Vegetarianism isn’t a concept native to Thailand. You will find that most Thai dishes contain some form of meat or fish. However, with some preparation and knowledge of dishes, you could sail through your visit to the bright and bustling city of Bangkok. Bon appetit, fellow vegetarians!
Safe to eat
It’s easy to request for vegetarian versions of some authentic Thai dishes such as pad thai, Thai curry, etc. in sit-down restaurants. Thailand is also a big producer of tropical fruits and vegetables, making it easy to have lots of salads such as spicy raw papaya salad (Som Tam), pomelo or glass noodle salads. You can also pick from a variety of stir-fried vegetables (Pad Pak Ruam Prik Gaeng), vegetarian tom yum soup or anything with the word tofu in it. And of course, if you opt for International cuisines such as Italian, Indian, you’ll find your quintessential regular options there.
Like Indians, Thai people love to snack all day, and lucky for us, a lot of these are vegetarian options. Even more than the restaurants, you’re probably looking out for the street food—although vegetarians could have a harder time narrowing down what to eat, here are some ideas: mango sticky rice, fresh coconut water, fruit on skewers, fresh juices.
In supermarkets, you’ll find packaged rice crispies (just check the flavour though), baby coconut chips, kaffir lime peanuts, thallo chips to snack on! And when you’re travelling by the BTS, keep an eye out for the snack shops in the stations—you’ll get bubble tea and many kinds of flavoured teas, Thai pancakes and crepes and waffle shops.
Red herrings to stay away from
As it is second nature for restaurants to add fish sauce or meat stock in their dishes, they don’t even consider it non-vegetarian. The good news is that fish/ oyster sauce can be easily replaced with soya sauce, which is also commonly available in kitchens. Make sure to check with your server if your seemingly vegetarian papaya salad (or soup or any dish, for that matter) is cooked in any such fish sauce or meat stock and request for a change in ingredients.
Another commonly added non-vegetarian ingredient is shredded pork or dried shrimp as toppings on dishes. Keep a lookout for these or inform your server before ordering.
A few Thai desserts are glazed jelly-like custards. These tend to contain gelatin. Those who are sticklers for control should skip these in favour of a plate of fruit sticky rice (mango is the most popular combination), fruit with palm sugar and chilli powder or Bua Loy Nam King—a dumpling made of black sesame in a sweet ginger sauce, among the many options.
Where to eat
Bangkok, being the capital of Thailand and a huge tourist destination has several vegetarian or vegan-only restaurants, or at least restaurants with a separate vegetarian menu. A few that come to mind immediately are The Vegan Cafe, Broccoli Revolution, Seven Spoons, Ethos, Dosa King (South Indian food is always a good bet), among others.
But for a more comprehensive list, you should…
Tap the app
As with most countries, if you're a vegetarian traveller, it's a good idea to have the Happy Cow app installed on your phone. This will act as your culinary compass and will guide you to the closest vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the city you're in, give you access to the menu and even provide reviews from fellow veggie travellers.
A word for the wise
1. Name-drop these words to servers at restaurants and street food vendors: "jay" for 'vegan', and "mang sa wirat" for 'vegetarian'. Also, learn to say "Mai kin nam plah" for 'I don't have fish sauce'. See a more comprehensive list here.
2. If you're a spontaneous traveller, you may often be tempted to just 'wing' it. But because you're in a country where vegetarian meals are not so easily available, this may lead to some crankiness. Do some research and note down at least a couple of food options in the areas you plan to visit. This way you'll get delicious meals, and avoid resorting to a substandard salad at a foreign food court.
P.S. Did you know that Phuket has a Vegetarian festival called the Jay Festival? This is a nine-day festival which is usually held in October, however, it's nothing like what you imagine. Participants pierce their faces with sharp objects, knives, swords, etc. to honour animals. They also completely abstain from not only meat and fish, but also dairy, eggs, honey, actually making it a vegan festival.
Found this useful? Check out our vegetarian's guide to visiting Japan here.