While it is possible to stay vegan in Thailand, finding vegan food is not always easy. There seems to be meat everywhere you look! Read this guide for help finding delicious animal-friendly food on your Thai adventures.
Let’s just say this from the outset — Thailand is not a great place for vegan travel.
This came as a huge surprise to us our first time in Thailand.
In Los Angeles, where we had been living, almost every mini-mall had a vegan Thai restaurant. And the omnivore Thai restaurants all had a vegetarian section on the menu.
Because of that, we thought animal free food would be normal in Thailand.
Nope. Not so. Despite the Buddhist culture, which has non-harming as one of its core principles, eating can be hard for a vegan in Thailand.
Of course, Bangkok and Chiang Mai have lots of Western-style vegan restaurants. In other tourist destinations, you’ll find vegan options offered by savvy restaurant owners who know they’ll get more customers that way.
But, for the most part, vegan food is still something for which you have to plan ahead, search (sometimes far and wide), and make special arrangements. Especially if you want to get off the beaten track, you are in for a challenge.
So, read on for our tips for vegan eating in Thailand.
What to Avoid when Eating Vegan in Thailand
Let’s start with the bad news. These are the challenges you’ll face and our tips on what to look out for while trying to find vegan food in Thailand.
1. Where’s the Meat?
The answer to this question is: everywhere!
Most Thai people do understand the concept of veganism since, traditionally, Buddhists kept a vegan diet. Devout Thai Buddhist still eat vegan and some Thais observe the tradition a couple of times a month.
And yet, somehow, that concept lives happily alongside the completely contradictory idea that a meal is not complete without meat.
During our Thai cooking class, we learned that vegetables are considered decoration in Thai meals, while meat is the centrepiece around which everything else is built.
Luckily, most Thai dishes can be easily customized for vegans, so at least when it’s available, the vegan food in Thailand is delicious.
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2. Fish Sauce is Swimming in My Soup
Even if they take the meat out, fish sauce is an ever-present ingredient in Thai food. If there’s no fish sauce, then there’s shrimp paste, oyster sauce or those tiny dried shrimp that Thai chefs sprinkle on everything.
If you’re at all adventurous with where you eat in Thailand, you will probably eat a little fish sauce without even knowing it.
(I can’t imagine how people travel in Thailand with a fish allergy!)
This inadvertent fish sauce eating is something we made peace with a long time ago. It’s just a part of the deal if you want to venture outside the well-worn tourist trail anywhere in Southeast Asia.
3. Got Milk? Yup In Everything Sweet!
If there’s one thing Thais love more than meat, it’s sweet stuff!
Lots of Thai sweets look very tempting for us vegans, but be aware that condensed milk is a key ingredient in many Thai desserts. So look for that tell-tale can before you order.
Condensed milk is also used to sweeten fruit smoothies and other drinks. When you order, ask for:
Mimi nom (no milk)
That should keep your smoothie dairy free!
4. They Put Eggs in Tofu?
Usually, when we’re on our adventures in Asia, eating in small towns or little local restaurants, we can rely on tofu as our source of protein. Sadly, in Thailand, often even the tofu isn’t vegan — it’s egg tofu.
How can you tell the difference?
If the tofu is firm and square, or chopped in small cubes, its fresh soy tofu like you’re probably used to eating.
If the tofu is in thick circular slices and a soft, silky consistency, it’s almost certainly egg tofu.
You’ll find egg tofu in places where they don’t go through much tofu because it keeps longer than fresh tofu.
5. They Put Cow Milk in the Soy Milk?!?
No, I’m not making this shit up. Thailand’s biggest brand of soy milk, Lactasoy, contains a small percentage of cow’s milk.
Now, you’d think we’d have been clued in by the name Lactasoy but I guess the idea of putting cow’s milk in soy milk seemed out of the realm of possibility to us, so we merrily drank it for weeks in Thailand. And then, one day, bored at breakfast, I read the package. Ugh.
The good news is, regular soy milk, without any “lacta” is readily available at every grocery store, corner store, and 7-11 in Thailand.
freThey also sell lots of different kinds containing various grains, pulses, and other beans. While not a complete meal replacement, you can drink one of these to fill your belly while searching for something more substantial.
