Visiting Borobudur and Prambanan

From the neat and tidy streets of Singapore, a short flight brought me to the sprawling and chaotic maze of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I was traveling to the Indonesian island of Java to visit the magnificent temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. And to meet my friend, Courtney, whom I’d met on Couchsurfing, back in 2011. 

Courtney has been backpacking around the world for nine months–exploring Europe, the Middle East and much of Asia. Since the start of her journey, we’d planned on meeting somewhere along the road for a few weeks. So, when I managed to get nearly a month off work this past May, I chose to join her in Southeast Asia, for a visit to Indonesia’s preeminent beaches, volcanoes and cultural relics. 

Though Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country on Earth, the archipelago nation has a deeply-rooted, multi-religious history and identity. And today, while almost 100 percent of Java’s population adheres to Islam, the island’s two main sites, Borobudur and Prambanan, are Buddhist and Hindu respectively.

On my first full day in Yogyakarta, Courtney and I joined two other travelers from Bhumi Hostel. Together, we hired a taxi for a day trip to the enigmatic and iconic Borobudur.

Borobudur, Indonesia

Borobudur Stupas, Indonesia

Borobudur is the world’s largest single Buddhist structure. It rises from the steamy jungles of Central Java and boasts a dramatic backdrop of mist-shrouded volcanoes and mountains. Despite its historic and religious importance, Borobudur was only re-discovered in the late 1800s, after laying hidden for centuries under a blanket of tangled vines and volcanic ash.

Today, after a lengthy restoration, it is considered to be one of the greatest temples on Earth.

Borobudur’s shape symbolically aligns with Buddhist cosmology. The temple contains six levels of walkways and a large, stupa-covered platform at its summit. At its base, the temple’s reliefs depict a world driven by passion and desire. Layers of narrow corridors take visitors past thousands of decorative panels that contain illustrations of Buddhist doctrines and images of daily Javanese life. As the levels spiral upward, the depictions progress toward nirvana, or enlightenment.

Seventy-two bell-shaped stupas lie at the top of Borobudur, each concealing statues of the Buddha. And in these stupas, each Buddha has a different hand gesture, or mudra. These mudras represent the five compass points in Buddhism–North, South, East, West and Zenith.

Borobudur

Intricate Carving, Borobudur

When we reached the top of the structure, dozens of schoolchildren swarmed around us for photo opportunities. We could hardly count to three before another giggling group approached us for a picture.

Between photo ops, my companions and I spent much of the afternoon admiring the postcard-worthy views of the temple’s iconic stupas and lush, mountainous surroundings.

After our wonderful afternoon taking in the sites of Borobudur, we headed back to Yogyakarta for the evening.

Buddha Borobudur

Buddha Statue, Borobudur

The next day, Courtney had a bout of food poisoning that kept her bedridden. While she recovered, I teemed up with two other travelers from the hostel and spent a sweltering afternoon among the towering, 9th Century ruins of nearby Prambanan.

Prambanan is somewhat overshadowed by the more internationally renowned Borobudur, but the temple is equally impressive. The temple lies just 17km East of Yogyakarta and is easily accessible by public bus. A combination ticket for Borobudur and Prambanan allows foreigners entrance to the two temples for $32–a steep price by Indonesian standards, but pennies compared to the value of visiting these two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Borobudur and Prambnan--Prambanan

Prambanan Ruins

Prambanan’s main temple, Candi Shiva Mahadeva, rises 47 meters above its surroundings. The vibrant reliefs carved onto the inner wall of the gallery illustrate scenes from the Ramayana–a 24,000 verse Hindu epic that recounts the life of Lord Rama and his wife, Sita.

Flanking Candi Shiva’s tower are two slightly smaller temples dedicated to Brahma and Vishnu respectively.

Borobudur and Prambanan--Prambanan

Prambanan Ruins

My new companions and I walked around the complex and peeked into its various temples. As with Borobudur, I was surprised to see how few other western tourists had made their way to the ruins. Local tourists and schoolchildren, however, were everywhere–asking for photos of us and, in some cases, even blatantly holding their camera phones in front of our faces for photo opportunities.

Local Schoolchildren in Indonesia

Not-So-Subtle Attempt at Photographing US

After posing for countless photos, we strayed from the crowds and ventured toward the smaller temples of Prambanan–Candi Lumbung, Candi Bubrah and Candi Sewu. Though the former two lie largely under scaffolding and resemble little more than rock piles, the latter is remarkably well-preserved.

