When you first investigate travelling as a Vegetarian In Southeast Asia the thought of finding food you can actually eat may seem a bit daunting. Sure, you hear all about all the meat and fish dishes available, but what about the vege ones?!
But don’t worry, there is some amazing vegetarian food across the region and many restaurants cater for vegetarians and vegans, with dedicated places both aimed at locals and tourists abound! Here’s a quick overview of the area to give you a good idea of what to expect:
The first thing I did as a vegetarian in Cambodia was head to a vegetarian restaurant in Phnom Penh and get a note to explain my dietary requirements* – worth doing as translations of ‘without meat’ and so forth in more remote areas can simply mean plucking the meat out of a dish rather than cooking it without!
Don’t let this deter you though, there is a good variety of vegetarian food, particularly curry and fried vegetable dishes with either rice or noodles, and most restaurants in the tourist areas will cater for it, the main dishes normally have a vegetarian option somewhere on the menu!
Amok is a national dish that usually has a tofu option on any tourist menu so that’s a recommended one to try! Cambodians are quite keen on barbecue too and barbecued vegetables with rice could be a good option.
Western food is pretty common in the backpacker areas here too, more so i’d say than the rest of Southeast Asia, so you can always resort to that if you are struggling with the local places.
Indian restaurants are big in Laos and they are fantastic for vegetarians, often you will find more vegetarian options than meat! Laos food itself tends to be similar to Thailand in a lot of respects and most places will cater for vegetarians no problem, be it vegetarian curry or variations of noodles and vegetables. Watch out for fish sauce though – always specify that you are vegetarian when ordering .
Larb is a spicy meat salad that is the national dish and many places will offer a vegetarian version made with Tofu instead. Be careful on the amount of spice though, what’s ‘medium’ to them may be ‘extra hot’ at home!
Baguettes are popular here too, a leftover of French colonialism, and are always a good vegetarian option particularly as you can watch them being made!
If you are Luang Prabang be sure to visit the night market and find the vegetarian buffet – it is amazing! Though go early as it’s put out at 6pm then sits there all night.
Fortunately many Malaysians speak English and even if they don’t in most areas the word ‘vegetarian’ will still be understood. Malaysian food tends to a mixture of many different influences, Malay, Indian and Chinese being the most prevalent.
In the tourist areas you won’t have any problem finding vegetarian options on the menu and even away from them look out for places that serve the vegetarian Buddhist and Hindu communities as not only will they have great vegetarian food but it will be cheap too.
Malay food tends to be quite meat and fish based but you can find some dedicated vegetarian restaurants which do veggie and vegan versions of traditional Malay dishes. The Chinese community is a good place to look for these because some of them follow a strict vegetarian diet as part of their Buddhist beliefs.
Another country where having a note explaining you are a vegetarian is a smart idea. When you arrive ask your accommodation to write you one and they should be happy to oblige – the people of Myanmar are a very friendly bunch!
Traditional Burmese food normally involves a few different smaller dishes with rice or soup. There will be several vegetarian options amongst this so let the restaurant know and they can show you which.
Some restaurants though will just give you fried vegetables with rice which can be very unexciting, so have a look around if you can as others will have good vege curry or tofu based options. It can be a hit and miss so check the menu first before you sit down in a place.
Remember: not all people in Myanmar are Burmese, there is a lot of ethnic diversity which means different styles of food. When you head to Shan state the traditional Shan noodles can be made vegetarian and are a must try!
The problem here is fish sauce – it’s in everything! You need to watch out for meat stock too. But there are plenty of places that do vegetarian food, and you will find that ‘Jay’ is a Buddhist term for a form of veganism that’s good to know.
Street food can be problematic – pre cooked noodles or example likely have either fish or meat stock in them so unless it is specifically advertised as vegetarian it’s recommended you only order if you have assured they can make it as ‘Jay’.
When you do find vegetarian Thai food you will be blown away by how good it tastes. Thai Jay Curry in particular is a popular vegetarian choice, normally in Green or Red but sometimes other variations. The ever popular Pad Thai can be made as either vegetarian or vegan too – but only if you can see the noodles haven’t been cooked yet as if it’s pre-made chances are fish or meat stock has been used.
You can read my specific advice on Thailand here.
Chay is the term for vegetarian here and you can find dedicated restaurants under that heading catering for the vegan Buddhist population. Many restaurants will list Chay options and even if they don’t if you can normally explain and they will be happy to cater for you, normally providing combinations of Tofu, vegetarian spring rolls and noodles.
Pho is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine and is a noodle soup normally made with beef or chicken, but often restaurants will have a ‘Pho Chay’ option for vegetarians. Be careful to ensure that no meat or fish stock has been used though as sometimes they can be a bit loose with their definitions when trying to attract non-Asian customers!
Look for Banh Mi too which are French-style baguettes usually sold by street vendors, so even if it’s just using the old ‘pointing’ method you can ensure vegetarian fillings!. On a personal note the vegetarian food I ate in Vietnam was some of the best i’ve ever tasted!
Chay hotpots are a great choice if you can find somewhere that does them!
*I have considered scouring the internet for translations to put here but actually I think a handwritten note from a local is much more effective approach, they will understand the culture so will know exactly what to write. It also shows to whoever you are buying your meal from that you cared enough to talk to a local about it.
I have yet to visit Indonesia, Singapore or the Philippines but when I do shall update this page to include information for there!
As a disclaimer no matter how much you try there may be incidents where you accidentally eat animal products and whilst I hope you avoid this by following my advice but I can not be held responsible if you do.