Growing up middle class in the small San Francisco suburb of Millbrae, California, population 25,000, I never really imagined myself traveling to exotic locations or climbing on ancient ruins a la Indiana Jones. Neither of my parents had traveled abroad at that point. There just wasn’t a precedent in our family for world exploration. Even Hawaii seemed like something only the “rich people” do, but certainly not the Blums.

Perhaps that’s why S.E. Asia so attracts me today. The sights in Thailand/Cambodia/Laos/Vietnam are about as different from Millbrae as you can possibly imagine – glittering temples, soaring stupas, earthy shrines covered in vines and swarming with monkeys. The fact that I’m even allowed to visit such places feels like an honor and privilege … like I’m being naughty somehow.

What I loved about my visit to Bagan (formerly Pagan) in Myanmar was 1) it’s wildly exotic, and 2) relatively few people know about it. “According to Wikipedia, Bagan is:
“A UNESCO World Heritage Site that, from the 9th to 13th centuries, was the capital of the Bagan Kingdom, the first kingdom that unified the regions that would later constitute Myanmar. During the kingdom’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone, of which the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas survive.”

That is a LOT of temples, dotted on a flat plain like a fairytale chess board. Although the Mongols destroyed much of the city in the 13th century, the experience of wandering through Bagan starts with, “How does this place still exist?”
I start my day in Bagan with a river cruise at sunrise. I spend midday biking around the ruins and trying to convince guards (often children) to open a gate and let me view the Buddha statue inside. Now it’s sunset and I’m sitting atop a stupa, watching the sun set over the stunning diorama that is Bagan at twilight. Thousands of brick and stone ruins, in various states of decay. Numerous restored towers and pagodas, white-washed and shiny, catching the dying light. I’m not in Millbrae anymore. Wow.