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Staying Vegetarian in Thailand - Thailand Travel Story

****  (2 reviews)
Title: Staying Vegetarian in Thailand
Thailand is not known for its vegetarian fare, but getting meatless foods there is much easier than you might think. Amid the ubiquitous chicken, fish and tiger prawn entrees is a host of vegetarian opportunities waiting to be discovered. In addition, the food in Thailand is very adaptable for different tastes, flavors and dietary needs.

Truth be told, most of Thailand is a relatively easy stepping stone into vegetarian Asia. The Thai beaches, countryside and of course its cities are frequently visited by Westerners who bring their diets with them. Bangkok especially is a very cosmopolitan city, and while it is not anything exactly like a Western city, many of the amenities cross the cultural barrier.

Lots of people assume that since Thailand is mostly Buddhist that vegetarianism is common among the people. However, Theravada Buddhism does not prohibit or even discourage the eating of meat except as a voluntary ascetic practice. Chicken, fish and eggs are all very common main ingredients in many dishes.

While it is possible to keep a vegetarian diet almost anywhere in Thailand, some restaurants are more accommodating than others. Safe bets for vegetarian fare include Indian and Chinese restaurants and noodle shops. The Indian places have to keep veggie options for their Hindu clientele, just as Chinese restaurants have to satisfy their Chinese Buddhist customers. Noodle shops are especially good because everything is made fresh, so you can specify which ingredients to include or omit from a dish. These restaurants typically have condiments on the table, including fish sauce. This leads me to believe that fish sauce is not part of the recipe for most noodle dishes.

Fish and oyster sauce are common ingredients and condiments in Thailand and may be difficult to avoid completely. To be sure that you do not eat these products you can request that they not be used. The food section of a translation book should have words for many of the foods you will encounter.

Venues to avoid include street vendors. These portable restaurants, many setting up as the sun goes down in night markets, are not known for their cleanliness and rarely make custom dishes to the diners’ requests. Most street vendors actually cook food at a different location and simply keep it warm in their pushcarts or on their portable grills.

While travelers can get by in most situations with broken Thai and creative pantomime, these communication tactics leave something to be desired when discussing more complicated things such as dietary restrictions. Having a good knowledge ahead of time about how to ask for what you need is key to keeping your diet. Most phrasebooks worth their salt will have a section dedicated to food and list some way to ask for food without meat.

One phrase that works well is pom kin tae pak, which means literally, “I eat only vegetables.” Women say dee chan instead of pom. Usually this phrase works fine. While in Thailand recently I was able to use this phrase very successfully. The few times I got confused looks, resorting to the listing method of saying no beef, no shrimp, no chicken, etc. conveyed the message adequately to the wait staff. The confusion comes from Thai not having a single word that means vegetarian. Thus, different guidebooks will offer different translations and different people will understand the phrases in different ways. Almost all ways of saying that you are a vegetarian will need some explanation. In addition, Thai has five tones, making it a difficult language for novices to use and understand.

Another phrase that works well is to use the word tae, meaning vegetable, after a dish name. You might ask for Pad Thai tae or Radna tae. This is similar to requesting vegetable fried noodles as opposed to chicken or shrimp fried noodles in the West. The assumption is that the vegetables and sometimes tofu will take the place of any meat.

For vegans to keep their diets should not be much more difficult than for lacto-ovo vegetarians. Most Thai cooking does not make use of dairy products. On top of this, it is as easy to request no eggs as it is to request no meat.

Where to Find Vegetarian Food in Some Main Tourist Areas

Chiang Mai While most restaurants are very accommodating, some especially good areas for vegetarians include the Tha Phae Gate area of Chiang Mai. Here you can find, on Tha Phae road outside the walled city and stretching all the way east to Santiwong Road and south to Sri Donchai Road, an excellent selection of restaurants specifically catering to vegetarians. Inside the wall near Tha Phae is a great location as well. Most guesthouses in Chiang Mai also are good places to try, as many of them survive by hosting Westerners and selling them package tours, trekking tours, day trips and the like. Thus they have pretty good contact with all types of diets and know how to cater to almost all tastes.

Phuket The island of Phuket, its economy largely dependent on fishing, is rife with seafood restaurants, so it may seem like slim pickings there at first glance. However, almost any restaurant can make special meals for you without including any of our friends from the deep. Every year in late September and early October Phuket has a vegetarian festival, during which Chinese Buddhists abstain from taking meat. Other area towns such as Pong Nga and Krabi also participate. Southern Thailand has been part of major trading routes for centuries because of its proximity to the islands of Malaysia and Indonesia. Thus, Chinese and Indian vegetarianism are not new to the people and the restaurants.

Bangkok Bangkok, one of the largest and most traveled-through cities in Southeast Asia, is a truly cross-cultural experience where you can eat almost any type of food and can even have pizza every day of your stay and not visit the same restaurant twice. Almost every block has some option for vegetarians. The signs will not be as targeted to the vegetarian market as in Chiang Mai, but simply going in and requesting the food be made tae or otherwise without meat can do wonders.

Important food-related terms

I eat only vegetables Pom (dee chan) kin tae pak
No chicken Mai chai gai
...fish Mai chai pla
...pork Mai chai muu
...shrimp Mai chai kung
...beef Mai chai neua
...fish sauce Mai chai nam pla
...oyster sauce Mai chai nam man hoi
...eggs Mai chai kai

Reviews (2)

I recently went to thailand over New Years. Not only am I a vegetarian, but I'm a fussy vegetarian. I had no problems eating and in fact loved the food. Even the restaurants where there was not much on the menu for vegetarians, the chef was more than willing to rustle something up. I have put a list together of my fave restaurants and their locations on http://www.veggiedining.co.uk/page10.htm
There is a word for vegetarian in Thai. In fact, the word even takes it to the extreme, vegan. The word is "Jay". If you add this word to any dish, Thai people will know what you are looking for. i.e. Som Tam Jay, Pad Thai Jay, Gaeng Curry Jay. When in doubt you always just say "gin jay". The word "gin", sounded phonetically, is the thai word for eat; not to be confused with the word "Jin", as in Gin Tonic. "Kin" is close, but the beginning consonant is actually a "g" sound. Also, I have been living here for many years, and I have never been sick from eating street food. Your blanket condemnation of street vendors is uncalled for. Be selective, just like a restaurant. What is great about street vendors, is that you can actually see the kitchen.