Borobudur is the reason I packed my bags for Yogyakarta.

It’s been on my Bucket List for years, since I started researching on Angkor Wat in 2006. This 8th Century temple is the largest Buddhist monument in the world, and one of the most breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Asia.

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Turns out there’s only one direct flight from Singapore to Yogyakarta: AirAsia. Flying budget has become a habit for me since the days of my round-the-world backpacking trip. When an idea for travel is mooted, I head instinctively to AirAsia’s site. It’s funny, because after I booked my flights to Melbourne on AirAsia last month, I found out I could’ve gotten direct, full-service flights there on SQ and Emirates for not much more. It’s habit, so I guess this direct flight thing is good news!

For this trip, I decided to try out AirAsia’s Red Carpet Service because my BFF Ning (aka ‘Magic Babe’ Ning) told me she always opts for it on her work trips. I was a little curious, to be honest. It was an add-on option when I did my online booking, so I picked it for an additional S$55 (S$65 if you do a walk-in). Here’s what I found out…

Priority check-in at a dedicated lane. No queue!

I had priority check-in, no queue.

Access to Skyview Lounge at T1. Private work space!

Access to Skyview Lounge at T1. Private workspace!

Had a quiet buffet breakfast, WIFI access and power socket to charge my phone.

A buffet spread, free WIFI, power points to charge my phone!

I spent about an hour at the Skyview Lounge before boarding my flight to Jogja. Did a bit of eating, a bit of reading, and uploaded some photos on Instagram too. Not sure if it was a good idea to eat though because I had actually pre-ordered a new item on the menu to try. I usually choose Pak Nasser’s Nasi Lemak, but that day I opted to try their Nasi Jinggo Bali, since I was heading to Indonesia!

I finished the whole damn thing… AARGH.

Farah Quinn's Nasi Jinggo Bali. Sedap!

Farah Quinn’s Nasi Jinggo Bali. Sedap!

AirAsia flies direct from Singapore to Yogyakarta, daily.

AirAsia flies direct from SG to Yogyakarta daily.

It took about 2 hrs 20 mins from Singapore to Yogyakarta and I was glad it was a direct flight, no stopover in Jakarta.

Now Jogja’s airport is quite something else! I alighted on the tarmac and strode over to its international terminal building, which is a fraction of the size its domestic terminal. Understandably, since only two international routes are processed there: KL and Singapore via AirAsia.

There was only one luggage belt in the international terminal. Airport staff had condoned off the area as they dragged our luggage from the belt and arranged them neatly in rows.

Yogyakarta's international airport was an eye-opener!

Jogja’s international airport was an eye-opener!

When they were done, a barrage of impatient passengers surged into the tiny dead-end area to grab their luggage. You really have to experience it to believe it. As a world traveller and connoisseur of airports and airport practices, I loved it!

Everyone surges forward to grab their luggage.

“Chiong ah!”

Just like I blogged earlier about popular tourist attractions with surprisingly small airports, I wonder how Jogja was going to handle the surge in international tourists as Bali sees a drop in tourism and savvy travellers start to find alternative destinations in Indonesia.

I’m still a little torn about this. While I love the idea that Yogyakarta is planning to expand its international airport, I’ve always had a soft spot for quaint, inefficient little airports that break the mould and gift us with interesting stories to share.

But airports are just gateways, and I was here to see one thing: Borobudur

My Borobudur experience began with being wrapped in a sarong. After all, it is a Buddhist temple and still a sacred place for Buddhist monks and devotees who travel to Yogyakarta on pilgrimage.

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I had really hoped to catch a sunrise at Borobudur – I hear it’s spectacular. But there is only one way you can do that, and that is to stay at the Manohara Hotel, managed by the Borobudur national park. They have a private gate for guests to enter the temple grounds to catch the sunrise at 5.30a.m.

Since I didn’t stay at the Manohara, we tried to “pull strings” to get in. Unfortunately, the sunrise experience was booked out by Tibetan monks that day. They were going for pre-dawn prayers and so we were denied access. How do you fight with Tibetan monks? So I resolved to return to Borobudur, but to book at least a night at Manohara for this unique sunrise experience.

I did get to escape the crowds though by entering Borobudur by the hotel’s private gate. What was special for me was the unique view of the breathtaking temple from its east entrance, which was a lot more green and lush. Ah! My first glimpse of the Grand Dame:

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It’s hard to believe that Borobudur was constructed in the 8th Century, back when Europe was still in the Dark Ages. The architecture and artwork are incredibly intricate. Structurally, this UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of 10 levels: The lower levels are square bases while the top three are circular. From the air, Borobudur actually resembles a lotus flower!

It made me wonder who conceived the idea and sketched the blueprint for this mega structure. After all, it took 100 years and several generations to complete, so the architectural plans had to be pretty detailed, didn’t it?

