If you asked most people to name a historic temple in South East Asia, you can bet that the vast majority would name Angkor Wat. In fact I’m sure most people would struggle to name many more. I know that was the case for me before I came to Asia, and on reading up on what there was to do in Indonesia, I was surprised to find out that the world’s biggest Buddhist temple is in the country.
Before Islam swept through the archipelago in the 15th century, Indonesia had been dominated by Hindu & Buddhist kingdoms, two of which have left behind massive temple complexes just outside Yogyakarta, both of which are World Heritage Sites.
First up was a sunrise visit to Borobudur, a huge Buddhist stupa constructed in the 9th century. It takes the form of a stepped pyramid, with each layer being decorated by hundreds of intricately carved panels showing scenes from the life of Buddha, and overlooked by 432 statues of Buddha. The upper terraces are circular, and hold beautiful lattice-work stupas, each containing another statue.
It’s a stunning construction, but as was already becoming the norm in Indonesia, I was amazed to find that yet again there were virtually no tourists – maybe no more than twenty on the day we were there. Aside from the handful of tourists, the other main presence was the groups of roaming Indonesian English students, who’d been sent down to the area to stop tourists so that they can practice their English. So at various intervals on the way round we’d stop and chat for five minutes or so with a group, asking us lots of questions about what we were doing and where we came from, and telling us more about themselves. We even got a little demonstration of traditional dancing from one group, and then (slightly bizarrely) one of the girls sang us an Avril Lavigne song. It’s definitely one of the things I love about Indonesia – it’s so incredibly easy to meet locals as they have no hesitation in just walking straight up to you and striking up conversations.
Next up was a short transfer to nearby Prambanan, a huge Hindu temple complex that was constructed around the same time as Borobudur, consisting of around 50 different sites. Largest and most impressive of all is the 47 metre high Shiva temple, flanked on either side by temples dedicated to Vishnu & Brahma. Sadly, the whole areas was badly damaged by an earthquake in 2006, so many of the temples were still closed off with repair work continuing. But despite that, it’s an undeniably beautiful sight.
Around the main temples are some smaller ones, and a museum, and it was as we wandered around we came across a group of locals practising playing Gamelan (probably the best know form of Indonesian music, played by orchestras with a variety of different percussion instruments). They invited us to sit down with them and learn to play a tune. We were each sat down with a Xylophone (with each bar being helpfully numbered) and given a sheet showing how to play a tune. It was a very simple number, but with the rest of the orchestra playing along with us the sound was beautiful, and we ended up playing for about fifteen minutes, with a load of Indonesian tourists staring at us all the whole way through.
The only downside to the whole day was that it was completely overcast the whole time, creating that kind of dispersed light that makes taking decent pictures almost impossible. So apologies if these ones aren’t up to my usual standard (especially as I really don’t think they convey quite how beautiful both places are).