My first adventure to Thailand started with a warning. A well-intentioned one, no doubt, but one that was shared with me defiantly, assuredly, and most of all – repeatedly. It came at me from many places, it was wrapped in various phrases and intonations, but the gist of it remained stubbornly, until I was almost ready to believe it: “It is hard to travel as a vegetarian in Thailand.” The reason? “Why, because of the fish sauce of course!”
Oh, the fish sauce. Whispered in an almost secretive hush, accompanied with a knowing nod of the head, this was the ever-present response to my tentative request for advice on vegetarian food in Thailand. While at times it feels like ninety percent of my friends and family have been to Thailand already, not one person was able to tell me more about the vegetarian lifestyle that I was sure must exist in Thailand.
Instead, I learned all about the dishes that were drenched in fish sauce, infused with oyster sauce and shrimp paste, or just simply filled to the brim with meat and seafood. The one thing I really took away from these conversations was that it is almost never a good idea to ask people who are not vegetarians about veggie options.
Expectedly, once I set foot in Thailand myself, I had no problems with finding vegetarian food. If anything, I had difficulties stopping myself from eating all of it! So now, after several days of intensive research, consisting exclusively of me eating all day long, I proudly present: a few pointers on how to eat your way through Chiang Mai without having to taste a single piece of meat – or fish sauce.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand, where the food is heavily influenced by the surrounding countries of Burma and Laos. If you are very familiar with Thai food, you can taste regional differences between every province, but even the most clueless visitor (read: me) will notice a slight difference between Southern Thai cuisine and the dishes that are served up North.
Chiang Mai’s signature dish is Khao Soi, a mild curry served with soft and crispy egg noodles. In fact, the type of pasta that is used in Khao Soi is so typical for this region that it is often just called “Chiang Mai noodles”. Be sure to specify that you would like to have the vegetarian version – otherwise, it is often served with chicken.
Northern Thai cuisine might not be the same as the food from other regions in Thailand, but there’s still one thing that they all have in common: the food here is spicy (oh, so spicy!). This holds true for Khao Soi as well, so it might be a good idea to opt for a cooling fruit juice to manage the burn on your tongue as you eat the traditional dish. I tried the sweet Longan fruit juice (more commonly known in Thailand as Lamyai), which looks something like a lychee when fresh, but reminded me more of dried plums when prepared as a drink. To some, this juice can be almost sickeningly sweet – but in combination with the hot and spicy Khao Soi, it offers much needed relief and a very welcome relaxation for spice-plagued taste buds.
Another way to experience the traditional Northern ways when it comes to food is to enjoy a collection of Lanna dishes, served on Khantoke tables. While the ancient Kingdom of Lanna only persisted until the 18th century, its culinary customs survived beyond that: up to this day, Northern Thai food is marked by historic Lanna traditions, dating back to several hundred years ago. One of these customs is serving food on Khantoke tables – little, round pedestal trays made out of wood that carry small bowls with various Northern Thai delicacies. There is usually a vegetarian option available; just make sure beforehand to stay clear of – you guessed it – the fish sauce.
Besides one of the best culinary heritages to be found in Thailand, the Lanna dynasty bestowed many more long-lasting gifts upon the Northern regions, architecture being one of the more prominent ones. For a truly impressive example of a Lanna temple, head up to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. Located a short drive from Chiang Mai, at 1000m (or 3500 feet) above sea level, this legendary religious site offers breathtaking views of the Rose of the North, as the city is called by locals.
One ingredient that you will often find in these Khantoke lunches and dinners is jackfruit – this giant, usually sweet fruit is not only used for desserts, but also for curries and salads. Its texture makes it perfect as a substitute for meat or tofu, and the taste is subtle once it is cooked. The go-to jackfruit dish in the North is definitely Tam Khanun, a curry prepared with unripe jackfruits. Careful, though – Tam Khanun includes shrimp paste, but more often than not, Thai people are more than happy to create a vegetarian version for you if you ask them kindly. Jackfruit salad is another meal that went instantly to my favorite lists, no change of ingredients needed – it is one hundred percent veggie.
When it starts to seem overwhelming to make it through all the different traditional dishes that the North of Thailand has to offer, but you would still like to experience the full variety of Lanna food, try one of the Chiang Mai Food Tours. I headed out for the “Taste of the North & Old Town Chiang Mai Walk”, only to roll back into my hotel room three hours later, satisfied and perfectly full.
The tour took us to local markets, street food stalls, and restaurants that would usually not be on my radar. While walking through Chiang Mai’s old town and exploring the little alleyways that lead to places often overlooked by travelers, markets that sell everything from smelly Durian to spicy hot curry paste, and booths that prepare freshly made coconut ice cream just as well as sticky sweet dumplings, our tour guide Oy shared her knowledge about the culinary secrets of the North. We contentedly munched away on our hand-picked mangosteen (a sweet tropical fruit that weirdly looks like a garlic clove), digging into the full-sized portions of Thai delicacies that were awaiting us at every stop, and testing the limits of our eating capacities – whilst also learning about Chiang Mai’s history, Northern traditions, and the many temples. The Chiang Mai food tours are usually offered with dishes containing meat, but if you call in ahead and ask about a vegetarian version, they can always figure something out for you.
Delicious food boasting flavor and lots of spice is not the only thing waiting to fill your belly in Northern Thailand – Thai tea should definitely be on your to-try list, as well. After all, the North is where tea plants thrive. Near Chiang Mai, where the country gets hilly and lush greenery covers the mountains, you can find Thailand’s very own tea plantations. Here, green tea is grown and carefully harvested, roasted, and packaged for all those Thai (and foreign!) tea lovers. Araksa tea plantation, close to the small and very pretty mountain tribe settlement Lisu, is the last tea production site where everything is done by hand. With a little wicker basket strapped to my back, I made my way through the misty hills of Araksa, meticulously trying to really only pick the very tip of the giant tea plants, for it is just the light green, soft leaves that form the top of the shrubs that can be turned into fine tea.
Chiang Mai was only my first stop in Thailand, but even after those few days spent in the Rose of the North, the warning about the fish sauce completely lost its meaning to me. Being vegetarian in Thailand is easy, very easy – or else, I wouldn’t have turned into the giant ball of food that I feel like now, a few days after the trip. What can I say? I love food, and I regret absolutely nothing.
In fact, I probably haven’t tried all the vegetarian (and vegan!) delicacies that Thailand’s North has to offer. Have you been there and know more about veggie dishes that are just begging to be tasted? I’d love to hear some suggestions for dishes that I should try when I visit again. Let me know in the comments!
* I was kindly invited on this trip by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, all opinions stated are my own. The wonderful itinerary allowed for much more than just eating our way through Chiang Mai – check out more about this trip on the blogs of my fellow travellers, Kathi and Romeo from Sommertage and Martin from i-ref (German language only).