6. You Won’t Get a Clean Pan
If you’re an adventurous vegan, and want to try your hand at ordering street food from an omnivore food vendor, good luck! We have managed to successfully do this on many occasions, and we’ve managed to order meaty or shrimpy noodles on many more.
No matter how successful you are at ordering what you want, your food will definitely be cooked in a pan that has been used to cook meat just minutes before.
We’ve also seen many street food vendors using a big slab of pork fat to “season” the pan before they throw our veggies in.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
7. Breakfast is the Worst
Most hotels and guest houses in Thailand offer free breakfast as part of your room fee. As vegans, we all know that free breakfast is the worst! In Thailand, breakfast will likely consist of eggs, meats, and bread. Yay for the bread, except Thai bread often contains milk .
(LOL. Of course it does!)
Fortunately, there is usually lots of fruit, sometimes a small selection of salad items, and even muesli if you’re lucky. Still, you might want to enquire ahead of time and come prepared with soy milk or peanut butter to add a few nutrients to your breakfast.
How to Get Fed as a Vegan in Thailand
Now that you’ve read the bad news and feel like you’re going to starve in Thailand, fear not! You won’t.
Just use our tips to find delicious vegan food on your Thai travels.
8. How to Ask for Vegan Food in Thai
The great thing about the Thai language (as opposed to say, Vietnamese) is that you can pronounce things badly and people might still understand.
There are two Thai phrases you NEED to know if you’re going anywhere adventurous in Thailand.
How to say vegetarian in Thai
This is the Thai word for vegetarian:
Mangsawirat (pronounced like “mung saw wee rat” with emphasis on the first syllable)
To be honest, we didn’t learn this one until our second trip to Thailand. But that was a mistake. It means “vegetarian” but the word is almost always interpreted to include eggs and dairy in Thailand.
To be super sure you’re not getting meat, add this phrase which means “vegetables vegetables vegetables”:
Pak pak pak
Technically, you don’t need to say it three times but we found it most effective to do so. And if you have to repeat “pak pak pak” a few times, do it!
Now say it with me:
Mangsawirat pak pak pak.
This phrase was very effective all over southern Thailand, even in the most remote and local places. We were never served anything not vegan after using this phrase.
(Thanks to our vegetarian friend Grace, from Extreme Nomads, who has been living in Thailand for a couple of years, for teaching us!)
On our first trip to Thailand, we used the phrase “kin jay” when ordering food. This is the phrase most people will tell you to learn.
While it is more specific than “mangsawirat”, we found it to be a little too specific. It doesn’t just mean animal-free food. It really means Buddhist vegan food – which can exclude onion and garlic and include eggs!
“Kin jay” is useful if there happens to be a Buddhist vegan restaurant nearby. People will happily point it out or take you there. But if not, it made our lives more difficult. Food vendors would refuse to make anything because they were not equipped to make strictly Buddhist food.
It’s best to learn both phrases, and if one doesn’t work, the other probably will.
If you’re a real SWOT, you can also learn the phrases for “no egg”, “no fish sauce”, “no meat” etc., just to be on the safe side!
Need more foodie travel tips?
Our post on how to find the best food everywhere you travel will help!
9. Vegan Food for Tourists
The best and easiest vegan food in Thailand is also the most expensive.
In Bangkok and Chiang Mai, you’ll find plenty of nice restaurants that are 100% vegan or offer vegan Thai dishes on the menu. These are mostly geared towards tourists, expats, and well-off Thai people. You’ll pay Western prices for the privilege of eating cruelty free.
In other touristy places, the availability of vegan food can be hit-or-miss.
From what we’ve heard, it’s tough to find vegan food in Phuket because the restaurants are all so full, nobody is too concerned about offering vegan options. But in hippie-ish Koh Lanta and Koh Lipe, we found plenty of vegan offerings, all in restaurants geared towards tourists.
(Don’t miss: Our guide to finding the best vegan food in Bangkok) →
10. Vegan Food for Buddhists
If you’re looking for budget food that is 100% vegan guaranteed, you’ll need to find a Buddhist restaurant. These are usually hole-in-the-wall joints that can be identified by their bright red and yellow flag outside. The symbol for a jay / Buddhist restaurant looks a little like a 17 and will be on the flag.
