By the time I was done with sunrise at Borobudur, it was still only 6.30 a.m. People in Singapore only start waking up around that time for work but the crowds were already streaming into the park. My bus back to Yogyakarta wouldn’t leave for another five hours. After inhaling a plate of mi goreng for breakfast, I rented a bicycle across the road from my hotel and was ready to find the other sights around Borobudur.
The weather forecast didn’t look good before I left for Myanmar. I’d booked a hot air balloon flight especially for New Year’s Day but, closer to the date, the chances of rain kept increasing. I hoped I wouldn’t have to activate Plan B and plot a Bagan temple route on a bike in wet weather.
In my dreams, I imagined myself floating in the basket of a hot air balloon over some of Myanmar’s most famous pagodas and stupas as the sun rose. The peace would be interrupted occasionally by the hissing of the burner above, while people below aimed their cameras at us.
The peak season had just begun when I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia last November. I knew from experience that the usual popular spots for sunset at Pre Rup and Phnom Bakheng would be packed. There was no way I was going to jostle with ill-mannered tourists again. Instead, I took a ride to Phnom Krom, a hill on the edge of the lake known as Tonle Sap.
Just minutes into the journey, I was passing riverside villages, traditional stilted wooden houses and paddy fields. I could see as far as the mist allowed, and there was little of it in the air. Before long, my destination appeared, a lonely giant karst emerged in the distance. The village of Chong Kneas at its foot was bustling with preparations for a feast, accompanied by loud Khmer pop songs.
The climb to the top was a steep one that should only be attempted by the moderately fit – or the mountain goats that inhabit the site. However, even just half-way up Phnom Krom, the views were spectacular. I could see most of the village on one side. On the other side, the paddy fields extended as far as the eye could see. Water buffalo grazed on the slopes nonchalantly, leaving little “obstacles” behind them on the path. [Read on]
One hour. That was all the time I had to venture beyond the conference venue and explore Beijing. The backpacker in me found it difficult to accept the reality of business travel.
Luckily for me, the Old Summer Palace (圆明园; Yuánmíngyuán) was a brief taxi ride from my hotel. Since I’d visited the other major attractions on a school visit years ago, I wasn’t fussed about skipping them. [Read on]
The well-travelled among us would probably recognise that Borobudur, near Yogyakarta, Indonesia, is the world’s biggest Buddhist temple complex. They may not realise that the second-largest one, Candi Sewu, is also within spitting distance of the city’s airport. Best of all, it’s a mere 15-minute stroll from Prambanan; you can visit both on the same admission ticket.
Even though Prambanan is a Hindu site, Sewu has stood alongside it for hundreds of years. Rival worshippers didn’t rip each other’s sanctuaries apart (thankfully). Instead, earthquakes and souvenir hunters were what reduced both sites to rubble, before UNESCO elevated Prambanan to the status of a World Heritage Site.
Despite its proximity to such a storied Indonesian attraction, Sewu sees far fewer visitors. It’s not terribly pretty to look at from most angles, and there aren’t any ballet performances in front of it, but it’s no less significant in the local culture than its famous neighbour.
I’ve never been a big fan of jostling with crowds on my travels. When I learnt that I could avoid them by visiting Borobudur at sunrise, there wasn’t going to be any other way I was going to do it. The early entry costs extra was worth every extra Rupiah (400,000 Rp vs the usual 230,000 Rp). This is Indonesia’s single biggest attraction after all.
The sunrise visit begins at the Manohara hotel, which has its own entrance to the site. One doesn’t need to stay at the Manohara to enjoy this; just show up at 4.30 a.m. if you prefer to wait and see what the weather does. Spaces are limited, however. It can be reached on foot from Saraswati (where I spent the night) and Lotus guesthouses. It’s safe to walk through the village that early. The motocab drivers still asked if I wanted to go to Borobudur when I was clearly heading there, but it was more amusing than annoying. [Read on]