The Road to Picturesque Prambanan

[T]he farther they are removed from European influence and foreign intercourse, the better are the morals and the happier are the people.
-Sir Thomas Raffles, The History of Java

After awaking only hours after arrival in Yogyakarta to watch the sunrise at Borobudur, I headed back across the city to the other UNESCO World Heritage Site — Prambanan Temple Complex.

Prior to booking my trip to Yogyakarta, I didn’t know what there was to do besides Borobudur. In the days leading up to this trip, I searched online for ideas — and I found more temples. Fortunately, my hotel at Tiga Lima could easily book a driver to take me everywhere I wanted, at least that’s what I was told when I emailed them a couple days before arrival. It was a bit more expensive than I expected, but it was convenient and, hell, it was my birthday. The driver was also friendly and suggested stopping at some smaller temples scattered along the route between Borobudur and Prambanan.

Candi Pawon view
The view from Candi Pawon

After watching the sunrise and then drinking a second cup of coffee as part of my small breakfast that was included in the Borobudur sunrise ticket, I found my driver to head to the next temple. He told me to relax and sleep as the next temple would be more than a half hour away. I couldn’t sleep at this point–I was excited despite my exhaustion.

The smaller temples along the way to Prambanan were nothing exciting–mostly ruins in a field surrounded by houses. But they were still worth stopping off to see. As fewer tourists frequent these sites, it offers a tranquil walk to stretch your legs on the drive between the major tourist attractions of Yogyakarta. There’s also the added fun of watching the locals’ chickens running about (I’m not sure how they keep track of the livestock without fences).

Candi Pawon
Candi Pawon, a small shrine outside Borobudur

The first stop was Candi Pawon, which is only a short drive from Borobudur. It’s only a small temple surrounded by a few residential buildings. It’s an easy stop before crossing the Progo River on the way back to Yogyakarta and other temples.

Candi Mendut Buddha
Buddha inside Candi Mendut

Not far from Pawon is Candi Mendut, which is a bit larger and attracts slightly more tourists. At one time there was more to Mendut, but those pieces are now scattered in a field for research and possible reconstruction.

Candi Mendut
Candi Mendut

Just outside Mendut is a Buddhist monastery, aptly named Vihāra Mendut (Mendut Buddhist Monastery). The monastery itself isn’t much, but there are some beautiful stained glass windows, which I’ve never seen on any Buddhist temple.

Mendut Monastery
Stained glass at Mendut Monastery

Finally, I arrived at Prambanan.

Candi Prambanan
Candi Prambanan

The grand 9th century temple is also the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia. The buildings within Prambanan tower above the surrounding the trees, greeting visitors with intricately detailed stonework.

The size and location of the temple were likely planned to welcome Hinduism’s return to Java and overshadow nearby Borobudur and Candi Sewu. Use of the temple only lasted a little more than a century as the government moved away from the region to East Java, possibly due to an eruption at Mt. Merapi.Candi Prambanan

An earthquake destroyed much of Prambanan in the 16th century, and while it wasn’t an important religious center, it continued to be recognized as a symbol of the region for locals–it mixed into local legends and myths. It wasn’t until 1918, and later in 1930, that the Dutch began reconstructing the temple. The work was completed in 1953, though some smaller shrines were not rebuilt because the government required reconstruction to use at least 75% original masonry. The original temple complex contained 240 shrines, but only a few remain today.

These shrines have not been reconstructed
These shrines have not been reconstructed

It’s beautiful to see this enormous Hindu temple restored. Each one of the shrines is similar, though with a different deity. The central shrine, dedicated to Shiva, is much larger than the others surrounding it as well.

Prambanan Shiva shrine
The shrine to Shiva

As with all of the ancient sites around the region, it can be painfully hot to wander around at midday. Fortunately, it was before noon, so I had some shade (though I felt my water bottle was close to boiling). Despite being prepared for the heat, it still took its toll. I was too tired to take my time to truly admire the stonework of Prambanan–the symmetry of the structures and stone reliefs in the shrines are some of the most amazing I’ve encountered (of course, with reconstruction work, they’re a bit more finely polished than what I saw around Angkor Wat).Prambanan relief

In the evenings, Prambanan is illuminated with colorful lights for Ramayana ballet performance (not every night). There was a performance while I was there, but I decided not to go as I was exhausted after my early day in the sun. Plus I would’ve had to book another driver and get tickets, and I didn’t bring quite enough cash for all that (I also saw a similar performance at Uluwatu in Bali years ago).Candi Prambanan

The most interesting of the smaller temples was Candi Sewu, which is within the Prambanan Temple Complex grounds. Candi Sewu, despite being mostly ruins, is the oldest Buddhist temple in Indonesia, dating back to the 8th century. While I was there, I noticed some reconstruction work going on to restore at least part of the original temple–and they were using original stones that remain at the site.

Candi Sewu
The guards outside Candi Sewu

Sewu is a bit of a walk from Prambanan, even though it’s in the same park. This makes it less visited by tourists who pay the entrance fee to the temple complex. It also means that it’s an incredibly hot walk back under a cloudless sky to the parking lot as there isn’t enough shade along the roads leading back (I chose a longer route because there were more trees).

Candi Sewu
The ruins of Candi Sewu

On the way back to Yogyakarta, we made one more stop (besides for lunch at little restaurant that was basically someone’s home). Candi Kalasan is a crumbling temple along the main road from Prambanan. The highlight of Kalasan is the guardian statues at the doorways. Of course, at this point I was tired and hot–I really just wanted to go back to sleep–so I didn’t hang around to admire the temple much.

Candi Kalasan
Candi Kalasan

With that I more or less passed out in the car on the way back to Tiga Lima and then slept for a few hours, after having a cold shower of course.

And for those wondering why there are no photos of me at these magnificent temples around Yogyakarta, it’s because not only am averse to taking numerous photos of myself, but I’m certainly not as willing to take a photo while coping with heat exhaustion.


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