When I was in Cambodia, I decided to go vegan. I had been vegetarian for nearly 10 years and the small changes I made were easy. As I continued to travel through Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Bali, I was constantly told that it was “too difficult” to stick to a vegan diet while travelling Asia. Is it easy? No. Is it possible? Of course.
After a month in Cambodia (as a vegetarian), I hadn’t eaten much local food. I ate mostly western vegetarian food and I was hungover for 90% of the time, so I just ate pizza, Mexican food and mozzarella sticks. In Phnom Penh, I decided to go vegan. Around this time, I also happened to meet a few vegans who passed through the hostel and I downloaded the Happy Cow app. I managed to find a few really good local restaurants and discovered the surprisingly active vegan scene in the city.
When it came to an authentic local experience, it seemed to be mostly meat-based dishes. A few Happy Cow searches led me to vegetarian buffets around the city and I could ask about what contained egg or milk. Finally, I found a restaurant with a vegan Amok curry. It is traditionally served with chicken and a restaurant called The Corn had both vegan and non-vegan options for all of their meals. I went back multiple times, taking non-vegan friends and befriending the staff by the amount of business I was bringing them.
I spent my month in Phnom Penh frequently visiting the vegan businesses in the area. Sacred Lotus cafe had a western breakfast menu, as well as pizzas and mexican food. VIBE Cafe was the first 100% vegan cafe in Cambodia and the food was what I expected from a vegan restaurant. A lot of healthy food, high protein plant-based dishes and instagramable smoothie bowls. I liked it there, but it wasn’t my favourite. The best place in Phnom Penh hands down is Masala Dosa Street Kitchen. I am biased by my love of Indian food, but the fusion twists on masala dosas was incredible. I tried a hummus one filled with vegetables and I was over the moon. I ate here every week, always took people with me. I would like the sambar stew (served with every dosa along with chutneys) injected into my bloodstream. The food is amazing, the owner is really friendly and I would recommend this to anyone.
It would be unrealistic to tell you I didn’t have any bad vegan experiences in Cambodia. There is a huge amount of meat consumption culturally in the country and finding food outside of pre-researched and trusted places could be hard. My hostel were really reluctant to prepare their chicken wrap without the chicken or the cheese for me. I would order a sweet and sour vegetable stir fry with steamed rice in every place that I was unsure of.
Thanks to meeting so many travellers while working in Phnom Penh, I came to Vietnam prepared with a list of vegan businesses. I wasn’t expecting to get a job in the first city that I came across, but if it wasn’t for Saigon I would likely have struggled to find a vegan Christmas dinner when I was feeling homesick. But let’s start with some local food.
In Vietnam, it is incredibly easy to find local vegan food. Just look for the word “chay” on menus and signs (Nha Hang Chay or Com Chay usually). You can opt for a mushroom pho rather than the traditional beef, but if it is not a vegan or vegetarian restaurant they may use a broth made with animal bones. Braised claypot dishes are popular in Vietnam and vegan options of these are easy to find (eggplant, mushroom or tofu are the most common). As with anywhere in Asia, stir-fried vegetables are usually safe. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of local fully vegan restaurants I was able to find.
Vegan businesses are (or were pre-pandemic) booming in Vietnam. I want to do separate posts about some of my favourites, so watch out for that. It feels like Indian food is easy to find everywhere, but in Vietnam it was easy to get restaurants to adapt their dishes for vegans and often had it specified on the menu. Local vegan restaurants run by British expats serving veganized comfort foods were amazing. Filthy Vegan in Saigon fulfills all of your junk food cravings, meanwhile Brew and Breakfast in Dalat provides amazing healthy breakfast food, as well as delicious vegan pancakes.
I had some problems in Thailand. I was really surprised, because it is a much more tourist-friendly destination. Everything just seemed to have egg in it (rice and noodle dishes especially), that was less of an issue in the other countries. Verifying that the curries I wanted to eat were vegan was difficult and the western options were significantly more expensive than other places I had visited.
When I would eat out with friends, I struggled to find vegan food. In western restaurants, there was no specific vegan dish and you would have to ask for something without cheese or sauce. Indian food continued to be a safe option (with some research beforehand on Happy Cow). Specific vegan restaurants such as the “Veganerie” chain in Bangkok were expensive, but I went once to treat myself. The north is easier than the South, with many vegan restaurants in Pai and Chiang Mai. Since becoming vegan, I didn’t travel much of the south. However, Koh Phangan had a few vegan specific restaurants or places with options, but I struggled in Krabi. I found a trusted falafel place to order food in to the hostel when I was hungover, which was great.
Bali is vegan heaven. The instagramable cafes in Canggu and Seminyak are flooded with tourists. I really enjoyed my time there as a vegetarian the first time, but it was a relief as a vegan after Thailand. I was in self-isolation for a week in Bali before flying home and I ordered in some really amazing food in to make the time pass.
In Ubud, there was a decent vegan scene with multiple local buffet restaurants. I really enjoyed filling up multiple plates and trying Indonesian dishes for really cheap prices. Tofu satay, tempeh curries, corn fritters and lots of stir-fried veggies for less than £1. A hostel I lived at had a free family dinner every night for guests and it was 100% vegan. Whatever marinade they used on their tempeh, it was incredible. Meanwhile, my return to Bali consisted of the best vegan junk food. Vegan mozzarella sticks, vegan burgers, vegan pizza, vegan everything.
We all know eating out can be frustrating and it is so much easier being vegan while cooking for yourself. You know exactly what is going into your food and don’t have to worry, but you can’t let that stop you trying new foods around the world. It isn’t impossible to be a vegan in Asia and most of the time it isn’t that difficult. While travelling, the only criticism I received was from western tourists. They were the only ones who told me I was missing out on getting the “proper” local experience. They were the ones who kicked up a fuss if I suggested a vegan restaurant or even a restaurant that catered to vegans. Once someone got offended that I was “ruining pizza” by eating a vegan slice in front of them. I got pretty good at avoiding people like that and I ate some really amazing food regardless of their opinions on it.