Touted at the most visited site in Indonesia by locals and foreign tourists alike, Borobudur temple is a solid centerpiece to any Indonesia itinerary. This is so much the case that I have been to Indonesia twice now and both times I have made a visit to Borobudur temple, once for a Borobudur sunset and once for a Borobudur sunrise.
In 2014, we based ourselves in Yogyakarta and made our visit on a day trip. With the traffic conditions, it was long hours spent in a van but definitely worth it seeing as we booked the afternoon departure time. This got us into the temple complex about 2 hours before sunset and we stayed until the sun almost melted into the horizon and the guards shuffled us out the gate.
On my most recent visit, I was treated to the exact opposite, a Borobudur sunrise that shows off the temple and surrounding area, as the scene turns from pitch black to all the beautiful shades of morning. I was even lucky enough to witness one of the distant volcano’s, Mount Merapi, sending a steady plume of smoke into the air from a distance.
You’ve found my article because you’re wondering what all the hype is about and if it is worth not only the early alarm but the extra cost to catch a Borobudur sunrise. I get it, there are bags of mixed reviews online with strong cases to support either side. Regardless, I feel it is 100% worth any factor you can conjure up that might prevent your from doing it. Especially if you are a photographer, but even if you’re not, I guarantee once the sun starts rising you’ll forget the doubt and just take in the scene.
Set in central Java, Indonesia’s 4th largest island, Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, constructed in the 9th century, and is the most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia. When the population converted to Islam in the 14th century, Borobudur was abandoned. Today the temple is protected by UNESCO with ongoing restoration and maintenance to keep the temple looking it’s best.
The design of the temple is very unique featuring layers with highly detailed carved reliefs telling you different stories as you make your way around and up towards the top of the temple. Once you reach the top, you’ll be treated to a contrasting change of architecture that features multiple stupas, both large and small, that guard a variety of Buddha statues and give you breathtaking panoramic views of the area.
While it is possible for you to arrive at the temple early and be one of the first people into the complex at the opening time of 6am, there is only one official way to see the Borobudur sunrise from the interior of the temple. The Manohara Hotel corners the market on this tour being located on the park grounds and they offer an option to enter the temple complex at 4:30am for a total price of IDR 400.000, roughly $31USD.
You can choose to stay right at the Manohara Hotel but note that it is not required to participate in the tour but it will make for the easiest experience of a Borobudur sunrise possible. There is a wide variety and range of options just a short drive away so really the choice is yours. Advanced reservations for the sunrise entrance are not required but should you choose to stay outside of Manohara Hotel, be sure to make your transport arrangements the day before to ensure you arrive before the 4:30am tour start time.
If you’re just not sure you want to get up for the 4:30am start time, but still want to see the last bits of sunrise, the regular business hours for Borobudur temple are 6:00am to 5:00pm and general entrance costs 275,000IDR, $20USD, for foreign visitors. Detailed information on your options can be found here.
Remember, you will arrive in the dark and climb the 118 stairs to the top with only a small torch, provided by the officials of the temple.
It really comes down to the time of year as to what kind of weather and experience you can expect. I’ve visited Borobudur temple in June, after rainy season and in October, before rainy season. Both were perfect experiences with clear skies, no rain and no haze. Nobody can guarantee that you’ll have perfect weather; all you can do is try to plan your trip during optimum travel times to Indonesia and hope for a bit of luck.
Another thing to keep in mind is what time the sun rises during each season. This will have a definite effect on your sunrise experience. The sun rises at different times during the year and there are certainly times when it doesn’t pay to join the exclusive sunrise tour, as the sun rises up around 5:45am and you can just pay for a normal entrance at the gate for 6am and head straight up to the top.
However, during my visit in October, it was very clearly worth buying the sunrise tour with Manohara Hotel because the sun started to rise at 5:20am with all the optimum light for photography over well before the 6:00am mark.
I also believe the time of year plays a big part in how large the crowd will be on the sunrise tour. During my recent visit, I was quite surprised at the small number of people at the top of the temple. Don’t get me wrong, there were a fair bit, but nothing like I experienced on my last visit for sunset. I found making my way around and capturing the shots I wanted wasn’t too difficult.
You can’t deny that an early rise accompanied with some patience will give you the chance to create the best photos possible of the temple. In my opinion, if you’re serious about getting great photos, there is really no question about paying the extra price or waking up at 4am. It gives you an opportunity to be put into the most optimum light possible for creating stellar shots of the iconic Borobudur temple.
If you’re new to photographing iconic spots or perhaps looking for some tips to help make your shots better, then pay attention.
Bring a tripod and use it. When the sun first starts to show, you’re going to be in a very low light situation but still have opportunity to get great shots. If you don’t have a tripod, your camera will want to push the ISO high resulting in grain and photos that you probably won’t be proud to show anyone. With a tripod, find a great spot to capture the rise of the sun and the slow light behind one of the stupas as a silhouette.
Don’t shoot all your photos in the same spot. Walk around, have a look at the temple and the different angles of light that will be playing. You’ll find that Borobudur has 4 faces with 4 different backgrounds, use them to create a unique portfolio of your experience.
Don’t let the crowds get to you. It will be crowded. We live in an era where digital photography has made everyone into a ‘photographer’ and this makes our space very crowded. Push your frustration aside and find areas to work where there are less people. Keep in mind that moving around will help minimize the frustration, as other people tend to move quickly.
Open your eyes. Take a few moments and really look around you. Give yourself a chance to feel the atmosphere and revel in the moment before you get too occupied with shooting photos. This is something I try to practice often, which is hard for me, but it leads to a more complete experience. You are, after all, being treated to a sunrise from the top of the World’s largest Buddhist temple.
Don’t forget your extra memory and batteries. You’ll find yourself clicking away and soon realize you’ve used them all up. The humidity on this part of the World plays a factor in this as well and can cause batteries to drain at a faster than normal rate.
Sunrise is undeniably a prime opportunity to take memorable photos of your visit and once the sun is up, treat yourself to some exploration apart from the top. The temple is beautifully decorated with random Buddha statues and very intricate carvings on every layer. Make some time explore each level on your way down and capture some photos of that experience as well.
As they say, it’s hard to take a bad photo when you’re put into a mind blown setting. For some inspiration, have a look at my Photo Tour of Borobudur from my last visit.
Without a doubt, I say yes. I know there are many people traveling through SE Asia on a budget, and the elevated cost of entry to experience the sunrise can be a deterrent, but if you want great photos I feel there is no alternative. As with any popular site, you’re going to encounter crowds, this isn’t unique to Borobudur, and while some people may think it’s just a tourist trap, you’ll be hard pressed to get the experience in any other way.
I’ve read online and heard rumors that it’s possible to bribe some of the guards for an early entrance, but is that a risk you really want to take? What if it doesn’t work out and they say no? You’ve just risked your chance to capture sunrise and will be pushing your way to the top with the big crowd at 6:00am. Don’t chance it, it’s only $10 extra.
However, if you are on a tight budget or can’t see the value in paying for the Manohara Hotel Borobudur sunrise experience, then you could consider a couple other alternatives. The lookout points on Pethuk Setumbu Hill or Dagi Hill are said to give you some great views over the top of the complex, albeit from several kilometers away from Borobudur. This could be a good option for you if you’re not looking for prime photography opportunities and just want to experience the sunrise in peace. Be sure to ask your hotel the best way to access these alternative places to ensure you find them without having to bribe locals for directions.