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The Temple of Doom – Yogyakarta (Indonesia) | We're Not There Yet

R and I visited Indonesia about 2.5 years ago, back when we both had respectable jobs and were taking routine vacations. We had 2 weeks and chose to visit Bali and neighboring Lombok, flying in and out of Jakarta. We had to make many decisions about which places we would get to see and which we would have to skip and one of the more painful decisions was not going to see the legendary Borobudur temple. Now that we have tons of time at our disposal, we decided to make things right by flying from Singapore straight into Yogyakarta, the closest city to Borobudur and a hub of culture, art, and education in itself.

We arrived in town during the afternoon and had gotten settled in a losmen (we had to visit a good handful before we found a place that featured the right balance of amenities and cost), before it started to rain. Pardon me, before it started to storm like the End of Days. The sky turned black and the force of the rain put the water pressure in our shower to shame (not actually saying much). We ventured outside only far enough to get a meal and then scuttled back to the hotel. True, conditions weren’t perfect, but we wondered where all the cool stuff in Yogya was hiding and were looking forward to finding it the next day. But we never did. We spent 4 days or so in Yogya and never glimpsed what it is that holds the Lonely Planet guide so enraptured. Simply put, the place sucks. The tourist area with all of the cheap hostels and amenities is so congested with touts as to threaten to choke your average tourist to death. Literally every step outside a hotel is littered with a cacophony of ‘Transport?!’, ‘Where you from?!’ and ‘Art exhibit- today only!’. You cannot shift your eyes to the right or left lest a souvenir vendor mistakes your sideways glance as a deep interest in purchasing a t-shirt, handbag, penis-shaped bottle opener, or batik cloth. The last of these is a particular blight on the experience of your average tourist. The Lonely Planet guide issues a warning against scams revolving around sellers of batik paintings- actually an interesting and traditional craft for which Yogya is famous, but, sadly, so rife with fakes, poor quality and extortionate price tags as to prompt the guide to suggest that the most surefire way to avoid getting burned is to abstain from purchasing the cloth altogether.

Guys fishing off a trash pile into the river that runs through Yogyakarta

Sort of idyllic scene of boys playing in the water…

…too bad the water is this dirty, polluted river

Dutifully, we went to the palace and checked out the markets. We even allowed ourselves to get fast-talked into checking out a ‘one-day only batik exhibition’ (by mistake, I swear), but we never felt like we had uncovered the charm of the place. Yogyakarta is one of the bigger cities on the island of Java and it has a reputation as the cultural center of Indonesia. There are several universities and the place has historically been renown for its traditional arts (hence the batik craze), but the central area where most tourists find themselves is so overrun with touts on the make that it is hard to see the place as anything but unpleasant. We endured our stay there thinking that we were just missing the thing that made it special and we had even planned on sticking around for up to a month to study Indonesian before we unleashed ourselves on the rest of the country. Luckily, the place did have one major appeal and that is its proximity to one of the prettiest temples in the country.

Very cool kind of pseudo air-hockey that is common here

Traditional Indonesian dancing

Traditional Indo music (banging on metal bells. An entirely metal orchestra)

More clanging!

Even our visit to Borobudur was fraught with hecticness. Public buses go there daily, only a short distance from town, but an industry has built up around transport and tour options to visit Borobudur and a combination of other sights. In the end, we opted to go under our own steam and without a guide, but whole process surrounding our visit to the temple was a pain. Luckily, Borobudur itself was a pretty cool thing to see and we didn’t go home disappointed. We took a public city bus to another city bus, which took us to the main bus terminal, where we caught a small regional bus all the way out to the town of Borobudur. It wasn’t so hard, but it did take hours longer than it would have to have gone with one of the private tour companies. We had chosen to use public transport to save money and to get away from all the pushy salespeople, but we ended up spending almost as much money (we were overcharged on the way there, which we didn’t find out until after the fact) and a lot more time and the same pushy salespeople found us again once we got to the temple.

But let me quit with the complaining for a bit and get into the good stuff. Borobudur is a Buddhist temple built on a hill around 800AD; in fact, the name Borobudur means ‘Buddhist Monastery on a Hill’. Not much is known about its construction, but it appears that it was abandoned not too long after it was built with the decline of Buddhism in Java. It was ‘discovered’ in 1815 and restoration was begun by the Dutch, but was not completed until 1983. The temple itself is a kind of pyramid shape that is literally wrapped around a small hill. It has multiple levels, with the lower levels consisting of narrative panels telling the story of the Buddha carved into the stone walkway; the upper levels are home to the iconic sitting Buddha statues. There are a total of 72 serene-faced seated Buddhas, each originally sheltered in lattice-carved stone in the shape of a bell. Some of these have crumbled or been removed, exposing the statues to the countryside and making for all of those amazing sunset-on-Buddha shots that you find when you Google ‘Borobudur’. Like other great, ancient temples all over the world, it is beautiful, humbling, mysterious and kind of inscrutable. We made several laps, punctuated by photo-ops with literally every schoolgirl we passed (this is another completely baffling custom in SEA- but more on that later), and then decided to call it a day.

The bricks at Borobodur are either statues or carvings.

We got back into the bus terminal just as the daily afternoon thunderstorm was rolling in. Our original plan was to see Borobudur along with equally spectacular, but somehow less famous Hindu temple, Prambanan, built roughly the same time as Borobudur, but we were disheartened by the rain and next thing we knew we were rationalizing how hard it would be to get there and how much it would probably pale in comparison to Borobudur (both completely untrue statements, if you ask any other traveler), so we missed out on a sight that is alleged to be even more magnificent than Borobudur. Anyway, it’s not like we didn’t love what we saw at the temple; I’m going to blame the entire city of Yogyakarta for beating our spirits down so low that we couldn’t take the time to see one of the great cultural wonders of the world because of a little rain.

The lower levels of Borobudur are square and covered in carvings and Buddhas. The upper three levels are circles and filled with these stupas. Inside each stupa is a Buddha also

Once we had visited Borobudur, we had had enough of Yogya and made immediate plans of escape to Bali. We decided to go overland and stop at Mt. Bromo, which is on the classic backpacker trail from here to there. There was a bit of hemming and hawing as to how best to arrange the transport, but in light of our public bus experience to Borobudur, we opted to take the private shuttle transfer. It felt like one final kick in the ass from Yogya to us: even though we are seasoned travelers who prefer to self-organize, we thought that private transport would be the better option for us. Of course, this meant giving business to the very same tour agencies who shouted at us daily in the streets and made life so generally unpleasant for us during our stay in town. I felt like we had somehow given them the go-ahead to continue their bad behavior by giving them business, but not to do it would have meant added hardships to spite ourselves. I’m sure anyone who has scratched the surface of Yogya beyond our meager experience would have all kinds of good things to say about the place, but to us, it was the first disappointment we’ve had since New Zealand (zing, NZ!). At least we know that at the end of the road lies Bali and nothing can ruin that for us.

HDR Image of Borobodur’s top