A Vegan Travel Guide to Southeast Asia

Vegan meal Southeast Asia

As a vegan traveller who loves to explore Southeast Asia, I’m a true believer that food should not be a barrier to how or where we travel. However, for many travellers who have recently adopted a vegan lifestyle or those who have dietary restrictions such as food intolerances and allergies to certain foods (such as peanuts), there is still cause for concern when planning a journey to a new place. 

As a vegan, you may be thinking…

  • What will I eat? 
  • Does the local food cater for dietary preferences?  
  • Will people be offended if I decline a meal?
  • What can I do about my food allergies? 

If you’re planning a trip to Southeast Asia – I’m here to help! In this guide, we’ll look at vegan travel in Southeast Asia and provide you with helpful tips, advice and inspiration for your next adventure!


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Top Southeast Asia Destinations for Vegan Travellers

Travel anywhere in Southeast Asia, and you’ll find an exciting food scene, with everything from quick bites, late-night street food to fine dining options.  Luckily for plant-based backpackers, the vegan scene is equally impressive. If you are planning a trip to Southeast Asia, check out the quick overviews of the best vegan-friendly countries below…

Vegan Vietnam 

Fresh herbs, sweet and sour, rice, noodles, bowls of Pho, and sweet, strong coffee; Vietnamese food is vibrant, colourful and delicious. However,  due to the prevalence of ingredients like fish sauce, oyster sauce, shrimp paste, egg, and meat-based stocks, it can be difficult to find strictly vegan dishes in the country. 

Understandably, backpackers will want to try the most famous Vietnamese dish, Pho – but be careful of the non-vegan ingredients, especially the stock which is often made from chicken or beef. 

You can also try Xoi Chay, or sticky rice served with vegetables, Banh Mi Chay (the famous street style sandwich but with tofu and salad) or the delicious Che Chuoi, a sweet treat made from banana cooked in coconut milk with sago pearls. 

You will even find a range of 100% vegan restaurants in many of the major cities in Vietnam.

Boat in Vietnam
Vietnam is an upcoming destination for vegans.

Vegan Malaysia

In many cases, vegetarian food is common in Malaysia, but finding vegan food can still bea challenge. This is also the situation with traditional Malaysian food, but you can find delicious plant-based meals across the region with a bit of searching. 

Malay, Indian, Chinese, Nonya and Thai flavours influence the cuisine, with everything from Laksa to wok-fried noodles and sweet desserts. If you are vegan, be sure to try some of the 100% vegetarian Indian restaurants (often in the style of a buffet restaurant where you get to eat all you can!). They serve the famous banana leaf dish where south Indian food is eaten directly from a fresh banana leaf. 

Other popular Malay dishes that can be vegan include the excellent Nasi Kandar, which comes with steamed rice, mixed vegetables, okra, potato and imitation meat curry (request no boiled egg or meat). You can  also try the vegan Laksa with coconut milk, vegetables, rice noodles and tofu puffs. 

Vegan Thailand

Thailand is much loved for its delicious, spicy, flavour-packed cuisine. Fried chicken and pork are balanced with rice, vegetables and salad, but meat and seafood make up the majority of the fare. 

The vegan food scene, however, has been gaining popularity in the capital city of Bangkok, and the sister city of Chiang Mai is now considered one of the most vegan-friendly destinations in Southeast Asia, with over 200 restaurants in the area serving vegan options. Many traditional dishes are already vegetarian such as Pad Phak (mixed vegetables), Pak Boong (morning glory), Pad Thai (fried noodles) and Som Tam (papaya salad). 

Many vegetarian dishes often contain non-vegan ingredients in the sauce, like shrimp paste, oyster sauce and fish sauce. Dishes are sometimes also served with egg or dried shrimp, so you will have to request a vegan version. 

Thai man cooking
Thai food is a favourite of many travellers.

Tip – In Thai language, to tell a restaurant that you are vegetarian you can say “kin jai”. The word ‘jai’ here refers to the religion of Jainism, originating in India, where the believers follow a strict vegan diet. Vegetarianism and veganism in Thailand are often synonymous amongst Thai speakers as the word ‘jai’ means that you do not eat animal products at all. It’s a helpful word as it gets the seriousness of your dietary requirements across to the server as they regard it as an almost religious necessity. However, if you are a vegetarian who eats dairy products, you might want to elaborate on what you do and don’t eat.