All our guide was able to offer was this feeble explanation: He pointed to a mountain facing Borobudur that resembled the silhouette of sleeping man. According to local myths and legends, he said, this man was the real architect and he built Borobudur in a day. He was so exhausted that he’s been sleeping ever since… YAH RIGHT.

But where stories go, what was most fascinating to me was the bas-relief that has survived 1,300 years. In an era where generations could not read or write, people came here to study these carvings to understand ancient texts and tales.

The welcome lion has the face of a monkey because carvers had never seen a lion before.

This lion has a monkey’s face as carvers had never seen a lion!

Earliest evidence of Javanese massage.

Earliest evidence of Javanese massage.

Bas-relief on Lord Buddha's birth.

Bas-relief on Lord Buddha’s birth.

Jar for storing baby's placenta, still part of Hindu Javanese rituals today.

Jar for storing baby Buddha’s placenta. These jars are still part of Hindu-Javanese rituals today.

Buddhist teachings on friendship and sacrifice.

Buddhist teachings on friendship and sacrifice.

(top right) Sanskrit word for "ugly face", a punishment for doing bad.

(top right) Sanskrit word for “ugly face”, a punishment for bad-doing.

Our guide was a good storyteller. I learnt a lot from him and would highly recommend you get a guide for your tour, or the details will be lost on you. After listening to his fascinating stories, we took this long and steep stairway to the upper levels of Borobudur. We were told to climb all the way up without stopping. I didn’t know why, but I’d rather err on the side of caution!

Stairway to Nirvana.

Stairway to Nirvana.

What greeted me at the upper levels was a totally different landscape. Gone are the (often headless) statues of Buddha found at the lower levels and the walls with intricate carvings. In its place, perforated bell-shaped stupas I’d come to associate with Borobudur from photos.

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I read that this upper level signifies transcendence and attaining a level of spirituality that goes beyond physical form. At this level of enlightenment, Buddha resides within.

And so, I leaned in and peered through the perforated stupas to find him.

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There is a certain serenity in seeing Buddha’s peaceful mien within the stupas.

In my world travels, I’ve started to gain a new respect for Buddhism and its philosophy. It’s the only “major religion” in the world that has not waged war against other religions. But then, Buddhism is not so much a religion as it is a philosophy. Being brought up Catholic, my knowledge is limited. But what I do know is that it’s one of the most inclusive and non-judgemental paths. And that appeals to me.

I wouldn’t go to the extent of describing my Borobudur experience as being life-changing, but it was mind-expanding. Just to be in the presence of the most massive Buddhist monument in the world – still standing after 1,300 years – was humbling.

While it upset me that people through the centuries have pillaged from her – including Western explorers, colonial masters and Siam’s King Chulalongkorn who carted away a disgraceful number of artefacts for his museum – I was grateful for the fact that UNESCO valued her as a monument of world heritage in 1991.

When Mt Merapi erupted in 2010, Borobudur was covered in a 1cm-thick layer of white volcanic ash.

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A thorough cleaning-up ensued, leading to Borobudur being closed for two months. Even the ancient stones were dislodged and overturned to clean the ashes wedged between blocks. If not for the fact that UNESCO had a hand in preservation, I’m not sure my children and my children’s children will get to appreciate her.

In my short time in Yogyakarta, I also visited another UNESCO World Heritage Site: Prambanan Temple. It was built in the 10th Century and is the largest temple dedicated to Siva in Indonesia.

Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta.

Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta.

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It’s interesting to me that Borobudur and Prambanan were built just two years apart, and not far from each other. If we could travel back in time, we would likely see Buddhism and Hinduism co-existing harmoniously during the Sailendra Dynasty. Today, Yogyakarta is 96% Muslim. Yet, I do see evidence of temples, churches and mosques all built in close physical proximity of each other. It’s a good feeling.

Sadly, I didn’t stay long in Yogyakarta. In my short time there, I also visited Jalan Malioboro (Jogja’s shopping district) and sampled its famed cuisine – in particular, Nasi Gudeg or rice cooked with nangka (jackfruit) and served with chicken, beef skin, boiled egg and tempeh (fermented beans).

Jalan Malioboro, Yogyakarta.

Jalan Malioboro, Yogyakarta.

Jogja's signature Nasi Gudeg.

Jogja’s signature Nasi Gudeg.

Still, it remains that I was in Yogyakarta for one sole purpose: To meet Borobudur face-to-face.

Built in the 8th Century. Discovered by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1814. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1991. All milestones in Borobudur’s long and esteemed history.

But this was my moment in time.

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*AirAsia operates daily flights direct from Singapore to Yogyakarta. Borobudur is a 40min drive from Yogyakarta.