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Stumbling in complete darkness at 5 a.m., I followed my guide Udin, who urged me to walk quickly in order to get a good seat and, most importantly, witness the main attraction. Equipped with only a flashlight, we darted across a sprawling green lawn. Beams of light from other travelers sliced through the night until we finally arrived at the steps of the 9th-century Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple that pre-dates Cambodia’s Angkor Wat by more than 300 years.
Dozens of travelers had already congregated along the temple’s east-facing side, wrapped in shawls, cameras in hand. On a clear day, visitors can actually see the sun emerge beyond the hills. But, like most mornings, it was hazy, which set a different yet equally thrilling scene. The horizon gradually materialized from dusk, revealing a stunning, natural landscape — it was easy to see why Buddhists have embraced this meditative setting for thousands of years. Surrounding us were more than 500 Buddha statues, as well as thousands of pictorial carvings. According to Udin, there was immense joy with every stone brought over from the river.
“The wall carvings are silly, indicating a sense of humor when building this temple,” said Udin. “They were happy.”
Almost a century later, the locals are still a joyful bunch in Yogyakarta, which is located in Java, Indonesia. Interestingly, despite the Buddhist history, today’s denizens are mostly Muslim. For reasons unknown, the Hindu kingdom relocated to East Java in 1006. Muslims flooded in from Mongolia, swiftly spreading their community while Hindus made a pilgrimage to Bali in the 12th century. It’s an interesting contrast: Within the boundaries of a Buddhist temple, the Muslim Call to Prayer can be heard every few hours.
Udin and I explored the temple some two hours before the tourist mobs arrived. Borobudur attracts 1.5 million visitors a year (some say Borobudur is Yogyakarta), which may explain why it sinks three millimeters annually. The private company that owns the park eventually plans to cap daily visitors (just as authorities have done at Machu Picchu) as well as charge pricier admission.
Meanwhile, Prambanan, another ancient site built in the 9th century, brings in steady tourist traffic with no signs of sinking. The Hindu temple survived major earthquakes and robbery, and several restorations have helped the site remain one of Yogyakarta’s top attractions. At Prambanan, history resonates not only with the temple itself but through the handiwork — some relics remain unfinished, proving carvers stopped mid-earthquake and never continued.
In Yogyakarta, in addition to visiting temples, travelers can head to the Mendut monastery to witness a handful of monks gracefully chanting nightly prayers. Or, from various hotels, visitors can hop on bikes to tour scenic villages where it’s not uncommon to find local families in traditional garb carrying out their daily tasks. Overall, travelers will experience Yogyakarta as a land of peace that’s influenced cultures throughout Indonesia and remains a hot spot for spirituality — as well as for tourism.
Getting There:Cathay Pacific offers flights from Los Angeles and New York City to Jakarta (via Hong Kong). From there, it’s an hour flight on AirAsia. Singapore Airlines offers direct flights from New York City and Los Angeles to Singapore. From Singapore, SilkAir and Tigerair fly direct to Yogyakarta.
Getting Around:Most hotels are equipped with — or can arrange — private guides/drivers for easy sightseeing.
Where to Stay:Amanjiwo is an intimate, luxury resort tucked within the lush landscapes of rural Yogyakarta. The 36-suite property features an outdoor pool, a domed lobby, gourmet Indonesian cuisine and a spa offering traditional massages by a local father-and-son duo. The resort boasts breathtaking views of Borobudur. A garden suite starts at $950 per night. www.amanresorts.com
Insider’s Tip:If you like your travels less chaotic, avoid traveling around May 25 — Waisak day, a holiday celebrating the birth of Buddha — when almost 10 million Buddhists flock to Borobudur.