Ah, Thailand. Home of limestone cliffs, palm trees and terrific beaches. Or at least, that’s what I hoped when I came here. Unfortunately, everything is a little bit touristy across the kingdom so the reality is tinged a bit by commerce and capitalism. However, for vegans this is still an incredible country to visit. While Thailand does unfortunately suffer in vegan estimations due to animal rights issues such as animal shows, elephant rides and more, if you’re looking to eat an animal-product free diet and to see nature first-hand, this is a wonderful place to visit.
Unfortunately, there are lots of pitfalls to avoid and you may be despairing when looking around restaurants for any sign of a vegetarian option. Here are our top tips for eating vegan food in Thailand.
‘Jay’ – Eat Like The Monks
First tip, there’s a section of Thai society that eat vegan – the monks. ‘Jay’ restaurants or jay options are therefore vegan by default, also omitting ‘smelly’ veg such as garlic and onions. The sign for ‘jay’ looks similar to the number 17, so seek this out where possible. If not possible, you can always say ‘Pom Gin Jay’ or ‘Chan Gin Jay’ which means I eat jay depending if you’re male or female respectively.
When we were in Lamai on Koh Samui, we discovered a spot called “Lamai Veggie” run by a lovely little Thai lady. All of her food was ‘jay’… take a look at one of her delicious set menus below.
Download Happy Cow (but don’t listen to opening times)
The Happy Cow app is a great way to find vegan options across the globe, and that’s no less true in Thailand. It enables you to enter your location and whether you want vegan only, vegetarian or veg-options and then navigate by distance. So far, there has always been at least one fully vegan spot within 10 miles of us in the Gulf of Thailand.
However, opening times listed are rarely correct – so double check these before heading to a spot and being disappointed. That’s happened to us on more than a few occasions. The app is an international community, so if you spot any wrong information or visit somewhere that’s no longer open, you can pop a note on the Happy Cow listing to help out other travelers!
Be Clear – They’ll Understand
If the jay like doesn’t work, you can also be very clear with Thai restaurants and street vendors. ‘NO EGG’ ‘NO MILK’ (although almost all vendors use coconut milk and not dairy) ‘NO FISH SAUCE’ ‘NO MEAT’ – all said clearly will generally net good results. Often, the vendors on the street who hand prepare the food in front of you are better choices than big restaurants.
Avoid Fish Sauce
Fish Sauce is used for cooking a lot in Thailand, but alternatives are available – so just be clear as stated above and ask vendors to omit it from your meal. You may be met with funny looks, but it’s worth doing to avoid an unnecessary cruelty. To be honest though, we found most places either didn’t use it or were happy to omit it.
Keep Your Eyes Open
You’d be surprised how many non-veg restaurants offer delicious veggie offerings. Many Thai dishes are vegan by default, such as Papaya Salad, so it’s always worth perusing the menu and seeing if there’s anything you fancy. If there isn’t, take the tips above and ask them to make you something unique. Unlike the UK, you probably won’t get a basic bowl of salad and chips as your default vegan consolation prize.
Eat Lots and Lots Of Fruit
The fruit in Thailand is some of the best in the world. The mangoes are absolutely delicious, the smaller bananas are so sweet they can be eaten in servings of ten at a time, their passionfruit is delicious, etc etc. They even have fruit you may have never tried before – such as a mangosteen and rambutan, both of which are delicious little fruit with white edible centres that is insanely sweet.
For quite a few days, Ellen and I had a breakfast of bananas and mango. When we didn’t fancy that, or were unable to get our hands on fresh fruit, we bought cheap fresh smoothies for about 30-40 baht each. A great way to hydrate and energise for the day ahead.
Drink Smoothies (But Omit Sugar Syrup)
Smoothies, as stated above, are a great way to consume the myriad choices of fantastic fruits in Thailand – and make a lovely light breakfast if you’re on the go or want to keep costs down. However, even in ‘Fresh fruit smoothies’ most vendors add sugar syrup from a bag. I’d omit this although it is vegan, simply to keep your teeth and your body slightly healthier. Why add artificial sweetener to nature’s sweetest offerings? Side note: mango and passionfruit shakes are something else.
Be Wary of Durian
Durian fruit is a delicacy beloved in South East Asia, but is also one that comes with its own unique risk. It absolutely stinks – to the point consuming it is banned in many hotels and in the back of taxis. If you’re going to choose to try it, make sure you do it outdoors and then wash your hands a few times. It reeks.
Visit The 7 Eleven
The local 7 Eleven’s have a surprising array of vegan-friendly snacks, including dried fruit that is absolutely delicious and is great to pack for a hike or traveling trip such as a long bus journey. They’ve also got options like Nori crisps, pea snacks and other quick fixes that can stave off hunger til you find a proper eatery.
This isn’t about food, but Thailand has a love affair with plastic. From single use bags to straws, it seems they try to give you plastic with everything. To help save the environment, bring some reusable bags with you. We brought metal water bottles and sporks, but sadly forgot about the straws. We wish we’d had them.
LET’S TALK ABOUT PLASTIC Travelling Thailand has truly challenged our abilities to live ethically, producing minimum waste. In a country where you can’t drink the tap water, and free filtered water taps are rare, we’re really struggling to live our values here on Koh Samui 😞 However, we’re making small efforts every day to minimise our impact on the local environment, for example we take our own produce bags to the fruit stalls (instead of single use plastic ones), we carry sporks in case we want to tuck into a treat like this tub of delicious passion fruit sorbet and we always have a few tote bags on hand for anything we may need to carry… 🍦🍴 What are your top tips for living low waste in a country like Thailand where plastic is so prevalent? Let us know below! ♥️🌏
Go To Koh Phan’gan
Koh Phan’gan, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of, is an absolute vegan heaven. Not only does it have an insane amount of vegan restaurants (which tend to be fairly upscale and kind of expensive for Thailand) they also have stalls and normal street markets that offer vegan options and visibly advertise this with signage. I don’t know exactly why veganism is loved so much here – perhaps it’s something to do with the yoga-centric influence on the west of the island or perhaps the high amount of tourists that descend for the full moon party, but honestly Koh Phan’gan seems to have gotten it right. Head to Phan’tip night market and find a stall with a woman selling vegan food for 80 baht a meal, or head to a more upmarket restaurant like pure vegan heaven and dine on a 190 baht bowl of deliciousness. The beautiful island is a must-visit place for vegans in Thailand. Read our full guide to eating vegan on Koh Phan’gan here.
There we have it, our top tips for eating vegan in Thailand. Whether you’re worried about eating in the land of smiles or you’re unsure of what to expect, we’d just like to reassure you that you don’t really need to worry. It’s a pleasure to eat vegan here and Thai cuisine and culture is something you just have to experience.