Jogja (or Yogyakarta to give it its full name) is often dubbed the ‘cultural heartland’ of Indonesia. Personally, I don’t rate the city. It’s very crowded, always busy with tourists (and annoying touts) and, in my opinion, city-centre attractions such as the Sultan’s Palace and Taman Sari are mediocre at best. But beyond the city-limits are some of the best temple complexes in the country. The two big-name draws are Borobudur and Prambanan but there are several smaller temples that are easily accessible, see fewer tourists and are certainly worth visiting. Here’s a rundown on the temples we visited on our recent trip to Jogja.
Up there with Angkor (Cambodia) and Bagan (Myanmar), the UNESCO World Heritage listed Buddhist temple of Borobudur is stunning beyond comparison. This is Java’s, if not Indonesia’s, most popular tourist attraction and in certain seasons (June to August) and at particular times of the day (when all the coach loads of tourists arrive around 11am), the temple is infuriatingly busy. But put yourself in your own little Buddhist zone, try and ignore everybody else around you and appreciate the temple for what it is. The temple consists of six square terraces, topped by three circular ones. Most people make a beeline for the top terrace where the view of the surrounding countryside is at its best but linger on the lower ones for a while and you will find that you are free to enjoy the ornate bas-reliefs relatively tourist-free.
Borobudur is located approximately 40km north of Jogja and is an easy day trip from the city, but if you have the time it’s worth staying nearby in the village of the same name for a night or two. There are accommodation options to fit all budgets and staying longer means you can visit the site at a less crowded time (sunrise for example) and also enjoy the lush and verdant countryside that surrounds it. Travelling by bicycle is the best way to do this.
A little over 3km east of Borobudur, Mendut temple is not as impressive as Borobudur but it has a relaxed atmosphere and furthermore, it houses an exquisite and unusual 3 metre-high statue of Vairocana Buddha. It is unusual because in this instance, Buddha is sitting down western-style rather than in his usual lotus position.
Located on the Prambanan Plain (as are all of the remaining temples listed below), this 9th century collection of Hindu temples is dedicated to the Hindu Trimurti; Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. It is often referred to as the Great Trinity or Hindu Triad.
Like Borobudur, Prambanan gets busy with tourists, but the temples here are more spread out so it is easier to wander off in a different direction if you so desire. All of the temples at Prambanan are worth exploring but the most impressive are those dedicated to the Hindu Triad (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva temples). There are vivid and elaborate scenes carved on the lower reaches of several of the temples, many depicting scenes from the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Prambanan temples are situated approximately 17km northeast of Jogja.
This Buddhist temple dates back to the 8th century and is located only 13km east of Jogja, en route to Prambanan. There is only the one temple at the site but it is worth visiting for the elaborate bas-relief on the outer walls. It has been suggested that the temple was originally used as a monastery and residence for Buddhist monks. In Javanese language, the meaning of sari is ‘to sleep’.
Kalasan is one of the oldest Buddhist temples on the Prambanan Plain. It is located just over the road from Sari temple. Not as well maintained as other temples on the Plain, Kalasan is none the less worth a quick peek in order to see the decorative doorways.
Probably the most impressive of the smaller temples on the Prambanan Plain, Sambisari was accidentally discovered in the mid-1960s by a local farmer. Excavation work involved digging beneath centuries-old layers of volcanic ash and that is why the temple appears to be below ground level. Sambisari is located 8km east of Jogja.
Kraton Ratu Boko
There are great views of Prambanan Plain and Mt Merapi, the most active volcano in the country, from this former royal palace and Hindu temple complex from Ratu Boko. Views aside, the archaeological site itself is also worth exploring.
It is possible to visit all of the above Prambanan Plains temples as an easy day trip from Jogja. Cycling is a great option but we would recommend taking the longer back roads rather than the busy highway.