Candi Sewu is the largest and most impressive of the surrounding temples. Though it lies merely half a mile from the main Hindu temple, Candi Sewu is actually a Buddhist temple–the second largest in Indonesia after Borobudur.

Prambanan is primarily Hindu, yet the area consists of over 500 temples that are both Hindu and Buddhist in origin and design. Thus, Prambanan and its surrounding temples are not only valuable architectural and cultural relics, but also standing proof of past religious cohabitation on Java.

Candi Sewa, Prambanan

Candi Sewa, Prambanan

The history of the temples has not always been a peaceful one, however. In 2006, an earthquake inflicted significant damage on Borobudur and Prambanan, causing many of the ancient stones to collapse.

The earthquake wasn’t the first obstacle threatening the longevity of the temples, nor will it likely be the last. To date, the archeological sites have survived a 1985 bombing, vandalism and volcanic eruptions. On a volcanic island that is susceptible to natural disasters, the survival of both Borobudur and Prambanan will take continued effort.

And yet, despite centuries of obstacles thrown their way, the temples still rise enigmatically from the surrounding verdant jungle–dazzling visitors with their grandeur–while remaining as magnificent and regal as ever.

***

Note: Chloe has put together a wonderful post for those interested in visiting Borobudur at sunrise.

Erika Bisbocci

Erika Bisbocci

Erika is an avid traveler and explorer of over seventy countries on five different continents. Since 2011, she has spent time studying Arabic in the Middle East, teaching English in Namibia and working as a flight attendant for a major US airline. When not traveling overseas, she loves exploring her own backyard in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
Erika Bisbocci

Latest posts by Erika Bisbocci (see all)

About Erika Bisbocci

Erika is an avid traveler and explorer of over seventy countries on five different continents. Since 2011, she has spent time studying Arabic in the Middle East, teaching English in Namibia and working as a flight attendant for a major US airline. When not traveling overseas, she loves exploring her own backyard in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

36 Comments

  1. I find it funny that the kids were trying to take pictures of you 🙂 but yes, they didn’t exactly try and hide it!

  2. I love when you meet Couchsurfers that you’ve staid with before, in other places of the world, or when they come and visit you. I have a few friends like that and it was great meeting them. I remember my time in India and China, where people were trying to photograph me. How funny that was. I didn’t mind, but I do remember other people did.

  3. Great post, thanks for sharing!

  4. Great photos Erica!:D It was a bit funny the part when they took pictures of you. You probably felt like some sort of a celebrity there. HeheXD
    I’m amazed how these temples have survived after everything they had endured in the past.

  5. I’d love to see both of these sites. Thanks for sharing their history and significance. Sorry about the food poisoning–that’s so not fun while traveling.

  6. Oh this place must have some really special atmosphere in it! looks fantastic!
    Marry recently posted…A little bit about torture: Catacombs of MdinaMy Profile

  7. What a gorgeous country! You wrote about it beautifully!

  8. Thanks for posting this! I want to visit Indonesia before I leave Asia. I’ll bookmark this for later planning. Also…did you feel celebrity status with all the photos being taken of you? This happens in Korea too (they want to take photos together with you lol).
    Samantha recently posted…How to Save Money in South KoreaMy Profile

  9. Hey Erika, this was an interesting review. I made out to Bali, but not to the island of Java yet. Were their a lot of tourist on this island?

  10. Sounds like $32 isn’t too bad of a price for what you are seeing. The temples sounds impressive and definitely a must-do when in the area. Hopefully the bout of food poisoning didn’t last long!

  11. Stunning imagery and beautiful writing! Greatly enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Great post! I visited Southeast Asia last year and Yogyakarta was one of the highlights of my 4 months trip! Can not decide if I enjoyed Prambanan or Borobudur more but I loved both! 🙂
    anianywhere recently posted…Beirut and Lebanon on a budget – All you need to know!My Profile

  13. It looks magnificent. Thanks for sharing your trip 🙂

  14. Beautiful pictures of the stunning place. I love the diversity in the country and would love to visit as well

  15. The temples are so impressive. I’d love to explore that part of Asia (i just need to work break to do so, for months!)

