Trapped in the Temple: Borobudur after dark.
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Visiting Borobudur temple, in the heart of Java, had always been on my bucket list whilst living in Indonesia. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the temple dates from around the 9th century and is the world's largest Buddhist temple. Although I had spent two years living on the beautiful island of Bali and did plenty of travelling during that time, I had never taken the journey west to explore the neighbouring islands of Java and Sumatra. After hearing wonderful stories from my friends about how amazing these islands were, overlooking them while they were right on my doorstep was something I had regretted ever since. However, I was returning to Bali for a long-awaited holiday and decided that the time had now come to finally make the trip happen.
I was travelling solo, which didn't particularly bother me as I have always felt at home in South East Asia, especially Indonesia. Being a 'bule' (foreigner), especially a lone female, can attract unwanted attention at times, but the fact that I always tried to learn about and respect the local customs usually stood me in good stead, as did the fact that I had made the effort of learning some of the language. The departure from Bali's manic domestic airport and the transfer from Jogjakarta to my accommodation had all gone smoothly, and I had brushed up on my Indonesian as I conversed excitedly with fellow passengers and taxi drivers about my plans for my visit.
After I had checked in and left my bags in my room, I took an initial walk to Borobudur temple complex to purchase my ticket. I desperately wanted to watch the sun rise over the temple and had an idyllic image in my mind of what this experience would be like: the first rays of light emerging from the horizon, casting over the surrounding lush scenery until they illuminated the still and tranquil scene atop the temple, where I would be situated, alone and at peace whilst drinking in the breathtaking view.... Conversely, I had done my research online and found that the sunrise viewing tickets were (unsurprisingly) incredibly popular and the number of tickets were (again, unsurprisingly) not capped: this meant that the sunrise viewings were often unpleasantly crowded and would definitely not offer the ambient setting I was hoping for. A far shrewder choice, rumour had it, would be to opt for the sunset ticket; although again the numbers were not capped, these tickets were less popular and so a peaceful, more intimate experience was a likely prospect. And even better, you could retire afterwards for evening tea and cake at the onsite Manohara hotel - and whoever refused the chance of free tea and cake?!
I purchased my sunset ticket and the next morning made the most of the opportunity for a long lie-in, given that there was no rush to beat the sunrise. I took a slow walk to the temple and spent the afternoon exploring the Borobudur complex at leisure, walking through the surrounding acres of meticulously-kept green park and browsing the craft stalls of the local vendors, before eventually climbing up the temple building itself. Upon reaching each tier I stopped to admire the impressive and beautifully-restored stonework with its intricate carvings - I had no trouble understanding how this magnificent structure had come to gain such iconic worldwide status.
When I reached the top, I wandered around with my camera taking photos and scoping out the best vantage points, before settling down to watch the sunset. The security guards came around, as promised, to clear the majority of the crowd so that only the sunset ticket holders remained. As dusk began to fall, the scene was not far off what I had originally imagined: calm and serene, with the melodic chanting of nearby calls to prayer drifting over the landscape. I felt a sense of euphoria sweeping through me - it was a truly incredible moment.
It was, and still is, one of my most memorable travel episodes so far. But this is partly because of the events that unfolded afterwards, once the sun had gone down.
Following the sunset, I spent some time soaking up the luxurious interior of the Manohara hotel before leaving to make my way towards the exit.
As I followed the signs down the exit pathway, I began to get the feeling that something was not quite right. The pathway took an arduously long and looping route that was lined on both sides with stalls, with the intention of exposing tourists to as many vendors as possible on their way out. I had witnessed this spectacle in full swing earlier on in the day, when it had been heaving with hundreds of people. Now it was eerily quiet. This was not a huge surprise, as I was aware that the temple grounds were closed; what did seem odd was that there were no lights at all along the path to guide the way, which at this point in the evening meant that everything was in complete and utter darkness.
The lack of sufficient light made it tricky manoeuvring through the narrow gaps between the tightly-packed stalls, and I was stumbling along using the light on my mobile phone in order to see where I was going. As someone who has always had an over-active imagination, my mind was already creating a horror movie out of the inky silhouettes that were cast behind each empty stall. My eyes were frantically searching the shadows for whatever might be lurking there, and my ears were alert to the sounds of unfamiliar rustling and whisperings. It didn't help matters when at one point I nearly jumped out of my skin upon being confronted with a stall full of grotesque and devilish-looking mask carvings.
