Borobodur Temple

Borobudur Temple: how to visit the world’s largest Buddhist temple

The story of Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, on the island of Java in Indonesia is one of volcanoes, earthquakes, lost temples in the jungle, vandalism, looting, and rescue.

In this article learn about the history and culture of this incredible site, tips for how to plan your visit, what to do at Borobudur Temple, and where to stay. You can also find here the best tours and transportation to the Temple.

Introduction

Built in around 858 C.E., Borobudur was abandoned sometime in the 1400s. Islam came to Indonesia in 1500 and the largest Buddhist temple in the world laid buried by volcanic ash and covered by dense jungle for centuries.

Buddha statue at Borobodur Temple

Borobudur was built between two volcanoes and two rivers on the Kedu Plain in central Java. Excavations in the early 20th century of the ‘sacred plane’ have discovered a ritual relationship between two other Buddhist sites on the plain.

Borobudur Temple, Pawon Temple, and Mendut Temple have been built in a straight line. This sacred geography is common in Buddhist Southeast Asia.

Location of the three Buddhist temple complexes including Borobodur
 Indon [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

For centuries myths continued to carry the memory of Borobudur and it was physically rediscovered by the British when they colonized Indonesia.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles sent an expedition out to have a look at the area in 1814, having heard rumors of the existence of a monument in the jungle.

200 trees were chopped down in order to reveal an amazing hidden Buddhist complex of clear spiritual significance and importance.

A misty morning at the Borobudur Temple with volcanoes in the background

The World’s Largest Buddhist Temple

Like all Buddhist templesstupas, and pagodas, the story of creation and the order of the universe is represented physically in the architecture, dimensions, and arrangement of elements. There are three sections of the Temple and they correspond to the three realms in Buddhist cosmology.

These are Kamadhatu (the world of desires and the lowest level of the pyramid-shaped Temple), Rupadhatu (the world of forms, the mid-tiers of the pyramid), and Arupadhatu (the formless world) which you encounter as you reach the top of the Temple.

 Borobudur is unique in its size and also because of its origins and the reasons for its existence and its size are lost to us.

Borobudur temple lies within the Borobudur Archaeological Park but more importantly, it is part of the sacred geography of this plain near Yogyakarta. The plain is enclosed by major geological formations such as twin volcanoes and rivers. Its architecture is “standard” Buddhist architecture, albeit on a gargantuan scale.

This UNESCO World Heritage site has:

  • The base (consisting of five concentric square terraces)
  • Carved stone reliefs: 1460 relief panels lining the walls and balustrades of the first four levels of galleries and another 1212 line the pathways. There are a further 160  hidden behind the structures that have been used to shore up the base of the Temple.
  • The first four terraces are lined with bas-relief sculptures. These narrative reliefs and decorative panels show details of the life of people in 8th century Java and are the most exquisite of all of Buddhism’s bas-reliefs.
  • 72 latticed or openwork stupas, each containing a sitting Buddha statue
  • 504 Buddha statues
  • 4  galleries
  • 3 open-air upper circular terraces or platforms
  • Large central stupa at the apex of the Temple.
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The Galleries and Reliefs

Reliefs at Borobodur Temple

The temple was designed by an architect and poet named Gunadharma. What he designed is a three-dimensional mandala or map of the spiritual world or cosmos that is used for the purposes of meditation.

Buddhist pilgrimage at Borobudur occurs in the same way as is performed throughout the Buddhist world.

Beginning at the base of the monument, devotees follow a particular path. Walking meditation is an early form of meditation that Buddhist monks use.

The rhythm and repetition of steps make it easier to meditate when you are first starting out.

reliefs at Borobodur Temple

Of course, the idea of a pilgrimage – of walking a long way past and to holy sites – occurs in many cultures and Buddhism is no exception.

Gallery Level at Borobodur Temple

Understanding the concept of following a path towards Enlightenment is key to understanding the architectural design of Borobudur Temple. The center of the temple represents the center of the world (the axis mundi).

Buddhist pilgrims meditate by walking through the open passage around each of the tiers of the Temple and along the galleries and narrow corridors, climbing higher with each rotation.

This process of walking in a circular motion around Buddhist monuments is called circumambulation.

The open-air passages radiate out from the center of the Temple and movement around each platform brings you back to the passage and another set of stairs to climb.

