide to walk you through the grounds and explain the history. The tickets were very inexpensive compared to everything else I’d done that day and I thought it was a great deal that it included a handy guide. The tour was fairly interesting and by the time I exited out the back of the palace it had started to rain. Luckily, it was time to head back to the Sheraton anyway! Despite the fact that I just had one full day in Yogyakarta, I really felt like I got to see a lot. To me, anything else after Borobudur was just a bonus but I could tell that the city of Yogyakarta really had a lot to offer.
And speaking of a lot to offer, the Sheraton had been kind enough to offer me a chance to experience their luxurious Taman Sari Royal Heritage Spa later that afternoon so I jumped at the offer. I had a traditional Javanese massage that was perhaps one of the best massages I’ve ever had in my life. After my 2:30am wake-up call and all the temple-hopping I’d done that day it was all I could do to stay conscious during it.
The next morning I enjoyed a few hours of sunshine relaxing by the pool before it was time to head back to the airport and continue my Indonesian journey on the island of Sulawesi. A big thank you to the wonderful folks at the Sheraton Yogyakarta for going out of their way to make my stay so special. My brief experience in Yogyakarta was just as perfect as I could have hoped for and in light of the current situation there in the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Kelur, I’m feeling incredibly fortunate today.