If you want to be a vegetarian in South East Asia, don’t worry, you won’t have a problem. Vegie food is easy to find and absolutely amazing. I’ve lived and explored South East Asia for five years now, and as a vegetarian I’ve never had a problem. Vegetarian restaurants are everywhere and every restaurant has some kind of vegetarian option. If your vegan, don’t worry, in South East Asia most people don’t drink milk, and eggs are considered to be meat.
There are two things to know about being a vegetarian in South East Asia. First you are going to end up eating a lot of fake meat. It’s very common for Buddhists, which is the predominate religion in South East Asia, to eat vegetarian foods once or twice a month. Because so many meat eaters eat vegetarian foods so often, they want their meals to look and taste meaty. This has led to a massive growth in “fake meat”. The fake meat may or may not taste like meat – sorry I can’t remember what meat tastes like, but I will say that the fake meat taste good and goes well with the dishes. The next thing to know is that some Buddhists believe that drinking beer and eating “smelly food” like onions and garlic, are not what good Buddhists should do. Because of this you will never find alcohol in a vegetarian restaurant and sometimes you may find yourself eating something that could really use some garlic. These issues are small compared with the big flavors a vegetarian will find here.
Thailand – Being a vegetarian is so easy in Thailand, just say “Pom Keen Jai” Which means I eat vegetarian food. As soon as you say it people will point you toward the very many vegetarian only restaurants. In these Jai restaurants you can find a vegetarian version of every Thai dish. Sometimes you may not be able to find a vegetarian only restaurant. Don’t worry, almost every Thai dish can be made vegan, just make sure to repeat “Pom Keen Jai” to your host and they will make sure not to add any meat. For example I love vegetarian Pad Thai, which is exactly the same as normal pad Thai but without the tiny shrimp and the occasional egg.
Vietnam – If you want to tell someone you are vegetarian in Vietnam say “Toy ahn Chai”. Unfortunately, you won’t find as many vegetarian-only restaurants in Vietnam. However, due to French colonization, Vietnam has some very amazing vegetarian sandwich. Vegetables, sauces, tofu, fresh bread, wow! I’ve had a hundred or more of them and I love them.
Laos – In Laos you can find the same vegie sandwiches but with avocado added to them. If you want to find one of these sandwiches in Vietnam or Laos, don’t worry, they are everywhere. You can find vendors selling vegie sandwiches in any market in any city. Since the people of Laos speak almost the same language as Thailand, you can use “Pom Keen Jai” to order vegie only food. In Laos you will not find as many vegie-only places, but you will find that almost every restaurant has plenty of vegetarian and pescetarian meals.
Cambodia – “Ot Knom Sight” literally means I don’t eat meat. While any Cambodian restaurant can make any dish vegan, there are also a lot of great vegetarian places. My favorites are in Phnom Penh, on street 53. Just walk down the street and you will find two great vegetarian restaurants. The first has swings instead of chairs, and has amazing vegetarian Cambodian and western dishes. The next restaurant, just a few stores down, only sells boiled and fried mushrooms. WOW they are amazing! You must try them out. My meat eating friends say they taste like meat, but the owners insist they are just frying mushrooms in vegetable oil, and that the flavor is just their natural taste. You might get fat here, after all $1 can give you a big plate of mushrooms, so you might just order a dozen plates.
Burma – Burmese food is very different from the rest. First off, you won’t find meat very often, after all Burma has been very poor for a long time. Pure vegetarian foods are common everywhere, although before you eat it consider pointing at it and saying “theh theh lo”. Vegetarian or not, Burmese food tends to be very fried. My favorite dish is the Tealeaf salad.