The goal is to reach higher states of consciousness as you meditate your way ever higher along the path to the top of the Temple and finally to reach Enlightenment. (It also gives you a better view from the top!)

The Upper Terraces

Borobodur Temple Upper Terraces

Eventually, you emerge onto the three open-air upper terraces (three circular platforms) and here you metaphorically emerge from the darkness and into the light.

The dark-light spectrum is a central theme in many religions and symbolizes in Buddhism the emergence of higher states of consciousness on the path to Enlightenment.

Borobodur Temple Upper Terraces

The Central Stupa

After these open-air terraces – my favorite place at Borobudur – you move upwards to the central monumental stupa – the center of the Buddhist cosmos, flanked by inside perforated stupas arranged in concentric circles.

The central dome is 35 metres from ground level. From up here, you can understand the physical setting of the site on a plain between volcanoes and rivers.

Borobodur temple monk in perforated stupa

The Most Visited Site in Indonesia

More volcanic eruptions, more vandalism, and ongoing sagging of the structure due to water damage have meant the site has been closed at times for urgent restorations. It has been reclaimed as a Buddhist space and monks use the site on Buddhist holy days.

Now Borobudur is the most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia. It had been on my bucket list for a long time.

The statues of monks in their stone latticed stupas and the cylindrical arrangement of the stupas around the tiered galleries bedecked with Buddhist stone reliefs are worth the taxi or bus ride from Yogyakarta.

It is certainly worth visiting if you are staying on the island of Java or in Jakarta and there are some high-quality tours that make the journey simple.

Borobudur Temple

Many tourists also visit the nearby magnificent Hindu temple of Prambanan (built in the tenth century). Below I describe my favorite tours of Borobudur and of Prambanan and even include a guided bicycle tour around Borobudur village!

There is a nearby cruise ship port and there is even a well-reviewed tour of Borobudur that leaves and returns from Semarang Port.

NOTE: There are elephants chained at Borobudur Temple. The administrators of the site get inundated by horrified travelers expressing their outrage at the evident mistreatment of these wonderful creatures. Please don’t ride them.

Best Time of Day to Visit Borobudur Temple: Sunrise, Sunset, or During the Day?

There are a number of tours that will take you to a nearby mountain to view the sunrise over Borobudur Temple and others that will take you to the Temple itself for early admission (see below for my recommendations).

Many travelers believe sunrise is the most magical time to see Borobudur Temple. I personally prefer 6 am in the morning when the humidity is still low, the sun is rising and the crowds haven’t yet arrived.

Borobudur becomes crowded in the Indonesian holidays and during the dry and cool season. I have visited in the middle of the day during the humid wet season and it was not crowded but it was hot!

If you wish to see the site at sunset, much of the humidity of the day is beginning to wane and it is a popular time and a little less crowded than the sunrise tours.

Where Is Borobudur Temple Located?

Map of Borobodur

Borobudur Temple sits beside the village of Borobudur on the Kedu Plain, approximately 60-90 minutes southwest from the city of Yogyakarta, on the island of Java, Indonesia.

You might see the words “candi borobudur” on maps of the area. The word “candi” means temple in Javanese and it is pronounced “chandi”.

The Kedu Plain contains a number of historic ancient Temples and is still intensively farmed with rice and bananas.

How To Get To Borobudur Temple?

View of Borobodur Temple

It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s sometimes raining cats and dogs. Traffic is a nightmare. But it’s totally worth it. There was a time when I would just hop a bus (or 5 if that’s what it took). But look, save yourself the hassle. Get an air-conditioned taxi for US$16 each way.

It makes no sense to visit any site in the tropics in the middle of the day! Or better still, think about a private or semi-private tour that you can book before you arrive in Indonesia.

It’s also possible to purchase the ticket before you arrive in Indonesia.

If you’re like my younger self though, knock yourself out with the bus system.

The nearest town to Borobudur Temple is Muntilan. For accommodation options close to the Temple and in Yogyakarta, see below.

Hotel in Yogyakarta with Borobodur Temple water feature

Public bus is the cheapest way to get from Yogyakarta to Borobudur. In the north of the city is the Jombor terminal.

It takes approximately 1 and a half hours to get to Borobudur Temple. The first bus is at 6 am so you will miss the sunrise.