Vegan Singapore

The melting pot of Singapore’s culinary scene makes this one of the most exciting destinations for vegan foodies. From budget street eats at hawker food centres to high-end restaurants serving world-class dining experiences – the food scene here is a must-try. 

Popular vegan restaurant guides list over 50 dedicated vegan-only eateries in central Singapore so you have plenty of options. 

The staple dishes of Singapore are not precisely vegan-friendly; think Hainanese chicken rice, chilli crab and fish head curry. However, vegetarian and vegan ingredients like tofu, rice, noodles, mock meat and soy milk are often used in local dishes.

Vegan Indonesia 

The home of tempeh, Indonesia’s food scene may come as  a pleasant surprise for vegan foodies. A lot of familiar dishes in Indonesia are vegan (or at least vegetarian) without intention, and the cuisine offers a wide range of vegetables that are enjoyed daily with tofu, tempeh and rice. 

You will notice that the traditional dishes often feature something fried – called gorengan or goreng (fried). At a local warung (food place), you can almost always find fried tofu, fried tempeh, steamed rice, and a mix of vegetable sides such as green beans, jackfruit curry, spinach, carrot or potato. 

A few of the best vegetarian dishes are easy to ‘veganise’ by asking for no egg and no chicken/fish. Many dishes consist of steamed rice and a selection of side plates, so you can simply select which vegetables go into your mixed salad. This ‘made to order’ food culture makes it easier to avoid meat or seafood than in some other destinations in the region.

Don’t leave Indonesia without trying Gado Gado and Ketoprak (vegetable salads with peanut sauce), Nasi Goreng Sayur (vegetable fried rice) or Kupat Tahu (tofu with peanut sauce and steamed rice cake). If you are visiting the famous island of Bali (which in recent years has developed a big hipster scene, particularly around the area of Canggu), you will have no trouble finding a vegan cafe that serves a 100% plant-based menu; the options are endless!  

Tempeh dish, Indonesia
Tempeh is traditional vegan-friendly Javanese food.

Vegan Cambodia

Cambodian cuisine, also known as Khmer cuisine, is delicate and wonderfully fresh. Travelling through Cambodia, you will soon discover a simplicity to the food as it is not as spicy as some of the food from neighbouring countries. Featuring sweet desserts, rice, grilled fish, street snacks and sticky rice; Cambodia’s food scene is a surprising treat! 

Cambodia shares land borders with Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, which have all influenced the food. Banana flower salad, pomelo salad, grilled rice cakes filled with banana, mung bean and coconut, sticky rice steamed in bamboo, and tofu amok curry are all plant-based dishes found across Cambodia. Like other Southeast Asian countries that rely on seafood as part of their diet, fish sauce, shrimp paste, fermented fish and oyster sauce are also used in many traditional recipes so watch out.

The majority of the population (over 95%) practice Theravada Buddhism, and much of this diet is centred around vegetarian food. Ask for the dish called Somlor Proher which is soup served with fish and fermented fish. However, make sure you ask for it  “mhob bouh,” which means “as the monks eat”. 

Vegan India 

Considered a foodie paradise by many, the idea of summarising Indian food in a few paragraphs seems impossible. India is already known for being a fantastic destination for vegetarian travellers, but what about vegans?

As a vegan, there are a few things you need to know about Indian cooking. Ghee (clarified butter), milk, yoghurt, and cream are used as a base for many dishes. Creamy curry sauce, warm masala chai, buttered naan, yoghurt or milk-based desserts are all popular across the region. In fact, it could be said that no other cuisine relies so heavily on dairy products. So, what can you eat if you’re vegan?  

Vegetable Biryani (rice and vegetables), pakoras (fried fritters), dosa (thin pancake) served with dal (lentils), dal tadka (yellow lentils), pani puri (fried flatbread with vegetable filling), vegetable samosa (fried pastry with vegetable filling), chana masala (chickpeas in gravy),  aloo gobi (potato & cauliflower), and saag aloo (spinach and potato) are just a few of the dishes on offer for vegans. 

