Jun 17, 2013

    Bored by Borobudur? Not my kids

    AT 5AM, it was pitch black, except for the erratic light from battery torches wielded by our two young sons.

    The gravel crunched under our feet. When we got to the first steps, blocks hewn out of dark-grey lava stone, we had to carry our younger son, Lucien, up, because his little legs were tiring.

    I lifted my camera approximately to my eye and fired off some shots in the pre-dawn inkiness.

    It was hard to see where you were going. One false step while posing for a family portrait might send our nuclear unit plummeting down the side of an ancient stone complex.

    Better to just keep climbing. Head to the summit, then wait for the sunrise.

    Welcome to Borobudur.

    For the longest time, I had wanted to visit the ninth-century Buddhist temple in Central Java.

    As Indonesia's single most-visited tourist attraction, the impressive Unesco World Heritage site, with its stone stupas and Buddhist statues looking placidly out towards the surrounding jungle and volcanoes, has always struck me as an enigmatic destination easily accessible from Singapore.

    Having seen the splendour and symmetry of Angkor Wat and the Bayon in Siem Reap, Cambodia, 10 years ago as a single miss with two intrepid girlfriends, I was determined to see Borobudur too - even if it meant dragging my two kids with me.

    Obviously, bundling young ones along to explore sprawling old temples required some planning, but the Supportive Spouse and I were game for it.

    We chose a hotel, the Saraswati, which was minutes from the temple park, so we could simply walk over with our boys, instead of wearing their patience out with car rides.

    The idea was to be "first in, first out": go for the special sunrise tour organised by the Manohara Hotel, which sits within the temple's compound; see the place before the blazing sun rises and hordes of other tourists arrive; retreat back to our hotel room before 8am.

    Thanks to the extremely gracious staff at the Saraswati, who arranged for the tour and walked us to the starting point, we arrived nice and early on the morning after we got in from Yogyakarta via an AirAsia flight.

    Too early, in fact.

    The SS' watch was still on Singapore time, which was ahead of Indonesia by an hour, and he had hustled us to get ready. So, we found ourselves cooling our heels at the temple gates at 4am, when they opened only at 5am.

    Nevertheless, the boys didn't mind. In fact, they were having the time of their lives. Lucien, three, was going nuts with his torch, shining it in our eyes instead of on the path when we finally made our way up the temple.

    Julian, seven, clutched an old digital SLR camera his uncle had given him as a present. He couldn't wait to snap a few shots at the top when there was enough light.

    Luckily, ascending the six square platforms and the last three circular levels from the east was not too taxing. Within 10 minutes, we were standing amid the bell-shaped stupas ringed around the peak, trying to pick the best spot to watch the sun go up in an overcast sky.

    I thought my kids would run riot and puncture the pre-dawn peace. But - apart from a few excited shouts and giggles, as well as Lucien serenading our tourmates with his rendition of the Misty Island Mystery theme from the cartoon Thomas And Friends - they were quite content to sit and wait.

    The architectural wonders of the Borobudur temple emerged from the shadows as the sky brightened, and Mount Merapi revealed itself in the distance.

    Julian kept pressing the shutter and Lucien wandered off to pace beneath the ramparts. The beauty of the monument calmed us all.

    Soon, it was properly morning. We climbed down, had tea and goreng pisang in a cafe nearby, and went back to our hotel to snooze some more.