In some countries it is super easy to find nutritious and tasty vegan food, but in others it is an absolute nightmare! I was a bit terrified about traveling as a vegan on the mainland of South East Asia, especially coming from the US where even baked beans are not free from animal fat! It mostly turned out OK, but I wanted to write a guide so that anyone in my situation could be a little prepared BEFORE the plane touched down on the runway.
So whether you’re foregoing meat to save the little lambies, or because you’re hoping you won’t get food poisoning, here is my guide to traveling as a vegan in South East Asia.
We were only in Cambodia for a week, and mostly ate in restaurants aimed at Westerners with menus in English. None of these were terribly authentically Cambodian, but did mostly have some good vegan choices. In both Siem Riep and Phnom Penh, there were plenty of purely vegetarian places to eat. Khmer cooking involves a lot of meat broth and fish sauce even in vegetable cooking, so if you like to get a flavor for the local food when you’re travelling it’s worth finding a specialist restaurant or learning Khmer!
Dishes to try: Vegetable Amok (Curry) and Khmer Red Curry
Traditionally, Laotians eat a lot of meat in their diet. Outside the touristy places like Luang Prabang, it can be really hard to find anything vaguely vegan. As Laos is up-and-coming in tourism, unlike its neighbours, it’s often hard to communicate to staff that you don’t eat meat. The easiest way to overcome this is find a dish that is normally made in a vegan way and request it whenever and wherever you go. Just make sure you like it, as you’ll be eating it for every meal!
Dishes to try: Khanom Krok (Coconut pancake) and Spring Rolls.
I thought it would be really easy to find food to eat in Malaysia, but it was not. I spent a lot of mealtimes eating chips from McDonalds. Sadly, vegans are not well catered for in the mainstream malls and restaurant districts. Fortunately, most Malaysians can speak amazing English and it’s easy to be able to communicate with stuff about what you want.
On top of that, if you do go looking, there are some really tasty vegan restaurants often run by buddhists and usually in a buffet style with plastic plates and communal tables. You can also take a stroll to any of the Indian Districts in the country, where you probably find something suitable or a whole veggie restaurant if you’re lucky.
Dishes to try: Cendol (Kidney beans and green noodles) and Nasi Lemak (Coconut rice)
Myanmar is the first country on our list that has a special word for veganism. In this case, it’s “thatalo”. These words come from the well-represented buddhist populations in these countries. Traditionally Buddhists don’t eat meat (although there are exceptions to this rule). Unfortunately, some of these dishes can be a little bland and uninviting.
Luckily, Myanmar’s border with India means there is a heavy influence of Indian food, which often is, or can be made, vegetarian. Plus, it’s really yummy.
Dishes to try: Tea Leaf Salad Shan Tofu
Singapore is just a huge bundle of different nationalities, cultures and foods. You can genuinely find any kind of food here if you look for it. Indian Food is obviously a good one to look out for, but you might be a bit sick of it if you’ve just spent time in Malaysia. The McDonalds Veggie Crunch Burger is also delicious (although does contain eggs).
Dishes to try: Nasi Goring (Spicy fried noodles) and Dosai (Rice flour crepe)
As a predominantly buddhist country, it’s easy to find vegan food in the local back streets of Thailand. You may or may not be able to read the menu. The word “Jay” (although in Thai/Chinese script) is printed in red on yellow flags outside places that only offer vegan food.
These places are usually harder to find in the more touristy parts of the country, but by then the menus are usually in English, and often have vegan options. Do be wary of the stalls, as often taste is added by using fish sauce.
We had a really fun Thai cooking lesson in Chiang Mai, which meant that we could cook vegan Thai food at our apartment. It was such a good day learning how to cook and I would definitely recommend doing this especially if you happen to be in an area with fewer places to eat out.
Dishes to try: Vegetable Pad Thai (Noodles) and Khao Soi (Noodle soup)
I think Vietnam was the easiest place to eat vegan out of all of the places that we went. They have this word “chay” that means that food is vegan. It’s plastered across restaurants, food trucks and menus so that you can always find something to eat.
Vietnamese food is absolutely delicious! The number of different options means you could make it a whole month without eating the same thing twice. You can find vegan food on most roads and food courts as well as in snazzy high class restaurants. There are exclusively “chay” places to eat. But if you’re with omnivorous friends, there are also plenty of places that have vegan items on the menu. It’s just not a big deal there.
Dishes to try: Banh Mi (A filled baguette) and Pho (Noodle soup)
How have you found traveling as a vegan? Do you have any tips and tricks? Where’s the best place you’ve been? Let us now in the comments below!
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