Traveling as a vegan can be very challenging. Monotony, lack of choices, lack of information- all of these become an issue during a long-term travel in the countries with limited plant-diet choices.
Indochinese Peninsula isn’t a uniform region: despite similarities, some of the countries are much more vegan-friendly than others. I hope this post can serve as a comprehensive introduction to vegan travel in South East Asia.
Veganism in South East Asia
In South East Asia, the concept of vegetarianism is limited only to monks and religious Mahayana Buddhists. All the South East Asian nations have very high consumption of meat and fish and in most of them it’s hard to find the dishes which wouldn’t contain animal products. Whether you’re a vegan or a lacto-vegetarian, you’re on the same boat as dairy products aren’t used in this region almost at all.
The major source of protein is tofu which forces vegans to a monotonous, soya-based diet. Oddly enough, the pulses feature mostly in sweets which thankfully happen to be predominantly vegan.
The spectrum of vegan options differs from country to country, with the most limited choice in Laos. The countries with the Mahayana Buddhist or Chinese minority population, most notably Vietnam, but also Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore developed a local, plant-based cuisine for devout Buddhists. Singapore and Malaysia, additionally have significant Indian vegetarian diaspora.
Vegans on a budget
Contrary to the common sense, vegan meals in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos are likely to cost you more than non-vegetarian. In most tourist destinations finding a meatless option isn’t that much of a problem. However, veganised versions of local dishes (aimed at tourists) are likely to cost you more than meatless street food of poor nutritional value.
Local vegan eateries catering for monks and religious people are the winners: they are cheap and offer a huge variety of tasty, vegetable and protein-rich dishes. It’s worth to ask local people for advice on traditional vegan dishes. They will be authentic and cost you very little.
South Thailand- fish sauce trap
Thais seem to require animal protein in every single dish, maybe apart from rice with steamed vegetables. However, due to tourism, tofu Pad Thai (noodles), tofu green curry, tofu Penang curry (spicy), tofu Masaman curry (mild), tofu coconut soup, etc. feature on every menu even in very simple eateries.
The main vegetable source of iron in Thailand is morning glory, tasty green leafs which unfortunately tend to be spiced with fish or oyster sauce. Thais don’t speak great English so explaining them we can do without their beloved fish sauce could be a challenge.
If you’re very lucky, you might come across a Buddhist vegetarian eatery serving the Chinese community. I found some in Krabi, Phuket Town and Bangkok. Those eateries offer a huge selection of vegetable and soya based (mock meat) dishes for incredibly low prices.
North Thailand- trouble-free for vegans
The main tourist hubs of the north: Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Pai attract a hippie crowd which is a great news for travelling vegans. Local businesses got used to vegetarians and vegans and adopted their menus accordingly.
There are also quite a few original, local vegan eateries catering for ethnic Chinese Buddhists. A red symbol on a yellow background marks that specific kind of cheap restaurants serving ‘fake meat’ dishes.
Another good news is that fish sauce isn’t really used in the north- the main spice is soy sauce.This means that you can get a vegan morning glory even at a local market. Tofu pad thai is probably the easiest option to come by, just don’t forget to say ‘no egg’.
Cambodia – vegetarian only for tourists
Not counting ubiquitous fried rice and veg noodles you can’t get cheap vegan food in Cambodia. Meatless street snacks are usually packed with carbs with sparse veggies here and there and are rather bland.
Thankfully the tourism industry re-invented classic Khmer dishes in vegan (unsurprisingly tofu–based) versions. Tofu amok and tofu Khmer curry is likely to become your staple food there.
Laos – the land of misery for vegans
Out of all South-East Asian countries, Laos is the most difficult for vegans. Like in Cambodia, only tourist oriented restaurants offer pricey, veganised versions of the local dishes.
There are literally two nice authentic local vegetable dishes in Laos. One is made of leafy greens while the other one of bamboo. Both are sold at the morning markets and served with iconic sticky rice. Less exciting alternatives include very sour pickled greens and a weird dish made of veg peelings which taste much as it sounds.
There are some remote places in Laos where you can find nothing else than khao soi (noodle soup). This one is always cooked on meat broth, regardless of what the seller might tell you. The assurance of ‘no meat, no meat’ means only there are no CHUNKS of meat inside – the whole broth is full of microscopic meat particles.
The salvation often comes in the form of Indian restaurants which: a) surprisingly exist and they are run by Indians b) are cheap c) can be found in the places so remote you wouldn’t imagine possible. Those Indian restaurants are authentic and your only chance to have lovely warm veg dish or pulses. I found Indian restaurants in Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi, Phonsovan and even Vieng Xai.
Vietnam- the vegan foodie paradise
Even though Vietnamese people love their meat, fish and sea food, there is a significant percentage of society who go meat-less at least temporarily- on religious grounds. Moreover, their cuisine is diverse enough to include quite a few traditional purely vegetable dishes. There is a lot of regional variation in Vietnamese cuisine which keeps the culinary exploration all the more exciting.