My preferred way of getting between Yogyakarta and Borobudur (and Prambanan) is a private car and driver. The Yogyakarta: Private Car Charter with Driver is a personal chauffeur in a quality air-conditioned car for 10 hours for only US$45 for up to five people. You are picked up and delivered back again to your hotel in Yogyakarta. This means the day is yours and you can see Borobudur village, its back roads, and fields, Mount Merapi, ancient ruins, and eat some wonderful Javanese food for a very low price. You need to know where to go and what to see. If you aren’t sure about this, there are some great Borobudur Tour options listed below.

Minivans are arranged by tour agencies in Yogyakarta for about US$6 per person for a return trip to Borobudur Temple.

How To Choose The Best Tour of Borobudur Temple

In the past few years, tour companies have begun to advertise sunrise tours of Borobudur. It has the advantage of being slightly cooler than the middle of the day.

If you love a good sunrise over a monument, there are a number of tours I recommend below.

Other considerations include the time it takes to get to and from the Temple and the ability to pack more into a day of sightseeing if you take a longer tour.

Best Half-Day Private Tour of Borobudur Temple

Borobudur Temple Half-Day Private Tour

This tour is 6 hours in total and includes pick-up and return transfers from your hotel in Yogyakarta. It is a highly rated tour with excellent reviews.

You arrive at Borobudur Temple and can remain at the Temple for about three hours (until it is time to return to Yogyakarta) or you can choose to visit the nearby Mendut and Pawon Temples as well.

Best for: 

  • Travelers wanting to see Borobudur Temple by a quality tour company with English guides but without spending a whole day on the excursion.
  • Travelers wanting to be picked up and returned to their hotel

What’s included: Admission ticket to Borobudur and return hotel transfers

Not included: A local guide at the Temple

Check prices, reviews and availability here

Best Full-Day Private Tour of Borobudur and Prambanan Temples

Borobudur Sunrise & Prambanan Full-Day Private Tour

This tour is 12 hours in total and includes pick-up and return transfers from your hotel in Yogyakarta. You arrive at Borobudur Temple in time for sunrise and then spend three hours at the site.

The transfer to Prambanan Temple takes between 90 minutes and two hours and then you have two hours at the site. There is a stop for lunch before you arrive back at your hotel between 1 and 2 pm.

Best for: 

  • Travelers wanting to see the two most iconic ancient sites in Indonesia in one trip by a quality tour company with English guides.
  • Travelers wanting to be picked up and returned to their hotel

What’s included: breakfast, entrance fees to Borobudur and Prambanan, return transfers

Not included: A local guide at the Temples, lunch

Check prices, reviews and availability here

Best Full-Day Tour of Borobudur Temple Including Merapi Volcano Excursion

Borobudur Sunrise, Merapi Volcano & Prambanan Full-Day Tour

This tour is 12 hours in total and includes pick-up and return transfers from your hotel in Yogyakarta. You arrive at Borobudur Temple in time for sunrise and then explore the site on your own.

You then transfer to Mount Merapi where you have a jeep tour of the volcano. There is then a transfer to Prambanan Temple and again, you explore the site by yourself.

Best for: 

  • Travelers wanting to see the two most iconic ancient sites in Indonesia in one trip by a quality tour company with English guides.
  • Travelers wanting to see the sunrise over Borobudur Temple.
  • Travelers wanting to visit one of the world’s most active volcanoes on a jeep tour.
  • Travelers wanting to be picked up and returned to their hotel

What’s included: Entrance fees to Borobudur and Prambanan, jeep rental at Mount Merapi return transfers

Not included: A local guide at the Temples, lunch, and dinner.

Check prices, reviews and availability here

Best Full-Day Shore Excursion Tour from Semarang Port

From Semarang Port: Borobudur Private Shore Excursion

This tour is 10 hours in total and includes pick-up and return transfers from your cruise ship berth at Semarang Port. This tour company has excellent reviews and guarantees that you will be returned to the Port on time.

The tour generally picks up from the Port at 8 am and returns by 4 pm but this schedule can be changed once the tour is booked if there are time changes required.

A driver will hold up a nameplate containing your name at the arrival gate of the Port. Your transfer is a scenic route through rice fields to arrive at Borobudur Temple.

