Sunrise at Borobudur Temple

Let me start this post by making something very clear: I am NOT a morning person. And obviously the word "sunrise" is a bit of a clue that this is an early morning experience. However, “lucky” for me I had taken an overnight flight two nights before, which meant that by the time I was finally able to go to bed I had been awake for 35 hours. Thus, I was more than ready to pass out cold at 7pm, which made the 3:30 alarm actually feasible!

Laura's Backpacker 523 hostel's neighborhood

Now, you certainly do not need to get up at 3:30 in the morning to enjoy Borobudur Temple (the world’s largest Buddhist temple). It is an easy drive from Yogyakarta, so definitely doesn’t require an early start in order to make it a day trip. Nor can I even tell you to go early in order to avoid crowds because it’s one of the few places on Earth that might actually be more popular at 6am than noon. But there’s a reason for that popularity: the rising sun over the hills of central Java is the definition of tranquility and peace. And when the theme of the day is Buddhism....

You can experience sunrise at the temple itself, or you can choose to view it from Punthuk Setumbu, a nearby hill. My friend Alyssa and I opted for the latter, as it was the cheaper option and, well, a sunrise in the jungle is a sunrise in the jungle as far as we were concerned. So yes, technically the title of this blog is a lie. Can you forgive me?

I can’t compare the numbers of who chooses the temple versus the hillside, but I can tell you that despite it being one of the more popular tourist things to do in Yogyakarta, there were only about 15 people on the hill with us on this late-May morning. Everyone was respectful and quiet so that they and others could enjoy the serene surroundings (or perhaps everyone was just tired because it was 4:30 in the freaking morning). We arrived in the dark, paid the 35,000 rupiah ($2.50) entrance fee, and followed a torched-lit wooden staircase up to the viewing area.

The jungle, hills, and - in the back - volcanoes of Java

Despite not being able to see any scenery yet, we thoroughly enjoyed breathing in the jungle air and listening to the symphony of insects and the occasional rooster around us. Slowly, the darkness gave way to grey to purple to brilliant blue. As the land emerged with the light, we found ourselves surrounded by lush jungle, mountains, and, most excitingly, volcanoes. The hills and mountains were covered in that mist that so often accompanies early morning, which made the contrasts between the colors all the more beautiful. All in all, a lovely (albeit very early) start to the day.

The temple itself was only a ten minute drive away, and we were there only minutes after it opened at 6 if you want to experience sunrise there you can buy a special ticket for early admission). Bizarrely, included in the admission price (375,000 rupiah, or $26) is a free drink of bottled water, coffee, or tea - as in, we paid the entrance fee and then were immediately shuffled over to a drinks cart. We both chose tea out in an automatic "oh, we're supposed to not go to the temple right now?" kind of way and awkwardly sat at a table outside sipping this drink that neither of us wanted. It seemed rude to decline though, so we basically just burned out tongues in our haste to drink it so that we could get to the site.

We walked along the lovely palm tree and garden-lined path towards the massive structure (again, this is the largest Buddhist temple in the world). The temple itself was a layered, detailed 1,200 year old masterpiece. This was my first non-East Asian Asian temple and it wasn’t what I expected. Mind, this shows my complete ignorance of Buddhism rather than it does any false advertisements on Borobudur’s part. I don’t know what I expected to be honest, but it wasn’t anything this astounding. The level of detail in the carvings - both Indonesian and Indian in influence - along the walls was just jaw-dropping, especially when you consider their age.

There are many staircases through which to enter this step pyramid-shaped temple (made from volcanic stone, because this is Java after all). We chose a random one, and walked the entire perimeter of the temple one layer at a time. As we walked, we admired the carvings that told the story of the Buddha, both pre- and post-enlightenment. There are three layers/steps, and each one represents a different stage on the way to enlightenment.

The top few layers had the famous bell statues, with the very top being one massive bell - like the star atop a Christmas tree. As inspiring as the base levels of Borobudur were, it was these top floors with the bells that were the best. I could have spent much longer there if we'd come on our own and weren't beholden to a tour's timeline. Despite not being as architecturally intricate as the carvings below, the bells were so mysterious and intriguing, especially when combined with the mist and jungle in the background. I think it was just the multitude of them - there are 72 of them, all identical (I think), resting in the shadow of the giant bell.

It was still only 7am, but Java is near the equator so the morning heat haze was already quite strong. It may have been uncomfortable but that only made the Buddhas and jungle that much more beautiful. The view was, from a natural standpoint, stunning. However, as so often happens, human activity took the beauty down a notch or two. There were a lot of random buildings and lights (think giant football stadium lights) strewn about the grounds that took away a little from the scenery. But overall, it was wonderful taking in the very old architecture in the morning sun and heat.

Despite the early time (again, it was not even 6:30 in the morning) there were already people there. Not crazy crowds by any means, but more people than, say, the Acropolis has at 8am. But it didn’t matter – as I said above, this is the world’s largest Buddhist temple. As in, the structure is absolutely massive and there was plenty of space for everyone to wander relatively alone. In fact, it was only the top of the temple with the bells that actually felt slightly crowded. While exploring the rest of the structure we basically had the place to ourselves.

We took a few timelapse videos of our wanders before heading back down and heading to the restaurant on property (passing the elephants available for riding on the way). Our tour provided breakfast, and we were definitely ready for some sustenance after having been awake for nearly four hours. We walked in and headed upstairs to where the fabulous-looking buffet was. But then we were promptly told that the buffet was for other people. Our tour’s breakfast was just a sad little plate of chocolate and cheese pancakes (???) and fresh fruit. Granted, it didn't taste nearly as bizarre as it sounds. But we were a little sad watching everyone else pile their plates full of the various offerings.

By 7:30, we were back at the van, having had a full morning before I am normally even awake. Like I said, I am very glad that I was so dead exhausted the day before which allowed for an easy 3:30am alarm. I don’t think the sunrise would have been worth it otherwise, honestly, but that’s more my absolute disdain for early mornings than the beauty of it all. That being said, if it was that hot and hazy at 6:15 in the morning, god knows what Borobudur feels like at noon. So maybe it would be the best decision no matter the level of fatigue. But no matter the time of day, make sure to visit this site if you find yourself planning an Indonesian trip. It was absolutely incredible.