Borobudur at Dawn


I DO NOT REGRET spending a total of $50 (40 for the ticket, 10 for the taxi) on the Borobudur Sunrise package, even though it’s almost twice the regular cost of admission, and here’s why: It’s literally unrepeatable. The much-vaunted experience is monopolized by the Manohara research group, which I know very little about but understand to be a team of people who exclusively study and charge entrance fees for Borobudur, a 1,200-year-old Buddhist temple about an hour outside of Yogyakarta. (They also run a swanky hotel next door to the site, which is egregiously more expensive than most accommodation in Yogya but offers the undeniably cool view of this huge ancient temple while you eat breakfast and stuff.)


The UNESCO-preserved site opens at 6 in the morning, but with a Sunrise ticket they give you a flashlight at 4:30 and tell you to basically explore wherever you want for an hour and a half. You walk up to the massive, dimly lit stone temple while Buddhist chants surround you over what sound like loudspeakers. It is effectively eerie. The sun rises at around 5:30 and most people clamour to the very top, tripods extended, to get the postcard shot. The Manohara (not to mention proponents of the package, bloggers, Wikitravel, etc.) all make note of how refreshing and serene and authentically Buddhist-like experience will be.


I certainly didn’t have any spiritual epiphanies when dawn broke through the clouds, nor did I feel Buddha’s warmth overwhelm me; I’m quite sure the only way to achieve truly authentic experience would be to find a time machine and travel to the year 875 and help build the damn thing for 75 years. Failing that, being an actual Buddhist would suffice. Few tourists are.

But V and I did manage to escape the crowds congregating at the top by simply going one level below. This is worthwhile, especially if people bug you. The ability to walk the stone corridors alone against the day’s best lighting is pretty mystifying, and about as close to traveling back in time as I think I’ll ever come. By 6 o’clock the effect was destroyed by the shocking number of tourists who I guess wait outside to be the first ones in for the regular price. It got busy fast.


It is difficult to fathom the creation of a monument like is, but it’s fun to try. There’s not much of an emotional connection I or anyone else can have with the place — it’s not our home, our culture or our gods. The main draw, on paper, is basically that sunrises are pretty and exclusivity is worth money. The main argument against it is that it’s expensive, but, really, what’s 40 bucks when you’ve already spent so much time and money just getting here?

Mostly I’m glad that my enduring memory of Borobudur will not be like my memory of, say, Prambanan, Yogya’s other 1,200-year-old temple (Hindu this time), which, while pleasant enough, was really just poking around with a hundred others through proper midday heat and sun; meanwhile, the only mental association I have of Borobudur is that of serenity, quietness and good lighting. There are very few others who can say the same. That, for me, is worthwhile.


(A relevant note: V took a bunch of these photos, mostly the closer-up ones, and would, justifiably, glare at me coldly if I did not give her and her photographic eye due credit. Many thanks to her.)







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