Being Vegan on the go in Thailand
By Dawn Jorgensen
Some useful insight into plant-based eating in the Land of Smiles.
Being vegan in Thailand is reasonably easy and it’s almost always possible to find vegan options in Thai restaurants with the traditional cuisine mostly composed of vegetables, and all Buddhist monks are known to follow vegan diets. Fruit stands are found at every corner, fresh markets abound and the demand for organic produce is on the rise. The only problem is that most food tends to be prepared using chicken broth, fish or oyster sauce, so be sure to speak up if you want to avoid these.
How to Spot a Vegan Restaurant
While in some countries there is no widely understood translation of the word ‘vegan’, in Thailand this is not a problem. The concept of veganism or ‘jay’ has been around for hundreds of years and relates to Buddhist spiritual practices. While looking for a place to dine, keep an eye out for red and yellow signs with the word ‘jay’ written either in Thai (เจ) or in the traditional Chinese character (齋). To avoid fish sauce and other animal products in your food, you will need to remember a simple Thai phrase – Gin Jay. It translates as a strict vegetarian who does not eat meat, dairy or egg. The word looks a little like the number 17 and is found on signage above vegan products and outside some restaurants.
Guidelines for Ordering Vegan
The base for most dishes is carbohydrates: rice and noodles – with lots of vegetables, and no dairy. Meat is only a small part of the diet, so altering a dish will not change much of the taste and dining experience. Replace meat with tofu, either crispy fried or non-fried. Mushrooms, broccoli, or even a mix of vegetables work well as substitutes too. Thai food uses fish sauce to create a salty flavour, so you’ll need to ask the kitchen to replace it with soy sauce. Another ingredient found in some stir fry dishes – fried rice, stir fry vegetables, or stir fry noodles – is oyster sauce. Again, soy sauce can be requested as an alternative. Dishes like the popular Pad Thai usually contain egg, as do Wonton skins and yellow noodles, so you’ll want to avoid those. It’s always good to specify rice noodles or plain rice when placing your order.
Where to find the best Vegan Dishes
Towering skyscrapers, sacred temples and vibrant nightlife are just some of the ways to describe Thailand’s capital city. The incredible city has a lot to offer the hungry vegan traveller too with its countless options from local Thai dishes to Indian and your classic American hamburgers made vegetarian. There are upper scale restaurants where you can indulge in the most beautiful upmarket setting, and tiny family-run places, food courts and street food. You can’t go wrong with food in this city.
A plant-based restaurant using whole foods and minimal refined sugars, they offer an international menu ranging from Thai dishes and burgers to mezze, pancakes and vegan sushi with emphasis on fresh unprocessed foods striving for great tastes, delivering maximal nutrition and providing an ethical eating choice. Situated above Bangkok Fight Lab, diners can watch students training in martial arts and Muay Thai while enjoying their meal.
This deli and shop produce a variety of plant-based nut cheeses plus preserved and fermented vegetables and fruits. Meal options include burgers, sushi rolls, hummus, and lasagne. A few seats are available for eating on-site and they have an impressive selection of vegan offerings available as takeaways.
May’s Veggie Home
May’s Veggie Home is a 100% Vegan Cuisine and was established in Bangkok in 2011. This little vegan restaurant off Asok BTS is famous for its Thai, Japanese and Western vegan food using tofu or mock meats. Try May’s Veggie Burger as your main, followed by a slice of vegan chocolate cake. They also serve Vegan Ice Cream and allow you to customise your dish.
There is plenty of vegetarian food to enjoy in Phuket, especially during the annual Vegetarian Festival when the streets are lined with stalls selling entirely meat-free Thai dishes. During those nine days is one of the best times to visit Thailand as a vegan as you can eat to your heart’s content, without worrying about breaking your diet. Yellow signs and flags outside restaurants declaring them vegan are a regular sight across the island.
Veganised ‘junk food’ such as burgers with cheese and bacon, mac ‘n cheese with crispy bacon, creamy Caesar Salad with chicken strips, bacon bits and cheesy dressing. Established in mid-2019 it’s a firm favourite with the vegan community.
Atsumi Raw Café
If you follow a raw vegan diet you will love Atsumi Raw Café which serves raw vegan and vegetarian mains, desserts and a range of juices and smoothies. The café serves lovingly prepared raw vegan and raw vegetarian food wherever possible using locally sourced and organic ingredients.
Blue Elephant Restaurant
For fine dining, try Blue Elephant Restaurant in a splendid old Chinese-colonial-style mansion set in sprawling grounds near the heart of Phuket Old Town. Blue Elephant’s menu is a mix of new and classically ancient Phuket flavours. Choose from vegan dishes like Tofu in 3-Flavoured Sauce, Flowered Spring Rolls and Green Papaya Salad with Spicy Crushed Peanut Dressing.
- Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is one of the most vegan-friendly destinations in Thailand, if not the whole of Southeast Asia. According to some online listings, the city is home to more than 200 vegan-friendly restaurants, including some incredible street food options. A destination popular with ethical and spiritual travellers in Thailand, Chiang Mai serves up meat-free dishes such as Tom Yum soup and Pad Thai and is truly the mecca of all things vegan in Thailand.
Free Bird Café
Not only serving delicious vegan and vegetarian food but also part of a local Chiang Mai charity called Thai Freedom House, the restaurant is a social enterprise established in 2009 to help raise funds for families living in poverty and refugees from neighbouring Burma. The menu is based on Shan, Burmese, Thai, and western breakfast dishes, and they operate a zero-waste kitchen and work with local organic farmers. Also making their own almond and coconut milk for coffee and tea, smoothie bowls, juices, and milkshakes, it’s a wonderful place to visit for a meal.
A garden restaurant at the Green Tiger House Guesthouse inside Chiang Mai’s Old City, Reform Kafe offers lunch and dinner from a menu that features a variety of dishes and drinks. Fully vegan since 2017, Reform Kafé specialises in fresh garden salads, fruit juices, smoothies and excellent coffee. At the Green Tiger House, they use only USDA Certified organic rice, and all ingredients are locally sourced, organic or pesticide-free whenever possible.
Goodsouls Kitchen is one of the top-rated vegan restaurants in Chiang Mai, serving everything from traditional Thai cuisine to ‘meaty’ type dishes, like mushroom steak burgers. The upmarket vegan restaurant serves a wide selection of all-day breakfast items like tofu scramble and smoothie bowls plus dishes like veggie burgers with potato wedges, fresh spring rolls, curry with rice, falafel pita, penne pasta, pancakes with coconut whipped cream and papaya salad.
For more guidance download the Happy Cow App and be guided to the best plant-based eateries as you go.