Bundled out of our minibus, in the pitch black, a grinning guide handed us a torch each.
“Follow those steps and keep going up.” He told us. Ahead, we saw the roving lights of a dozen other explorers, like ants with headtorches, swarming up an inky slope.
It was 5am, and we had just driven 2 hours from our hostel in Jogjakarta, a dusty town in the heart of Java, Indonesia. My buddy B was one of those rare travellers who could snuffle out a tourist attraction worth doing, and the Temple of Borobudur had made her shortlist.
It was thrilling to climb the steps of a 9th century temple in the dark. We could just make out a pyramid shape, and if we swung our light to the left or right, multiple corridors of Buddhist architecture spanned away from us. Like Indiana Jones, we left the steps and crept along carved passages, getting a shock every so often when our torchlight fell on a stony face, the blank eyes staring back at us from the shadows.
We reached the top level, where people sat around dozens of ginormous bells (called perforated stupa). Everyone faced eastwards, waiting for the sun to rise behind dubious clouds. B pulled out crackers and we snacked in silence, as the view unveiled itself from the dark.
We were in the heart of a jungle valley, circled by jagged mountains and twin volcanoes. Everything lay beneath a blue fog, as if the world was underwater, with a few palm trees silhouetting above the cloud.
It was a dreamscape, a magical dawn, and I felt entranced. I shared a look with B, she felt it too.
But I could feel the crowd’s disappointment, their phones out ready to capture a moment already lost behind a cloudy horizon.
When the sun did finally break through, it revealed astonishing detail. We had been tricked into thinking each giant bell was solid, but daylight shone through their windows, and you could see an imprisoned Buddha statue within each one.
Saying Borobudur was once a place of pilgrimage is like demeaning the Sacré-Cœur to a cute little church on top of a hill. The cultural significance and symbolism of the temple resonates with you, even if you understand nothing of Buddhism or the local history (and we really didn’t).
We later learned the temple represents three levels of Buddhism cosmology: the world of desire, the world of forms and the world of formlessness. We weren’t very good at distinguishing the different levels, but it was fun to try and interpret the stories carved into the volcanic stones.
It was time to head back to the café, where a small breakfast was served for those who had been on the sunrise tour. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, we sipped coffee and watched our fellow travellers flick through their photos of the morning, until a beaming minibus driver collected us.
As we left, we were given giftbags, each with a red scarf inside, hand-printed with a simple pattern of the temple bells. It was tasteful and thoughtful, in keeping with how well the entire tour had been managed. I would 100% recommend the sunrise tour to anyone in Java.
A warning: brace yourself for a small army of phones, cameras, selfie-sticks, live Facebook feeds and more throughout the sunrise. Even the most sacred of temples have fallen victim to our self-documentation epidemic…