  16. I must confess – I know almost nothing about this part of the world, so I always enjoy reading posts about religious and historic sites in Asia. These temples look beautiful, I’d love to visit!

  17. I know this is such a cliché but ever since watching Eat, Pray, Love I’ve wanted to visit Indonesia. The Prambanan Ruins look so impressive.
    Marteen recently posted…Travel Posts I LoveMy Profile

  18. The temples of Borobudur and Prambanan look awesome. I would love to visit. And it so so cool that you caught up with your couch-surfing buddy! It did make me laugh that you ended up getting photographed like a celebrity too. Such fun!
    Amanda recently posted…Green Man Festival Preview 2016My Profile

  19. haha I love that you took a photograph back of the school kids! I’ve experienced a bit of that ‘celebrity tourist’ thing before too lol. I’m going to Indonesia at the end of the year so this was really helpful

  20. Very interesting and not known places for me. I’d love to see. Beautiful pictures. Thanks for sharing!

  21. So sweet that they’re so interested that they want to photograph you! I’ve had this in South America as well. I get it but I can’t imagine seeing anyone who looks interesting enough to photograph here 😀

  22. Beautiful UNESCO heritage sites. Will be traveling to Indonesia for the first time later this year and can’t wait to see the temples for myself. Good to know about the blatant photo taking. Great pictures!
    Rosemary recently posted…Why You Need Travel Insurance On Your Food AdventuresMy Profile

  23. The temples of Borobudur and Prambanan are breathtakingly spectacular. They have a strange and magical allure. Lovely post about a lovely place and some stunning pictures too.

  24. I love how people were trying to take pictures of you both! Also, I love your style of writing!

  25. I’m in love with Indonesia you know?! This country is on top of my current bucket list. Your pics from the Prambanan Ruins look amazing. Great job! happy travels
    João Leitão recently posted…Central Asia Rally – 6500 km / 4000 mi Road Trip AdventureMy Profile

  26. WOW. I hadn’t given much thought to traveling to Indonesia, but these sites are STUNNING. I love the curves!
    Lillie recently posted…Can You Guess Where This Beach Is? Proves Something.My Profile

  27. Truly impressive sights! The stupas and temples look fantastic. I love how Indonesia still honors history by having Hindu and Buddhist places of significance even while the population largely adheres to Islam.
    Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie recently posted…How to Think and Act Like a Successful Travel HackerMy Profile

  28. The Borobudur stupas look incredible and very different from other stupas that I have seen around Asia. For a long time, I was somewhat obsessed with stupas and found myself on a stupa trail in every country I visited in Asia- I would love to see this for myself.
    Natasha Amar recently posted…Learning the Art of Cooking Pasta in ItalyMy Profile

  29. Wow now I definitely want to visit the Borobudur Temple. Such an incredible culture. What a shame that Courtney got food poisoning the second day. We are going to Thailand this year, but maybe Indonesia next.

  30. Such an incredible temple that is high up on my list of must go places. I love Buddhist history so this has to feature and your photos really do show it beautifully.
    Toni Broome recently posted…NightQuarter on the Gold CoastMy Profile

  31. Isn’t this place awesome? Went here last year and was in absolute awe by the temples. The culture and structures are pretty insane. Oh no! Food poisoning is no fun when traveling.
    annaa recently posted…Europe Festivals Guide: 7 Awesome Festivals Not to Be MissedMy Profile

  32. These temples are amazing! I went to Bali earlier this year and it made me want to explore so much more of Indonesia. Thanks for sharing another piece of it.
    Megan recently posted…Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip – San Francisco to MendocinoMy Profile

  33. I hadn’t heard of these ruins before, but I’d love to explore them. There is so much to see in Southeast Asia! And it’s crazy to think that they were just recently rediscovered considering how huge they are.
    Vicky and Buddy recently posted…Angkor Wat: Photos And TipsMy Profile

  34. Wow – I have to be honest and say that I had no idea about either of these places. But now I do and they’re really interesting – I’d love to pass on that food poisoning though. 😉
    Sue Reddel recently posted…Not Your Fathers SodaMy Profile

  35. Wow.. amazingly beautiful place to visit!! i’m jealous of your travels!

  36. What an amazing place! Is for long on my Bucket list 😉 Thank you for sharing your experience and those wonderful photos.
    Maria

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