To go or not to go… Is it worth seeing the sunrise at Borobudur?
This is sunrise over Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Surrounded by a lush tropical landscape, it lay hidden for centuries under thick layers of volcanic ash and dense jungle growth. Observed from afar, it’s easy to see how it could get lost, the temple at times being indistinguishable from the trees that stand watch over it. When asked about Borobudur, most Indonesians insist that it is one of the seven wonders of the world – despite the fact that there is no official evidence to support their claim.
Chances are you are reading this post as you have typed into a search engine, “Should I see the sunrise at Borobudur?” I myself typed that very question before my visit. Most of the posts I found included generic photographs of the temple stupas silhouetted against a near-perfect, golden sunrise. (After all, that’s what draws the tourists in.) Hopefully this post will help to dispel some of these myths – showing you what you’re more likely to see, as well as what the journey to Borobudur is actually like.
What are your options?
There are two options for seeing sunrise at Borobudur: inside the temple complex itself or from Pethuk Setumbu – a hill a few miles away overlooking the area. To go into the temple itself you have to pay a direct fee to the Hotel Manohara which is inside the grounds. It’s the only way in at this time. They have a monopoly and they know it – as a result, it’s expensive (a whopping 380,000 rupiah / $38). I decided to go with option number two: climb up to the viewpoint at Pethuk Setumbu a few miles away, then once the sun came up, go into the temple myself. I don’t like tours; I never join them. I arrange my own transport and do my own thing.
Borobodour by motorbike
I arranged to be taken up on the back of a bike by a guy I met the day before while poking around the back streets near the Royal Palace (Karaton) in Yogyakarta. It’s possible to take a public bus which is much cheaper – but you won’t be there in time for sunrise and I prefer the flexibility of just jumping on the back of a bike any way.
My driver was Heiho, a 40-year old Indonesian playboy who didn’t look a day over 30. He picked me up at 4am outside my hotel, and along with two French girls following behind we drove in darkness through the back streets before eventually leaving the city of Yogyakarta behind. (Borobodour is actually 50km outside Yogyakarta.) The route isn’t signposted well, so if you decide to drive up there yourself get a map and stop every so often to check if you’re going the right way.
Driving about the city at this time is nice. It’s quiet, the air seems clearer and every now and then you’ll pass through small towns which, despite it being 4.30am, are a hive of activity due to the local morning markets and the familiar sound of the Muslim call to prayer. I chatted to Heiho on my journey up to the temple. When I told him I was visiting from Tokyo he replied, “So desu ka?” (Is that so?). Turns out, he lived in Japan for a year working at the Subaru Factory in Gunma. Heiho was the nickname given to him by his Japanese coworkers who couldn’t pronounce his Indonesian name. It was nice to speak Japanese with him and made me feel that Japan is my second home.
As we rise in altitude it’s freezing on the back of the bike. While the girls have been smart and are wearing long trousers, scarves and all sorts, I’m freezing my ass off in a pair of shorts. It’s a trade off I’m willing to bear, as I know once the sun comes up it’ll be roasting at Borobudur. I was right. About half way there our bike basically runs out of petrol but there’s a little shack by the side of the road selling gasoline in glass bottles. Gasoline is ridiculously cheap in Indonesia, coming in at under $1 per litre. These stalls are found by the side of the road all over SE Asia, catering for the insane number of bikes speeding about.
Sunrise is at 5.15am, and because we ran out of petrol, the last fifteen minutes of the journey is essentially a race against nature: trying to make it to Pethuk Setumbu before the sun comes up. We arrive at the hill and it’s a fifteen-minute hike to the top. I just make it – birds playfully singing and the air damp with dew. It’s pretty busy at the top, tourists who have come by jeep tour etc. Don’t expect to have the place to yourself.
The sunrise is pretty spectacular. With the mist rolling over the hills the whole scene looks like something out of a fantasy novel. It doesn’t look real. The temple complex is far off in the distance, and at times it gets lost in the jungle below. For me, the sunrise wasn’t golden. But hey, don’t go with the expectation that it will be and you won’t be disappointed. In fact, I’m glad it looked the way it did the morning I visited – the mist adding an ‘otherwordly’ quality to the landscape. (Later on in my trip when I was at Mount Bromo I overheard a woman snapping at her Indonesian guide, “You told me it would be clear and that I would see a beautiful sunrise!” I turned round to her and said “He’s not god. He can’t control the weather.” That shut her up.)
After the sun was fully out I made my way back down the hill, jumped on the back of Heiho’s bike and we drove through the rice fields to visit the temple complex. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has the visitors to match: the same vibe that can be felt at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Unlike Angkor Wat, however, 80% of the visitors are local people. It’s busy, there’s no denying it – but you can find areas of solitude to just sit and enjoy the mountainous jungle that surrounds you.
By this stage it’s about 9am and both the tourists and heat have arrived in full force. We say goodbye to Borobudur, and drive back to Yogyakarta in the sun. Realising that we haven’t eaten, we stop at a local warung by the side of the busy freeway and eat our breakfast while trucks hurtle by beside us: fried chicken with a spicy sambal made from shrimp paste, garlic, chilis and lime. We eat with our hands, using finger bowls to make the rice sticky enough to hold.
To be honest, while Borobudur was a sight to behold, the journey itself and the friends I made was what made my experience so memorable. This is what travelling is all about, and you miss so much by simply joining a group tour and being shipped about like cattle. Organise the trip yourself, talk to people and put yourself out there: you will get so much more back in return. As a result of the friendship I struck up with Hohei, he invited me back to his cafe after our trip and gave me Kopi Luwak for free. Do you know what Kopi Luwak is? Well, it’s the most expensive coffee in the world: made from beans that have been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet cat.
So should I see the sunrise over Borobudur or not? Absolutely! If you’re going to go to the temple complex any way then why not get your ass out of bed early and see the sun come up. Whether you want to pay the fee to go into the temple grounds itself is up to you: granted it is more expensive, but there will be very few people about and you will feel like your own the place. I enjoyed my bike ride in the early morning, and seeing the jungle surrounding the temple. The only reason I’d maybe say not to go at sunrise is if you’ve already seen the sunset over The Temples of Bagan in Myanmar… But each are different in their own right.