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Borobudur is a Buddhist stupa and temple complex in Central Java, Indonesia dating from the 8th century, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is one of world's truly great ancient monuments, the single largest Buddhist structure anywhere on earth, and few who visit fail to be taken by both the scale of place, and the remarkable attention to detail that went into the construction. Set as it is in the heart of the verdant Kedu Plain, the backdrop of mighty active volcanoes only enhances the sense of awe and drama.
There is no definite written record of who built Borobudur or why it was built. It was likely founded as a religious site in the 8th century at the peak of the Sailendra dynasty in central Java. The construction is thought to have taken a period of 75 years, and completed in about 825 A.D.
The haphazard jumble of Hinduism and Buddhism from this period in Java's history can be baffling for visitors. Together with the records of many royal marriages between Hindu and Buddhist nobles, many Hindu and Buddhist monuments were constructed in the region at this time. For example, Borobudur and the nearby Hindu Prambanan temple complex were more or less contemporaneous. This, together with many records of royal marriages between Hindu and Buddhist nobles, has led academics to believe that there was little serious conflict concerning religion in central Java at this time.
Borobudur lay abandoned and hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and thick jungle growth. Nobody knows for sure why it was abandoned, although the popular theories are that the local population just became disinterested when there were mass conversions to Islam in the 15th century, or they were simply driven away by a large volcanic eruption. It was never forgotten entirely though, with local folklore ensuring that stories of the great monument lived on.
Following the Anglo-Dutch Java War, Java was briefly under British administration from 1811 to 1816. The British governor was Thomas Stamford Raffles (the founder of Singapore), and he took a great practical and academic interest in the history of the mystical island of Java. On a tour to Semarang in 1814, he was informed about a huge ‘lost’ monument deep in the jungles near Yogyakarta, and he sent a Dutch engineer to investigate. It took two months to clear the jungle and partially reveal the amazing monument, but it was not until 1885 that the complex was unearthed in its magnificent entirety. Raffles also presided over the re-discovery of nearby Prambanan, and it is somewhat ironic that the very brief British rule of Java led to the uncovering of both these ancient monuments.
Appreciation and protection was surprisingly slow to develop, and Borobudur became the domain of unscrupulous souvenir hunters. Modern-day archaeologists speculate that this was due to the European obsession with Ancient Egypt at the time — Borobudur was just too remote and too far away to get the attention it undoubtedly deserved. There was even a Dutch proposal to dismantle the monument and scatter it piece-by-piece to museums around the world. Thankfully, good sense prevailed and by the end of the 19th century the site was left largely intact, and a five year restoration programme was undertaken in 1907.
Modern day Borobudur
In 1956 UNESCO began an assessment process for the full scale restoration of the monument. Finally in 1968, a major plan to restore Borobudur was created, and this huge project involved a complete overhaul of the monument up until 1983. The unsteady foundations were stabilized, everything was meticulously cleaned and a major drainage system installed. After the works were finished, UNESCO formally listed Borobudur as a World Heritage Site in 1991. Since then, the profile of Borobudur has increased enormously, and it is now a major international tourist attraction. Its statues, reliefs and stupas have spawned millions of replicas which adorn properties worldwide.
This huge popularity has its downsides. Both deliberate vandalism and general wear and tear are of great concern for the future integrity of the monument. Pleas for visitors not to touch anything are made in the form of signs, by broadcast warnings, and by the presence of guards, but this does not stop the problem. Many have called for the monument to be closed to casual visitors, and for access to be only via timed guided tours.
As well as being the single most popular tourist attraction in modern day Indonesia, Borobudur has resumed its role as an important place of worship and pilgrimage for Indonesian Buddhists. Visitors should be understanding and respectful of this, especially during major Buddhist holiday periods.
The 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake which badly damaged nearby Prambanan, left Borobudur unscathed.
The 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi
Borobudur was heavily affected by the eruption of Mount Merapi in October and November 2010. Volcanic ash from Merapi fell on the temple complex, which is approximately 28 km (17.5 mi) west-southwest of the crater. During the strong eruption of 3-5 November for example, a layer of ash up to 2.5 cm (1 in) thick fell onto the temple. This also killed nearby vegetation. Experts feared that the acidic ash might severely damage the historic site. The temple complex was closed from 5-9 November 2010 to clean up that ash-fall, and the upper levels remained closed to the public until late September 2011. Upon reopening the upper levels, the Borobudur Conservation Agency announced that visitor numbers to those levels were restricted to under 82 people.
UNESCO donated US$3 million as a part of rehabilitation costs to rid the temple's stones of volcanic sediment, then to plant trees to stabilise temperatures, and finally to support the living conditions of local residents. More than 55,000 stone blocks from the temple structure had to be dismantled to enable restoration of the drainage system, which had been clogged by slurry after rains. This restoration programme is predicted to be finished in November 2011.
Borobudur lies in the the Kedu Plain - a very fertile volcanic plain between the twin volcanoes of Mount Sumbing and Mount Sundoro to the west, and Mount Merbabu and Mount Merapi to the east.
