Java’s Cultural Heart: Yogyakarta & Borobudur Temple

Borobudur Temple, Magelang
Borobudur Temple offers 360-degree views of Central Java’s countryside

It’s been almost a year since my adventure traveling across Java, Indonesia and I have a handful of stories yet to share. Though accessible by train, Yogyakarta (often pronounced jog-ja-kar-ta) – the cultural heart of Java – was a short, dirt-cheap hop by plane for us from the urban madness of Jakarta.

Of course, a visit to Indonesia would not be complete without visiting Borobudur, one of the most celebrated landmarks in Asia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So off we went bussing to the town of Magelang, just an hour away from Yogyakarta. In attempt to avoid the hefty USD 15 entrance fee, our crafty selves “cluelessly” queued at the entrance for locals, who only had to pay a fraction of the tourist fee. So much for trying – our backpacks were a dead giveaway, and a security guard soon herded us to the foreigner’s queue. Oh well.

A Buddhist pilgrimage site, the ninth-century temple consists of nine platforms connected by stairs. There are over 500 Buddha statues in the temple. Circling the each platform, we slowly made our way to the top, mesmerized by the 2,600 bas reliefs that embellished the terrace walls. They depicted both otherworldly myths and the daily life of ancient Javanese.

Borobudur Temple
The ‘Borobudur Ship’ (lower right) may have reached pre-colonial Philippines!

Admiring these murals was definitely my favorite part of the temple visit. Most intriguing were the “Borobudur Ships”, bas relief images of large outrigger vessels, which were most likely the same ones that reached Philippine shores during the maritime rule of the Srivijavan Empire (7th to 13th century) across Southeast Asia. Pre-colonial Filipinos called these boats balangay, which gave rise to the smallest unit of government in the country, barangay. Moreover, the Visayas island group in the Philippines got its name from the Srivijaya Empire. My hometown of Cebu is located in this region, so it was fascinating to discover that my ancestry may very likely be rooted in Central Java!  The Javanese may have reached as far as northern Luzon as well. The World Heritage-listed Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte has pointed niches similar to the ones topping Borobudur. 

Borobudur Temple, Magelang
Borobudur consists of nine platforms that pilgrims circumambulate to reach the top.

Unfortunately, the most-photographed top level, with the temple’s famous stupas and Buddha images, was off-limits during our visit since volcanic ash from the late 2010 eruption of Mt. Merapi was being removed. Another downer were all the pushy vendors; in the vicinity of the temple are the most persistent touts I’ve encountered! We had to firmly but respectfully refuse their offers, as we exited the temple grounds.

It was late afternoon by the time we got back to Yogyakarta. And we did not get to check out Prambanan, another famed temple in the outskirts of the city. Though we were able to catch a glimpse of it from the outside though.

Wayang Kulit (Shadow Puppet) Show
A dalang (puppet master) at a wayang kulit (shadow puppet) show in Sonobudoyo Museum, Yogyakarta.

In the evening, after a quick stroll down Malioboro shopping promenade, we caught the nightly wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance at Sonobudoyo Museum, built in the 1930s at the Sultan Palace yard. We watched an episode from the Indonesian version of the Sanskrit epic, Ramayana. The shadow play was narrated with a wailing chant by the dalang (puppet master), who manipulated traditional wayang kulit made of intricately chiseled leather, and controlled by rods made of buffalo horn. A puppet-maker at the entrance of the museum showed us how these fine artworks are delicately crafted. In 2003, UNESCO recognized the wayang kulit as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

HOW TO GET THERE: Yogyakarta can be accessed by plane (1 hour) or train (7 to 12 hours) from the capital of Jakarta. The Transjogya busway is the affordable way to get around the city (IDR 3,000 or PHP 15 per ride) Borobudur is an hour away from Yogyakarta by public bus (IDR 10,000 to 15,000 or PHP 50 to 75). Entrance is hefty at US$15/IDR 135,000 (PHP 660) for adult non-Indonesians.

8 Replies to “Java’s Cultural Heart: Yogyakarta & Borobudur Temple”

  1. I just love this post Eazy. I am more interested about the heritage sites they have hehe. On one of my trips in vietnam, I came across Indonesian ladies to gracefully told me that Yogyakarta is indeed beautiful at its best and great ones to know for a first timer like me.

    How much did you pay for the airfare from Jakarta?

  2. Thanks for taking time to read my long overdue post! Yogyakarta was nice, but my fave spot in the whole of Java is the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park. The AirAsia flight from Jakarta to Yogyakarta was around PHP 500, sale price.

  3. Ito ‘yong kinukuwento mo sa akin ah, hehe… Nice to know…

    Btw, posible rin umabot ‘yong Javanese influence sa Ilocos kasi ‘yong Paoay Church sa Ilocos Norte ay may pagka-hawig daw sa Borobudur in terms of architecture kasi daw it exudes Javanese architecture reminiscent of Borobudur of Java

  4. @Edmar: Yes, I do remember that trivia (I should put that in this blog entry) and how Paoay was once named “Bombay”, supporting the legend that its first inhabitants were Indians! =)

  5. after Angkor Wat eto ang next ko na puntahan. Ang ganda!

  6. @killerfillers: I’m visiting Angkor Wat next week!

  7. long-time dream to go here and make a solo trip… i should really start on planning it.

  8. Neng Mendoza says:

    whch is nearer to to java, jakarta or bali ty

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