Borobudur Temple – The Second Time Around

Two years is enough time for a lot of things to change. Two years apart from someone could make you realize how much your relationship has changed. Two years of not playing a sport could mean a lot of readjustments are needed the next time you play. And two years away from a place could change your point of view about the place and the place itself changing.

I was lucky enough to visit Borobudur in 2013 and was able to document as well as recall the experience quite vividly in my brain. So when I visited Borobudur again this year, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons and realize how much the place has changed.

For starters, visiting Borobudur during the fasting month for Muslims meant there were a lot less people there than there had been in 2013. It was pleasant to be able to walk around without a huge crowd of people fighting for the same oxygen as you were. The ticket counters have moved since my last visit and there were now two separate counters for international and domestic tourists. Ticket price has gone up to IDR30.000/person for domestic tourists and IDR5.000 as a parking fee for cars.

There was still a mini-train that could take us from the ticket sales area to the temple itself. However, we decided to get on a horse carriage for IDR50.000 to get a different experience.

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Alright, I’d been on a horse carriage before in Jakarta and Bali and this was by far the tiniest horse carriage I’ve ever been on. We were crammed in a tiny box at the back and halfway around the path my legs were starting to ache and I half-wished I could throw my legs over the carriage door in the most ungraceful way possible but I couldn’t even move my legs towards the carriage door if I wanted to.

One thing that made this pain-in-the-legs ride worthwhile were the stories told by the carriage driver who was an old man with patches of grey in his hair and a thick Javanese accent. He talked about how he and the other horse carriage drivers weren’t allowed to operate before Dahlan Iskan became minister of transport because government officials deemed the horses “smelly” and “dirty”. He explained how after Mt. Merapi erupted in 2010 and covered the entire temple with ashes, the locals around the temple complex came together and helped clean each bit of stone and restore the temple to its former glory. He pointed out elephant cages and fenced bits of trees where no one ever touched because they were sacred grounds since the ancient times. It was fascinating to hear him tell stories no one ever talked about when they talked about Borobudur.

Once we got to the temple, I noticed another new thing: a new policy for everyone to rent a sarong (for free) at the entrance and tie it around their waist according to a provided tutorial. I thought it was a bit redundant but then again it kind of helped to remind me that this temple – as touristy as it is now – is still considered sacred for Buddhists.

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What the sarongs look like

I also noticed a new slab of stone with “UNESCO World Heritage Site” carved on it and quite a lengthy explanation about Borobodur. This stone became a favorite photo object among domestic tourists.

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And then we made the journey up towards the top of the temple.

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Here’s a little bit of history about this temple (summarized from my 12 years of studying history at school):

  • Borobodur Temple was built in the 8th century during the time where the vicinity of Java was part of Mataram Kingdom. It was built when the Sailendra dynasty took over and made the entire kingdom convert into Buddhism. You see there used to be two huge royal dynasties: Sanjaya (who were all Hindus – hence Prambanan Temple being built) & Sailendra who dominated the kingdom and kept on fighting for power. Whoever got to be king would convert the entire kingdom into their religion during their reign. They were at peace once when a Sailendra princess married a Sanjaya prince, but then the princess’ brother decided to attack his sister’s husband.
  • The entire temple was built as a place of worship for Buddhists at the time (and still stands as one during the Buddhist’s big days) and all the carvings you see on the temple walls tell the entire story of Buddha’s life.
  • Fun fact: the stones that made up the temple were shaped like jigsaw puzzles and glued together using egg whites and the entire structure has majorly remained unchanged. How awesome is that?
  • During Vesak, Buddhist monks make their pilgrimage carrying holy water from Mendut Temple and walking to Borobudur to pray and at night, Buddhists pray and release flying lanterns from here. Witnessing this ceremony has been on my bucket list for a long time.

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As I said earlier, the entire temple’s structure is basically still in a good state. However, they’ve closed off the entire second level for huge restoration work. The carvings are all still in a good shape, although some sculptures have missing heads and some stones have grown rougher than before.

 

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One major change in Borobudur is that visitors are now prohibited to reach inside the major sculpture with a statue of Buddha in it and touch the statue – which for many years has been claimed to bring good luck to those able to reach in and touch it. The policy was enforced well with security guards specifically stationed and patrolling to make sure no one does it. I agree with this policy as these statues are now thousands of years old and are very, very fragile so human touch could help speed up the process of their destruction.

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Once you’ve had enough of admiring the temple, you can exit from the west side and return your sarongs. This is where the pushy vendors come to approach you to buy what they sell, although they mostly sell the same stuff.

Some vendors were really pushy, like this one woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer and pushed on sob stories in a really annoying way (“Share some love! I need some fortune and money too. My children need new clothes.”) and getting in our face to make us buy what she sold. There were some smart ones, like this guy whose sales technique I admired because he set himself apart from others by introducing himself first near the parking lot (“Hi, my name is Danu. I sell some sculptures made out of stone. You should take a look at them. They’re of good quality. Remember me, okay. Remember that my name is Danu and I sell sculptures.”) and called us out at the exit (“Hi there. I’m Danu, the one earlier, remember? Would you look at my stuff now?”). But seriously, although his products aren’t the best ones there, you should at least have a look at Danu’s sculptures just because his marketing is unique. Most of the vendors were generally pushy but know when to back off and are kind of funny because how helpful they are to tourists even if we don’t buy anything (“The exit’s over there, just straight ahead, turn right and follow the signs. By the way, I’m selling this for only fifty thousand.”) which makes a polite smile and a no suffice.

Once we got away from the pushy street vendors, we got to admire the majesty of Borobudur from afar.

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The road to the exit was a lot longer than I remembered it to be and went past a lot more shops than before. However, it’s nice that whoever’s in charge turned the shops area into a market with a roof over the walking path because in 2013, it rained like hell and the only dry ground was inside someone’s shop so now tourists can shop for souvenirs comfortably in rain or sunshine. The products were similar from one end of the market to another so be mindful that goods at the shops nearest to the parking lot cost a lot less than goods sold nearer to the temple.

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The vendors at the market are a lot less pushy than street vendors so if you want to, just stop by and have a look at what they’ve got.

Another thing you’ll encounter on the road to the exit is a museum telling the story of how about a dozen people from different nations came together and got on a wooden boat from Indonesia to Africa to recreate the journey our ancestors took to migrate here. It’s fascinating to read their accounts of the journey (and someone should write a book about it, really!) and see how they survived in the middle of the Indian Ocean with limited supplies so do have a look around.

Overall, my second visit to Borobudur provided more stories for me to tell. It’s amazing how much the temple has improved over the course of two years and I can’t wait to see it improve again should I visit this temple again. Don’t forget that we as the temple’s visitors contribute to its improvement so don’t litter and don’t vandalize the temple and be respectful of everyone working there.

 

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