After spending ten weeks scouring street food vendors and local markets for dinner and pulling chicken out of my ‘vegetarian’ dishes, I decided to write an ultimate survival guide for vegetarians travelling through South East Asia.
How easy it is to be vegetarian in South East Asia?
The answer is: easy if you know how!
Start by eating local food as much as possible, not only will this save you money but you’ll get a more authentic glimpse into the local culture than you would do eating in western restaurants. I usually Google my destination plus the phrase ‘local street food’ to find the hotspots. Even if I turn up and can’t find anything to eat (which has never happened), I know I’ll still enjoy the experience of mixing with the locals. To find vegetarian eateries in Asia, you can also use Happy Cow, a website and app that lists vegetarian and vegan restaurants.
Here are a few of the go-to local vegetarian dishes I discovered while travelling through some of South East Asia’s most popular destinations…
Singapore and Malaysia
These countries are home to many ethnic communities that I wasn’t aware of before visiting. For example, there’s a colourful district in Singapore known as Little India, where you’ll find the Tekka Centre, which offers Chinese, North Indian and Malay food, a lot of which is vegetarian. This is a great place to come as a solo traveller because you’re amongst the locals in open seating with different stalls to choose from. My personal favourite was the mixed vegetable curry and for dessert, chocolate and banana prate. If you’re keen to really immerse yourself in local culture, you’ll be eating food with your hands, just as the locals do!
One of the most popular dishes in Thailand is pineapple fried rice, a delicious medley of sweet, savoury and aromatic flavours. The hollow of half the pineapple is filled with an array of cooked vegetables and rice. If you love noodles, you’ll be obsessed with Pad Thai and most places I visited had a veggie option. I first tried this iconic dish after one too many drinks and OMG, what a discovery. Other great Thai vegetarian dishes that I wasn’t able to try include mango sticky rice and papaya salad, but there’s always a next time.
After hiring a tuk-tuk driver for the day for a mere $20, my Cambodian travel buddy and I set off on a tour around the area to discover what it had to offer. The driver stopped by the road side several times and picked out wild chilli’s and plants that I had no idea we could eat. We weren’t disappointed as we pulled up in the middle of nowhere outside what looked like someone’s house and were offered Kralan; sticky rice with red beans, sugar, grated coconut and coconut milk roasted in a bamboo shoot. Again, my sweet tooth got the better of me but since it cost around $1, I couldn’t complain.
Head to the Duck Stop in Phong Nha National Park to experience Gỏi cuốn. These tasty spring rolls can be cooked with either meat or veggies, so make sure to order the right type. They also may give you shrimp sauce, which I had the misfortune of dipping into, but I couldn’t get enough of the peanut version. After eating, you’ll have the pleasure of feeding the ducks, which is an incredibly strange and funny experience, as the staff make you sit down on the floor and throw bird seed on you, it’s almost like a free massage unless you’re ticklish.
You also have the chance to see cute baby water buffaloes during your visit if it’s the right season and meet the infamous buffalo named ‘Donald Trump’ up close! I’d recommend skipping the option to ride him though, for animal welfare reasons. With that in mind, here are my top five tips for travelling as a vegetarian in South East Asia:
Below are some examples:
This is something I wish I’d done whilst I was picking chicken out of my food in Vietnam. This can be a big problem as the meat is not always noticeable, so sometimes the more basic the food you eat, the better.
My bonus tip when travelling in South East Asia is…
Learn to use chop sticks, that way you can impress any travel buddies you meet and the folks back home. I remember sitting in a Chinese quarter not being able to use them and getting very frustrated but I didn’t give up, and… eventually it just clicked and I didn’t even realise I was doing it. It definitely helps when you ‘go local’ and there’s no knives and forks.
Overall, South East Asia is a great place if you’re vegetarian, the fruit is so much sweeter than back home and there’s infinite choice. You can get a fabulously full stomach and for a miniscule price too. If you follow my suggestions, you shouldn’t have a problem with the food, you might even find yourself trying something you’d never even dreamed of… Bon Appetite!