Borobudur vs Angkor

Escape the crowded temples of Angkor and head to the equally spectacular, but far less touristy, Borobudur – one of the true wonders of the ancient Buddhist world

ABOVE Tourists climbing the stairs to the upper level of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
ABOVE Tourists climbing the stairs to the upper level of Angkor Wat, Cambodia


LOCATION Borobudur is near Yogyakarta, on the island of Java, Indonesia


9th century AD


an: 79°F (26°C); Apr: 82°F (28°C); Jul: 81°F (27°C); Oct: 81°F (27°C)

In the second half of the 20th century, the majestic Buddhist temples at Angkor in Cambodia formed one of Asia’s most legendary – and most inaccessible – attractions. No longer. Angkor has established itself firmly in the mainstream of international tourism and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Those in search of unspoiled Buddhist monuments must now look elsewhere: to Burma, Sri Lanka or, for the greatest rewards, to the impressive stupa of Borobudur in central Java.

Borobudur was built in the form of a gigantic mandala – an architectural representation of the cosmos – and is one of the most spectacular religious monuments in Asia. It was modeled on Mount Meru, a legendary mountain in Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu mythology, which is thought to be the center of both the physical and spiritual universes. The building’s statistics alone are staggering.

An estimated 2 million cubic feet (56,630 cubic meters) of stone were used to build the ancient structure, which comprises nine levels holding 504 Buddha statues and with 2,672 bas- relief carvings. Unsurprisingly, Borobudur is often claimed to be the world’s largest stupa and the biggest ancient monument in the southern hemisphere – only the great stupas of Sri Lanka, built at around the same time, come close.

For Buddhist pilgrims and non-Buddhist tourists alike, a visit here remains a powerfully uplifting experience. As you climb to the top of the monument, you’ll pass through successively diminishing levels and along endless corridors embellished with wonderfully detailed scenes from Buddhist legend and cosmology.

This upward journey, which leads you through three areas of Buddhist cosmology, mirrors the Buddhist journey towards enlightenment. You’ll pass through Kamadhat, “the world of desire,” where vivid carvings depicting human greed and passion line the walls. Next comes Rupadhatu, “the world of forms,” which is decorated with scenes from the Buddha’s life.

And on the monument’s sparsely decorated circular terraces, you’ll find Arupadhatu, “the world of formlessness.” As you emerge on Borobudur’s uppermost level, which boasts 72 Buddha statues each encased in a miniature stupa, an unforgettable view across the tranquil rural heartlands of central Java and out toward a distant ring of hazy volcanoes will open up before your eyes. This is every bit as unforgettable a setting as Angkor’s verdant jungles.


Getting There and Around

There are a limited number of direct international flights to Yogyakarta airport, so it’s likely you’ll have to fly into the city on a domestic service from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, or Denpasar on Bali. Borobudur is about 25 miles (40 km) from Yogyakarta, from where you can hire a car, join a tour, or catch a local bus to the ancient site.

Where to Eat

Yogyakarta is one of the best places in the country to eat top-notch Indonesian cuisine.

Try the popular Omah Dhuwur restaurant (tel. +62 274 374 952), which is a little way out of town, but worth the trek for its excellent array of local dishes and other international and Asian-fusion offerings.

Where to Stay

The romantic Dusun Jogja Village Inn ( bills itself as Yogyakarta’s first boutique hotel. Despite its central location, the hotel has a pleasantly rustic atmosphere and boasts accommodations in Javanese-style cottages. It also has a large pool in palm-filled grounds.

When to Go

Temperatures in Java are fairly constant all year round, though travel is generally more pleasant during the dry season, which is from May to September.

Budget per Day for Two

US$75 a day will give you a decent hotel and private car hire with driver to the site.


THE BUILD-UP Angkor boasts some of the most jaw-dropping Buddhist monuments in Southeast Asia. The dozens of spectacular temples here are crowned by the peerless Angkor Wat – the site’s largest monument – in a memorably atmospheric setting among gnarled jungles and glass-like paddy fields.

THE LETDOWN Unfortunately, there’s no escaping the crowds here. The days when Angkor was a remote and challenging destination are sadly long gone. The temples are now firmly on the international sightseeing circuit, making it hard to appreciate their majestic architecture and profound religious significance in anything approaching peace and quiet.

GOING ANYWAY? Sunrise and sunset are the most magical hours at Angkor: not only do the monuments look their best at these times, but also the crowds are at their thinnest. Don’t try to rush your trip here – the temples cover a vast area, so set aside three days or so for exploring the site. Make sure you visit some of the less-touristed outlying temples too.

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