Awesome temples, iconic ruins and UNESCO world heritage sites are everywhere in South East Asia. Far too many for one trip, or even two or three, and it can be easy to become blasé about them. With so many travellers saying they get ‘templed out’, the term is dangerously close to becoming an actual medical diagnosis, so when it finally happened to me, it was with huge relief that two temple sites revived my flagging enthusiasm just in time.
Right at the top of my ultimate must see list when I first started to plan my trip to Indonesia was Borobudur. This magnificent 9th Century Bhuddist temple in central Java is a renowned UNESCO world heritage site and is constantly in many ‘must see before you die’ lists, and with Prambanan – a 9th Century Hindu temple – relatively close by also on my list, a trip to Yogyakarta was inevitable.
In amongst a myriad of other interests and passions, I am a huge ancient history nerd. I love spending time not only exploring the magnificent ruins and temple architecture of the places I visit but reading up on the history and the culture that surrounded those buildings too. It helps me to connect to the place I am in and helps me associate with the culture and the people, it gives me a greater understanding of how the past has shaped the present and adds a much deeper layer to my travel experience. For me, a country’s ruins and temples and historical sites are far more than just stone and rubble, far more than just simple buildings, they are a timeless link to that place.
This is why I was so excited to finally see two of the most significant temples and ancient structures in the whole of Indonesia.
The problem was that before I arrived, I had explored so many temples throughout Indonesia, Bali and elsewhere in south east Asia, I was beginning to get ‘templed out’.
The temples and ruins were seeming less and less like physical celebrations of religious and cultural beliefs and increasingly like simple buildings. They were no longer whispering their stories, no longer telling me about the people and the culture that brought them to life. They were becoming nothing more than simple rock and stone structures. And this was threatening to take the sheen off an experience I had waited a long time to have.
It can be easy to get templed out in South East Asia, any traveller who has spent any time there will tell you that, and despite the fact I never thought it would happen to me that is exactly how I felt when I finally hit Yogyakarta. A fact that I was extremely annoyed and nervous about at the same time. After all, seeing the glorious and iconic world heritage sites of Borobudur and Prambanan was one of the primary reasons I had come to Yogyakarta in the first place.
Even after I arrived in Yogya and settled into my guest house – the first of three as it later turned out – I was a little apprehensive. Was this temple fatigue really going to ruin my trip to Yogyakarta? Was it really going to ruin the experience of seeing a sight that I had wanted to see for a long time?
I can’t have come all this way, waited all this time to see these magnificent structures only to have a momentary lapse in judgement dull the experience for me. So not wanting to miss out on seeing them I gave myself a couple of days just to explore Yogyakarta. I gave myself a little break, but was determined not to miss it off my itinerary. So booking my transport the day before, I waited for my day to come and set off from central Yogyakarta at the crack of dawn.
I am so glad I did!
One glimpse was all it took. The first glimpse of Borobudur looming out of the lush countryside and surrounded on three sides by stunning limestone cliffs and active volcanoes washed any remaining vestiges of temple fatigue from my shoulders and instantly revived my enthusiasm.
Barrelling through the ticket office as quickly as I could, the manicured gardens whispered promises of things to come, offering glimpses of the temple itself and allowing you to see the occasional stone relief, each one giving you a taster, a preview of a much larger tale.
And what a grand tale the temple had to tell.
This colossal monument to Buddhism is simply breathtaking. There is no other way to describe it and any superlative used to describe the experience of seeing it for the first time would be an understatement.
With six tiers of square terraces rising up from the spectacular scenery. Each tier recounts the life of Buddha on his path to enlightenment, and it is a truly illuminating journey as you start from the East gate and work your way clockwise around each terrace, climbing the steep stairs to the next level after listening to the story the temple is telling you. Considering the beating this temple has taken over the years from earthquakes, damage from volcano ash and even a terrorist bomb, the reliefs are in an amazing condition and have been restored by UNESCO teams to an unbelievable standard.
At the final tier, three further circular terraces lead the way to the central stupa. Each one of these were filled with small domes – most of which house Buddha statues – which are possibly a representation of Nirvana itself. After the sheer level of detail and decoration on each and every relief on the way up, it was surprising to see that there was none at all on these final three levels. Unless you count the domes themselves, which were just as impressive in their own way, there was no ornamental reliefs at all. I have to admit I didn’t get how it represented Nirvana, but then maybe I’m not supposed to. Maybe I’m just not enlightened enough. But being there in the midst of all these stunning works of stone art made me appreciate how other people – those who built and worshipped here for countless years – could see that. And perhaps that was enough.
I could almost see and feel the countless people who had come to this temple over the centuries, as builders, worshipers, explorers and now tourists. Lots of them. With such a popular site, the influx of visitors was inevitable, but despite that it wasn’t difficult to imagine what this temple would have been like through the centuries, to imagine all those who had come here to worship and meditate. Their energy was almost palpable through the warm stone.
Each of these three divisions, the square terraces, the circular terraces and the central stupa at the top are meant to symbolise the three realms of Buddhist cosmology, the world of desires, the world of forms and the formless world.
Understanding the significance behind the architecture of this magnificent temple gives your journey up it a whole new level, and makes the views over the fertile Kedu plain and the stunning – and very active – volcanoes that surround it a whole new meaning.
The temple is as much of the landscape as it is part of it, and it makes you realise just how insignificant we are as individuals and how connected we are at the same time.
I’m glad I didn’t let my temple fatigue get the better of me. I would have missed out on an incredible experience and a sight that I had wanted to see for a long time. Borobudur was a huge tick list item for me, and by giving myself just a couple of days to refresh my batteries and pushing ahead with my original plan I got to enjoy the experience to the fullest. I could allow myself to take the experience in and get pleasure from it instead of shutting myself off.
And because Borobudur recharged my fascination for ancient temples and history, I could visit Prambanan with a fresh set of eyes and have the benefit of the full experience the complex had to offer. Unlike the build up to visiting Borobudur, this was something I could really look forward to.
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