One of the attractions about touring around Asia is the prevalence of temples, be they Hindu or Buddhist. It can become a bit much after a while and temple fatigue is a known reaction from many visitors, particularly those not spiritually minded, but there are unquestionably some that are not just highlights but items fit for any bucket list.
In Cambodia there is the Angkor complex, in Myanmar there is Bagan, and in Indonesia there is Borobudur. It’s anything but an exclusive list, for there are numerous other astonishing historic sights in many places, and Vat Phou in Laos is a lesser known one that takes the breath away for example.
However, there’s no doubt that those three are the ones that are the biggest and most famous, and as such form the centrepieces of itineraries intended to take in the highlights of each country.
The downside of that is that they are invariably extremely busy, so the dream of having these iconic locations to onesself is rather unlikely. It’s also somewhat unreasonable to hope for, although it’s an entirely understandable reaction, for we all wish we had these places to ourselves.
Borobudur dates back to the ninth century and was abandoned some 700 years ago, with the decline of the Hindu kingdoms in Java and the arrival of Islam. It’s re-discovery as far as the rest of the world was concerned came about through the efforts of Sir Stamford Raffles who was told of its existence by the Indonesians.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that serious attempts at its restoration were made, although it’s in more recent decades that a concerted attempt to ensure its structural stability and future viability have been made.
The result is a temple that differs markedly in style from its equally famous brethren, while providing similarly colossal scale for the visitor. It is the largest Buddhist temple in the world, designed as a single stupa in pyramid form representing the various levels on the way to nirvana. But while it retains its importance as a religious site, with a once a year pilgrimage, it is the architecture and decoration that sets it apart.
The Angkor temples have plenty of reliefs to study, but they pale beside the sheer volume and scale of the depictions at Borobudur. Most are intact, with some damage caused by misguided attempts at restoration or study in decades past as in the photograph below, but the tales of every day life and Buddhist fables are clear enough and easy to follow. Equally the different levels show a progress that even to the non-religious makes sense. It is hard to adequately get across the sheer number of them, it’s like nothing else.
When the top is reached there are 72 bell shaped stupas surrounding the large central one. The views are exceptional, the condition of most of the stupas magnificent. Some were damaged in a terrorist attack 30 years ago, but not enough to detract from the overall sense of wonder.
It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site for many years, and the care and attention to detail in restoring it is extremely evident. Where modern work has been needed the stones are clearly identified with a metal stamp, there is no attempt to deceive as can be the case at other sites.
As with many such monuments a modicum of fitness is required in order to climb to the top but nothing excessive. It’s well worth it, the experience of seeing these places is a privilege.
Choosing a favourite of the iconic temples across Asia is an impossibility. They are so different, and so striking in different ways. Simply put, you need to see them all. There’s no other option.