Most decent-sized cities have one or two jay restaurants, but they’re often hard to find. Use the Happy Cow app to point you in the right direction.
These places often keep odd hours, too. They might be open in the early morning for breakfast but closed all afternoon. Or they might close at 3pm, or be open late in the evening.
We’ve spent many frustrating hours wandering around hungry, trying to find an open jay restaurant. So plan ahead and make sure you know the details before you go.
11. Vegan Street Food in Thailand
My first impulse when talking about vegan street food in Thailand is to scream, “It’s an oxymoron! There isn’t any!!”. Now that that’s out of my system, let’s talk.
Night markets in Thailand are fabulous places to wander and sample all the strange and delicious authentic tastes of Thailand… if you’re a meat-eater.
There is an amazing array of curry (all with fish or meat), incredible plates of noodles (with chicken), and an awe-inspiring array of snacks (like fried fish heads, tiny sausages, and quail’s eggs). Sigh.
For vegans and vegetarians, night markets in Thailand are the place where you wander around getting hungrier and hungrier as more and more food vendors look at you like you’re crazy for not eating meat. Eventually, you’ll give up and go to 7-11 for emergency snacks.
Once again, that’s not entirely true.
If you have a local friend who can guide you around the market and ask for things in Thai, I’m sure you’ll find something to eat. Papaya salad, if you can manage to order it vegan and not so spicy your brain melts, is a good option. You can also look for banana fritters and mango sticky rice.
We have rarely been able to eat a full meal in a Thai night market. Go for the spectacle (if you can stand the sight of so many dead animals), but make sure you have a back-up plan for food.
12. Finding and Ordering Pad Thai on the Street
As Westerners, we thought finding Pad Thai in Thailand would be about as hard as finding burgers in America.
Sadly, although it’s the national dish, when you leave the tourist restaurants, Pad Thai becomes a hidden gem.
In most towns and cities in Thailand, you can find one lonely Pad Thai stand hiding amongst hundreds of meaty food stalls. Keep searching. It’s there somewhere!
You can spot the Pad Thai stall because it will have all the ingredients lined up next to a big wok. Look for: bowls of eggs, chopped peanuts, tiny shrimp, chopped up green onions, bean sprouts, cubes of tofu, and a sticky red paste (Tamarind sauce).
If you can find it, the next trick is to order an almost-vegan Pad Thai.
Traditional Pad Thai contains dried shrimp and eggs. Depending on the stall, it can also be made with chicken or seafood.
Usually, you can order by saying “mangsawirat” and then pointing to the items you don’t want and saying “no” or “mimi”.
But, here’s the catch.
Pad Thai sauce usually contains fish sauce – and it’s made in advance. So getting a vegan Pad Thai on the street is next to impossible.
If you can make your peace with a few drops of fish sauce in your meal, you’ll be served the most delicious plate of Pad Thai you’ve ever eaten.
13. Mango Sticky Rice
Luckily for hungry vegans, mango sticky rice tends to be much easier to find. Plus, it is naturally vegan. Even though it looks like it should contain condensed milk, the sauce is made from coconut milk and tons of sugar.
Mango sticky rice is the perfect snack to tide you over as you continue your search for the Pad Thai stall.
14. Thai Dishes You can Order Almost Everywhere
Alongside the street food and night markets, there are lots of humble hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Thailand. These restaurants offer more variety and are better able to cater for vegans.
Here’s what to order for the perfect vegan Thai meal when you’re off the beaten track:
- Pad Pak. Pad means fried and pak is vegetables. This is simple stir-fried veggies, made up of whatever the restaurant has to offer — usually cabbage, carrots and onions. Definitely order it mangsawirat and even specify mimi nam plan / no fish sauce to be extra safe.
- Pad Tahu. Yup, it’s fried tofu! This usually comes with a few veggies thrown in. If you missed the section above about egg in the tofu, go read it now.
- Tom Yum Hed. Another Thai classic, Tom Yum is a fragrant, spicy soup full of lemongrass, Thai basil and other delights. Hed means mushrooms, so this version won’t have chicken in it. Still worth specifying mangsawirat though!
- Rice. Be prepared to eat lots of white rice in Thailand. You can order plain rice by saying khaw (which sounds like “cow” with an extra long “au” in the middle).
