Rise and shine for a Borobudur sunrise

It seemed that we were destined to have very little sleep in Indonesia as we dragged ourselves out of bed for our 4:30am taxi. David was up to see us off; he gets up to pray at 4am everyday anyway, because that’s the only time he has spare in his day. Lise and Davide joined us in our taxi to Bandung. We could have taken the bus but it worked out only marginally cheaper with four of us, and with the bus there was a good chance that we would still miss our train. We were two and a half hours early for our train and Bandung station has very little to engage your attention, particularly at stupid o’clock in the morning. The boarding system is very efficient; you aren’t allowed onto the platform until half an hour before your train leaves and then you have a strange experience of walking across the train tracks or through other trains to reach your platform. There is no such thing as a bridge in Javanese train stations.

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The trains are incredibly comfortable if you are willing to part with a teensy bit more money to be in an executive seat.

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The journey to Yogyakarta took about 8 hours and the countryside that we passed was beautiful.

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Whilst in Cianjur, we had been working away at finding a private driver for Yogya. The really important sites are well out of town, and whilst you can reach them by public transport, it is quite arduous. Also, if you want to be anywhere for sunrise, public transport won’t be running yet so you have to either get a taxi or join a tour group, so you may as well spend the money on a driver and add a few more things on to your itinerary. We used Abhiseka Tours to book our car and driver; you can find them easily on tripadvisor. We were charged a reasonable IDR600,000  for the whole day.

So, Borobudur. We had read heaps of reviews before we went, mostly to determine if we really needed to get there for sunrise or if it was ok to go later in the day. We must preface the next sentence by saying that Caro absolutely loathes getting up early, Caro isn’t too keen on getting up at a decent time, Caro likes to stay in bed reading until midday whilst cups of tea and hopefully a slice of toast or two are brought to her. Caro says emphatically that you simply have to get your arse out of bed and go to Borobudur at sunrise. A couple of practical notes: 1. You want to arrive at least 45 minutes before sunrise to get a good seat and also to get the critical pre-sunrise shots as the sky turns orange. 2. Bring warm clothes, it’s pretty nippy first thing. 3. If you have a thermos bring some tea along to sip as you wait, this is pretty much all that kept Caro from turning into a monster in the early hours.

We drove through the dark streets of Yogya, already fairly busy with tour buses that were undoubtedly headed in the same direction as us. When we got to Borobudur our driver, who we knew only as Mr Dolly, quickly secured us some tickets and torches and we set out along the well-marked path to the temple. It was soon looming above us, although all we could see was a vague silhouette against the still dark sky. We were directed up some stairs to the top of the temple and then walked round to the eastern side, where earlier birds than us were already perched on the walls. We had read that Borobudur gets packed at sunrise, and looking around there were a fair few people, but it didn’t feel overcrowded and everyone was sitting quietly, facing out and waiting for the sun.

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Our tactic was a simple one; instead of heading straight to the top with everyone else, trying to get the best view, we went down to the lowest available spot and sat with our backs to a stupa. This way we didn’t block anyone else’s view and didn’t have anyone at all in our eyeline, and the sunrise was still glorious.

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We have so many pictures of this sunrise and we really struggled to pick which ones to include, so we have definitely gone overboard, but we want to be really clear on how amazing it was. Our second stroke of genius was to explore the rest of the temple before the sun had fully risen. We had seen the best of the sunrise in any case and we had the temple pretty much entirely to ourselves because everyone else was still sat watching the sun. We made the clockwise circuit of the temple, snapping away manically as we went.

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Each of the stupas houses a Buddha and we peered in through the lattices to get a good look at them.

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We did a couple of circuits and then scampered down the steps to get a good view of the whole structure as the sun hit it and turned everything golden.

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These pictures aren’t unrealistic; we didn’t wait around for ages until lady luck smiled down allowed us to get the picture with nearly no one else in it, we just walked down and took the photo. This is our other reason for recommending visiting in the wee hours of the morning, because you can get photos like this easily and have some peace and calm to appreciate the temple. Also, we imagine that it is fooking hot later on in the day. The sun had barely risen by the time we decided to head back to the car.

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We dropped our torches back and received a scarf each as a memento, another bonus of splashing out for sunrise entry.

It was all of 7am and this is usually the point when people head back to their Yogya hotels for breakfast, but we had other plans. We aren’t sure why this next stop doesn’t make everyone’s itinerary, but it’s an absolute crime that more people don’t visit the Chicken Church. For one thing, it’s only 15 minutes away from Borobudur, for another, it’s a church that looks like a chicken. What’s not to love?

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Every single visitor is greeted by a nice woman who tells you that it isn’t actually a church, but a place of worship for any faith. Fair enough. She next informs you that it isn’t actually a chicken but rather a dove wearing a crown, as if that made it any less crazy. Everyone still calls it the Chicken church despite the above explanation; even the Indonesian name “Gereja Ayam” literally translates to chicken church.  We’re going to take a moment to give you a very condensed version of the story behind the Chicken Church: It was built by a chap called Daniel Alamsjah who had a vision of a dove in a dream and heard a voice telling him to build a house of worship, which, after some dallying, he eventually did. Apparently, it looked like a dove to start with, but Daniel added the crown later as a symbol of holiness, turning it inadvertently into a chicken. The interior is almost as extraordinary as the exterior.

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You can even take a peak out of its beak.

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We climbed up to the crown and, despite the drastic lack of any health and safety considerations, the view is admittedly fantastic from there.

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We also went for tea at the little coffee shop underneath the chicken’s tail.

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Caro was presented with a cup of something that smelled and tasted like the contents of a Glade air freshener. It was revolting, but Caro still managed a couple of gulps in order to figure out the flavor, which turned out to be jasmine. We learned that jasmine tea is actually very popular throughout Indonesia and that it always tastes like drinking pot pourri.

The final part of our itinerary was a local village tour in what was essentially a soft top jeep.

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Each of the villages has its own cottage industry. Whether it be ceramics or batik, everyone in the village makes it. One chap had diversified in to producing honey. You pay a small donation to poke around and watch them in action and we tried our hands at throwing bowls on the hand spun pottery wheel.

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Out on the road we passed a man standing in the middle of a field, throwing two pigeons into the air. Apparently, pigeon racing is incredibly popular and takes place on most evenings.

It wasn’t the most exciting tour but it was a nice way to see the surrounding countryside and if your driver speaks good English it is also a good opportunity to learn about how tourism is impacting the area.

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As we were driving back to Yogyakarta we came to a junction; Mr. Dolly leaned out of the car window and handed some coins to the man directing traffic. We thought for a moment that he had paid a bribe to go down a road that was closed, but it turns out that the men who stand at busy junctions aren’t actually employed by the government, they aren’t employed at all. They are volunteers, self-appointed traffic wardens who don a high-vis jacket and find a flag and help direct the traffic at particularly busy or tricky junctions and, incredibly, motorists obey their instructions. Not only this, they slow down and hand whatever change they have out of the window to say thank you for providing this service. We found the whole thing to be quite lovely.

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