Friday, January 29, 2016

Sunrise in Borobudur

Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, built in the 9th century over a period of 75 years, used for scarcely 100 years before being abandoned and rediscovered only in the 1800s. Since an extensive restoration project from 1975-1982, sunrise at Borobudur has become one of Yogyakarta's biggest draws and spectacular events.

A 3.30am pickup from my hostel in Yogyakarta takes me on a one-hour drive to the Borobudur complex, north-west of Yogya. When I arrive at Manohara Hotel, the only hotel near the Borobudur compound, it is still dark, so when I am offered coffee I am more than happy to accept. Sunrise isn't until 5.30am.

There are two gates at Borobudur: the public entrance, which opens at 6am, and the private, Manohara Hotel-owned entrance which opens at 4.30am (also naturally the more expensive option). The crowds are sparse before sunrise, especially now in low, rainy season - there are less than 30 of us here to catch the sunrise, I think.

My guide, Budi, is 40 but has the energy of a 10-year old. We are given flashlights to help us find our way around in the dark, but Budi is an enthusiastic photographer and shows me how I can make use of light and shadow to take haunting photographs of the reliefs and Buddha carvings. The flashlights have less use helping me find my way around than as a photography aid!

The weather is unpredictable in rainy season, and as the sky brightens the thick fog that comes from the jungle surrounding Borobudur begins to lift. The sun is not golden, obscured by the fog and cloud, but that does not take away from the beauty of this ancient monument. I'm just thankful it isn't raining this morning. 

Budi, my tour guide.
Borobudur's nine levels are arranged in threes - desire, forms, and finally the formless nirvana. Viewed from above, Borobudur is shaped like a mandala, and the structure of Borobudur is steeped in Buddhist cosmological significance. The top three levels - the nirvanic Arupadhatu levels - are home to a total of 72 stupas with diamond and square perforations, inside of which each sits a statue of Buddha sitting in the lotus position. The bottom six levels are square-shaped, and the top three terraces are circular, leading up to a singular massive stupa at the very top of the monument.

Budi recites these facts off the top of his head. He knows them by heart; he lives in a village not one kilometre from the Borobudur temple, with his family, and before becoming an English-speaking tour guide, he was a Japanese-speaking tour guide.

"I know five languages," he tells me. "Indonesian because I am Indonesian, Javanese because I am Javanese, Japanese because of the Japanese tourists, English to become a better tour guide, and between me and my wife, body language!" Budi is one of those people that you meet and who can instantly make you feel at home anywhere - ever-friendly, warm and welcoming, and who clearly loves his job.

Budi's enthusiasm for photography is infectious - he knows his way around a camera and he knows how to take a killer photograph. He lives in a village and tells me he would love to visit Cambodia, but that it would take him 12 months to save enough money to visit Angkor Wat - more since his wife and children want to tag along if he goes. As the head of the family, he has decided that he won't visit Cambodia if he has to leave his family behind, and because of that it is likely he'll never visit. He has never been outside of Indonesia.

His only chance to play with dSLRs is here, at his job as a tour guide at Borobudur, showing tourists where to take the best photos, the best spots to get a great view, and asking if he can use his guests' cameras to take photos of them. This is how he has learned photography - over the years, slowly, observing tourists angling themselves in places to get the right frame.

It amazes me how large the stupas are, how many of them there are, and how intricate the work is for a 1200 year old monument. The stone that makes up Borobudur is volcanic lava rock, hauled from 32km away at the still-active Mt Merapi. During the 7-year restoration of Borobudur, stones that were deemed damaged beyond repair were replaced by lava rock also taken from Merapi. There are some 2 million stone blocks here, weighing a collective 3.5 million tonnes.

Borobudur, translated, means "The temple on the hill." Beneath the steppe pyramid structure, Borobudur sits on a bare hill, which provides its foundation. Because of this, Borobudur is particularly vulnerable to soil erosion and water damage. Small-scale restoration projects have attempted to install drain channels and lead plates to redirect rainfall. The weight of tourist visitors leads to fears of soil subsidence, which partially factors into the high ticket prices at Borobudur to discourage visitor overload.

Before sunrise in low season, visitors are relatively few - after the public gates open at 6am, I am told, crowds throng the space so much that it becomes impossible to get a photo without someone in the picture. In dry season, the visitor crowd is even worse, flooding the monument even before sunrise.

