Visiting Borobudur, Prambanan and Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Borobudur, Indonesia

There were a lot of reasons why we decided to travel to Southeast Asia in late November, but the weather was not one of them. In addition to stifling heat and intense humidity, it’s also the rainy season- which means every day is a new gamble as to whether or not your plans will be washed away. With the tight itinerary we arranged, we didn’t have any room for plans gone awry. This was especially true for Yogyakarta- we flew halfway around the world to see Borobudur, and it just wouldn’t be what we had envisioned in the rain.

We landed in the late afternoon under cloudy skies, which was a relief since our flight unloaded on the tarmac and we had a bit of a walk outside before getting to immigration, and that wouldn’t have been much fun in the rain. It took about 15 minutes for us to purchase a visa on arrival ($35 payable in US currency, thank goodness- although they give you change in Rupiah), clear immigration, collect our luggage, and clear customs. All that was left was to find an ATM that would let me take out 3 million Rupiah so we could pay for our all-day tour the next day- and I knew that might be difficult because some ATMs in Indonesia limit transactions to 1.5 million Rupiah, which is about $100.

As we rounded the corner and took our first steps into Indonesia, I was simultaneously surrounded by people asking if I needed a taxi- and standing in a torrential downpour. In the fifteen minutes we were in the airport the skies had opened up. We hadn’t seen more than a few drops of rain in Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur combined, so it seemed our luck had run out.

Arrivals ended up being a tiny corridor with two counters: one was an information desk, and the other was a taxi counter. My first stop was the information desk to find out where I could find the ATM. The man behind the counter looked sad when I asked. “There is one at the domestic terminal,” he told me, “but it is 200 meters away and you must walk in the rain.” One more glance outside convinced me that wasn’t happening- by now rain water was sloshing up over the curb, and walking that far in that weather would mean both Adam and I- and all of our stuff- would be soaked. Now the problem was not just finding an ATM that would let me take enough out to pay for our tour; we needed to find a way to get enough money to pay for our taxi! We had received about 150,000 Rupiah as change for our visa on arrival payment, so I took a few steps to my left to find out how much a taxi would be to our hotel.

“70,000,” the man at the desk told me. 70,000 Rupiah? Not only was that incredibly inexpensive (about $3!), we had cash on hand- no 200 meter walk in the rain necessary! We decided we would tackle the ATM problem after we got to the hotel, so we paid for our taxi ride, collected our voucher, and within a few minutes we were safely in a cab and on our way to downtown Yogya.

The rain fell harder and harder as our driver navigated the flooding streets; I watched as water splashed up over the tires of the other cars on the road and as motorbikes skidded through intersections. The drive took about 20 minutes, but it felt twice as long- and it was plenty of time for us to think about how disappointing it was that the weather had turned on us just when we wanted it to be dry and sunny. We arrived at the hotel, checked in, and found out there was an ATM in the parking lot; a quick five-second dash through the rain yielded all of the money we needed to pay our tour guide and pick up a couple of souvenirs, so feeling like our day ended on a high note we went to bed early so we would be rested for our 2:30 AM wake up call.

Sunrise from Setumbu Hill

Sunrise over Borobudur from Punthuk Setumbu Hill
Sunrise over Borobudur from Punthuk Setumbu Hill

Our full day of exploring started just a few hours later at 3:45 AM, when our tour guide and our driver met us in the hotel lobby. Amazingly, the roads were dry and the skies were mostly clear, so getting up so early for the chance to watch the sun rise over Borobudur seemed like a good idea after all. By 4:30 we arrived at the base of Setumbu Hill, and after a brisk 10-minute hike to the top we had a prime spot to watch the sun peak over the horizon. It started as a gradual lightening, the sky softly warming into a pale pink as the landscape began to emerge. Next came the sun, a red glowing orb rising higher and higher in the sky. Finally, the mist in the valley began to burn off, and the ghostly silhouettes of Mount Merapi and Borobudur appeared before slowly sinking back into the haze. It was stunning to stand quietly and watch the scene play out above and below me. When finally it seemed we had seen all there was to see, we descended from the hilltop and departed for the grounds of Borobudur.

One note about the hill trail: we had read that it was a steep hike and could be a challenge to get all the way to the top. We didn’t find it to be that steep, and neither one of us had hiking boots (in fact, some people were wearing flip flops!). However, it is a bit long, and even though the path is brick and well-defined it would have been a challenge in the rain since the dirt around it could quickly turn to slippery mud. As long as you take your time and are careful with your steps it would be fine for anyone capable of climbing stairs for ten minutes- it’s not any more difficult than that. Don’t forget to wear plenty of mosquito repellent either; mosquitoes are fairly active at that time of the morning, and some carry diseases that you may not be immune to without previous vacinations.

Borobudur, Indonesia

Borobudur

Borobudur is one of those places you may not have heard of, but you would probably recognize it if you saw it. Built in the 8th and 9th centuries, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is the world’s largest Buddhist temple and is both a shrine and a pilgrimage destination for many people. Borobudur is formed by nine stacked platforms based on the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana. Almost 100 bell-shaped structures called stupas, each containing a Buddha, decorate the temple grounds, as do hundreds of carved relief panels that depict life during the temple’s construction as well as Buddhist concepts. There are over 500 Buddha statues throughout the temple, each one carved with an impressive amount of precision and detail. We spent close to an hour exploring the relief panels on the nine levels alone as we slowly ascended to the top of the monument. By the time we had climbed the last staircase we were almost completely alone under bright blue skies to wander around and let the history and enormity of the place sink in.