- Fried rice. To order fried rice, it’s khaw pad (which, yes, sounds like “cow pat”). Again, make sure to say mangsawirat pak pak pak for best results.
15. Vegan Food in 7-11
There is a 7-11 on every street in Thailand (not even exaggerating here). Inside, you’ll find the typical convenience store staples. However, in Thailand, you can also get vegan stuff, like soy milk and soy drinks, seaweed snacks, peanuts, and even coconut-based ice cream bars.
Watch this video by Roman Around the World to see what there is!
Dining Responsibly in Thailand
So you’ve done the “mangsawirat pak pak pak” chant and you’re eagerly awaiting your meal. Then, when it comes out, it has egg in it! Or fish sauce. Or tiny dried shrimp. And you want to cry.
What do you do?
In any English-speaking country, I would politely report the mistake and ask for a replacement. In Thailand, my reaction depends where I am.
If it’s in a high-end restaurant, I would handle it just like at home.
In a small family-owned restaurant or street stall, I’m going to suggest something most vegans won’t like. If a dish mistakenly contains fish sauce or egg, I eat it anyway. If it has dried shrimp, bits of chicken, or other meat, I might remove the meat and eat the rest.
Why? A couple of reasons.
- I am a visitor to the country, unable to speak the local language, and eating a diet of my choosing. So any confusion is usually my fault. Therefore, the food vendor, who probably makes very little money to begin with, should not have to pay for my error.
- A big part of my choice to be vegan is for environmental reasons. Although the idea of eating animal products is crazy to me, so is food waste. Once it’s on the table, the damage has been done. That egg is either going into my mouth or into the garbage. I don’t want to compound the error by wasting the food I refuse to eat. If I were perfect, I’d eat the meat too, I guess, but I just can’t do it!
Maybe eating egg or dairy every once in a while makes me a bad vegan but I think it makes me a good human being.
Thai Vegetarian Festival
If you plan carefully, you can be in Thailand when all the food rules flip on their heads and the whole country is one big vegan party! Though it’s called the Thai vegetarian festival, the food served during the 9-day celebration is actually vegan. The festival is to help participants to purify their bodies.
There’s one icky catch though. The festival isn’t just about eating vegetarian. The face-piercing rituals that go along with the festivities are strange and a little terrifying — and might just put you off your food.
The Thai Vegetarian Festival takes place in September or October every year, with the biggest celebrations held in Phuket.
Vegan Tours in Thailand
8-Day Thailand Vegan Food Adventure with Intrepid Adventures
One great way to stay vegan while you’re in Thailand, and still get to enjoy the country’s huge variety of amazing cuisine, is the join a vegan tour. This one looks amazing!
You’ll get to explore the culinary and cultural array in Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Chiang Mai, plus join vegan cooking classes and experience Thai local life in a home stay. With a Thai guide to show you around, a whole new world of vegan Thai food will open up to you!
Authentic Thai Cooking Class
As it turns out, vegan Thai food is pretty easy to cook. On our Cooking Activity with Chef Aey, we spent the morning in Aey’s home, as the entire family helped us prepare the best food we ate in Thailand. No, seriously, it was! If you want to make flavourful memories of Thailand that will last, join a cooking class in Bangkok.
Bike Bangkok’s Hidden Oasis
Known as Bangkok’s Green Lung, Bang Kachao sits smack dab in the middle of Bangkok’s urban chaos — but it’s an oasis of calm, hiding mangrove forests, coconut groves, family farms, and small villages. On this half-day bike tour you can pedal through a maze of bike paths and visit a mangrove conservation area, a betel nut grove, temples and wats, plus get to see a rare view of the magnificent Chao Phraya River.
We hope our guide to eating vegan in Thailand is helpful — and doesn’t scare you off! Just be prepared to work a little harder for your food and bring your sense of humour. You’ll be making your own vegan discoveries in no time.
♥ Happy transformational travels, Jane & Stephen
We’re not going to lie, it takes a LOT of work to create travel guides like this. But it’s easy to help us out! If you book or buy something using one of our personal links in this post, we’ll earn a small fee at no extra cost to you. Of course, we would never recommend anything we didn’t 100% believe in! Huge thanks in advance! –S&J
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