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:
- Avoid animal exploitation – as a vegetarian and responsible traveller, you’ll want to avoid all forms of animal exploitation, which in Asia include elephant rides, snake farms and tiger temples. Instead, look for ethical sanctuaries to visit and avoid anything that involves touching animals or using them as photo props.
- Stock up on fresh fruit – tropical fruit is available everywhere for a great price. Head to the local market where there’s so much more choice than back home. You’ll also be helping the locals rather than large corporate companies. Durian is a must-try Asian fruit, famous for its smell and not in the good kind of way. Funnily enough, I caught a girl eating this in the hostel dorm round the corner after she had made the whole room smell! Mangosteen was a favourite of mine due to the sweet tropical taste, other treats include dragon fruit, lychee and bananas.
- Cook where you’re staying – if the facilities allow, it will cut costs but more importantly, you’ll know what you’re consuming. Shop from local markets to create a healthy home-cooked dish. For something quick, visit a 7-Eleven. This chain of convenience stores is located everywhere and you can buy a range of food, from ‘Lays’ crisps (similar to Walkers) to pizza slices and chocolate. A Candian girl and I used this whilst in Hong Kong to buy alcohol, where we stood outside a bar chatting to people and drinking for a much better price. Most importantly, you’ll need this shop for water unless you’re in somewhere like Singapore, where tap water is okay to drink.
- Don’t be afraid to treat yourself – it’s ok to eat in upmarket restaurants occasionally, as I know it can be tiresome looking for meat-free food constantly. For instance, towards the end of my trip in Hong Kong I enjoyed Michelin star vegetarian dining at One Dim Sum, gorging on vegetable dumplings, sesame seed balls and sweet corn congee, which was all well worth the more expensive price tag. I discovered this with an Australian and Canadian girl, what a mix! This restaurant is a must-try if you ever find yourself in Hong Kong… mmmmmmm.
- Learn the word for vegetarian – this will make it so much easier to order food in Asia and will help you avoid fish sauce, shrimp paste and animal stock. It’s best to find the word ‘vegetarian’ in each language, Google Translate is a great tool for this.
Below are some examples:
- Vietnamese – ăn chay
- Cambodia (Kmer) – buos
- Chinese – 素 or sù
- Malay – vegetarian is fine
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!