Though grandmothers remain sceptical and bemoan plant-based diets as “lacking in nutrition”, this way of life draws millions worldwide for both ethical and health-related reasons. As plant-based living is defined by a low frequency of animal product consumption, the term attracts many due to the inclusivity of many diets.
However, whether you’re a full-time vegan, occasional meat-eater or rice milk advocate, moving to somewhere as culturally alien as Thailand conjures the same concerns. It might be that you’re worried about the prevalence of dairy-free products, navigating your vegan food order in Thai, or discovering rogue slices of meat in your supposedly vegetarian stir fry.
At the heart of all these queries is, especially as a potential ex-pat, “How sustainable is plant-based living in Thailand?”. While the reductive answer is “very doable”, there are many cultural, social, and location-centric factors that come into play.
The Cultural Reception of Veganism in Thailand
I recently asked my Thai colleagues how they feel about plant-based diets, and before long, the upbeat discussion had created a clear binary: old vs young. The older teachers, most of whom grew up eating meat with every meal, worried that those emitting animal products weren’t getting the right nutrition. Across the way, younger teachers did their best to reassure them, reflecting the ethos of Thai Gen-Z that plant-based diets will change the world for the better.
Despite differing opinions, the non-confrontational nature of Thai people paired with ancient Buddhist beliefs has combined to create “a perfect storm for Veganism”.
Most practising Buddhists in Thailand are aware of “jay”- a religious creed bought to Thailand by Chinese migrants. Those subscribing to this form of Buddhist vegetarianism must abstain from animal products to cultivate a merciful heart and healthier body.
As such, food markets are awash with stalls specifically catered to the country’s estimated three million jay Buddhists. Locals and ex-pats alike flock to these vibrant pieces of the Thai market jigsaw puzzle- searching for tofu, veggies, and rice. Easily recognised by their vibrant yellow flags and red Thai characters spelling “Jay”, these stalls are prevalent across Thailand- and the message behind them is only growing.
Max Hellier, the co-founder of Thailand’s biggest vegan community Root the Future, puts the nationwide rise in veganism down to these jay roots. He comments that “The younger generation may have jay ancestry, so they see plant-based food as a logical evolution”.
Ordering a Plant-based Meal in Thai
Placing your food order in a country’s native tongue should always be strived for, but it’s even more crucial for plant-based foreigners in Thailand. With the exception of coconut-based curries, many dishes that appear vegan on the surface are fried in woks laced with fish or oyster sauce. Fortunately, there are a few easily learned Thai phrases for communicating your plant-based needs and avoiding any miscellaneous meat in your veggie stir fry.
As previously mentioned, the concept of “jay” is invariably understood throughout Thailand and can be used wherever you’re based to order a vegan meal. An added bonus is that, unlike many handy Thai phrases, it’s easily pronounced; simply think of the word as “chay”, and disregard our western intonation of the “J” sound. Once this has been mastered, “gin” can be added to create the phrase “I eat vegan”, or “gin jay”, and should always be followed by “ka” for women or “krub” for men to up the politeness.
For those proficient (or daring) enough, the word for vegetarian in Thai is “mangsawirat”, which includes eggs, but usually doesn’t include dairy since dairy products aren’t traditionally in the Thai diet.
Northern Thailand’s Vegetarian scene
Perhaps the easiest place to sustain a plant-based lifestyle in Thailand, if not the entire continent, is Chiang Mai: the bohemian gem in North Thailand’s crown. Just shy of the Burmese border, Chiang Mai’s cuisine is a unique fusion of both countries that forms a naturally plant-based foundation for its dishes.
Northern Thai food is distinctly less fishy than its coastal, southern counterpart, and lacks the fish sauce hidden in staple dishes like pad thai. Instead, meals are centred around local ingredients like plants and herbs. As a result, towns such as Pai and Chiang Mai have become vegan and vegetarian capitals, using fresh produce supplied by the surrounding hill tribes to make delicious plant-based food.
Chiang Mai has been crowned Asia’s vegan capital for seven years running, and It’s easy to see why. Vegan restaurant and health food store guide Happy Cow lists almost 200 options, with over 40 of these plant exclusive.
However, what a quick google search also shows is a commendable, yet pricey selection of vegan eateries, smoothie bowl cafes, and organic food stalls. While this is a viable short-term lifestyle for tourists, it puts the sustainability of Chiang Mai’s plant-based scene into question for other ex-pats.
Fortunately, there are plenty of affordable options for those living and teaching in the area- from deli’s selling pots of hummus and vegan cashew-cheese to the infamous weekly Night Bazaar stroke farmer’s market. Encircled by the moated old town, there are throngs of stalls serving veganized Chinese and Isaan staples. Here, chefs are hard at work creating meat substitutes: replacing fish with banana blossom, pork with jackfruit, and mushrooms for fried chicken.
A few streets over is another example of wallet-friendly vegan food, that attracts a hubbub of plant-based English teachers and curious locals. Following in the footsteps of the town’s plant-based heritage, Vegan society is one of many eateries offering plant-based versions of local Favourites. Mushroom Tom Yum, Aubergine Red Curry, and a tofu-based Khao Soi are sold for 40 baht per mountainous portion, which equates to around 90p.
Plant-based living in Rural Thailand
After living and teaching in Isaan for five months, I can confirm that plant-based living in Thailand’s most authentic, yet least developed region is a different kettle of (banana blossom) fish. Especially in rural communities, eating meat is a sign of prosperity, and its consumption is woven into the fabric of daily life. Many of my Thai neighbours, colleagues, and students are involved in different types of farming- much of it based around rearing chickens, pigs, goats, and even alligators for slaughter. As such, animal products seem omnipresent at first glance.
Despite this, plant-based living is doable, and it’s even more rewarding to find hidden vegetarian gems- even after wading through stalls selling chicken feet soup to get there. Eager to avoid the scorching heat, Isaan communities come alive at their local nocturnal food markets. Alongside sprawling bundles of fresh fruit and vegetables are all the plant-based staples like rice, beans, tofu, and the infamous Som Tam.
This green papaya salad is a staple of food markets throughout the north- making for a cheap, quick, and zesty go-to meal or snack. The little time it takes to prepare is baffling considering the lengthy list of ingredients. Thai chillies, fresh garlic, dried shrimp, fish sauce, palm sugar to soften the hit of spice, peanuts, juicy limes, cherry tomatoes, green long beans, and crunchy green papaya are all needed to make this signature dish.
One hack for supplementing a plant-based diet in rural Thailand comes in the unlikely form of local supermarkets. 7/11 and the uncannily named Tesco Lotus are the Thai version of corner shops and appear even in the tiniest of farming communities. Here, you can find an array of plant-based snacks, vegetarian sushi, and non-dairy substitutes. Among the most useful are cartons of oat milk, crispy seaweed rolls, and overnight oats.
Swapping Glamorized Veganism for Authenticity
Thailand might be a far cry from the instagrammable veganism of London or LA, but it provides the same flavoursome ingredients - grown on their own soil. Though sustaining a plant-based lifestyle is trickier here than in many western countries, it’s an adventure that will certainly enrich your life, and specifically your taste buds.