‘You’re a vegetarian but you spend so much time travelling South East Asia, Isn’t that really hard??’
I vividly remember saying this to a girl i had just met whilst driving a 4×4 through Fraser Island, Australia in October 2012, she replied that it wasn’t that hard and then we carried on chatting about other things. Little did i know that a few years later i would have travelled South East Asia for 9 months in total all as a vegetarian!
Fast forward to March 2014 and i was jetting off for a long trip around South East Asia as a newly turned Vegetarian, i had my doubts on how hard it would be but guess what… it wasn’t that hard!
Admittedly, i wasn’t that adventurous with food back then but during my most recent trip to South East Asia from November 2015 to February 2016 I made sure to try a lot more local food and foods that were new to me and stick to Asian food over Western as much as possible (although a western craving did pop up now and again!).
If you’re heading to South East Asia soon or planning to and you’re a vegetarian or considering it then here are a few reasons why i think it’s really easy to be Vegetarian in South East Asia, a long with some food pic’s that should make you a little hungry! (Apologies in advance!)
Firstly TOFU! South East Asia is the home of tofu so it’s pretty much on every menu in the region and even if it’s not it’s likely they will still serve it. I’ve also found that restaurants are often good at switching say a Green Curry with Chicken which is mentioned on the menu to a Green Curry with Tofu even if this wasn’t suggested on the original menu.
Tofu is a great meat substitute to help bulk out your meal and provide you with that daily protein. I eat a lot of tofu at home anyway and really like it but i know some people aren’t a fan, however give the locals a chance at cooking it up for you because its likely they’ll cook it better than you’ve ever had before! I found Vietnam especially good for cooking tofu!
Secondly they understand what a vegetarian is! When i travelled South America i got questioned a lot as to why i was vegetarian and got some very strange looks when i said i was one and i believe it’s because it’s not big in their culture. Whereas in South East Asia as most of the Countries are very Buddhist Countries, although not all Buddhists are vegetarian, the first precept of Buddhism is ‘do not kill’ therefore there are many Buddhists who follow vegetarianism.
I met a man who had studied as a monk for several years and whilst he was doing it he said he was vegetarian and i believe it is very common for practising monks to not eat meat, therefore when you explain that you don’t want meat in your meal because you don’t eat it, most of the locals will understand and recognise this.
I’ve found that a few people who are travelling around South East Asia say they are eating as a vegetarian or at least eating less meat than they would at home because often what puts a lot of people off eating meat in Asian countries is seeing it beforehand. Market’s and street food carts are often filled with big chunks of meat which will be used that day (and perhaps the next??) and it really does look very unhygienic compared to our Western standards and the first thing you’ll probably think of is how well your stomach will handle meat that’s sat out in the heat for a few hours. Personally I’ve not felt that me not eating meat has lessened the amount of times I’ve felt ill in South East Asia compared to friends that I’ve been travelling with who have eaten meat, however it certainly hasn’t increased my potential to get ill from food!!
Also, there’s one thing a backpacker travelling around South East Asia likes and that’s to save money and being vegetarian will actually save you money! My food bills were very often less than my friends because i had tofu over meat or stuck to just veggies!
Another way its super easy to be vegetarian is because there actually a lot of purely vegetarian restaurants and cafes there! HappyCow is a great app which seems to have a lot of vegan and vegetarian restaurants on it even in the smallest of towns. When i was in Bagan in Myanmar myself and my friends were looking for somewhere to have lunch and rode past a sign saying there was a vegetarian cafe down the road, we stopped off and long story short we ended up eating lunch and dinner in there both days we were in Bagan and its mentioned in the Lonely planet so most people go there who aren’t even vegetarians!
I would always suggest researching vegetarian restaurants when you arrive in a new place because I’ve found that the food is extra good and they often have a great vibe.
So all in all, if you plan to travel around South East Asia as a vegetarian then it really isn’t as hard as you may think and you’ll still have plenty of food choices and options!
You may need to search a little harder in some places depending how off the beaten track it is and when you book a tour you will have to let the bookers know you are vegetarian as often the meals are meat based however I’ve always found locals in South East Asia to be accommodating of this diet. As i said, they understand it and more than likely won’t question it so make sure this is not a reason to put you off going to South East Asia and instead propels you to want to go and eat amazing, meat-free food like this!!
Side note- Although i don’t eat any meat including fish I’m not that strict when it comes to meat broth. I can imagine that a lot of the Pho i ate in Vietnam and any other soups would have been cooked in a meat broth and to be honest it would make it very difficult to avoid this!
Also, I’ve been to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines in South East Asia and the only Country i did struggle in was the Philippines and i believe this is because it’s a Christian country so vegetarianism is not part of their culture so it’s not as well accommodated for in their local dishes. I ate a lot of Western food in the Philippines which was a little annoying but i certainly didn’t starve!