On the first six levels, reliefs are carved in the stone walls, depicting stories of how the Buddha came to be and the various trials and tribulations he faced before attaining nirvana. These reliefs, placed end to end, would stretch 2.5km. The faces of Buddha have their hands in any of six different positions (mudrâ), each meaning something different - calling the earth to witness, benevolence, concentration, courage, virtue, and turning the wheel of dharma.

Budi somehow manages to turn even this into a activity, and takes five minutes to show me a fun wushu-like series of poses each leading into the next mudrâ. Clearly dance lessons are failing me as I struggle to keep up with the changing poses, but it's a lot of fun - "Something for you to remember and cheer you up when you are sad," Budi says, videoing me laughing.

By the time we're done, it's 6.30am. Crowds of Indonesian tourists and schoolchildren have begun to arrive. We go back to Manohara Hotel, and Budi heads home to change into his cycling gear. Manohara provides a light breakfast to its Sunrise Tour guests, and today it is goreng pisang, or fried banana, with cheese on top. There's a musician playing the gender (a xylophone-like traditional Javanese instrument) a little away, and I'm allowed to have a go.

Right outside the main Borobudur complex lies a small village (kampung), and this is where most people working in the Borobudur tour and souvenir crafts industry live. A 13km bicycle ride will take you up and down hills around the area, and right by what is speculated by some to have once been an ancient lake.

The cycling tour is entirely doable by beginners, and although it takes you up and downhill, a good portion of the tour was on flat ground. My biggest problems were with dehydration - the hot sun really takes it out of you and it is no fun sweating out more liquid than you can take in! Fortunately, Budi is there to lead the way - and for this section of the tour I am joined by another guide and expert cyclist, also named Budi.

Both guides were ridiculously fit and energetic, and at points when the hill becomes steep Budi-II even pushes me from behind while cycling. I've never felt more unfit. Budi and Budi are so welcoming and helpful they keep me hydrated with Pocari Sweat and keep my sugar levels high with bananas and rambutan.

The sun is blazing hot on my shoulders and I'm starting to get strange-looking sun blisters, but the feel of the wind while cycling makes up for it. There's something authentic about cycling through such a traditional village, next to farmers planting and harvesting rice fields, and through streets where everyone knows everyone and yelling at chickens to get off the road.

At one point we have stopped for a break, and I hear the strange combination of a goat bleating and a scooter engine. Turning around, I see the most bizarre sight I've ever come across - a rider on a scooter, a pillion, and a goat with its legs bound sandwiched between them. The people on the scooter wave cheerfully to us, and while I wave back it must be obvious that I am confused by what I have just seen. That goat must have wound up in someone's dinner.

That, to me, seems like a pretty authentically village-style experience.

The scenery throughout the route is stunning - we go through backroads and through padi fields. Everything is bright emerald green and brilliant sapphire blue. Despite the backbreaking toil of their work, rice farmers are friendly and say "Selamat pagi" to us - 'Good morning', in Indonesian. 

Cycling through what was once an ancient lake. I'm too short for my bicycle!

We are nearly at the end, and we stop by a pottery workshop. I've never tried my hand at pottery, but I watch the artisan here expertly turn a lump of clay into a perfect Borobudur stupa, and I'm raring to give it a go.

I quickly realise that my left-handedness is not an advantage here, as the pottery wheel spins the wrong way and into my fingers; I also quickly realise that I'm better at breaking off pieces of my stupa than actually building it. It is hard to get the right amount of pressure to shape the clay with - it is better to slowly and steadily apply gentle pressure, but this is a skill that I have yet to master.

After one disastrously failed attempt, however, I'm allowed another go and the second stupa turns out somewhat better than the first.

Before I know it, it is 11am - Budi apologetically says to me that it is Friday and he needs to be at the mosque soon. I barely noticed, but of course I quickly wash my hands and get ready to head back to Manohara, apologising for having forgotten the time. It has been such an eventful morning, after all, and Yogyakarta is an hour's drive away. Budi has been an amazing tour guide, and without doubt he has been the star of this morning.

It takes some determination to navigate the souvenir stall-lined streets on the way back without buying anything - this has always been my weak spot, when a seller pleads with me to "Please buy something" and they slash the price of an item to 1/4 of their original asking price. "100,000 Rupiah. 70,000. 50,000. 30,000." Eventually I give in to guilt and buy something - two lava stone souvenir stupas for 40,000 Rupiah, or $4. Now I'll have something I can put on my bookshelf to remember Borobudur by.

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