Travelling as a vegan can be tricky at times, especially when dealing with language barriers, cultural differences and unknown food ingredients. To make things that little bit easier for globetrotting vegans we are pleased to present a series of travel guides covering the basics of getting good food around the world, starting with this look at the land of smiles and elephants, Thailand.
Vegan Thailand- How to say that you’re vegan.
Luckily the Thai have a word for vegan, more or less. “Jay” means strict vegetarian, no meat, dairy or egg (though you may inadvertently deny yourself onion, garlic or beer when announcing this). The word is written:
To say I eat vegan food use the phrase ‘chan gin jay’ if you’re a female or ‘pom gin jay’ if you’re a male. There is also a word for vegetarian “mang sa wee rat” which can be useful in some areas of the north where the term jay may not be recognised, which you can supplement with ‘chan/pom mai gin kai/aa-haan tee tam jaak nom’ which means ‘I don’t eat eggs/dairy products’. There is a useful pronunciation guide with audio here.
Places to eat
This guide will focus on three of the most visited areas in Thailand – Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket. We’ll look at some of the best vegetarian restaurants as well as things to do and traps to avoid, especially with regards to activities that may involve the exploitation of animals.
The kingdom’s capital has much to offer for the hungry vegan, with many veggie restaurants located around the Khao San road area. One of the first places to head in Bangkok is Ethos (behind the Burger King at the Tanao Road end).
You can lounge in Ethos for hours on the comfy floor cushions, sipping coffee and enjoying the free wi fi. There is a wide selection of dishes from both east and west, ranging from vegan lasagne and ‘meat’ ball spaghetti to Pad Thai and Tom Yum soup, for dessert the vegan option is chocolate cake with coconut cream.
A few doors down on each side are a couple of Mai Kaidee restaurants, which are great for grabbing a quick take away after a meal at Ethos (where the atmosphere is a little nicer). Some delicious meals include the pumpkin hommus, the papaya salad, and deep fried seaweed with chilli mango sauce. Mai Kaidee also offers daily vegetarian and vegan cooking classes.
We had heard great things about Anotai, but had also been warned that it would be hard to find. Anotai is located at 976/17 Soi Rama 9 Hospital in the Huay Kwang district, about twenty minutes or so by taxi from central Bangkok (in good traffic. In bad traffic bring a book!). The Happy Cow website has detailed information on how to get there.
The staff don’t speak much English but menus are bilingual and with a bit of pom mai this and pom mai that we were able to work out what was vegan easily enough. We ordered several exquisitely presented entrees, tempeh tempura with sweet and sour dip, nori wrapped tofu with wasabi dip and the Spicy tofu and cilantro dip. The menu also has an extensive Italian section, featuring dishes like spaghetti with asparagus and mustard white wine sauce. The food was exquisite and definitely worth the trip. If you want to tell the chef how much you loved the food, the phrase is ‘a roi’.
These are just a few of the many restaurants serving good vegan food in the Thai capital. Happy Cow contains an extensive list of many more vegetarian options in and around Bangkok.
Chiang Mai in the north is really the mecca of all things vegan in Thailand. You can walk almost anywhere you want to go and the few places you can’t are a short tuk tuk ride away. According to locals there are over 100 vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai.
Our first stop was Taste from Heaven, a spacious air conditioned vegetarian restaurant where a portion of the profits go to support Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued elephants (more on this below). Some highlights were the Tom Yum served in coconut, the Pumpkin curry and the Crispy Morning Glory, there are also a number of western dishes on the menu like the tofu burger and fries, and several spaghetti variations.
Taste from Heaven offer daily cooking classes in small groups of around four people, where you can choose any dishes from the menu (even the non vegan dishes can be veganised). We signed up and despite being the world’s worst cooks, spent several hours under the tutelage of patient head chef Nan grinding our own curry pastes, learning about local ingredients, discovering how to open a coconut with a machete, and plating a table full of delicious meals. At the end of it we were able to feast on our creations and bag the rest for takeaway.
Khun Churn, located at Nimmanhemin Soi 17, is the only restaurant mentioned here that involves any travel, though it’s only a ten minute tuk tuk trip. Set in a tranquil outdoors courtyard, for around two or three Australian dollars you can reload your plate as many times as you like from the huge lunch buffet of fresh curries, noodles, soups, salads, desserts and drinks. If none of this satisfies, you can also order from the menu which features Northern Thai dishes like the Khao Soi. The staff there didn’t speak much English so it may take a bit of effort to work out what’s vegan and what’s not, but it’s definitely worth the effort (there is also a Khun Churn in Bangkok, which if it’s anywhere as good as the Chiang Mai restaurant, is well worth a visit).