I never thought I was afraid of the dark, but by the time I reached the termination of this circuitous route I had gotten myself into such a panic that my heart was hammering against the walls of my chest and beads of sweat had broken out on my forehead. I could now see the glimmer of the brightly-lit entrance lobby in the distance, which brought some welcome relief. But this relief was short-lived as I approached the high iron gate marking the end of the pathway and saw, to my dismay, that it was locked.
I could not process where I had gone wrong. I had followed all of the signs that pointed towards the exit; in fact, I knew this was the correct way as I had actually walked along it earlier in the day during my exploration of the park grounds. And yet, here I was, locked inside.
Then it dawned on me. All of the other people who had been partaking in tea and cake at the Manohara hotel were actually staying there overnight - as an outsider, I had been an anomaly. What if the temple security didn't realise that not all of the sunset ticket-holders were boarding at the hotel? What if they had decided to lock up for the night, thinking that everyone staying outside had already left? After all, the temple had been closed for several hours by this point. On the other hand, there had been no stipulation that I needed to leave by a certain time before everything was closed off. It just didn't make any sense.
Wherever the confusion had occurred, the fact remained that the gate was now locked. I would need to return to the Manohara to find out what was going on and how I could get out. But as I turned and looked back down the way I had come, I could not bear the thought of negotiating that long and winding passageway all over again, alone and in the darkness. Not when the brightly-lit foyer to the main street was so close. There was only one thing for it. I would have to climb the gate.
I looked down at my attire. I was wearing a pair of flip flops and one of my favourite maxi dresses, with a flowing skirt that always made me feel slightly glamorous as I swished along the streets when sightseeing. It was a lovely little number for covering up and keeping cool in the tropical heat; however, when it came to scaling 8-ft high iron fencing, it was highly impractical. I was really not dressed for the occasion.
Ever-pragmatic, I stooped down and tied a knot in the middle of the skirt between my legs, fashioning my dress into a makeshift pair of culottes. I then shoved my camera and water bottle under a gap in the fence, before scaling my way up and over the gate. It wasn't too tricky; I could just about find adequate footholds in between some of the gaps in the fence and the material of my dress managed to avoid catching on the pointy spikes as I climbed over the top. I jumped down to land safely on the other side and triumphantly picked up my water bottle and camera - screw you, security!
The path leading to the lobby building was very well lit from this point, as was the lobby itself, and I could see the tops of the streetlamps from the main road on the other side of the wall. But moving towards the building I could see that it was completely deserted. A few steps closer and my heart sank as I realised, once again, that this exit was also completely locked up for the night. One quick scan of the tight level of security of the building, along with the insurmountable wall that flanked it, quickly turned my previous sense of victory into one of defeat: there was no way I could climb over.
There was no option but to retrace my steps. As I mentioned beforehand, the thought of backtracking through the darkened alleyway to get back to the Manohara filled me with dread. Surely there must be someone around to ask for help - a security guard, a caretaker.... such a famous site would not be left completely unattended, would it? If not, then where on earth was everybody?
I heard two voices coming from behind the fence I had just scaled, accompanied by the sound of sweeping brushes. Then two men came into view, both dressed in green overalls - I guessed that they were the site cleaners. even though they probably didn't speak English, I thankfully knew that I would still be able to ask them for help and I had never been so glad of learning another language in all of my life. In broken Indonesian, I managed to explain to them that the exit gates were locked and I was stuck inside - did they know how I could get out? They appeared somewhat baffled by my predicament, but I managed to ascertain from them that, although they didn't have any keys, there was one gate that remained open at this time of night to let staff in and out; gate number nine. They pointed me in the right direction. Armed with this information and a renewed sense of purpose, I set out on a search for Gate Nine.
The path they had pointed me towards began meandering through the lush green park surrounding the temple, and before I knew it I was once more walking through darkness. There was the occasional streetlamp lining the various pathways that criss-crossed the grounds of the park, but these were so poorly-lit as to barely cast a shadow. I again resorted to using the torch on my phone, trying to ignore the fact that the battery had now depleted massively. The previous feeling of fear started to return, rising up through my stomach, but I managed to push it back down with the thought that this time I knew what I needed to look out for.