Now for a  few tips travelling to India as a vegan. Almost all the sweets and desserts contain milk, butter, cream, or honey so be sure to double-check the ingredients before you buy. Ask to swap out ghee/butter for vegetable oil when possible, ask for soy or coconut milk when ordering tea/chai, and avoid naan bread as it often contains milk.   

Deep fried snacks
Indian food is popular with vegetarians but vegans will need to exercise more caution.

Vegan Travel in Southeast Asia

Being vegan requires you to up your creativity. The easiest way to find vegan options in local food spots is to swap the meat, eggs and seafood for fresh fruits, vegetables, local grains, tofu and tempeh. At the moment, vegan food is not yet at the forefront, but it is still possible to find.

In case you’ve been considering going vegan while you travel Southeast Asia, here are a  few statistics which may persuade you:

  • Asia’s seafood and meat consumption is estimated to increase  78% by 2050.
  • The Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam will lead the demand growth for meat products.
  •  Indonesia’s meat consumption is estimated to overtake India by 2036.
  • Livestock farming contributes to global warming.
  • Animal farming uses over 70% of the water supply available to humans and is incredibly resource-heavy.
  • Livestock requires land, which is one of the leading causes of deforestation.
  •  In Southeast Asia, vegetarian and vegan product launches have increased by 440% since 2016.
  • Consumer demand for meat alternatives is increasing with the rise of the vegan movement around the world. 

Vegetarian vs Vegan: What is the Difference?

A vegetarian diet removes meat and seafood but includes animal-derived products such as dairy, eggs and honey. Many people living in Southeast Asia have adopted a vegetarian diet for religious or spiritual purposes. 

A 100% plant-based diet (vegan) removes all animal products, including meat and seafood, plus animal-derived ingredients like dairy, eggs and honey. The main food groups are vegetables, fruit, grains and plant-based alternatives.  

History and Religion of Veganism and Vegetarianism in Asia

In Southeast Asia, plant-based foods are not new.

Did you know that the vegetarian diet has been evident all over the world for thousands of years? Vegetarianism has long played a significant role in society for moral, religious, and economic reasons.

According to Didier Chanove, who is Head of Marketing at Unilever Food Solutions and active within The Vegetarian Butcher brand, “People in this region have been eating tofu, tempeh and mock meats for a long time, and they are ubiquitous in street food and hawker centres.”

In Asia, the vegetarian diet came to the fore as a result of teachings in critical religious texts. For example, in ancient Hindu Sanskrit, Ahimsa (non-violence) is encouraged, along with the abstention from killing and eating animals. 

This is evident across other spiritual philosophies such as Buddhism too. For anyone who has travelled across predominantly Hindu locations, you may have noticed how sacred the cow is and learnt that Hindu’s do not eat beef. 

The Vegetarian Society explains, “Any history of vegetarianism would be incomplete without mentioning the contribution made by Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote extensively on the subject. Vegetarianism was central to his life and was informed by the ascetic life of his mother Putlibai, Jainism, his politics and, of course, Hinduism”.

Buddhism is widely practised across Southeast Asia. However,the view of whether Buddhists should be vegetarian differs depending on the philosophy that is followed or taught. For those who practice Mahayana Buddhism, the discipline of a vegetarian diet is very important. 

Buddha sculpture, Marble Mountain, Da Nang, Vietnam.
Some movements in Buddhism encourage a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Mahayana Buddhism is followed throughout China, Vietnam, Japan, and Korea. The use of meat, fish, or insects is prohibited and garlic, onion, and other strong flavours are not permitted in the diet. 

Today, there are a number of reasons why someone may choose a vegetarian or vegan diet – even if it does not play a central role in their religion or spiritual journey. The rising global awareness of the damage that meat and dairy are causing to the planet has led many to go vegan because of environmental concerns, animal welfare anxieties and also for their health. 

When we think of Southeast Asia, temples and shrines across places like India, Thailand and Cambodia spring to mind. However, did you know that Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world? 

Over 225 million Muslims live in Indonesia and just across from Bali is the gateway to the famous Gili Islands, Lombok, known as the ‘Island of 1000 Mosques’. While a vegetarian diet is not commonly followed in Islam, Muslims are not permitted to eat pork, and those who do eat meat must follow Halal laws. 

