Today is the day I get to visit Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, located about 40minutes from Yogyakarta. Late last night Bram, my guest house host, told me he wouldn’t be able to take me because his uncle is sick and asked if I minded if his friend from university, Bambang, took me instead. Of course I didn’t (I had met Bambang briefly on my way to dinner last night) and he spoke English as well as Bram.
We left at 6:30am this morning by motorcycle – one of the best ways to see the countryside of any area. It’s also the best way to see the local people at their best. What they fit on their motorcycles always amazes me, whether it’s laden down with goods for the market, a family of four, or what amazes me (and horrifies me) is when swaddles babies are wrapped up and hung in a sling around its mother’s neck as she rides on the back. Often the children don’t have helmets, even when their parents do.
I digress. We arrived at Borobudur around 7:15am to park the motorbike and enter the site. Bambang asked if I minded if he joined me and of course I said yes, which turned out to be a very lucky decision.
A few notes about Borobudur (courtesy, of course, of Wikipedia):
The temple consists of nine stacked platforms, six square and three circular, topped by a central dome. The temple is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. The central dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa.
Built in the 9th century during the reign of the Sailendra Dynasty, the temple was designed in Javanese Buddhist architecture, which blends the Indonesian indigenous cult of ancestor worship and the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana. The temple also demonstrates the influences of Gupta art that reflects India’s influence on the region, yet there are enough indigenous scenes and elements incorporated to make Borobudur uniquely Indonesian. The monument is both a shrine to the Lord Buddha and a place for Buddhist pilgrimage. The journey for pilgrims begins at the base of the monument and follows a path around the monument and ascends to the top through three levels symbolic of Buddhist cosmology: Kāmadhātu (the world of desire), Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and Arupadhatu (the world of formlessness). The monument guides pilgrims through an extensive system of stairways and corridors with 1,460 narrative relief panels on the walls and the balustrades. Borobudur has the largest and most complete ensemble of Buddhist reliefs in the world.
Evidence suggests Borobudur was constructed in the 9th century and abandoned following the 14th-century decline of Hindu kingdoms in Java and the Javanese conversion to Islam. Worldwide knowledge of its existence was sparked in 1814 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, then the British ruler of Java, who was advised of its location by native Indonesians. Borobudur has since been preserved through several restorations. The largest restoration project was undertaken between 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian government and UNESCO, following which the monument was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Borobudur is still used for pilgrimage; once a year, Buddhists in Indonesia celebrate Vesak at the monument, and Borobudur is Indonesia’s single most visited tourist attraction.
How lucky am I to have a local touring me around – not only for the local history, but also to take pictures of me there. Local guide/art director, he directed me where to sit and stand for the best angles – in fact, most of the time he held my camera while I simply got to look around – luxury.
It’s holiday season in Java; between semesters kids get 2 weeks off. So Borobudur was swarming with school kids – mostly in groups and in their early teenage years. The warning I received and experienced a little at Prambanan and Ratu Boko yesterday didn’t prepare me for the celebrity-like experience I had today. Nearly every kid – mostly young teenage girls, but some younger and several boys) asked me for photos (more specifically selfies) with them. ‘Mister, mister’ is what I mostly heard called after me in high-pitched unison (they don’t know English that well) or ‘Miss, Miss’. I obliged most of the time (more so when they used ‘Miss’) but often it became too much. A swarm of kids would surround me and it was hard to leave them until each one had a photo she was happy with with me. I have never wanted to be famous – never – and this just confirmed that. If ever you feel like you want to be famous, first travel to Borobudur during holiday season. It will change your mind. It also gave me a new appreciation for celebrities who can’t leave their house without a big fuss and random fans asking for photographs and autograph.
Enter Bambang, who then became my guide/art director/bodyguard. He would talk to the kids in their local language and when a swarm became too much would grab my hand and drag me from the near-hostage situation. Thank goodness he was there!
At one point Bambang and I decided to use this to our advantage and asked one of the kids to take a photo of the two of us with my iphone (it was clear they were able to use an iphone since that was the camera of choice for most)! Quickly the crowd grew and grew until once again we had to flee, Bambang leading the way and dragging me behind him only to hear ‘Miss, Miss’ from throngs of kids and a big collective sigh of disappointment ‘ooooohhhhnnnn’ when it was clear I wasn’t coming back. Seriously, it was unreal.
