Borobudur is a Buddhist temple built around the 8th century, but there are no good records of why or how. It was built over a period of about 75 years around the same time as the nearby Hindu temple Prambanan, which is confusing; usually such spectacular monuments coincide with a single dominant philosophy or religion. The fact that both were built at once might mean that Buddhists and Hindus were both thriving and getting along just fine at the time. A nice story, but apparently no one really knows. At some point, maybe in the 14th century, Borobudur was abandoned. No one knows why that happened either, but it might have been related to Islamic conversion or to a volcanic eruption.
Borobudur was ‘rediscovered’ by the British governor of Java, Thomas Raffles, in 1814. Like me, you’re probably thinking “British? What the heck? I thought the Dutch controlled Indonesia from the 1600s until World War II”. You would be right, except for a brief 5 years from 1811 to 1816 when the British captured Java during the Napoleonic Wars. Amazingly (or unfortunately, from the Dutch perspective), the British ‘rediscovered’ both Borobudur and Prambanan, now the two most famous temple complexes on Java, during those 5 years. Raffles heard rumors about the temple, but he didn’t have time to go there himself. Instead, he sent an engineer to investigate, who located the temple, chopped forest and cleared ash, and reported back to Raffles with drawings.
Isn’t Wikipedia great?
I planned to see Borobudur on Thursday, but forgot to tell Ibu and Pak Heru that I wanted to leave really, really early to catch sunrise. They lock the door at night, so I wasn’t able to get out. I was really excited to get there at dawn and take photos, so I decided to delay the trip until Friday. After Futsal Thursday night, I got the keys and set out at 4am Friday planning to make my way to a hill near Borobodur and try to catch a good view at dawn.
My information came from google maps and a random blog I’d found that mentioned the hill, so my directions were a little shaky. I used an old fashioned printer (a pen) to roughly sketch a likely section of google maps on the back of a flash card. I was on a motorbike. Getting to the general area of Borobudur was easy enough, no wrong turns. Finding the way to the hill was a little trickier. I had to ask directions several times and it was farther than expected. I started up the hill, but came to a section that was impassable with my bike. After asking around in the village where the road ended, I thought it was possible to see Borobudur by hiking up to the peak.
By this time it was already light, so sunrise photos were out of the question. I was still interested to see Borobudur from above, so I set off. One man in the village said it would take two hours walking to make it to the peak, and another said one hour. I made it to the top of the first hill after only 20 minutes and looked down. Nothing like Borobudur stuck out, so I assumed it must not be visible from where I was standing. The hill was actually a ridge with many peaks along the way; my Indonesian is shaky so all I got was ‘peak’. They could easily have meant one of the peaks further down.
Here’s a photo I took later from down in the valley, looking up at the ridge:
I set off hiking along the ridge, partly following a dirt road and partly following farming trails. Incredibly, people lived up this terrible road and farmed the slopes.
It was pretty awesome up here, but look more closely at the great view with Gunung Sumbing in the distance. Did you notice the corn field? I’ll show you again:
Find it yet? I seriously couldn’t believe they were farming up here. Only room for 3 or 4 rows.
Here it is:
And a closeup:
So I continued along the top of the ridge, but just couldn’t seem to find a spot with a view down to Borobudur. I rejoined the main road and decided that a couple of peaks in the distance were likely candidates. I set out, but the road kept winding endlessly up and down and around the hills, very indirectly heading toward my goal. I chose another side path, followed it to another road, and kept walking. It was taking a lot longer than I’d expected, but I was determined to gaze on Borobudur from above.
I got worried when the road I was on changed from nearly impassable dirt road to nicely paved asphalt, ruining the illusion that I was walking into a remote region only accessible by foot or dirt bike. Apparently there was a much easier way to get to my destination. Still, even the asphalt road was susceptible to mudslides:
Clearly I’d walked myself back to civilization. I did make my way up one of the peaks I’d seen and the view was awesome, only slightly spoiled by the knowledge that others had driven to within 100 yards instead of walking for a couple of hours to get here.
But still no Borobudur. I thought it must be hiding behind one of those other hills in front. Frustrated, I decided I needed to get back or I wouldn’t have any time to sleep before climbing Merapi that night. I had to be there at 6:30 in the evening and we’d be up all night, plus I’d barely gotten any sleep the night before when I got up at 4am.
I turned around and walked all the way back. When I passed the corn farm, a few old ladies were up there doing some work and I waved to them. They seemed friendly and interested in what I was doing in their field, so I told them about trying to see Borobudur and asked about the best viewpoint. I could barely understand them. My Indonesian is bad and they had strong accents, possibly because they are from the countryside or maybe because they were missing so many teeth. But I was pretty sure they were telling me I could see it and pointing back the way I’d come, along the path to the corn field. I pointed to the peaks in the distance where I’d just returned from and said “Way over there?” and they said “No no, right there!”. They were pointing to the corn field. I got them to walk up there with me and look for Borobudur. I still couldn’t see anything, but soon they were all pointing and saying “There, that’s it!”. I kept looking and finally I saw it: a black speck in the distance, barely visible through the haze.
I had badly misjudged the height of the ridge and how small Borobudur would appear from way up there. I laughed and we had a little celebration; I think my exuberance at finally spotting the temple translated very well. I thanked them for helping and got the crappy photo above, zooming in as far as possible. After cropping and increasing the contrast, you can at least see the temple:
It’s more like a surveillance photo than the awesome sunrise landscapes dominated by Borobudur temple I’d imagined when setting off at 4am, but after my long walk and near complete failure it doesn’t look half bad.
I’d spent so much time on the ridge I had to head back to Yogyakarta before actually going in and walking around the temple. I’ll probably go back this week and see it, but even if I don’t I will leave satisfied. I know it would be impressive up close, but bumping around with the tourist crowds usually makes me feel claustrophobic no matter how awesome the sight. I may not have laid hands on Borobudur but I’ve certainly captured the spirit of Thomas Raffles, rediscovering the temple yet again.