Vietnamese generally don’t speak English but at least their language is written in Latin script. That makes spotting cheap vegan restaurants (com chai – literally vegetarian rice) much easier.
Don’t be fooled by the menus full of chicken or shrimps. In com chai restaurants all the ‘meat’ is actually soya. It might be processed but I assure you it’s seriously good. Especially after months of having nothing but tofu.
Speaking of which, com bin dan, ‘the commoners’ rice’ eateries which you can find round every corner, would always have at least one tofu dish (usually tofu in tomato sauce) and one leafy green option.
Beware that the most common Vietnamese dish- pho noodle soup- is always cooked on meat broth. However, one can find vegan pho in most com chai.
If travelling through Central Vietnam (Hoi An, Hue), I totally recommend trying a wide variety of gooey steamed dumplings made of rice flour (banh nam). While traditionally with seafood, vegan versions exist as well.
Malaysia- truly Asia
True to the slogan, you can find all kinds of Asian food in Malaysia: Chinese, Indian and Malay. The one to turn to in search of cheap vegan option is obviously Indian.
You can also find vegan eateries for devout Buddhists serving Chinese or Malay dishes. Malacca prides itself with developing an absolutely mind-blowing mixture of both cuisines.
The Malay cuisine is absolutely delicious but a bit tricky for vegans. There are a couple of vegetable dishes in Malay cuisine which you might find in buffet- style eateries. The trap is the dry fish and fish sauce added liberally.
Unfortunately, the deservedly most famous Malay dish- spicy, thick laksa soup – isn’t easy to find in a vegan version outside strictly vegan establishments. Beware also of Malay rotis (flat breads) which unlike the Indian version, aren’t vegan. Malays use tempeh– blocks of fermented soya originating from Indonesia- but unfortunately it is usually served with fish.
Singapore- all you need is there
You guessed right- you can easily find vegan food in that cosmopolitan place. Just like in Malaysia, the significant South Indian community assures plenty of vegan options. Finding something in Chinese cuisine is also possible.
More importantly, you don’t need to break the bank to eat well! Search for food courts hidden in residential areas or in the basement/ground floor level of office buildings or shopping centres in Little India and China Town. Those tiny outlets have very reasonable prices.
Myanmar- tasty and hassle-free
Myanmar is one of the most vegetarian/vegan friendly countries of South East-Asia, perhaps due to strong influences from the nearby India. The food in Myanmar is tasty and heavily vegetable-based, albeit very oily. The magic word you need to remember is ‘thatalo’ which actually means ‘lifeless’, or, in other words, not coming from living creatures.
Wherever you go, there will be ALWAYS something falling into’ thatalo’ category. The tearooms, the cheapest dining options in the country, serving usually smaller portions have normally in offer oily flat breads with dal (pheeche) and a whole selection of various ‘salads’.
The most common of them is laphet thoke made of fermented tea leaves, raw onion and tomato, roasted broad beans, peanuts and quite a lot of oil. The pennywort salad is great, too.
In central Myanmar (Mandalay, Bagan, Inle lake) you can easily come by delicious Shan noodles served with red, oily sauce, ground peanuts and lovely pickled vegetables. They also produce ‘tofu’ made of yellow split peas with a lovely, creamy and cheesy texture.
You can find a more substantial buffet- style meal in most cheap eateries. There, you should have a choice of at least 2-3 vegan dishes. Be cautious about the soup coming free with every meal, though: more often than not it’s made of fish broth.
Purely vegetarian places for devout Buddhists exist in Myanmar as well. At one such establishment I was served 22 different vegan dishes in small bowls! By far the most lavish and value for money feast of the entire trip.
South- East Asian snacks and sweets
What kept me alive throughout South East Asian travel were the filling snacks. For example, fresh and fried spring rolls were available in Thailand and Vietnam, while steamed or fried chive cakes in Thailand and Cambodia.
Many of the ‘survival’ snacks were sweet. Sticky rice with banana (Thailand, Cambodia, southern Vietnam, Laos), banana fritters (Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos) and glutinous rice dumplings with mung bean (Vietnam and Laos) saved my life. The by-product of this strategy was a growing dislike for bananas, though.
I had lots of opportunities to fulfill my sugar cravings. Deep fried sweets with mung beans filling (banh cam) and thick, sweet plant milks in Vietnam, Burmese semolina sweet (sanwei makin), Lao/Thai coconut pancakes (kanom krok), Thai steamed cupcakes (khanom tuay foo), mango sticky rice and coconut milk ice-cream sweetened my days.
I simply fell in love with coconut milk dessert made of beans or rice-flour jelly, called cendol in Malaysia and Singapore, che in Vietnam, lot in Cambodia and lot chong in Thailand.
Even though my diet in South East Asia tend to be monotonous and not particularly healthy, I didn’t have major troubles with finding vegan alternatives (even if I had to increase my budget for that).
It is true that with the lack of vegan options, I often used snacks or sweets and fruit as my breakfast. But in fact I loved browsing the morning market in search of something edible and assembling my own, unusual meals.
There were plenty of original and really delicious dishes I tried in that region so it was a great culinary adventure I can only recommend.