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Magnificent Borobudur – the world’s biggest Buddhist Temple with its glory revealed after centuries entombed under ash, earth and jungle

Exploring Indonesia

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From glory, to abandonment, to burial, to rediscovery, to restoration, to a wonder of the world!

Borobudur is more than just the world’s biggest Buddhist temple – it also is a special, iconic place with a fascinating story and an aura to match…

Borobudur is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and Indonesia’s most visited tourist attraction and after you have been there you will understand why.

Mind-stretching statistics –

The temple is in the form of a stepped pyramid with nine stacked platforms (six square and three circular) rising from a square base with sides measuring 123m, the equivalent of more than two football fields.

It is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. The central dome is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa (dome shaped Buddhist shrines).

The total structure consists of more than 1.6 million blocks of the volcanic rock andesite – cut, placed and joined WITHOUT the use of mortar.

The temple’s three main levels each represent a stage on the way to the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment.

Symbolizing this spiritual journey, a pilgrim who begins at the eastern stairway and walks clockwise around each of the monument’s nine levels covers more than 5km (3 miles) before reaching the top.

Images of the Buddha carved in contemplation in and around the bell-shaped stupas create an aura of peace and tranquility

The Sailendra Dynasty built Borobudur from around 760 to 830 AD during its reign over the Mataram kingdom with construction estimated to have taken 75 years.

At its peak the Mataram kingdom of central Java included the Indonesian Srivijayan Empire and extended to southern Thailand, parts of the Philippines, North Malaya and Cambodia.

Experts say the temple design employs Javanese Buddhist architecture blending Indonesian indigenous concepts of ancestor worship and the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana. The temple reflects strong Indian influence through the Gupta art of its extensive panels of sculpted reliefs.

The videos above are a good introduction to Borobudur. The evocative first video (5:16 mins) is by the talented Milosh Kitchovitch from the “AMAZING PLACES ON OUR PLANET” series. (see more of his wonderful work at The second video clip (59 secs) by Aerial Indonesia (from Channel News Asia) gives a quick and slightly dizzying bird’s eye view of this marvellous monument.

A population fleeing volcanic eruptions and conflict

Borobudur sits in the shadows of Mt Merapi, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and is near three other volcanoes. Eruptions in the area, together with conflicts, saw a mass movement of population from the region to East Java around the 11th century.

The subsequent widespread conversion of Javanese to Islam and the decline of Hindu kingdoms in Java in the 14th-century brought the complete abandonment of Borobudur.

It’s hard to imagine when you look at the mass and scale of the huge and magnificent temple today, but with the abandonment, neglect and more volcanic eruptions Borobudur was to lay hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth.

Java came under British administration from 1811 to 1816 and the appointed governor-general, Thomas Stamford Raffles, took great interest in the history of Java.

He learned of a “big monument” deep in a jungle near the village of Bumisegoro and sent Hermann Cornelius, a Dutch engineer, to investigate.

Over two months, Cornelius and his 200 men cut down trees, burned vegetation and dug away earth to begin to reveal the temple.

A true devotee of ancient art and legends could spend days, weeks, months and years studying a treasure trove of intricate carved bas reliefs telling stories of the Buddha and ancient mythology at Borobudur.

Pictures from travel bloggers

A century of looting and vandalism on a grand scale

The re-discovery of Borobudur sparked world-wide interest but the unprotected temple endured looting and vandalism during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

On a visit to Java in 1896 the then King of Siam (Thailand) was permitted to take home eight cartloads of Borobudur sculptures, some of which are now museum exhibits in Bangkok. 

Borobudur has since been protected and preserved. The largest restoration project was undertaken between 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian government and UNESCO.

Australia joined other countries to contribute funds towards the restoration program.

In 1991 UNESCO listed the monument as a World Heritage Site.

Borobudur ranks with Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia as one of the great archeological sites of Southeast Asia and attracts pilgrimages by Indonesian and international Buddhists along with its thousands of tourists.

