SYNOPSIS:  About sunrise at the Borobudur, a day spent amidst foreigner-hunting mobs, and an afternoon spent at the pool — thanks Jamal!  A joint-venture report.


Yesterday Jamal arrived astride the Mad Buffalo at 4.30am and took us to join the rest of the eager punters awaiting the special sunrise visit to the Borobudur. After paying a hefty entrance fee we were given torches (flashlights) to take us up the steep steps of the Eastern gates to the monument. We waited near the top and watched a row of encircling stupas silhouetted against the predawn sky. The ceaseless chattering of most of the rest of the audience did not do much for the atmosphere but, nonetheless, it was a spectacular dawn and our photographs are magnificent.

Not so satisfying were the subsequent breakfast snacks, I’m afraid. A tiny banana fritter and the smallest muffin have ever popped into my mouth were carefully supervised to ensure that no-one had more than one each, the coffee was accompanied by powdered creamer and I was told that if I wanted fruit juice or drinking water I would have to buy them at reception. Such details usually don’t bother me (or at least not enough to make me write about them) but, in a country where fresh fruit practically falls from the trees into your lap and hospitality is literally part of the inhabitants’ genetic code, it seemed churlish in the extreme.

Elisabeth and I split up so that we could take in the sights at our leisure and, probably not having done enough preparation, I headed first to the museums for more information about the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Unlike Prambanan, with which it is roughly contemporary, this is a single structure; a nine staged (actually ten, if you count the lowest one that had to be covered up), four sided pyramid with 72 stupas, small on the top, plus the final central stupa. Its squat, slightly rounded silhouette would not be particularly impressive but for its great size and the amazing state of preservation of its carvings. Over two and a half thousand panels depict detailed scenes from two Buddhist sutras (the most complete set in existence) in intricate detail. These religious texts are of paramount importance to scholars and devotees but I found myself fascinated by the intimate details of daily life and the depiction of such scenes as the market place or a musical performance.

Easily the most striking, however, were the beautiful, ocean going ships that took Javanese traders along the Cinnamon (or Spice) route, across the Indian Ocean and around the coast of Africa during Europe’s Dark Ages. I’ll admit to not having heard of this before but at least I didn’t make the mistake of one Dutch visitor, pointing out the boat to his companion and asking “does that show the arrival of the European colonists?” Apparently, in 1982, these detailed wooden outriggers so fascinated Philip Beale, a visiting British sailor, that he instigated a twenty-year project to have a replica designed, built and sailed along the original route all the way around the Cape of Good Hope to Ghana. The Samudra Raska (Ocean Star) journeyed almost half way around the World and is now housed in its own museum on the temple site.


By 6 AM the monument was crawling with thousands of people, but some of the corridors were surprisingly empty given that most visitors quite sacrilegiously went straight for the top.  After our little snack, I was going to do it the “right” or the pilgrim’s way.  That means entering the monument through the eastern staircase and then circumambulating up layer by layer.  Supposedly, that path is 5 km long, but even though I read that in my guidebook, it could not possibly be that long; somebody’s math is way off.  I know you could not care less about the Buddhological significance of this monument; distinguishing between karmadhatu, rupadhatu or arupadhatu, but this visit brought back dear memories of my studies of Buddhism with my beloved professor Kane, whose words I could hear ringing in my ears. If you do care, you can just google it, of course.

That I was actually here!  Unbelievable.  I wandered between the galleries trying to take in the left, the right, the top, the bottom — it was overwhelming.  But the solitude I had hoped for was quickly interrupted by constant requests for selfies with giggling girls and shy young men.  I hung in there for about 6 hours.  That’s when I first refused such a request which of course was made by one of the most charming young men who then engaged with me in conversation.  And so I caved in once again, posing for selfies and group photos for the rest of the day.  If it makes them happy…

Much more bothersome than the selfie requests were the solicitations for an interview.  Armed with a set of questions, typically two young men or women studying English were sent out with the mission to “hunt for foreigners”.  Poignantly, one of their questions was:  “What do you think of the phrase ‘to hunt for foreigners’?”  Oh, brother!  Could this get any worse?!

There was no way under the beating sun to contemplate this monument in peace.  I might as well bite my tongue and return some of the never-ending smiles extended to me as a foreigner in this lovely country, smile at these little pests and patiently answer their questionnaire.   May they be blessed with a good grade.

I completed the pilgrimage by noon, went down to take a break at the two museums on the ground, spooned out half a papaya which I purchased across the fence from a street vendor and started the pilgrimage over again.  Yes, I had all intentions to go up again, but after I circled the lowest and largest level slowly again, noticing so much more than I had before — I realized that no amount of sunscreen and no hat would protect me from the impending heat stroke unless I got out of here as quickly as possible.

Nicola and I had split up after the sunrise.  Our meeting point was the nearby guesthouse where we had met Jamal two nights ago.  Nicola had arrived a couple of hours before me and was blissfully sleeping in one of the open pavilions.  I quietly changed and swam in the pool — most surely it saved my life.   There were no guests at this hotel yet and Jamal’s friend, the manager of the place, not only allowed us to swim but served us fruits as well, refusing any payment.

It took me two hours to recover from the ordeal of 9 hours at the monument (5-2).  Refreshed, but pooped, we opted to go home with Jamal’s trusted Buffalo.  Along the way, Jamal stopped at another of the UNESCO monuments of Borobudur village, the much smaller Mendut Temple.  His vehicle instantly became the hot spot for all the children in the neighborhood who descended on his vehicle, climbing it and using it as a playground.  Jamal had made a spinning wheel, a sword and a pull-toy from coconut leaves while we were resting, which he now distributed among the children.  You would not believe the intricacy, the artistry, and the functionality of these little leaf-toys.  Simply amazing!

A simple meal and a nightcap of Nicola’s Duty-free Whiskey — ever since she managed to smuggle one of those into Pakistan in 2007 it has become an obligatory hallmark of our joint travels for her to bring one of these bottles along — brought this marathon day to an end.

Good night.






4 comments so far

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  1. What utterly fantastic pictures and then great stories to go along with them to tell of your adventures. We are truly enjoying the journey with you from our spot here at home in front of the computer.

  2. Some gorgeous photos…would love to visit that place.
    I remember that little shot of whisky thing from Pakistan…naughty girls. LOL

  3. The foreigner hunters and interviewers are wearing hijabs. Are the Moslems? Are they religious? If so, what are they doing in a Buddhist temple?

    • Carl, as I have been trying to convey – Muslims here (yes, of course hijabed girls are Muslims and yes, they consider themselves religious) are encouraged and educated to the full breadth of their cultural heritage which includes Hindu performances and in this case, Buddhist temples. The big motto of this country is Unity in Diversity or in other words: Religious tolerance. The conception of a deity is valued high. The various paths to the deity are accepted as equal (as laid down in the constitution) and that includes Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and others. I hope that helps.