The nearest larger airports are Yogyakarta's Adisucipto International Airport (IATA: JOG) and Solo's Adisumarmo International Airport (IATA: SOC). Both are well connected domestically, and also offer some international connections to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. AirAsia for example flies from Singapore to Yogyakarta daily.
It is possible, if one rushes oneself a bit, to visit Borobudur on a day trip from Bali or Jakarta. You can also fly direct to Semarang from Singapore with Batavia Air  (4 times per week), and make your way to Borobudur from there (90 min by road).
The public buses to Borobudur from Yogyakarta are aimed mostly at Indonesian visitors, and only a few tourists venture aboard. If you are adventurous though, the Trans-Jogya service runs from central Yogyakarta to Jombor bus terminal in northern Yogyakarta (Rp 3,000), where you can change to another bus to get to Borobudur. It takes about 60-90 minutes, and should cost around Rp 10,000-15,000 one way, but bargain with the bus staff to get a good price.
Buses run regularly from Magelang to Borobudur via Muntilan and are widely advertised there. The journey time is about 1 hour.
To get from or to the Hindu temples at Prambanan, take a Yogyakarta bus and get down at Jombor Terminal (90 min, Rp 15,000 for visitors, Rp 7,000 for Indonesians). From Jombor take TransJogya route 2B to Prambanan (45-60 min, Rp 3,000). It will require 3 bus changes: 2B from Jombor to Terminal Condong, 3B from Terminal Condong to Maguwo (Jl. Solo) and 1A/B from Maguwo to Prambanan.
Travel agents in Yogyakarta sell door-to-door minibus tour packages for around Rp 75,000. This is a good deal and a straightforward way to reach the monument, although some operators may stop off at batik and silver factories along the route.
Borobudur is about 40 minutes north of Yogyakarta by car. Most of the route is on a well-maintained (for Indonesia) four-lane (in many places) highway, and there are frequent bus services (see above). A taxi from central Yogyakarta to Borobudur costs around Rp 200,000, and from Yogyakarta airport about Rp 225,000.
The nearest stations are in Yogyakarta which is the major rail hub of Central Java. Connections are frequent from major cities in the west such as Jakarta and Bandung, and in the east such as Surabaya. From the main Tugu station it is easy to arrange taxi or bus transfers to Borobudur.
The only practical means of getting around Borobudur is on foot. A toy train of limited practical use shuttles around the temple, and between the museum and entrance gate for Rp 5,000 a throw.
If you are staying in the area, most local hotels and guesthouses will rent bicycles for about Rp 30,000-50,000 per day. This is a good way of exploring the other sights and local villages around Borobudur.
Entry into Borobudur costs:
The site is open to public entrance from 6AM-5PM. However, the Manohara Hotel (see Sleep) runs a daily Borobudur Sunrise Tour for Rp 320,000 for foreigners and Rp 220,000 for Indonesians, which gets you a flashlight and a lift up to the temple gate at 4:30AM. This is in time to see the sunrise, and to explore for an hour and a half before the hordes arrive. This is well worth the money.
Hiring a guide who can explain the reliefs in some detail costs Rp 75,000-100,000 per hour. Some guides may insist on a minimum time of two hours. You should ask for a guide in the evening before going to tour in the morning. It is also perfectly possible to roll up and find a guide available, it all depends on how busy the site is. Guides speaking European languages other than English may be available.
In April 2011 it was announced that to assist in the ongoing preservation of the temple, future visitors would be required to view the temple in groups of no more than 30 persons and must be accompanied by Taman Wisata Candi Borobudur (TWCB) staff members.
Visitors are required to wear a sarong whilst visiting the temple, although the rule doesn't appear to be strictly enforced. If you do not bring your own, then one is provided free with the entrance ticket. These are available at a post located at the bottom of the temple entrance stairs, and should be returned before leaving at an exit post.
The main site is approached through a large open and pleasant park inside the complex.
Borobudur consists of six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, and is decorated with no less than 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues of various types. The main dome, located at the centre of the top platform, is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues seated inside perforated stupas. The square base is 118 m (387 ft) long on each side, and the highest point 35 m (114 ft) above ground level.
The whole monument is constructed from dark grey andesite stone, and so synonymous has this become with Borobudur and other temples on the Kedu Plain, that Indonesian for the material is simply batu candi (temple stone).
Climbing the structure takes a little bit of effort, and the dark stone absorbs the sun's heat rapidly to make walking and climbing quite hot work by early afternoon. If you have but modest stamina or heat tolerance, you should start as early in the day as possible, and take plenty of water with you. Some free bottled water and coffee usually comes with the ticket for international visitors.
The single stupendously large structure can be divided into layers as follows:
The monument's three divisions (the square terraces and central stupa at the peak are regarded as one division) symbolise the three realms of Buddhist cosmology, namely Kamadhatu (the world of desires), Rupadhatu (the world of forms), and finally Arupadhatu (the formless world).
