Travelling as a vegan or vegetarian can sometimes seem like the biggest challenge in the world. Now try it when you’re backpacking in Southeast Asia! You’re probably thinking this would be super difficult, right? Seafood, fish oil, meat in every dish… But you’re wrong! Southeast Asia, and particularly Thailand, has an abundance of vegetarian dishes on offer, many of which can be easily adapted to be vegan. Here’s our guide to backpacking in Thailand with dietary restrictions!
Thailand is known for loving fish sauce and adding it to just about everything, so we can see why you would think that travelling with dietary restrictions would be difficult. However, there is an abundance of vegetarian dishes that already have a permanent place in Thai cuisine! So being a vegetarian backpacker requires very little effort. In fact, many people choose to eat vegetarian dishes while backpacking in Thailand because it’s cheaper and because it tends to be easier to get an upset stomach from street food with meat in it than just tasty veggies.
Chinese Buddhism is very popular in Thailand, so the average Thai person is well aware of the dietary restrictions that are linked to religion. Chinese Buddhists do not eat seafood or animal by-products, so the average Thai person is very familiar with the concept of veganism – they’ll just understand the concept by a different name. Othering a Buddhist monk dish at a restaurant is a sure-fire way to ensure that your meal is going to be vegan. No meat broth and no secret dashes or fish oil to add a bit of flavour; religion is very important in Thai culture so Chinese Buddhist dietary restrictions are very well respected.
Street food market in Chiang Mai
Here are some useful phrases for when you’re ordering food:
- ฉันมังสวิรัติ mang sa wee rat – I am vegetarian
- มีอาหารมังสวิรัติไหม Mee ahaan mangsawirat mai – Do you have any vegetarian food?
- กินเจ gin jay – I eat vegan
- มีอาหารเจไหม Mee ahaan jay mai? – Do you have any vegan food?
- ไม่ใส่ mai sai – without/don’t add
- ไก่ gai – chicken
- ไข่ kai – egg
- หมู moo – pork
- เนื้อ nuua – beef
- กุ้ง goong – shrimp
- น้ำปลา nam plaa – fish sauce
- ซอสหอยนางรม sot hooi naang rom – oyster sauce
If you order a jay dish, you’ll automatically receive a dish without seafood, animal by-products, oyster sauce and fish sauce.
Since it might be difficult to get a sense of the pronunciation of these phrases, here are some recordings to listen to!
Pad Thai Jay, served with tofu instead of meat
Now it’s time for the moment you’ve been waiting for – the best dishes to order in Thailand. This is list isn’t exhaustive, so don’t be disheartened because there are so many more dishes you could order or alter to fit your diet; we just picked the most popular ones! To make the below dishes suitable for vegetarians, meat can easily be swapped out for tofu. Tofu is widely used in Thai cuisine so most restaurants and food stalls will have it to hand already.
- Pad Thai: stir-fried rice noodles served with vegetables. Ask for this dish as ‘Pad Thai Jay’ to have it without meat, shrimps, oyster sauce and fish sauce, and swap the meat for tofu for some extra protein.
- Fried Rice: stir-fried rice with a variety of vegetables. Ask for this dish ‘gin jay’ to be made without fish sauce and eggs.
- Red Thai Curry: spiciest of the Thai curries usually served with meat and vegetables. Swap the meat for tofu or just stick with veggies. Can include shrimp paste so ask for it without.
- Green Thai Curry: one of the most popular curries, usually slightly sweeter than Red. Ask for it to be made without chicken stock and fish sauce. Swap the meat for tofu or stick with the vegetables, you know the drill!
- Yellow Thai Curry: similar to green curry but different in colour, also served with meat and a variety of vegetables. Usually made using fish sauce so ask for it without, swap the meat for tofu and enjoy!
- Massaman Curry: rich, mild curry served with meat, potatoes and peanuts. Check for beef stock, shrimp paste and fish sauce, it sounds like a lot but most serving staff or stall owners will be more than happy to accommodate.
- Green Papaya Salad: papaya served with lime dressing, usually a bit spicy. Double check that there is not ground shrimp included and you’re good to go.
- Spring Rolls: rice noodles and a variety of vegetables wrapped in a round skin, can be served fresh or deep fried.
- Satay: skewered meat served in a peanut-y sauce. Swap the meat for tofu for a delicious vegan and veggie option.
- Mango Sticky Rice: sweet mango served with rice cooked in coconut milk. This one is naturally vegan – score!
- Smoothies: blended fruit with either water or milk, served from street stalls. If ordering a smoothie with milk, ask for coconut milk instead.
Mango sticky rice, the most popular Thai dessert and it’s already vegan!
Want to try these delicious dishes for yourself? Check out our 13-day backpacking tour of Thailand and Laos or our 31-day Southeast Asia Loop! Or drop us a message in the chat box below to find out more.