Visiting Borobudur Temple for Sunrise

Borobudur Temple (Candi Borobudur) is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. It is located in present-day Magelang Regency of Central Java, Indonesia, and was dedicated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, number 592 on the list, in 1991. Constructed in the 9th century, abandoned in the 14th century, and rediscovered by British statesman Sir Stamford Raffles in the 19th century, Borobudur Temple is the most visited attraction in all of Indonesia by local and foreign tourists alike. It ranks as one of the most prolific archaeological sites in southeast Asia, along with Ankor Wat in Cambodia and the various temples of Bagan in Myanmar. While the Borobudur Temple complex itself is open from 6am until 5pm daily, visitors to the Indonesian wonder can visit the Manohara Hotel to buy tickets for a sunrise or sunset tour. This is exactly what I did during my visit, opting to see the first sunrise of the new year (and decade!) on 1 January, 2020 from the top of Borobudur Temple.

Borobudur Temple as seen from a distance at sunrise.

If you’re hoping to catch sunrise from the temple, you can either stay in one of the numerous guesthouses, homestays, or hotels nearby to Borobudur or travel from the farther, larger city of Yogyakarta, which is about 90 minutes to the southeast. Sunrise tours begin from the Manohara Hotel on the temple grounds at 4:30am, so wherever you plan to stay, you should be sure to arrange transportation the day before your visit to Borobudur so that you arrive on time. You do not need to be staying at the hotel in order to purchase sunrise tickets. If you’re coming from Yogyakarta, you’ll need to leave around 3:30am for this. Personally, I chose to stay at the Lingkar Guest house nearby in Borobudur and arrived at the Manohara Hotel on foot. At 300,000 Rp./night (about $22) for a room with two bunk beds and a private bathroom, this was a great choice for two female travelers on a budget still wishing for more than a hostel setting. We woke up around 3:45am and left for the temple complex around 4am.

If you’re coming from Yogyakarta, it may be in your best interest to travel to Borobudur as part of a tour package that includes transportation. This way, you’re not struggling to find someone willing to drive you to the temple in the middle of the night. It will be less of a headache for you, and there will be fewer things for you to worry about and plan! You may be able to arrange a tour through your accommodation, AirBnB experience, or with a tour agency. But, if you’re more of an independent traveler, it’s possible for you to arrange everything by yourself as well. We actually took a taxi all the way from Yogyakarta to Borobudur without any formal transportation arrangement, and everything seemed to work out well for us. If you’re staying in Borobudur, a tour definitely isn’t necessary. If you still want a guide, you can arrange for one at Manohara Hotel that speaks your language.

Left: Borobudur as seen before dawn. Right: Small, bell-shaped stupas ring the entire perimeter of Borobodur’s upper platforms.

If you’re traveling to the Borobudur complex on your own, you’ll need to enter the grounds at Gate 8 (Pos Pintu VIII). This gate is moderately far from the general parking area for the temple, so give yourself adequate time to get there if you’re walking. Prior to our visit, we didn’t realize how far away we actually were from the hotel and ended running through the dark. If you’re a foreigner, hawkers on motor bikes may try to convince you that they can take you to the temple (“very far away!”) so that you save time and receive a discounted ticket price. The choice is ultimately yours to make, but this is more than likely a common scam. We politely declined when offered.

Once you arrive at the Manohara Hotel, go into the Resto and through the metal detectors to purchase tickets; sales begin at 4am. Tickets for foreigners are 500,000 Rp. ea., while domestic tickets are 370,000 Rp. ea. Children under 6 years old are free, foreign children ages 6-10 years old are 250,000 Rp. ea., and domestic children ages 6-10 years old are 180,000 Rp. ea. Students receive discounts. Foreign students are 400,000 Rp. ea. and domestic students are 280,000 Rp. ea. If you’re foreigner but have a KITAS like we do (limited stay permit), you’ll receive the domestic ticket price. This is true for most museums and temples in Indonesia. Your ticket includes a flashlight and admission to the temple, buffet breakfast between 6am and 9am, and a souvenir, given when you return your flashlight after the visit. Note that you’ll need to present your passport or another form of I.D. in order to purchase your ticket. No reservation is required; there is no limit to the number of sunrise visitors.

While you’re waiting for the sun to rise, you may chose to sit on one of the many stupas on the temple’s upper platforms. Remember to be gentle and respect the integrity of the structure!

If you’re expecting a quiet, serene experience at sunrise, you may be disappointed. During our visit, crowds of visitors lined up on the east face of the temple to await the sunrise. People crowded into every corner to sit or stand, taking selfies, talking and laughing, and swatting bugs. However, if large groups of tourists bother you, just stay until after the sun comes up to enjoy the temple. Many people leave immediately upon taking sunrise photos, and the temple becomes much more peaceful.

Borobudur’s stupas are one of the iconic images of both the Yogyakarta region and Indonesia as a whole.

The best place to watch the sunrise is from the top of Borobudur Temple. Climb to one of the top three stacked platforms, which are circular in nature. There are 72 Buddha statues across these levels, each enshrined in an individual stupa, that surround a larger, central stupa. Even if you don’t experience a vivid, colorful sunrise (we certainly didn’t), the experience is still worth the effort! You can still explore the entire temple once the sun is up, and the early-morning mist rising from the surrounding hills creates an ethereal atmosphere.

The mist from the hills surrounding Borobudur Temple can be seen beyond the tiered, rhombus-holed stupas of the upper second and third platforms.

Once you’ve finished exploring the upper platform of the temple, begin to make your way down through the other six platforms. The lower platforms are square in shape and are covered with over 2,600 relief panels. You’ll also see additional Buddha statues (there are 504 total on the temple!) on each level facing outward toward the surrounding hills. Take your time wandering around each platform and appreciating the intricacy of the carvings. Pay special attention to the arm positions of the various Buddha statues. Different positions, or mudras, have different symbolic meanings.

One of the more than 2,600 relief panels adorning Borobudur’s lower six platforms.

Borobudur was constructed as a step pyramid so that from the air, it resembles a Buddhist mandala. The various platforms are thought to represent the various components of Buddhist cosmology. The first three levels represent desire (Kamadhatu), the middle three represent forms (Rupadhatu), and the top three represent formlessness (Arupadhatu). The central stupa at the top represents true nirvana. Brochures are available in several languages at Manohara if you’d like a brief description of the temple’s architecture and how it relates to these concepts. If you’re looking for something more in-depth, your best option is to hire a local guide.

Left: One of the many Buddha statues adorning Borobudur Temple. Right: One of the lower three levels of the temple showcasing relief panels.

When you’re done wandering the temple grounds, be sure to return to Manohara Resto to return your flashlight, collect your souvenir, and take advantage of the complementary breakfast buffet. There’s a range of Indonesian and western breakfast cuisine available, so even the pickiest of eaters is sure to find something appealing. Although you can take a sunrise tour of Borobudur at any time of year, the best time to go is the dry season (June – Sept.), when there’s less of a chance of clouds obscuring your view.

Enjoy your time exploring Indonesia’s Buddhist history through this cultural icon!

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