As one of southeast Asia’s largest Hindu temples, Prambanan Temple is an absolute sight to behold, and worth an addition to any Indonesian vacation itinerary. You can get there on public transportation but my travel companion Alyssa and I decided to spring a little extra money and hire a van in order to save the hassle - when a van cost $2.55, why the heck not?
Ah, affordability - yet another reason why traveling through the developing world is seriously underrated.
I'd obviously seen pictures of Ankar Wat before this visit, so I had a vague sense of what this style of temple would look like. But my god, I was not prepared for how immense it was going to be. As you can see from the above picture, that man was absolutely dwarfed by the towers. And the picture doesn’t even do it justice! After paying the 350,000 rupiah (about $25) entrance fee, Alyssa and I just stood in the entrance for a few minutes while we actively gaped at the sight in front of us.
There was a very informative placard at the entrance that discussed the history of the temple, as well mentioned the 2006 earthquake that caused serious damage to the site. As this is prime earthquake zone, that was not the only damaging quake in the temple's history. The same age as the nearby Buddhist Borobudur Temple, Prambanan was built 1,200 years ago to honor Lord Shiva, one of Hinduism's main gods. A crazy fun fact about the place: despite its size and intricacies, it was abandoned less than a century after it was built! The center of Java's Hindu community shifted east in the 930s following a large volcanic eruption, and this stunning, new temple was left to the elements.
As the centuries went on, the locals forgot the origin story of this magnificent structure and began to come up with their own, which included giants, devious royals, and demons. Sadly, it took colonialism to bring attention and study back to the temple. Of course, this attention also brought looting with it. It wasn't until the inner-war period that proper archeology efforts began. After the second world war, the Indonesian government decided that if a tower had at least 75% of its original stonework they would reconstruct it - thus, today's temple is not entirely original 9th century stonework but given its been 1,200 years that is hardly surprising.
As we walked towards the temple, it was easy to see how colossal this place had once been (which is almost dizzying to think about because it's still incredibly large) The bases of dozens of long-forgotten towers are still visible - one can only imagine what the temple looked like 1,200 years ago.
As I said above, prior to coming here I had no frame of reference for this style of architecture save for pictures of Ankar Wat so its not like I knew a damn thing about these types of temples. I assumed that the towers were solid entities, but no - they are actually individual temples themselves, similar to a chapel in a Christian cathedral. To enter, each had curved staircases that lead to small, dark chambers. Some had statues of various gods, while others were just empty rooms (I assume that historically there were deities in the empty rooms but I'm not sure).
Alyssa was more interested in the chambers than I was, so while she looked at them I explored the exteriors. Just as at Borobudur Temple, the carved details in the walls were absolutely mesmerizing, especially when the age of the structure was brought into consideration. I don't know what stone was 1,200 years and what was only 25, I will admit, but even if it was new stuff that I was admiring it was still reconstructed to look like the original. I so wish I could have seen this place during those few decades it was actually in use!
At each tower, Alyssa would join me after she was done with the chambers and we would enjoy the scene in front of us together, relaxing in the shade that brought welcome relief from the equatorial sun.
At one point while we were craning our necks up at the tower we were standing on, a school group approached us and asked if they could take their picture with us. We happily agreed, and afterwards Alyssa marveled at the experience. “You always hear about people wanting pictures with white people, but I’ve never had it happen!” As I’ve had it happen many times, I just smiled. However, she was less enthused about the whole concept after a few more minutes and multiple more photo-ops. "Ok, this needs to stop," she huffed as we quickly walked away from the group before any more teachers could ask us to appease their students.
That school group was quite large, so despite the fact that few other tourists were at the temple, it was still rather difficult to get pictures without people in them. After having soaked in all the culture and architecture that we wanted, we (ok, I) wanted good pictures but it was too hard to get them without teenagers running through the shot. We had actually given up and left the premises when we noticed the students were behind us. So we waited for them to pass towards the parking lot and then we promptly doubled back in order to get pictures of the place (as best we could – I cannot overemphasize how large the complex is, but here is a photo for some context).
We then meandered back towards the parking lot and our van, passing several tourist traps on the way that included the ability to bike across a tight-rope, as well as a chair that could be raised in the air (which admittedly looked fun as hell) for photographic purposes. We also passed by the largest spider I’ve ever seen in my life, which thankfully was the only spider we saw in Indonesia (save for some tiny ones in Labuan Bajo but I don’t mind little ones). But my god, he was huge. This picture doesn't quite do him justice, but he was about the size of our forearms - OUR FOREARMS.
Spiders aside, Prambanan absolutely deserves its place on the UNESCO Heritage list. Due to the amount of destruction that has occurred to the temple, what remains today is a mere ghost of what once was. Yet it's the most impressive of ghosts.
This is one of Indonesia's more visited sites, but if you took school groups out of the numbers I am not sure how many people actually come. As Alyssa and I constantly marveled at throughout our trip to the country, while Bali deserves the tourists it gets, so do the other islands. I cannot recommend Yogyakarta, with its two stunning temples, enough.