Like many of the vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai, we stumbled upon Juicy4U at 5 Ratchamanka Road by accident while walking around town. The colourful cafe specialises in smoothies and design your own sandwiches (just tick off the ingredients you want on a sheet of paper). Juicy4U also do a ‘full monty’ breakfast with veggie sausage, tomato, baked beans, mushrooms and toast.
Free Bird Cafe is a non profit cafe that raises funds for Hilltribe (many of the indigenous Hill Tribes are not given the same rights as the Thai people) and refugee families. We had tasty eggplant and hommus sandwiches under umbrellas in the outdoor cobbled path garden cafe. Apparently they are now selling peace cheese, a vegan pistachio based cheese. There is also a Chiang Mai Mai Kaidees which serves up the same delicious fares as the Bangkok counterparts.
No review of vegan food in Chiang Mai would be complete without mentioning the Chiang Mai vegetarian society. Located just outside the city walls at 42 Mahidol Road, the non profit dining hall provides simple fare like curries and fried tofu along with greens and rice or noodles. We were told the food would be ridiculously cheap, even by Chiang Mai standards, but we couldn’t tell for sure since both times we were there it was somebody’s birthday and all the food was free, all they asked was that you do your dishes on the way out.
Elephant Nature Park
If you’re in Chiang Mai a visit to Elephant Nature Park, an hours drive out of town, is essential. Nestled in a lush green valley, Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for rescued elephants from all over Thailand. You can visit for a day or overnight, or volunteer for a week or more. We stayed for a week and wished it was longer.
Many visitors to Thailand go on elephant treks, unaware of the great cruelty involved behind the scenes. Elephants in the Thai trekking industry are typically ‘broken’ using the practice of phaa jaan, which involves chaining the young elephant so that they are unable to move, and then literally beating and jabbing them with nail ended spears over a period of days until their spirit is completely broken. You can view video of this heartbreaking practice here. Any tourist who goes for an ‘elephant ride’ is unknowingly supporting the continuation of this animal abuse.
The rescued elephants at the sanctuary have survived working in the trekking industry, street begging and illegal logging. They have survived having feet blown off by landmines and eyes gouged out by angry ‘owners’ because they were not working hard enough. Now thanks to the Elephant Nature Park they are about to live out the rest of their lives in peace.
Volunteering at the sanctuary involves activities as varied as bathing and feeding the elephants, harvesting truckloads of corn with machetes, and basically helping out with whatever needs doing. Even if you don’t like elephants (joke! Who doesn’t like elephants?) it’s worth going for the food alone. Each day a huge delicious spread of Northern Thai food and an assortment of hot chips, vege sausages, springs rolls and so forth is laid out. Unfortunately there is some meat served but 90% of the food is vegan, and all the non-vegan foods were always pointed out to us by the kitchen.
Compared to Chiang Mai, Phuket is a big island, relatively expensive to get around, and doesn’t offer that much for the vegan. The one massive exception is the annual Vegetarian Festival, which is the largest vegetarian festival in the world. For nine days each year it is celebrated around Thailand, but in particular on Phuket Island.
The festival is rather bizarre, with the most notable feature being daily parades of devotees self mutilating in inventively gruesome ways to ‘invoke the gods’, including hot coal walking, tongue chopping and extreme face skewering. What any of this has to do with vegetarianism we never did work out, but it was fascinating to watch nonetheless.
During the festival street vendors serve up all vegan food. You can walk down the street and safely eat anything without concern. Although deep fried tofu, deep fried mock meat or anything else it is possible to deep fry, was the overriding theme – quickly turning us into human grease traps. The ceremonies centre around Phuket Town but the whole island is in on the festivities, even the 7-Elevens were covered in ‘jay’ signs, with jay food clearly labelled.
Outside of the festival, there are a handful of vegetarian restaurants on Phuket. Those we visited were largely unmemorable dining hall style Chinese mock meat cafes. Patong is the most renowned beach area in Phuket, but you should pack a lunch as there are no vegetarian restaurants. And if seeing sex tourists, lizards on leashes and stall after stall of fake Gucci bags (at least they’re probably non leather) is not your thing, there are many other beaches to visit.
Several times we were approached by people with gibbons offering to take our photo in exchange for money. This is always a bad idea. Gibbons are taken from the wild and exploited as tourist attractions, in order to get the baby gibbon the poachers have to kill the parents (and often the babies are killed as they fall from the canopy). It is illegal to have a gibbon in captivity so if you see this happening please let the police know.
There you have it, a beginners guide to Vegan Thailand. If you come across any out of date information, know of a great place we’ve missed, or have any useful tips, let us know in the comments. Sawatdee!