Stupas to conquer

Sean Mooney puts down the notepad and gives his soul a chance to be touched at a historic temple in Java's wilderness.

A 3am wake-up call is a shocking way to start the day, but extreme measures are required if you want to catch the early bus to enlightenment. However, the bus driver clearly doesn't share my enthusiasm and is nowhere to be found. Never mind, say the staff at Yogyakarta's venerable Phoenix Hotel, "we'll get you to Borobudur" - the great Buddhist temple and arguably Indonesia's most spectacular spiritual monument - to see the first rays of the day strike its summit.

To achieve this, what was to be a 90-minute bus ride becomes a screaming hellfire by car that takes less than half that time. We speed past the shimmering glow of Yogyakarta's Chiffon Cake Shop, the unfathomable horrors of the Cat Oven and the fluorescent palace that is the Be Queen Skin & Genital Care Centre, and leave the city, headed for a thick jungle region. That same jungle hid Borobudur from the Western world for hundreds of years until its "rediscovery" in the early 19th century, during Java's brief period of British colonial rule, by Stamford Raffles (the Raffles of Singapore fame). He had the vegetation, soil and volcanic ash that covered the area removed. It took 200 men more than a month to unearth a 30-metre-high step-pyramid dating more than 1000 years.

We skid to a halt in front of a high wall, behind which 200 men armed with rakes and leaf-blowers are maintaining an immaculate stretch of lawn. This is the modern-day Borobudur temple compound, now a World Heritage-listed site, with all the cash, compromise and cronyism that this entails. It is also Indonesia's most popular tourist attraction; more than 2 million people visit each year to see the handiwork of the Sailendra Dynasty that ruled Java for five centuries.

The sky turns a gentle pink, but fog hangs in the air and visibility is accordingly poor. So it comes as a bit of a shock when we then walk through what we're told is the "president's entrance" (the back gate) to find ourselves face to face with Borobudur. The guides here prove no different to those at any great world wonder, in that they delight in the sport of information overload. I hear ours says that the temple boasts more than 500 Buddha statues, 1460 carved stone panels, 1.5 million blocks of solid volcanic stone ... but I find it all impossible to fathom, despite the fact that I'm staring at it. I feel the only thing to do is climb to the top.

As a pilgrim, I make a good writer. My journey to the pyramid's pointy end prompts me to fill my notebook with superlatives, but it's only later that I discover I have neglected my soul in the process. It takes time, patience and a sense of direction to fully appreciate what is essentially the Buddhist view of the cosmos, set in rock. One can't simply leg it up the stairs, past the impressive stonework and impassive Buddhas, to the domed shrine. There are 10 stages to pass through before perfection can be attained, and at Borobudur that means walking around the monument 10 times, rising a level with each lap. The ascent, when performed properly, is an act of progressive detachment from the world of desires, through the illusory sphere of representation, to the realm of formlessness represented by the empty bell-shaped shrine, or stupa, at the top.

As sunrise comes, I watch light hit temple stones and statues - and the faces of a couple gazing at the sky while their children sleep on their laps. Dark, blotchy rock turns grey then almost granite pink as the rays struggle to pierce the morning mist. The light allows me to see the statues more clearly. More than half are damaged (mostly minus their heads), but each has a unique hand position or, where faces are intact, an expression. Many statues are visible only through diamond-shaped holes in their covering stupas.

The Indonesian government and UNESCO undertook comprehensive restoration between 1974 and 1983. Drainage was installed, along with waterproof tar and concrete foundations. Since then, Borobudur has survived storms, earthquakes and even the homemade bombs of a blind cleric. Its greatest threat has come from volcanic eruptions, with the two twin volcanoes, Sindoro-Sumbing and Merbabu-Merapi, looming large over the Borobudur plain. The 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi - the most active of Indonesia's 100-plus volcanoes - left 350 locals dead and covered Borobudur in a thick layer of acidic ash that took weeks to remove.

I roam the temple trying to work out what's going on in the bas-relief sculptures that are the true cultural treasures of Borobudur. They represent everything from scenes of daily life in ancient Java to courtly palace life and the many spiritual beings peculiar to Buddhism.

It's time to leave when the sun has risen high in the sky and visitor numbers have started to swell. The mist has burnt off to reveal limestone peaks to the south that combine to suggest the profile of Gunadharma, Borobudur's divine architect. It's unclear if he's the brains behind the other two monuments in the region, but both the Pawon and Mendut temples lie to the east on a straight axis to Borobudur. We visit the latter on our way back to the city.

One of my companions suggests that little Mendut temple, with its spectacular old banyan tree and monastery, is more spiritually evocative than its big brother. Maybe that's because it sits next to a village and seems more a part of that community. Perhaps it has something to do with the uncertain role of ancient monuments in modern-day, predominantly Muslim, Indonesia. Even Buddhist visitors can feel removed from the lost cultural traditions of the temples, but locals have a shared history with these places that one fears is not fully appreciated.

Such thoughts are put to the side on the drive back to Yogyakarta, a journey undertaken at much the same velocity as our pre-dawn rush. Any inner peace attained on the steps of Borobudur is replaced by white-knuckle terror, but maybe that's to be expected on a return trip from nirvana.

Sean Mooney travelled with the assistance of Garuda Indonesia, Accor and Visit Indonesia.


Getting there

Garuda has a fare to Yogyakarta for about $1120 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Denpasar (about 6hr), then to Yogyakarta (75min). See Book a car and driver through your hotel to take you to Borobudur by sunrise.

Staying there

The 100-year-old Phoenix Hotel Yogyakarta, Jalan Jenderal Sudirman 9, is an Accor MGallery property with 144 rooms, including 10 suites. Rooms from 549,000 rupiah ($A54) a night. See

While there

See the Mahakarya, an open-air dance performance that focuses on the story of Borobudur. Staged annually in June.

Visit the Karmawibhangga Museum, which is next to Borobudur and documents temple history.

Take an andong (horse and cart) trip to nearby Candirejo, Wanurejo and Karanganyar villages.

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