There are six different postures of Buddha's statue from the bottom level to the top. These are contact with earth, giving and helping, meditation, fearlesness, teach and learn, and finally turning the wheel of dharma.
The wall reliefs
You can think of Borobudur as a very large teaching graphic recounting the life story of the Buddha, his teachings and his progress towards Nirvana. If you want to truly understand the reliefs, it is best to employ a guide to explain the stories to you.
In summary, the 2,760 reliefs tell four key sets of stories in the form of carved illustrations and Sanskrit inscriptions:
The Borobudur Museum
The museum is housed inside the park just a few hundred metres to the north of the temple.
It does a sometimes haphazard job of presenting the restoration process. Perhaps the most interesting exhibitions about this are those of the law of karma reliefs, with explanatory comments, and the photo gallery of late 19th-century shots of the complex before it was restored.
In 1982 a British naval history scholar called Philip Beale was visiting Borobudur when he noticed 10 panels depicting ocean-going ships. He surmised that these ships may have been a part of a famous shipping route — the Cinnamon Route — that linked Indonesia to Africa many centuries earlier. This led Beale to build a model ship based on those depictions, and that is now housed in its own dedicated space within the museum.
The museum is open daily 6AM-6PM and entry is included with the main Borobudur ticket.
Between Yogyakarta and Magelang lies the volcanic Kedu Plain. This was clearly an important area in pre-10th century Javanese history as it contains a whole host of ruins (both Buddhist and Hindu) dating from the same era as Borobudur, and easily reached from there. If you have a car, the most accessible of these together make an interesting use of the late part of the day on the way back to Yogyakarta after you have seen Borobudur. Alternatively, if you are staying in the Borobudur area, rent a bicycle and explore these temples together with the verdant local countryside.
A combined ticket for entrance to both Candi Mendut and Candi Pawon costs Rp 3500. You should be able to visit any of these in the hours of daylight.
If you are still at Borobudur in the late afternoon, return to the top level for sunset. It is often very quiet at this time, and the sunset behind the mountains to the west is quite magical.
Persistent touts hassle tourists on the approaches to the temple but are usually kept away from the temple itself. Be firm and polite about your intentions and they will soon get the message. Be careful when you exit the temple as there are confusing signs pointing to exit gates which lead you through a maze of stalls.
If you do intend to buy some souvenirs here then make sure your bargaining skills are at their best. Pedlars sell small statues that they claim are carved from lava stone, but most are cast coloured cement. Identifying genuine lava stone is easy enough as the stone is quite light for its size compared to the weightier concrete. Nonetheless, if a concrete Buddha head will suffice you should not pay more than IDR 20.000. Their first offer is around IDR 150.000. Just tell them, that you already bought for 20.000 and they will give you this price. An authentic lava stone version carved by a skilled craftsman will cost, and be worth, considerably more.
Should you be in need of cash, there is a Bank Negara Indonesia (BNI) ATM close to the main park entrance.
Muntilan is a market town on the main route from Yogyakarta to Borobudur, and it has developed as a leading manufacturing centre of carved stone Borobudur replicas. If you are thinking of buying a stone Buddha, stupa or wall relief, this should be your port of call.
Muntilan is 13-14 km (8.5 mi) back towards Yogyakarta from Borobudur on the main road (Jalan Magelang). You cannot fail to find it.
Eat and drink
The bus station area is home to a multitude of hawker stalls selling standard Indonesian street food and all manner of drinks. Be aware that most close by 5PM.
Otherwise the only dining options are in hotels. Manohara Restaurant, inside the grounds of the hotel of the same name, serves up standard Indonesian fare while offering beautiful views of Borobudur. Mains from about Rp 25,000. Amanjiwo has truly spectacular food at even more spectacular prices.
The vast majority of visitors stay in Yogyakarta and a few in Magelang. It is though well worth spending the night at Borobudur as this will give you a chance the following morning to get to the temples before the crowds arrive. Indeed, if you really want to explore and understand this magnificent monument, over-nighting in the immediate area is vital.
There are a few losmen (guesthouses) and basic hotels in the village of Borobudur just south of the park entrance. Owing to the site's popularity with tourists prices are, by Indonesian standards, somewhat inflated for what you get.
Be nice to the locals. Seriously. There is a lot written in travel guides about the pushy nature of the vendors at Borobudur. And they can be a little annoying it must be said. But a few friendly no's usually do the job.
Yogyakarta is a great seat of learning in Indonesia, and you will often find many students at Borobudur who are keen to be friendly with you. Take this how it is meant; they are genuinely friendly, and rightly very proud of their heritage and keen to talk to you about it. To avoid the largest crowds, skip weekends when large numbers of domestic tourists visit, along with the occasional school trip of students, sent by their teachers to practice their English on overseas visitors.
There is a public telephone office (Wartel) on Jl Pramudyawardani opposite the main market, and also a post office adjacent.
The telephone area code for Borobudur is the same as Yogyakarta - 0274