Tips for Vegan Travellers in Southeast Asia

Street Food

In Southeast Asia, street food is a part of daily life, and offers a way to enjoy the local cuisine at an affordable price.It is both something to marvel at and also be inspired by. However, for anyone with dietary restrictions, eating street food can be incredibly overwhelming.

Street Food Vendors

Here are my tips for surviving the maze of street food and food markets in Southeast Asia as a vegan:

  • Eat in popular vegan spots.  Long lines are usually a good thing.
  • Go where the meals are prepared fresh to ensure food is still hot when it is served. 
  • Be mindful of eating salad and uncooked food at street stalls and hawker centres. If you are concerned about hygiene, it is worth knowing that these kinds of foods are often washed in water you wouldn’t be advised to drink.. 
  • Street food throughout this region is packed with flavour, but as a traveller, we can’ t always handle the volume of chilli and MSG. Learning how to communicate (no chilli and no MSG) in the local language will be very helpful if you plan on eating a lot of street food on your journey!
Vegan food market
Be aware of hygiene when consuming raw food or buying food from markets.

Hawker Centres

Here are my tips for surviving the hawker stalls as a vegan:

  • Look for the vegetarian options, then customise the dish, so it is vegan.
  • Find rice-based dishes like fried rice, rice porridge, rice noodles or sticky rice.These are usually easier to order with just vegetables or using meat alternatives.
  • Avoid soup, broth, curry and other premade meals if you aren’t sure of their ingredients, as they are usually made with meat or seafood.
  • Drinks at hawker centres will usually be plentiful and include traditional items such as local tea and coffee, cendol and coconut milk-based sweets, red bean, grass jelly and mixed fruit. Fresh fruit juice is always an option too!
  • Fried desserts or snacks like pancakes, cakes and fried vegetables sometimes use batter containing eggs or milk – so be sure to check with the seller. 

Cafes and Restaurants

If you are in a popular tourist area, most cafes and restaurants will have a vegetarian/vegan option on the menu.

  • Search for vegan cafes on your food app or in Google Maps .
  • Ask your accommodation provider if there is a vegan cafe they recommended nearby.
  • If you are travelling to an area where vegan food is hard to find, consider ordering a  takeaway, so you’ll have something for later (if refrigeration is not an issue).
  • Many destinations across Southeast Asia now cater to tourists and realise the need for various options such as vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, nut-free. This is an exciting time for food travellers to find new vegan options.
Vegan Cafe, Koh Phangan, Thailand
A vegan cafe in Koh Phangan, Thailand.

Non-Vegan Ingredients To Look Out For

The following animal by-products are used in everyday meals and are sometimes hidden in sauce, stock and seasoning in dishes like curry, soup and sweet snacks. 

Seafood

  • Many dishes come with a side of prawn crackers that contain shrimp. 
  • Small shrimp are often fried and served on top of stir fry and noodle dishes like Pad Thai.
  • Shrimp paste is commonly found in condiments and sauces like sambal or chilli paste. 
  • Fish and oyster sauce is widely used across Southeast Asia, particularly in destinations such as Vietnam and Thailand.

Egg

  • Featured widely across the cuisine as a commonly used ingredient.
  • Egg is often fried and served next to rice and noodle dishes, scrambled through fried rice, added to desserts or boiled and served with soups or breakfast dishes.
  • You can even find an egg in coffee in Vietnam!

Dairy

  • Sweet milk or condensed milk and carnation milk are often added to coffee and tea as refrigeration is not required.
  •  Overall, dairy is not a widely used ingredient as it is often replaced with coconut milk.
  • Look out for ingredients like yoghurt, milk powder and skimmed milk powder. Some non-dairy creamers also contain trace amounts of milk. 

How to Decline Non-Vegan Meal Invitations 

Declining a non-vegan meal does not need to be as challenging as we make it. But, to be truthful, we tend to overthink things. 

Communication and planning are key. Before you arrive at an occasion, try to advise your host, friend group, travel tour agency, etc., of your dietary requirements or food allergies. 

If you are vegan – check to see if there is a vegan option and if not, bring something with you so you can eat at the same time as everyone else and share the experience. 

Alternatively, you can also offer to cook so that you can share  fantastic vegan food with your peers. 

