I have a magical and frustrating relationship with Prambanan Temple in Yogyakarta. Looking for what to do in Yogyakarta? A visit to Prambanan is a must. Prambanan is a magical place, it will captivate and inspire you.
Truth about visiting Prambanan
Let’s get the frustration out of the way. I love to try my hand at stock photography. Occasionally I even sell a few of those photos to stock photography sites (does this make me professional?). Prambanan is a massive site of 240 temples that rise 47 meters in the sky. As an amateur photographer, my naive plan is to take in the scale of the place by making wide sweeping shots of the vista only to be disappointed in them upon inspection.
The site is too large and too overwhelming to capture its true spirit. I try shots inside of the temples of Shiva and close-ups of the Ramayana story on the walls. No luck. Rather first word frustrations I think to myself as I review these photos.
The frustrations help me come to a realization, Prambanan wasn’t designed to be Instagram friendly. It was intended to experience, to overwhelm, to humble us humans in our own manmade creations. It is a place to remind us of who we are in the inside and what we are to others on the outside.
What to expect in Prambanan
I think these thoughts as I sit in the entranceway to the Angsa Temple drenched from head to toe from the late afternoon rain. This has become my usual afternoon routine in Yogyakarta during the rainy season. One dripping white guy in all-black attire. I must look like a ghost to onlookers looking into the hollow abyss of the temple, a floating head, two limbs and a pair of feet but nobody.
It’s after five now, the security guards have taken refuge from the deluge in one of the Apit temples to my left. I deduce that they don’t care that the park is closed and are mainly amused by the rain-drenched tourists taking their last Instagram photos.
Across the way, a contingent of elderly Japanese tourists makes their way up the Brahma temple. I had walked behind them earlier concerned for their safety as they inched their way up to the temple of Shiva. That was when it was dry. Now with the rain pouring and they’re mobility limited by brightly hooded rain ponchos I can only hope for the best.
Reflecting in Prambanan
So here I sit, pondering why I continue to come back to this site to take photos for my Instagram. I take one more reluctant shot of the Brahma temple and then put my camera down. I sit in the darkness of Brahma’s swan temple, Angsa and challenge myself to capture the moment by being present and not my desire for Instagram likes. Slowly I begin to think about all that is happening around me. I wonder if there is some serpent that has taken refuge from the rain in the darkness of the temple.
I feel like there is a mental breakdown coming on from not trying to do or capture anything. Alone, wet, and in the darkness I stopped to experience Prambanan, to feel overwhelmed and to reflect on why humans create these places.
The first time my wife and I visited we hired a tour guide. The guide took photos for us. If you’re looking for an in-depth tour of the temple and some well planned out tourist photos, hire a guide. To not have any understanding of what you’re looking at would be a travesty. Let the guide take the many cheesy photographs that he has made for the multitude of tourists before you. Let it happen. But come back again, as I do and avoid all of that to try to experience the place.
There are crowds of people here (unless you take my advice below) and stairs to climb that will challenge your relationship with gravity. I promise if this is your first time here and to Indonesia, you will be overwhelmed.
Why you must visit Prambanan!
I’m an Indiana Jones dork, and this place has everything I need to bust out the hat and whip for a great photoshoot. The first time I visited I was so excited for this! As the year has gone by I, have moved on from this but my inner wanna-be famous archaeologist still lives inside. I have no shame though, and I don’t think anyone would care if you lived out your Tomb Raider fantasises here. Be respectful, bu enjoy yourself.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the last few years experiencing Hindu culture in Sri Lanka, India, and across South East Asia. It started with a book I found in an antique shop “A Search in Secret India” by Paul Brunton and followed through my own journey through the sub-continent. I don’t claim to know enough about the Hinduism, but I have tried to experience it in my travels.
Prambanan has provided me with magical moments alone in the temples. I did my “Om” mediations in the Shiva temple alone for 15 minutes until someone else made their way up the wet stairs. The same on the Ganesha side of the temple. It was pretty profound, and if you time it right, I would recommend you take some time alone in the temples reflecting on your own life.
Sunset is my favourite time at the temple. The sky lights up a fiery colour of pinks and yellows and basks the temples in these incredible colours. The sun will set behind the temple and if you can try sitting in the temple of Ganesha and experience this magical moment (until the guards kick you out). Outside the temple, the sunset will make for an incredible backdrop.
Tips for visiting Prambanan
Download a Golden Hour app so that you can predict into the future when the sun will set. Golden hour is that special hour in the morning and evening when photos will have the best lighting.
Find a time of year within the app that the sun will set close to 5pm. The park closes around 5p (although I’ve never been rushed out) and this will give you the best chance to capture the park at sunset.
I chose to visit in February, and every evening it has a rainstorm. Bring a rain jacket or umbrella if you’re worried about getting wet. I use the rain to my benefit, knowing the majority of tourists will stay away. As from my experience from above, I imagine having this much time alone in the temple only happened because of the time of year and the rain.
Pay for a tour guide your first time. Or don’t! Once you get into the park, you will see the entrance and exit. I recommend coming through the Nandi temple entrance to avoid being bothered by guides trying to sell you their service. On my last visit, I was approached by a school group who were looking to practice their English language skills. I was hesitant at first but highly recommend the experience. The younger guides may not be as knowledgeable as a paid guide, but it is unique to hear their stories and learn about what they are studying. And they don’t charge anything!
As the sun is setting walk over to the small cafe outside of the temple. You will see a small park directly across the park, go there. From here you will be able to take some stunning shots of the temple. If you can stay past the sunset and have a proper camera you can make low light shots of the temple as it is lit up by spotlights.
Don’t take any photos, just enjoy the moment of being here. At least for a little bit and then get your Insta fix on.
Pose for photos when the locals ask for them. Prepare to be ambushed if you look welcoming and your white. Enjoy your few minutes (or half hour in my case) of fame as you are given babies to hold, children to stand by and adults to pose with. Just let it happen and secretly wish you would have dressed a little better for the occasion.