About twenty minutes later we had seen enough and were headed towards the exit when I reached for my iphone and realized it wasn’t there. We stopped and I searched all my pockets and sections of my bag. No phone. Bambang searched all his pockets since he had been holding it at times too. No phone. Fuck. We had either left it with the boy who took our photo (although I was sure I had taken a picture with it since then), it had fallen out of its designated pocket when I (often) put my bag aside and out of the camera frame, or I had been pickpocketed by one of the throngs of kids. I hated the idea of any of the above scenarios. With the place swarming with people, mostly kids, this being a very underdeveloped country, where most people make less a month than the cost of an iphone it was nearly impossible to imagine a positive ending to this story. Weirdly enough, I wasn’t upset at all. In fact, I had this strange feeling that everything would work out fine. We retraced our steps a little bit to no avail, and it seemed like a hopeless exercise anyway. Bambang insisted we try security and report my missing phone. We did. We crossed the grounds to the security hut and he went in and described the situation to them. I’ve done this before at touristy places when I’ve found a phone but nothing seems to be done about it. This place was different though. The security guard heard the situation and immediately got on a loud speaker and announced across the entire site that a foreigner had lost her phone (I’m not sure exactly what was said, but I think that was the jist). Before the announcement was finished, Bambang saw something across the grounds and went outside, only to find that same boy we had asked to take our photo come running across the field at full speed with two friends. I was so touched I nearly cried and thanked him profusely in Indonesian (therima kasi). Miracles do happen. In all of the chaos of the kids wanting selfies with me we had hurried off and completely forgot my phone with this poor little boy, who probably called after me ‘miss, miss’ but was tuned out by all the other kids yelling the same thing. People amaze me in this country; their kindness and honesty, especially in a poor country when they don’t have much themselves. This will be the memory I keep when I think of Indonesian people. Simply amazing. My heart burst open right there. Here is a photo with me and the kids who returned my phone, and a selfie of Bambang and I, elated to have found the phone!
Full of amazement and gratitude, Bambang and I left the grounds laughing and happy. He asked if I minded if we visit a friend of his who lives in the town of Borobudur and of course I said yes. This was the friend he had planned to visit while I was visiting the temple, until he decided to come with me, so we had to stop in to say hello. It turns out his friend is another friend from university (who also speaks great Engish) who owns and runs his own guesthouse near the temple. We sat and chatted over the tea and fruit he and his wife offered. Jack fruit and snake fruit, named so because its rind looks and feels like hard snake skin. The inside of the fruit takes a bit like granny smith apple.
After tea the two men took me to a sugar factory nearby. It’s made in a traditional Indonesian house with a traditional well (from which I gathered water and poured into a slanted bamboo trunk holding tank, with a hole as a spout at the other end. Very cool. We then went inside to see how the sugar is made. It turns out it’s made exactly like maple syrup (which I am quite familiar with as we went many times on school trips to maple syrup farms). Only instead of maple trees they collect the sap from coconut trees. The sap is then boiled down (it takes about 6 hours) until it is thick enough to pack into sugar pucks. We sat and drank more tea, this time with freshly made sugar.
We said goodbye to Bambang’s friend and then went to another (less popular) tourist attraction: Chicken Church. Not exactly a church, it’s a structure that is built to look like a chicken. It has a big hall in its ‘body’ and you can climb 3 sets of stairs to see out its beak and then to the top. Interestingly, at every level in its head there are graffiti like images on the walls with messages against drugs and social commentary about social media and relationships.
After chicken church we hopped on the motorbike and went for a much needed lunch around 2pm at a restaurant that was focused on mushrooms. Every dish was mushroom focused. We were starving so ordered the mushroom curry, the mushroom satay, mushroom soup and a spicy mushroom fried dish. Seriously, this was the best meal I’ve had so far here – delicious!!
Back to town with one last stop: a traditional market. It was just closing down by the time we got there but I was exhausted anyway so not terribly disappointed.
Back home and another dinner with Annette. This was a great day. Tomorrow Annette and I are going to Mount Merapi with Bram to see an active volcano!
Bonus: a photo that Annette sent me of her time at sunrise at Borobudur. Spectacular!