I kept on walking. And walking. And walking. The grounds of the park surrounding Borobudur temple are made up of acres and acres of land - how long it would actually take to reach Gate Nine became my new focus of concern. It felt like an eternity before I finally spied a glimpse of a gate in the wall to the left-hand side of the pathway, just as the cleaners had said.
By this point I was doing some serious power-walking, determined to make my way to freedom and back to the safety of the well-lit main street. But as the gate got closer and closer there were still no discernible signs of life... in fact, it didn't even appear to be open... no, this couldn't be right... I stopped short. It was locked.
It's not often that I have succumbed to a state of panic on my travels, but I can tell you right now that is precisely what I did. The realisation finally hit me that I was on my own, in the dark, late at night, in a foreign country, without any means of communication (I did have my UK phone on me, but with no data it was pretty much useless without incurring hefty roaming charges). And if this wasn't the correct gate, I had absolutely no way of knowing if I was walking towards Gate Nine or whether I was actually moving further away. I could be stuck in the park for hours.
The air of arrogant confidence with which I usually approached all of my travel exploits completely crumbled. I would not feel comfortable walking around a city park on my own late at night back home in the UK, so what on earth was I thinking in doing that here? As a stranger in a an unfamiliar place, this situation was far more risky. I recalled stories I had seen on the news of travellers going missing, bodies found in tragic circumstances, dream holidays gone horribly wrong. I had the unsettling thought that the setting within which I found myself, a solo female foreigner in a dark and isolated park late at night, was preemptive of such a story. It may have been a slight overreaction, but tears started welling up behind my eyes.
I began wandering aimlessly back along the pathway, taking my chances and continuing in the same direction. Then I heard voices again, this time a larger collection, and I made out in the distance some spotlights shining upon a group of construction workers dismantling the scaffolding around a construction in the middle of the parkland. I was wary of approaching a group of strange men in such an obviously vulnerable state, but I genuinely didn't know what else to do at this stage. I was tired and fraught, and just wanted the comfort of my guesthouse bed. Rather than waste my energy on imagining all of the possible undesirable outcomes, I decided simply to have faith in the kindness of strangers.
I walked over to the group and proceeded, for the second time, to explain my plight. They again spoke no English whatsoever, and I again felt an eternal sense of gratitude for having stuck with my Indonesian lessons all those years ago. It was, for the second time, explained to me that I needed to find Gate Nine, but at least the communications confirmed that I was indeed headed in the right direction: at least I would not be aimlessly wandering around the park grounds until daybreak.
Wearily, I set off once more. The reiteration that I was going the right way had not, however, done much for my worries regarding the darkness and isolation of my surroundings and its potential dangers, so I was still in a state of high alert. I had not continued walking for more than sixty seconds when, from behind, I heard the sound of footsteps running towards me.
I turned and saw a man, barefoot and with his hood drawn up tightly around his face, sprinting at me from the shadows. I froze. I remember at that moment searching my memory for all the self-defence moves I had been taught in my years of martial arts training, sure that the time had finally come where I would need to defend myself from the onslaught of an attacker.
But the man pulled up short in front of me and slid his hood down from around his face. It was one of the workers I had just been conversing with. He had merely come to see if I was willing to wait for ten minutes while they finished their work, in which case I was welcome to catch a lift with them in their truck out of the park - they would even drop me back to my accommodation.
So that is what I did. The driver seemed to enjoy the novelty of a 'bule' woman riding alongside him in the cab and conversing with him in his native tongue, as did the other construction workers who all leaned over from the roof of the pickup to wave goodbye to me as I disembarked outside my guesthouse. The staff on reception told me they had started to worry as to my whereabouts and they were glad to see I had returned safely - as was I! Everything had turned out alright in the end.
This experience has made me a bit more self-aware when on a solo trip: even the most experienced of travellers get caught out sometimes. But I suppose that, ultimately, the main thing to take from this story is to have faith in the kindness of strangers.
To see pictures from this trip, visit my Photography section.
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