A few months ago I went on my first big international trip since going vegan. To make things easier, I had chosen to visit Thailand. Thai food was already a staple in my vegan diet back home, and while I was aware of the potential issue with fish sauce in curries, I had also heard that Thailand is an incredibly vegan-friendly country. The biggest choice of vegan food, so I read, was to be found in the city of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. And so, I booked my tickets.
My culinary journey started even before I boarded the plane. Armed with the Happy Cow app and an array of blog posts about vegan travel in Thailand and Chiang Mai, I prepared a list of restaurants and pinned them onto a Google map on my phone. I had five days in the city, but I knew there would be more options than I could possibly try during that time. To make it easier to decide where to eat on the spot, I also took note of each restaurant’s specialties. Here are a few:
- Avocado tomato bruschetta at Da’s Home bakery
- Fluffy vegan pancakes at Free Bird Cafe
- Creative salads at Salad Concepts
- Crispy thin Italian pizza at By Hand Pizza Cafe
- Avocado fries and burgers at Food 4 Thought
Sounds delicious, right? But it is almost impossible to ignore that these are all Western dishes.
Western Influence on Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a popular hub for digital nomads from Europe, North America and Australia. These entrepreneurial expats flock to the city for its low living costs and high quality of life. Internet access is fast and reliable, there are plenty of opportunities for networking and socialising within the community and life on average is simpler and less stressful. With a large group of affluent people looking for a more convenient life, it is no surprise that a lot of the restaurants and cafes in Chiang Mai want to cater to their tastes. Not every Western expat in the city is vegan, but those who are will expect to find dishes like crushed avocado on toast, a variety of vegan burgers or vegan cream cheese bagels on the menu.
And for some time I was too. After a week in Bangkok, surviving mostly on green and red curries with tofu and mango smoothies, I was happy to mix up my diet with familiar dishes from home. Yet, it somehow felt wrong. It was like I was living in a Western bubble, completely out of touch with local cuisine, and thus, local culture.
As a travel writer, food has always played an important role for me when exploring a new country or city. I tasted the flavours of Spain in Madrid, where people from all regions come together in a melting pot of Spanish culture and bring their dishes with them. I understood the real meaning of hygge through family dinners in Denmark, where the family gathers around a table and will only leave when the last story has been told, and the last dish has been finished. I learned about the multi-cultural history of Zanzibar by stuffing my face with fusion delicacies which combine the best of East Asian, Indian, African and tropical cuisine.
Animal products are often at the centre of national cuisine; and many people cherish their national dishes like treasures, attaching huge amounts of emotional value to them. Being able to make those experiences happen as a vegan is truly remarkable.
The Privilege of Being Vegan
Apart from that, for me, making the choice to be vegan is connected with a significant privilege. There are numerous factors hindering many people in developed and developing countries from making this choice; health requirements, affordability, time, access to speciality shops, education, awareness, ethical transparency, climate and environmental conditions are just some of them. Not everybody has access to the same plant-based foods that I eat in order to replace nutrients gained from animal products to eat a healthy diet.
Yet, here I was, two days into my stay and getting all excited about vegan burgers and tomato basil bagels in a hipster cafe filled with Western expats. Suddenly, it hit me. Something had to change and I had to check my privilege.
While researching my trip I had read, that a lot of locals are actually lacto-free vegetarian for religious reasons and try to maintain a diet that doesn’t harm or exploit animals. Veganism was clearly not introduced to Thailand by Western expats. Animal welfare, environmental concerns and thriving for personal health are at the core of Thai culture, and if that was the case it would of course be possible to make meaningful connections through traditional Thai food, just like I did in Madrid, Denmark and Zanzibar.
PS: Many locals also oppose the cruel animal tourism, such as riding elephants and tiger shows, but agencies keep offering it en masse because tourists demand it. However, there are of course much better ways to have animal encounters on your travels!
Local Vegan Culture in Chiang Mai
I spent the rest of my trip finding vegan and vegetarian restaurants that were run or owned by Thais and worked with local and seasonal produce. Quickly I discovered what Thai cuisine could offer much more to vegans the the green and red curries I had eaten too much of in Bangkok – even if they were delicious.
One of the most homely and intimate restaurants I’ve ever been to was Amrita Garden located in the owner’s house on the ground floor. You sit on relaxing furniture, can browse local art, fashion and home baking while you wait for your food, and everything you get here is entirely home made from scratch. The food is inspired by Japanese and macrobiotic cuisine, but you really get the sense that only the best seasonal and local produce is used to make it.
Much more Thai on the other hand is Reform Kafe, which is the restaurant at Green Tiger guesthouse. We ate here several times and tried different Western and Thai dishes. The restaurant is particularly known for its vegan version of Khao Soi a yellow egg noodle curry that is easily Chiang Mai’s most popular dish. However, also the other Thai dishes, like Tom Yam soup and Pad Thai are incredible.
My absolute favourite eatery in Chiang Mai however, was Bodhi Tree Cafe 2, which is run by a group of local women who pour their heart and soul into their food. The Tom Yam soup and green mango salad I ordered hear were easily the best Thai dishes I have ever eaten.
What all three of these restaurants have in common is that they are located in peaceful residential areas of Chiang Mai’s Old Town, existing side by side with tiny street food vendors who only come out around the time locals actually eat themselves. Instead of being surrounded by hostels and bars catering to Western travellers, these find themselves among traditional wooden Thai houses on stilts. Exploring and eating in these areas gave me the opportunity to experience a very local side of Chiang Mai and learn more about the eating and living habits of its people.
Despite my initial feeling of imposing my Western veganism onto another culture, Chiang Mai turned out to be a great place for vegan travellers to connect with local culture. All it took was a little bit of research and the willingness to venture beyond the comfort of Western food – and checking your privilege, of course. After all, traveling (vegan or not) is about trying and learning new things and immersing yourself in another culture.
All photos by author.