For one brief, blissful moment, all the crowds dissapated and I got a clear shot. Make sure you go early in the morning to avoid the rush and the punishing midday temperatures.
Years ago, after the umpteenth person demanded how I could possibly live in Asia and not have seen Angkor Wat, I booked a last-minute ticket for the Cambodian border. As flights were sold out for weeks, I ended up on one of the less pleasant bus trips of my life, a grueling, sluggish ordeal that lasted more than double the projected time and ended in me befriending a bunch of Danish and Polish backpackers. Maybe it was the hassle involved, or maybe it was the fact that the spectacle had been so heavily hyped (show me a bucket list it isn't on), but for some reason I found the experience underwhelming. There’s no denying that the temples around Siem Reap are impressive, but having to elbow my way through a sea of selfie sticks seemed to dampen the thrill. The worst was at sunrise, when a horde of thousands gathered in front of the reflecting pool, transfixed by the images on their smartphones.
While I still think everyone should see Angkor Wat, the more I travel around this region, the more I’m convinced that it’s worth giving other monuments a chance. Lara Croft may not have stormed the temples of Sukhothai or Ayutthaya in Thailand, but both make for an exceedingly pleasant bike ride. What floored me more than either though was Borobudur, which I explored on my recent trip to Central Java.
Token shot of one of Ayutthaya's more famous features. Temples are scattered all around the ancient capital, but there's a large concentration right in the middle of town that's easy to approach.
To call this 9th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site an undiscovered gem wouldn’t exactly be honest, but because of its location it suffers from less overcrowding than Angkor. Like everyone else, I rose early and came to bag that coveted shot of the sunrise. A dense, opaque morning mist meant that it never came, but the eerie silence and sense of wonder as solemn Buddha statues and mythological creatures slowly revealed themselves was almost more awe-inspiring.
Myths and monsters before dawn.
A full 1,420 panels like this tell tall tales. The level of detail that has survived is remarkable.
Every single element of the temple is carefully considered and has a specific meaning. A total of 1,420 panels with ornately carved stone reliefs depict scenes from the life and various reincarnations of Buddha. Each of the statues has an allegorical meaning or story behind it, from the giant whose jaw was blown off by Vishnu when he tried to drink the water of immortality to chimerical monster with lion, dragon and bull parts symbolizing the dangers of sexual desire (really). My excellent guide from Amanjiwo, Dator, referred to it as “an open Holy Book, an open Bible” and explained how walking through the various levels was meant to invite contemplation. Unlike Western places of worship, there’s no way to enter Borobudur. Instead, pilgrims walk the levels in silent meditation, honoring the never-ending cycles of reincarnation in the Mahayana sect of Buddhism.
Interestingly, the entire temple was once held together only by interlocking volcanic stones. No cement or binders were used in construction, although later preservation efforts have added them to make it a bit more structurally stable.
A row of Buddhas emerging from the morning fog.
The fact that Borobudur still exists today is something of a marvel, considering all that it’s been through. For years, the temple was lost to the jungle and overgrown with greenery. When the Dutch “discovered” it in the 1800s, they did what all good colonists do and promptly looted whatever statues and reliefs they could carry off. In 1911, a well-meaning archeologist painted sections of the temple yellow to “improve” it. Today, UNESCO status protects the place from such insults, but can’t do much to stave off the violent volcanic eruptions that still plague Java. Mount Merapi’s devastating outburst in 2010 deposited hundreds of tons of corrosive ash on the structure.
The landscape is unbelievably green and wild.
Unless you’re up for a nine-hour (very scenic, but still) drive from Jakarta, the best way to get here is via Yogyakarta’s tiny airport. While at first glance the city itself may not seem like the most interesting place, it harbors a surprisingly diverse arts scene, which is worth checking out if you’re in the neighborhood.
Where to stay
The resort is almost as stunning as one of the area's ancient temples.
I visited Java on a work trip on behalf of Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia. While the resort I stayed at may not be within everyone’s budget, I can honestly and objectively say that it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Built 20 years ago, in a time where such high-end accommodations in remote locales were truly a rarity, Amanjiwo is in a class all by itself. Most of the staff have been there since Day One and there’s a remarkable sense of place that you just don’t find in most generic luxury properties. From the gamelan music at dinner to the Javanese afternoon tea in the grand, colonnaded central dining room overlooking Borobudur, every element of the place is infused with the local culture. It’s a struggle for me to describe the place without using the kind of hyperbolic language usually found in a press release, simply because it’s that impressive. It’s also the only resort of its caliber for miles (although an Alila is supposedly in the pipeline), making it a little easier to justify the splurge.
On a clear day, you can see all the way to Borobudur from the terrace of my suite.