Unfortunately, travel is often spontaneous. Sometimes, it just isn’t possible to plan. Perhaps you get invited to a family event, a wedding, or a traditional ceremony, and you find you can not eat the majority of what is on the menu. Don’t panic. There is always the option to decline politely. 

Many people abstain from certain ingredients for health, religious, spiritual, cultural reasons, and you will find that this is not a big deal! The kindness of strangers is appreciated in many ways and does not always need to involve sharing a meal. 

Instead, invite your new friends or family for a coffee, explore somewhere new or cook a vegan meal together. Embrace the moment as an opportunity to learn something new and grow from the experience.

Food Tourism: An Overview

Food tourism, as suggested by Food Trekkers, “is simply a matter of travelling beyond your immediate neighbourhood to find great food.”

So, could vegan food tourism be the next big thing in travel? Food tourism explores  the importance of new cuisine when visiting a destination. Food connects us to a specific memory, a shared experience, and no holiday would be complete without the ability to taste and savour fresh ingredients and dishes along the way. 

Finding 100% plant-based options can be a little overwhelming for vegans if you are not familiar with the local food scene. Thankfully, more vegan options are popping up all over Southeast Asia. There are now vegan restaurants, plant-based cafes and shops, cooking classes, and food tours all catering to vegans and those with special dietary requirements. 

Vegan noodles
There are now cooking classes and food tours available for vegan travellers.

GlobalData’s consumer analyst, Fiona Dyer, said that “the shift toward plant-based foods is being driven by millennials, who are most likely to consider the food source, animal welfare issues, and environmental impacts when making their purchasing decisions.”

Who are Food Travellers?

Travel companies are starting to jump on board the vegan food tourism train, and the growth is continuing. Intrepid Travel now offers travellers Vegan Food Adventures and custom itineraries. These often sell out due to their new found popularity!

Intrepid Travel claims that “While you don’t have to be vegan to join these trips, there’s a good chance your heart is in the same place. On these trips, you’ll be travelling responsibly: eating, sleeping and getting around locally and respecting animal welfare”.

Food travellers want to learn about local culinary cultures and customs which means anybody can be one. For example, do you enjoy photography or videography? Food blogs, vlogs and photos are exceptionally popular at the moment. Take a street food walking tour or a vegan cooking class, and you will want to capture every moment.

Pre-Travel Checklist 

  • Bring a vegan guidebook.
  • Make a list of must-try vegan dishes.
  • Download travel and food apps to your smartphone (see resources and apps).
  •  Make sure you have translations of your dietary requirements and allergies written down in the local language.
  • Buy any vegan snacks, vitamins and supplements you may need for your travels.
  • Vegan probiotics are a good option if you usually get stomach bugs or have a sensitive tummy. Some of the local options contain dairy, and vegan options can be harder to find.
  • Bring reusable containers, cutlery and takeaway snack bags so you can order extra from vegan menus (takeaway is excellent if you are travelling the next day or going on a tour and don’t know what food options are available).
  • Select the vegan meal option for your flight (if there is one)or prepare a vegan meal for your journey.

Resources and Apps

  • Happy Cow 
  • Instagram
  • Facebook groups 
  • TripAdvisor 
  • Yelp
  • Meetup
  • Google Maps
  • Type vegan or vegetarian into the majority of food delivery apps to find nearby options or search for a particular dish to narrow your search.

Final Thoughts on Vegan Travel

The vegan movement is bringing an exciting shift to the way we travel, celebrate, share and form opinions about local food. Emerging vegan food tourism shows no signs of slowing down as backpackers consider their carbon footprint and aim to travel more sustainably. 

Finding vegan food can be challenging in Southeast Asia, but by embracing this, you can find something different and unique within the cuisine. There is no need to worry about what you will eat when you travel through this region, because, as we have discovered, there are many plant-based dishes you can enjoy. 

References: 

Cherie Julie | Travel For Change

Cherie founded a responsible tourism blog, Travel For Change, in 2016 with the desire to encourage other travellers to wander with purpose. Today the blog has transformed into a copywriting business for mindful brands where Cherie writes on a wide variety of topics such as the environment, human rights, animal welfare and sustainable travel.

Find her on: Facebook | Instagram

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