48 Hours visiting Prambanan and Borobudur in Central Java, Indonesia

Overlooking the valley
Buddha overlooking the valley in Borobudur

Indonesia might be a Muslim-majority nation today, but this culturally vibrant country is home to numerous ethnic groups with a rich heritage. It isn’t surprising then that two of the country’s most visited tourist sites are a Hindu-temple compound and a Buddhist-temple complex. The former is the Prambanan Temple located north-east from the city centre of Yogyakarta and about a 20 minute drive from the Sheraton Mustika Yogyakarta, which is a great base to be to explore the city and the Prambanan ruins.

Prambanan Hindu temple
Prambanan Hindu temple ruins

Prambanan Temple Compound

Visitors to Prambanan tend to arrive via tourist coach bus or private charter minivans, and I had booked a minivan that includes a one-way ride to Borobudur for IDR 450,000 (~$35). Arriving at the car park, there are 2 separate ticket counters, with one for locals and another for foreign tourists. Naturally there was a higher charge for foreign visitors and it was one of the perks of being a local citizen or resident!

Entry to Prambanan
Entry to Prambanan

From the ticket counter, there was another 200m trek into the main temple complex itself. On first glance, the complex resembles the more famous Angkor Wat, though this is a smaller complex and was built more as a monument and temple rather than as a city.

Corner shrine towers
Corner shrine towers

Prambanan was estimated to be built somewhere in the 9th century and dedicated to the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva with the tallest stupa (candi) dedicated to Shiva. Visitors can make the trek up to the main stupa and glance at the statue of Shiva inside. The stone steps are quite narrow and visitors should take caution. Other than the main stupa, there are 5 other stupas in the centre compound though there does not seem to be anything inside them.

Shiva Temple
Shiva Temple, the main central stupa in Prambanan

The whole Prambanan temple complex is easily covered in an hour or so of exploring but visitors could take in the restoration works undergoing around it. There are numerous stone ruins being refurbished and strengthened. In fact one of the stupa was being restored when I visited. Around the complex, there are trams that visitors could pay extra to ride to other attractions such as a museum about the temple complex and a small deer enclosure.

Morning shadows
Morning shadows in the temple

In the evening, there is the Ramayana Ballet held on an open-air theatre. This performance has an extra charge and would be something visitors could consider if they want to see the Prambanan temple at night as the lights will illuminate the compound.

Temple murals
Temple murals at Prambanan

After spending about an hour or so, I made my way back to the hotel but not before stopping by a wholesale shop selling Batik clothing. Both Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo) have a Batik industry where textiles are hand-dyed to create intricate one-off patterns. This is a unique textile printing method and several large stores could be spotted along the main road between Yogyakarta and Prambanan, which is also the route to Surakarta. A shop I recommend is Batik Nusa Indah which is 5 minutes east from Prambanan by car and I got to know of this place as they have a branch in the Sheraton Mustika Hotel in Yogyakarta. Though prices are about 20-30% cheaper in their own boutiques. More colour and size availabilities make it worth it to visit the Batik stores outside from the hotel too!

Borobudur Temple Complex

Retreating back to the hotel for breakfast, we took the car once again after checking out of Sheraton Mustika to proceed northwest in the direction of Borobudur. While Borobudur is easily reachable for a day trip, it would be more memorable to stay in one of the resorts near Borobudur to enjoy the sunrise and sunset in the area. The drive to Borobudur from Yogyakarta takes about 90 minutes, though if departing from the city centre, do add about 30 minutes for traffic. Thus it makes sense to stay nearer to Borobudur especially if one wants to enjoy the sunrise view.

Dusk at Magelang
Dusk at Magelang

Notably, there are numerous resorts around Borobudur with Amanjiwo probably being one of the most luxurious. With a lower budget, I settled instead for the Plataran Resort which offers a private plunge pool villa. Another choice for visitors looking to be the first to explore Borobudur come sunrise would be the Manohara Hotel as it is the only one connected to the Borobudur complex.

Mist in sunrise
Mist in sunrise around Magelang

When visiting Indonesia, visitors should also plan for rainy weather, which we encountered in the afternoon we arrived at Borobudur. That certainly put our plans to explore the complex in sunset but it was nice to just soak in the sights from the higher altitude where the Plataran resort is situated at. The relaxing evening and lack of any night life gave us time to recharge for the adventures the next morning.

Orange glow of the sunrise
Silhouette of Borobudur in the sunrise

Sunrise in Borobudur is something to be enjoyed for sure, and I chose a no-cost option by savouring it from the open-air deck from the Plataran resort. Plataran provided for their guests a telescope to see it closer but the silhouette of the temple complex amidst the rolling mist from the surrounding highlands certainly make it no less impressive.

Cycling past a village
Cycling past a village

After enjoying the sunrise, it is easy to rent a bike from many of the resorts you will be staying. With a map and planned route, it was a scenic ride along with local teenagers going to school and farmers going about their daily routine. The numerous villages around Borobudur meant the morning just after sunrise is probably the busiest with all sorts of sights and sounds.

Sunrise over the Paddy Fields
Sunrise over the paddy fields along the ride to Borobudur

While there are no bicycle racks or stand, it was alright to just lock the bike and leave it by the security stand. Early in the morning, the crowds have yet to arrive but there was already visitors who remained after catching the sunrise. After all the Borobudur Complex is much larger than the Prambanan with the main ticket counters and entrance gate a fair bit of a walk to the main temple itself.

Borobudur Temple Complex
Top level of the Borobudur temple complex

At the main temple, it is best to climb all the way to the top to get the best views while the sunlight is at its best. From the top visitors can observe the area and get a view of Merapi, one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes in the distance. The mountains, serenity of the rural scene and this magnificent monument makes it very easy to just relax and ponder over life.

Candi Borobudur
Candi Borobudur in the morning sun

After getting all the photos at the top, walk around each of the platforms in a clockwise manner and take the stairs to explore the various murals around the temple. The numerous stupas have had the Buddhist statues within restored and I find they pose a nice foreground as a highlight of my visit to Borobudur.

Buddha statue
Buddha statue overlooking Merapi

When visitors arrive back at the base level, they can walk around the temple compounds to find more vantage viewpoints to marvel at the size of the multi-tiered temple. Walking around the temple truly shows the scale of this complex and I applaud the Indonesian authorities along with UNESCO in maintaining the grounds. It was clean and full of greenery making visitors feel safe walking around it.

Borobudur temple complex
Borobudur temple complex seen from the base

Compared to Prambanan, there are much more stuff to see in the Borobudur temple complex. There is a small elephant enclosure worth visiting but I found the elephants to be enjoying the shade once the sun is fully out. There is also a museum showcasing the history of Borobudur along with a maritime museum on the route back out of the complex. Both are worth visiting if visitors have the time but they are supplementary attractions.

Magelang Panorama
Magelang panorama with Borobudur in the centre

All in all, it takes at least one and a half day to explore both Prambanan and Borobudur with one full day for Borobudur which is the larger complex to tour. Visiting both historical sites is a great way to experience the cultural cradle of the ancient Javanese kingdom and provides an insight into Indonesian society which has a strong Javanese influence. This particular influence makes the most populated Muslim nation a unique destination in its own right, and thus both Prambanan and Borobudur becomes a fitting UNESCO World Heritage site.

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