When you first investigate travelling as a vegetarian in Southeast Asia the thought of finding food 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. You can find plenty of dedicated places both aimed at locals and tourists abound.
Here’s a quick overview of travelling as a vegetarian In Southeast Asia. I hope it gives you a good idea of what to expect!
Chinese and Indian Food
Generally, throughout the region there are dedicated vegetarian restaurants serving the vegetarian Buddhist community. Buddhists are not all vegetarians, although often they will practise vegetarianism for festivals or religious holidays. However there are some who are, generally amongst the Chinese Buddhist community. Their restaurants tend to have a lot of ‘mock meat’ using tofu, soy, seitan and alike. Many of the dishes they offer will be vegetarian versions of Chinese or local meals. Don’t be surprised to see them retain the original name. For example they may call a dish ‘fish head soup’ even though they are replacing the fish with soy protein.
The Indian community is another found throughout Southeast Asia which is excellent for vegetarians. I will mention below about ‘Little India’s’ where you can find them concentrated. But you can find Indian restaurants dotted around in many places. Generally any Indian restaurants should have a large vegetarian menu, even if it is not purely vegetarian itself.
Overview by country
The first thing I did as a vegetarian in Cambodia was head to a vegetarian restaurant in Phnom Penh. There I got 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 in Cambodia! Particularly curry and fried vegetable dishes with either rice or noodles. Most restaurants in the tourist areas will cater for vegetarians no problem. 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 is ‘medium’ to them may be ‘extra hot’ at home!
Baguettes are popular here too, a leftover of French colonialism. They are always a good vegetarian option. Particularly as you can watch them being made! Usually they have a good selection to choose form too, so you can get some variety.
If you are Luang Prabang be sure to visit the night market and find the vegetarian buffet – it is amazing! A must for any vegetarian In Southeast Asia! Be sure you 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.
Little India’s are a fantastic place to find vegetarian food, at very affordable prices too. In particular there are a host of vegetarian restaurants in and around the Little India’s in Kulaa Lumpur and Penang. These tend to serve bread or rice dishes with curries. A really good option is to go for a ‘Thali’ meal. This mean ’round platter’ in Indian cuisine. A good choice is a Dosa Thaila, or a rice Thail. You will get several different pots of curry and dahl to have with the Dosa or rice. Often there is a sweet for after 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 is good! This is where a note comes in very handy if they don’t speak English. Several time sin Myanmar I showed the waiter/waitress my note and they straight away understood and pointed out the options.
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. They are a must try!
Across Indonesia you will Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and Mei Goreng (fried noddles). They normally are made with meat and fish (including shrimp paste). But you can usually ask for them to be made vegetarian. Often menu’s will have a vegetarian option anyway, in the tourist areas. You might see Nasi Lemak too which is a Malay rice dish. Again, it can normally be made vegetarian. If you are vegan take note that vegetarian versions of these still come with the standard fried egg. So you will need to specify you don’t want that.
In Jogjakarta try the local Gudeg places. Gudeg is a delicacy made from jackfruit, sugar and coconut milk. The Gudeg restaurants will normally offer tofu and tempeh too, along with rice and sometimes vegetables.
Tempeh is fairly popular in Indonesia, certainly compared to what I’ve seen in the west. You won’t see it everywhere but look out for it as it’s a great source of protein. On the Gili Islands I even had a tempeh burger, which was awesome.
In Bali, there are vegetarian options everywhere. The restaurant industry is very much aimed at tourists and vegetarians are well catered for. I recommend just looking around or checkign google when you are there to see whats near. You will see a lot of vege Thai green currys, pizza and noodle and rice dishes. In Ubud check out the Earth Cafe, great food and it has a store/market area too.
As with Malaysia, you can find some amazing vegetarian food in the Indian community here. In Singapore’s Little India there are many pure vegetarian restaurants that do great vegetarian meals.
Amongst the Chinese population you can find some vegetarian restaurants that serve the Buddhist population. They normally do ‘mock meat’ versions of Chinese dishes.
There are a smattering of vegetarian stalls in the Hawker centres, but they can be hard to find. In the big shopping centres you can usually find a food court. They sometimes have a dedicated vegetarian stall, which is a great place to try vegetarian versions of Singaporean food as well as Malay and Chinese. I recommend the one in Bugis Food Junction, it’s great. Using that link you can also check out the other Food Junctions and see which has vegetarian stalls. Click on ‘stall directory’ for each one.
As a vegetarian In Southeast Asia Thailand can both be very challenging and very rewarding. 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 unfortunately be problematic. Pre cooked noodles or example likely have either fish or meat stock in them. 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 again to reiterate, if it’s pre-made chances are fish or meat stock has been used.
You can read my specific advice on eating as a vegetarian in Thailand here.
My favourite restaurant in the world is located Chiang Mai. It’s called Taste From Heaven and it’s my number one recommendation for any vegetarian In Southeast Asia. Do check it out if you visit Chiang Mai!
Chay is the term for vegetarian here in Vietnam.
You can find dedicated restaurants under that heading catering for the vegan Buddhist population.
Many restaurants will list Chay options. Even if they don’t if you can normally explain and they will be happy to cater for you. This normally results in them providing combinations of Tofu, vegetarian spring rolls and noodles. Which personally I love!
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! Definitely a highlight of travelling as a vegetarian In Southeast Asia!
Chay hotpots are a great choice if you can find somewhere that does them!
Thanks for reading!
I have yet to 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. Of course I hope you avoid this by following my advice I can not be held responsible if you do.
*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 that you cared enough to talk to a local about it. Therefore whoever is selling you your meal will be more inclined to accommodate your needs!
I hope you have enjoyed this article about travelling as a vegetarian in Southeast Asia! Please feel free to connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram! If you are planning to journey around the region I hope you can find my 6 month itinerary useful too!