Crowds await nightfall for the Waisak Day ceremony at Borobudur – pic

Buddhists from all over for Borobudur's special day in May

Borobadur is one of three ancient temples in the immediate area. The smaller Pawon and Mendut temples are about a kilometre and three kilometres to the east, accurately positioned in a perfect straight line.

On the full moon in April or May Indonesian and international Buddhist pilgrims gather at Mendut for meditation and prayers marking the annual Waisak Day Festival.

Sky lanterns soar into the night sky for Waisak Day - pic

The thousands of Monks in saffron robes then lead a procession to Pawon and on to Borobudur, guided by nothing but the light from the candles in their hands and the moon above.

The Buddhist pilgrims are joined by thousands of local and international visitors for the event which celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha.

At Borobudur temple prayers and offerings are made to the Buddha, seated serenely in the stupa at the peak of the temple.

The event concludes with Pradaksina when the Monks ask for charity to the Indonesian people. This triggers the simultaneous release of thousands of sky lanterns to soar into the darkness, symbolizing enlightenment for the entire universe.

A powerful symbol and a monument to past greatness

Indonesians are righty proud of the aesthetic and technical mastery in the creation of Borobudur and view it as a powerful symbol of past greatness. Under its cultural criteria, UNESCO listed the temple as representing “a masterpiece of human creative genius”.

Restoration and maintenance work is on-going and you may see artisans restoring stonework and reliefs.

The entrance fee for foreign visitors (that’s us) is about AUD$28 per person which goes towards restoration and maintenance (don’t worry if you are on a Better Tours package – it’s included in your tour price).

Guides will tell you more stories of Borodudur and explain the significance of some of the reliefs and the legends behind them as we ascend the monument.  At the top we will see the site’s large and famous bell-like stupas and take in the magnificent views.

Some of the short staircases are a little steep and the treads narrow, but if taken steadily the climb it is not arduous – we will not be not be in a hurry and will be pausing at various levels as we go.

However, you should wear appropriate shoes. It also can be hot, so we also recommend wearing a hat and carrying a bottle of water.

Like all holy places in Indonesia, visitors to Borobudur are expected to dress modestly. Shorts and mini-skirts are not acceptable and attendants may politely offer a sarong to visitors dressed inappropriately (or perhaps you can bring your own). Shoulders also should be covered.

We recommend that you politely ignore the hawkers around the gateway – if you want souvenirs then best to check the gift store.

If we get lucky, we might just see a Borobudur sunset as spectacular as this – Photo by Jason Denning Photography, Singapore

Viewing the sunset from the shadows of the stupas

The gates close and the crowds leave Borobudur at 5pm – but our Better Tours group be staying a little longer.

We pay a surcharge so that we may linger on the top of the temple in the shadows of the stupas for an hour or so to watch the sunset. Weather permitting, it is stunning.

We go to Borobudur on a Sunday afternoon before our departure from Yogyakarta the following day for Mt Bromo.

A Borobudur sunset has to be the perfect finale to the formal part of our visit to this fascinating and enigmatic city!

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More useful and interesting information

Borodudur Temple is just one of a long list of places to see and experience in and around Yogyakarta – there’s just so much more. That’s why we spend three nights here. For more descriptions and images click the links below.

More to explore on the island of Java

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Yogyakarta is a just the place to spoil yourself. This city has a reputation for quality service and low prices at its many spa and massage treatment salons – perfect if you want to ease any aches, pains – and it has Indonesia’s most fun shopping street …

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Bandung is sometimes called the “Paris of Java” or the “City of Flowers”, reflecting the old-world architecture of its colonial heritage and a lively scene of cafes, restaurants, hotels, resort retreats and institutions of learning …

Until little more than 100 years ago influential Surabaya ranked as the largest and richest city in the Dutch East Indies. But it was also known for its grubby streets, poor facilities, traffic jams, corruption and more … until the transformation began! Now it’s a new-look place to visit …

In our age of budget airlines and constant hurry few visitors know of Indonesia’s superbly scenic train journeys. We experience two of them – the Argo Wilis from Bandung to Yogyakarta and the Sancaka Pagi  from Yogyakarta to Mojokerto …


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