When it was finally time to depart, we did so with a lot of sadness. Borobudur is a place that’s remote and to which it takes us a long time to travel, so we know it may be a long time before we can return- if we ever get to return. That’s the heartache of those of us with wanderlust, though- sometimes we leave pieces of ourselves in places we may never see again. This was truly a memorable experience and we are so grateful to have seen it in person.

The Kraton and Taman Sari

Video: Traditional Indonesian Dance

After a tasty breakfast, we were back on the road, this time heading toward the Kraton of Yogyakarta also known as the Sultan’s Palace. The Palace combined history, sightseeing, and performance art during our visit and was a surprising highlight for us as we transitioned from what we knew of Java’s history to what we didn’t know. We arrived just in time to watch a very nice dance performance with a traditional musical accompaniment before making our way through the buildings to see the paintings of and artifacts belonging to the sultans.

One downside was that there was very little to read in English, which in our case made it difficult to understand the importance or context of what we saw. We were very fortunate to have a great guide who translated for us and had a great depth of knowledge to share, so we felt like we got a lot out of the visit.

After we explored the grounds around the Palace we walked over to the nearby Taman Sari, also known as the Water Castle. The Castle was built in the mid-1700s and was formerly the royal garden for the Sultan. Unfortunately, they didn’t have water in the historic bathing area when we visited, but it was still an interesting place to explore. Our guide mentioned that when Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg visited Indonesia in 2014, the Water Castle was among the favorite places he visited.

Prambanan

We wrapped up our sightseeing at Prambanan Temple, a Hindu compound with three temples dedicated to Shiva, Visnu, and Brahma. Built roughly around the same time as Borobudur, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia. Our guide was quick to note the similarities to Angkor Wat while also sharing that many visitors to Prambanan are disappointed by it if they have also visited the better-known temple in Cambodia. Having now been to both, and certainly having recognized the similarities, I wouldn’t call Prambanan disappointing in any way. I don’t think you can compare the two compounds. Built by different people for different reasons in different places and during different times, I found myself equally impressed and humbled by my visit to both places.

Prambanan Temple
Prambanan Temple

The temples were beautifully constructed, full of intricate carvings and rich in history. I wish I had more time and energy to spend wandering through Prambanan, but by this point we had been in motion for more than 12 hours, our tour was wrapping up, and we had one final stop to make: souvenir shopping!

Adam and I aren’t typically fans of shopping overseas- we’re fairly minimalistic in terms of what we bring back home with us (not to mention how much we want to carry around during a trip!), but we often like to find a great, meaningful souvenir or two to decorate our house and remind us of where we have been. Our visits to Borobudur, the Sultan Palace, and Prambanan provided great photo opportunities, but we hadn’t been impressed with the vendor tables set up at each site. Our guide recommended Mirota Batik, a one-stop shopping center that sold absolutely everything, and before taking us to our hotel he stopped to let us explore and see if there was anything we wanted to buy. Within 20 minutes both of us had our arms full- so much for minimalism!- and were paying for fun finds like miniature stupas, golden Buddhas, and artwork. The grand total was 130,000 Rupiah, which worked out to be just about $9.00. If only shopping could be so economical everywhere!

We went back to the hotel, showered, had a great dinner, and were sound asleep just as early as we had been the day before- our trip to Indonesia ended the next morning with an early flight to Singapore!

Where We Stayed

Our home in Yogyakarta was the Phoenix Hotel, a centrally-located hotel with hard to beat room rates despite the fact it’s considered a luxury hotel. The hotel itself is built and decorated in a colonial style and was full of character and charm. The room was spacious, the bathroom was modern, and we found it to be quiet- we heard nothing from our neighbors and very little from the street. We loved the staff, all of whom went out of their way to ensure we knew our way around the hotel and very cheerfully greeted us whenever they saw us. We especially loved the restaurant staff, who made us feel very welcome and were happy to talk with us.

What We Ate


As far as food is concerned, I expected our full day in Yogyakarta to be our hardest day because it fell on Thanksgiving in the U.S., which is my favorite holiday. This was my first time not celebrating with my family in Boston, and I knew in addition to missing my family I would miss the traditional turkey dinner I look forward to every year. What I did not expect was how quickly and happily I would replace that turkey dinner with Indonesian food. We feasted on a delicious meal of chicken satay and fried rice to start off our day after visiting Borobudur, where the chicken was served with a thick and spicy peanut sauce for dipping. That meal kept us full straight through until dinner, where we ended our day with a meal at the Phoenix Hotel’s restaurant, Paprika. Incredibly hungry and equally tired, we had a delicious meal of lamb stew and a special rice dish (both served with lots of side dishes like crispy shrimp crackers), and we saved room to try dessert- a decadent Valrhona chocolate mousse for me, and a cashew tart for Adam. We ended up eating at Paprika twice while we were in Yogya- we also tried the dinner buffet on our first night when the soaking rain kept us from going out to explore the city. The buffet was also very good, especially the barbeque (chicken, steak, and fish). We paid about $40 for each meal, which included more food than both of us could eat as well as many bottles of water. For the quality, it was money well spent both times.

We were both a bit sad when the alarm went off the next morning, and not just because it was so early. Indonesia was beautiful, welcoming, and fun, and we were both sorry to not have more time to spend there. But by then, having been sad to leave three wonderful places in less than a week, we knew we were just hours away from experiencing the excitement of another new city to explore: it was time to see our final stop, Singapore!

(Oh, and just in case you’re keeping score at home- we didn’t see a single rain drop during our full day of touring Yogyakarta. Our great luck with the weather hadn’t run out after all!)

 
Travel tips for visiting Borobudur and Prambanan in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

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