Southeast Asia Travel: The Real Deal with Jessica Winstead
This month, we’re interviewing women from all over the world and asking them about their experiences traveling to Southeast Asia. We had the privilege of speaking with Jessica Winstead about her experience traveling through the region. Here’s a glimpse into our conversation.
Tell us about yourself! What do you do when you’re not traveling the world? Where do you live? What made you decide to go to South East Asia?
I’m a Southern California native, so sunshine and having a good time are my way of life. I grew up in Orange County, where I went to school and made many of the friends I still have today. Now that I live and work in Los Angeles, keeping in touch can be difficult, so my girlfriends and I try to schedule trips in advance. One trip that we had been planning for years finally came together last summer, and I can now say I’ve been to Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam!
How long did you go for? How did you spend your time?
No vacation is ever long enough, but two weeks was definitely pushing the limit with three countries and a one day layover in Taiwan. Since we knew we didn’t have the luxury of time, we tried to plan as much as we could in advance. Our monthly planning get-togethers were almost as much fun as the trip itself! We booked flights, hostels and discussed whether we had time to take certain excursions. Unfortunately, since we were travelling during monsoon season, many of our original plans were thwarted anyways, but having them in place made re-planning easier. For example, since there was an unexpected one-day delay in Taiwan, we weren’t able to visit the ancient city of Bagan in Myanmar. But we got to add Taipei 101 and the Shilin Night Market to our list of sights seen, and had the best soup dumplings I’ve ever tasted!
We still got to spend a whole day exploring the golden-covered Shwedagon Temple in Yangon with a Buddhist monk named Cho in the pouring rain, which only added to the ambiance and beauty. We also stayed at the Pickled Tea Hostel in Yangon, which was the best place to meet fellow travelers our age and make fast friends. We stayed at hostels all throughout our trip, and were always happy to be greeted with friendly staff and very clean facilities. I would recommend hostels to anyone not looking to spend a bunch of time in their room since they’re huge money savers and always a good way to meet new people.
After one day in Taiwan and two in Myanmar, we were off to Thailand for five days, and then another five in Vietnam. Myanmar was the least documented country we were visiting, which is why we spent the least amount of time there. In hindsight, since we lost a day, I wish we had added another day.
What were your most memorable experiences? What were the biggest disappointments?
In the popular Thailand we split our five days between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. In hindsight I wish we had spent even less time in Bangkok since it’s very tourist-heavy and lacks much of the natural beauty we found further north. However, I loved the Calypso Cabaret show at Asiatique the Riverfront, and would recommend having dinner there and shopping, since they had the best of everything. One thing you must do if you’re in Bangkok is a river cruise. We did three, and I recommend the smaller river cruises on the local channels. These boats are very small and seem rickety, but you get to see so much more of the real scenery and everyday life in the city. The larger cruise ships just feed you and take you down the largest river, so you’re too far away from the shore to see much.
My absolute favorite part of Thailand was in Chiang Mai, when we got to ride elephants and pet tigers, although I found the elephants to be a much more fulfilling adventure since a lot more interaction was involved, and they felt more at peace being kept in their natural habitat. We also watched a Muay Thai tournament with a local boy who didn’t speak any English, but who had a great time beating us at Connect Four.
Then it was off to Vietnam, where we landed in Hanoi and made our way South to Hoi An, where we finally stayed at the only non-hostel we booked, the Golden Sand Resort. This relaxed small town on the beach really made us Southern California girls feel at home. We biked through town during the day, swam in the ocean and fed our hunger with salty fresh seafood. We ended our trip in Saigon, which didn’t disappoint us with endless nightlife and an energy level akin to New York City. Two of my girlfriends are Vietnamese and speak the language fluently, which made this leg of our trip easier and more enjoyable, since communication wasn’t such an issue.
What do you wish you knew before you went?
I’d traveled before to Europe and even to an Asian country, Japan, but nothing prepared me for the culture shock I had on this trip. The travel books I read all say this, but living through it I should stress that patience and smiling will get you farther than anything else. If you’re trying to communicate in Myanmar or Thailand and getting blank stares (which you definitely will), remember that all they can see is your face, and if you look scary or upset you will scare them away. Yelling is definitely never a way to receive help. Take pause and remember you’re on vacation! Nothing will quite happen the way you envisioned so relax, smile and try to plan ahead as much as possible.
Any favorite restaurants/hotels/hostels/sites you’d like to recommend? Tell us what made them great!
The Pickled Tea Hostel in Yangon, Myanmar and the Golden Sands Resort in Hoi An, Vietnam were my two favorite places we stayed. The Rangoon Tea House in Myanmar was also one of my favorite places. In Taiwan, the Shilin Night Market was were we found some of the most delicious food on our trip, but I’ve heard all the night markets are amazing. We tried to go to a night market in each city we stayed at, since we always found the best food, shopping, and people at them. Unfortunately in Thailand I never got the names of many of the places we visited, but life is so ebullient there–you simply have to walk around and you’ll find an adventure. In Saigon, we visited several nightclubs and all were different but provided the raucous entertainment we sought. For example, if you ask to go to the “Sky Bar” you will be asked “which one?” so don’t worry, they’re all pretty great!
Is there anything that women specifically should know before they travel to Southeast Asia?
There’s always more safety in numbers and there were four of us girls, and we never let anyone go anywhere alone. I strongly believe that because of this we stayed safe and never encountered a situation we couldn’t handle. Regardless of being a girl, it’s simply not safe in some of the places we went to to be roaming around alone, especially at night. Because we didn’t speak the language and don’t know our way around, we didn’t do too much night exploring, and this also added to us having a safe and enjoyable adventure.