Happy Birthday, Buddha! Attending Vesak Day at Borobudur temple in Java

Closing ceremony

Closing ceremony

We are lucky! I think tomorrow we are going to celebrate Buddha’s birthday, I said to Tim as we were sitting on the train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta. We were on our way to see one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world and so it happened that Vesak Day (celebration of the birth, enlightenment and passing of Buddha) fallen on the day we planned to visit Borobudur. It would have been a first local celebration we managed to plot into our travels, and we both started looking forward to it with excitement. After doing some research on the exact date of the Vesak day the information I found was a bit confusing, so I emailed Borobudur to authorities (info@borobudurpark.co.in) and got provided with some extra details about the day. For me, the less organised half in this relationship, it was an achievement. I knew what was happening and I knew where we were going…Unfortunately this feeling didn’t last long.

Once we arrived in Yogyakarta, I popped into a tourist information to find out a little bit more about the Vesak day and directions to Borobudur…and that’s where things started going wrong. The guy at the information desk said that this year the Vesak day falls on the 15th May (which was also mentioned by few people who were discussing this over the Internet) and not on the 14th May, as we initially thought. He also suggested that instead of going to Borobudur tonight (13th May) we should stay the night in Yogyakarta, check out the town and maybe head to Borobudur the following evening. And so I listened to this guy. Instead of going to Borobudur, we checked into a hostel in Yogyakarta. We showered, collapsed on the bed and then the obvious stroke me.

The email from the Borobudur authorities!

I frantically looked for my phone. I opened the email and it clearly said the celebrations were scheduled for 14th May, which was tomorrow! I scrolled out the email and I found the attachment with a DETAILED information about the Vesak day. Times, descriptions, information about places. Do not ask me why I decided to trust a guy from the train information center and not to double-check what the official email said.

This is where the excitement of me getting things right disappeared.

Could we possibly miss this beautiful sight?

Could we possibly miss this beautiful sight?

We spent next hour trying to figure out what to do and decided that finding accommodation in Borobudur for the next night was a priority. As this was an overnight celebration we needed to have a place to stay. After few pointless Skype calls, Lotus I guesthouse still had a room available, so we booked it over the phone. Good news was that they were located opposite the Borobudur temple. Bad news, there wasn’t any. For now.

The following morning,14th May we made our own way to Borobudur from Yogyakarta. It took us about 2 hours to get there (2 city buses and local bus from Jombor station), we checked into Lotus I and for some reason I decided to explore our hostel. I went up to the second floor and started chatting to Indonesian  couple who arrived from Sumatra. The course of our conversation was obvious. We talked about Vesak Day, I asked them what time there are leaving for the procession and they told me, the Vesak Day wasn’t today but tomorrow.

Seriously. Was this for real?!

I looked at them confused and rushed to grab my phone. I showed them the email and after some time we all agreed the information I got is correct. At last. The couple was very grateful I spoke to them, but I’m still unsure how was it possible for this whole ‘today/tomorrow’ Vesak confusion to even affect the locals. We later met them in Yogyjakarta and they insisted to pay for our food, to say thank you. I guess everything happens for a reason, so maybe my fail from the previous day had its hidden purpose (and I don’t mean the free dinner).

Anyway the plan for the day was as follows: visit Borobudur temple, join the procession from Mendut temple to Borobudur temple, re-enter Borobudur temple with the tickets we purchased earlier on (we were told we could reuse them), attend the celebrations and at 2am take part in final celebration of releasing hundreds of  lanterns into to the sky.

First 3 parts of the new plan were completed successfully.

The Borobudur temple was beautiful and it felt a little bit mysterious. Built between 8th century and 9th century, 300 years before Angkor Wat in Cambodia was decorated with 504 Buddha statues, 72 perforated stupas and 1 main stupa. It has been recognised as World Heritage Site and UNESCO acknowledged Borobudur as one of the biggest Buddhist monuments in the world.

Two of many stupas

Two of many stupas

Borobudur stupas overlooking a mountain

Borobudur stupas overlooking a mountain

Reliefs on the wall

Reliefs on the wall

Muslim girls discovering Borobudur

Muslim girls discovering Borobudur

A young family walking around the temple

A young family walking around the temple

For a few hours we wondered around admiring this magnificent temple. We watched elderly Chinese ladies doing their chanting around the temple. It made me laugh as I never seen anyone praying so quickly!

Joining in with the procession was easy too. We didn’t start it from the Mendut temple but join in maybe 20 minutes after procession had started. It was peaceful and colourful walk and a few thousand people attended.

An orchestra was leading the procession

An orchestra was leading the procession

Colors were everywhere

Colors were everywhere

Men carrying offerings

Men carrying offerings

Happy Monks traveling on a boat platform

Happy Monks traveling on a boat platform

Monks walking down with procession

Monks walking down with procession

But as we were walking along we noticed that every single person had orange passes around their necks. When we got close to the entrance we decided it was safer to mix in with the crowd to avoid being questioned about the orange pass (don’t ask me how tall, white western people with curly hair can mix in with an asian crowd). We went through entrance with no problems but sadly, the unavoidable happened. Another gate. More security. No orange passes.

Off we went with our heads down. We started wondering through the temple’s gardens back to our hostel but before we left we had a one last chat with people who worked at the complex. They said temple’s entry will be opened all night and we can return for midnight to watch the lanterns take off. Hurray! The hope was still there!

Monks going up Borobudur to pray

Monks going up Borobudur to pray

At 9pm I decided I needed a nap and felt asleep the moment I put my head to pillow. Tim was left on guard and woke me up at midnight. Half asleep,  I grabbed my camera and for a third time we went to Borobudur temple.

We got through the first barriers fine but as we were getting closer to the temple security stood around letting or not letting people in. To our luck being a foreigner worked its trick this time. We showed them the receipt from the tickets we purchased on the day and the gates opened! We were in! So I though…

No coupon, no lantern

No coupon, no lantern

Now and if it’s still possible I will try to cut the long story short. We entered the gardens where some of the celebrations were being held and were then told that we need to buy a ticket to exchange it for a lantern later worth R100,000 each. We were also asked if we had an entry ticket to which we said no. To be honest with you all, as tight on money I am, that night I didn’t care anymore. We got the tickets, queued in, took part in a group meditation, waited until 4am (!!!) and finally set our wishes in form of lanterns free.

It was pure magic.

A young girl letting her lantern go

A young girl letting her lantern go

The orange colors looked beautiful

The orange colors looked beautiful

Let it go!

Let it go!

More and more lanterns took off

More and more lanterns took off

Hundreds of wishes in the sky

Hundreds of wishes in the sky

And here are few tips for anyone wanting to attend the Vesak Day at Borobudur in the future.

  • Vesak Day falls on full moon in May (sometimes in June)
  • Closer to the day email info@borobudur.co.in for a detailed schedule
  • Book your accommodation in Borobudur in advance
  • Attend procession from Mendut temple (this year passes were given out for free)
  • Bring cash. You will have to pay for a lantern (RI 100,000 for one).
  • Drink some coffee to keep yourself awake. We went to be at 5am the following day.
  • Be patient. Organisation in Indonesia has a different meaning 🙂

by Kinga

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