Merge & Al's Excellent Adventures

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6 min read

Breathtaking Borobodur

Semarang, the capital of Central Java, is a vibrant city that blends rich history with modern growth, and is a tourist destination in its own right.  But when I visited there in December 2023, aboard the MS Westerdam, my sights were set further away.  I wanted to go to Borobodur, the largest and one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Borobodur is located near Yogyakarta which is, one-way, with no traffic snafus, a more than two-hour drive from the port of Semarang.  But this is central Java in Indonesia, and nothing, and I mean nothing, ever gets anywhere on time.  I was told repeatedly, by several people who should know, that the one-way trip from Semarang to Borobodur would take at least 4-5 hours.  So let’s do the math!  The ship was docking in Semarang at 11 AM, and the all-aboard time was 8:30 PM.  There was no way I could reasonably expect to go to Borobodur, explore, and make it back to the ship on time. 

Semarang to Borobodur was more than 2 hours one-way, and that assumed no traffic issues!

So, still determined, I shifted to Plan B – the Shore Excursions department onboard the MS Westerdam.  They had a day-trip to Borobodur available.  I have taken lots of tours in the past organized by the ShoreEx group, and I’ve always enjoyed them.  But I originally stayed away from their offering as I was concerned that it would be too crowded.  Now I signed up.  And it turned out to be an EXCELLENT decision for two reasons.  Number one, if you’re on a ship-organized tour and your tour is delayed, no problem, they’ll wait for you.  This reason I knew about.  But the second reason I discovered while I was on one of the more than ten full-sized buses that made their way in a convoy to Borobodur.  We had a police escort which stopped traffic while the convoy proceeded.  No traffic problems here!  Yes, ten buses of tourists is a lot, BUT given that we had no traffic issues to contend with, I think it was a more than worthy tradeoff!

More than 10 buses with police escorts at the front and back!

Borobudur was breathtaking!  It is one of the most significant and visually striking cultural landmarks in Indonesia.  So iconic of Indonesia’s cultural heritage, that it is actually featured on Indonesian banknotes as a symbol of pride and historical significance.  Built during the 9th century during the reign of the Sailendra Dynasty, it is an architectural marvel constructed from volcanic rock and two million stone blocks.  Structured as a step pyramid of six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, it has 504 Buddha statues and over 2,672 relief panels.  According to historical accounts, it appears that Borobudur may have been deserted soon after it was built, when the Sailendra Dynasty was overthrown in AD 850.  After centuries of neglect and covered by volcanic ash, Borobudur was rediscovered by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1812.  At the time, it was in very poor condition, covered in dirt and bushes.  He began the process of uncovering the complex which was continued by H.C. Cornelius in 1814.  Cornelius, with the support of 200 local people, cleared the area, and thus began a period of recording, reconstructing and “saving” Borobudur that continued, off-and-on, until the 1930s.  From 1907-1911, Theodore Van Erp, a Dutch colonist oversaw the restoration of the Temple.  But it wasn’t until 1973 that the Indonesian government, with guidance and help from UNESCO, conducted major restorations that went on until 1983, with the hope that Borobodur could survive another 1,000 years. 

This gives you a sense of exactly how huge this complex is!
Look at the detail in the stonework

The massive step pyramid structure follows the concept of a mandala, a symbolic representation of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology.  We followed the Buddhist tradition of entering the Temple from the east entrance and circled it clockwise (with the Temple on our rights).  The true Buddhist tradition of Pradaksina would have required us to circle the Temple three times, most of us only did it once.  The temple itself comprises of three levels: Kamadhatu (the world of desires), Rupadhatu (the world of forms), and Arupadhatu (the formless world).  As you ascend the monument, you metaphorically move through these spiritual stages.  We were only permitted to climb the first level.  Each of the 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues are intricately carved, depicting various aspects of Buddhist teachings. Essentially, they serve as a sort of guidebook to 8th-century Javanese life, illustrating scenes from everyday life as well as various spiritual narratives from the Buddhist scriptures.

I was awed by the detail, and that it had survived so many centuries!
Teenagers everywhere are the same! These lovely young ladies, on a school trip, just wanted to practice their English.

On the drive back to the port, we stopped at a cultural centre that showcased different arts, and of course there were also several shops where you could buy them.  I stopped first to see Wayang Kulit, or shadow puppetry, which originated here in central Java, and is a traditional art form dating back to the 10th century. Performed using intricately crafted buffalo-hide puppets that cast shadows on a screen, a single puppeteer (known as the dalang) manipulates the puppets, voices characters, and directs the gamelan orchestra.  The gamelan consists of various traditional instruments such as gongs, drums, and xylophones.  It was explained to us that these performances often explore epic Hindu-Javanese tales like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and are not only entertainment but also a medium for moral and philosophical education. 

Wayang kulit, traditional Javanese shadow puppetry, has remained unchanged since the 10th century

They also had a roomful of artisans creating intricately-designed silver jewellery.  I had seen this type of craftsmanship before at UC Silver Gold when I was in Bali, and then, I managed to keep my credit card safely in my pocket.  This time though, I couldn’t resist.  I bought myself a handcrafted delicately-stunning silver bracelet.

One of the artisans working on creating pendants from silver wire
My new purchase!

Despite the police escorts in both directions, we were still about an hour late for stated all-aboard time of 8:30 PM.  Which made me even happier that I had taken the ship-sponsored tour.  It had been a long day, but Borobodur was breathtaking, and worth every moment of the trip.

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