The distance is 100 km and takes approximately 2 hours.

After exploring Borobudur Temple the driver takes you to a restaurant for lunch before returning you to Semarang Port.

Best for: 

  • Cruise ship passengers wanting to visit Borobudur Temple without the hassle of finding transportation there and back.
  • Travelers wanting to be picked up and returned to their hotel

What’s included: Entrance fees to Borobudur, return transfers from your cruise ship

Not included: A local guide at the Temples, lunch

Check prices, reviews and availability here

Best Guided Bicycle Tour of Borobudur Town

Yogyakarta: Private Guided Bike Tour

This tour is  1.5 – 3 hours in total and includes pick-up and return transfers from your hotel in Yogyakarta or in the Borobudur area.

You have the choice of riding through Borobudur village or through the Yogyakarta countryside. If you are cycling around Borobudur village the transfer time is 90 minutes in each direction.

You can cycle or take a horse cart and you can walk through the villages meeting locals as well. This is a great short add-on to give you a sense of everyday life in Indonesia.

Best for: 

  • Travelers wanting to see the two most iconic ancient sites in Indonesia in one trip by a quality tour company with English guides.
  • Travelers wanting a short add-on to their visit to Borobudur who would like to see a little of the culture and of Indonesian life around Borobudur.
  • Travelers wanting to be picked up and returned to their hotel.

What’s included: bike and horse cart rental fees, snacks, return transfers

Not included: Helmets

Check prices, reviews and availability here

Borobudur Temple Admission Ticket Only

Borobudur Temple Admission Ticket

Best for:

  • If you prefer to make your way to Borobudur via a taxi, car, and driver or public transport then pre-purchasing a Skip-the-line Admission Ticket for Borobudur is also possible.

Check prices and reviews here

Where to Stay in Borobudur

This is a part of the world that has dramatically increased the number and standard of its hotels. There are several luxury hotels and resorts near to Borobudur. Very few are within walking distance of Borobudur Temple.

Amanjiwo – just wow! A perfect 10/10 on all reviews. A five-star air-conditioned hotel with a pool and beautiful grounds and views within walking distance of Borobudur Temple. And, with airport transfers available. Just perfect.

Plataran Borobudur – incredible views and serene and elegant space, both indoors and outdoors. Villas with private pools are available in this quality five-star hotel.

Plataran Heritage – light, airy, elegant with lovely views, a great four-star hotel.

Shankara Borobodur – only 10 minutes walk from Borobudur Temple and with many rooms facing a large swimming pool, this is a favorite with couples. There is free wifi and the rooms have private terraces and overlook the pool.

Cempaka Villa – an inexpensive popular hotel in an incredible location only a five-minute walk from Borobudur Temple. Free wifi, air conditioning, a spa and massage center, and room service make this a convenient and excellent value hotel.

Check prices, reviews and availability of all Borobudur accommodation

Where to Stay in Yogyakarta

Yogyakarta is a great city. Central Javanese food has flavors that are slightly sweeter than the rest of the island. Spicy chicken curry with coconut rice is reason enough to spend a night in Yogyakarta to see the most of Borobudur and Prambanan Temples.

Novotel Yogyakarta – possibly the most popular hotel in all of Yogyakarta! A beautiful pool area, and modern and tastefully designed large rooms are the major drawcards of this excellent hotel.

The hotel has all of the usual five star amenities including a poolside restaurant, an international restaurant, a kids club, spa, and gym.

Hyatt Regency Yogyakarta – this is my choice in Yogyakarta and the five-star hotel I prefer. It feels Indonesian and it has beautiful gardens and still has the excellent facilities of the Hyatt Regency brand.

I always enjoy staying here and it’s easy to get a taxi organized from here to Borobudur.

Novotel Suites Yogyakarta is a four-star hotel, and just as popular as its sibling, the five-star Novotel Yogyakarta. Guests love the size and furnishings of the suites, the pool and bar, fitness center, and kids club.

Sheraton Mustika Yogyakarta Resort and Spa – this expansive hotel has large and beautiful tropical grounds with the centerpiece being an impressive sparkling pool area.

There are several pools, tennis courts, and other recreation and spa facilities. A real drawcard for this hotel is its proximity to the airport – only a five-minute drive away.

Check prices, reviews and availability of all Yogyakarta accommodation

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