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My Experiences As a Vegan Traveler in Asia
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My Experiences As a Vegan Traveler in Asia

Being vegan can be a little bit of a challenge at the best of times – whether it’s dealing with the total lack of dairy-free milks for your caffeine fix or having to explain that yes, yes you do get enough protein.

Take all of the drama and apprehension that comes with being plant-based, and then add two other dimensions to it – communication problems and a totally different culture.

 I spent 15 incredible months traveling through Asia and totally fell in love with pretty much everything about it. Aside from picking the chicken out of my veggie fried rice, that is…

Plant-Based Power

Being vegan is one of the best choices you can make, as far as I’m concerned. Yep, it can feel a little isolating at first, and there are some people who just really can’t wrap their heads around it, but it’s so worth it in the end.

If you’ve made the choice to become vegan, you might be feeling a little bit apprehensive about traveling. There are several things to take into consideration if you’re heading to Asia, as being abroad can make things trickier than usual.

Don’t let your diet and lifestyle choices hold you back from seeing the world, but bear these things in mind before you jet off…

Communication Problems

This is 100% not me trying to blame anyone other than myself – I fully admit to only learning the total basics, such as ‘Thanks’, ‘One beer please’ and ‘Where’s the loo?’.

I’ve been embarrassingly lazy in terms of learning local languages during my trip, so it’s no real surprise that there’s been surprise meat in my meals.

Sure, Western-style chain restaurants usually have veggie and vegan options anyway, but what about those delicious little alleyway stalls with no menus? You can learn all the phrases for ‘vegetarian’ or ‘no chicken’ that you like in any language, but it still might not do much.

My strong British accent means that whatever I say sounds like a version of English, no matter how accurate it is.

I’ve had some quite embarrassing incidents, actually, where my attempted ‘only vegetable, no meat’ has ended up with a mortified waitress picking the spinach out of my meal and leaving me with only pork. Very strange, and distressing for us both, no doubt.

Translation issues are pretty rubbish at the best of times, but getting lost on the way to the bathroom isn’t as upsetting as finding egg or meat in your meal halfway through.

Ideally, you’d learn various words and phrases to help you out in these situations, but it doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes, no matter how much you practice in advance and how hard you try to pronounce things right, you’ll still end up with mayo on your sarnie.

There have been some places where I’ve felt totally comfortable and have rightfully put my trust in the perpetually-nodding wait staff who insist that my meal will be meat-free. And sometimes it has been.

Credit where credit is due, so many people who work in hospitality around Asia speak incredible English and will always go the extra mile to make sure you get what you want.

Cultural Differences

One of the other issues I had was a lack of understanding. Everywhere I went, people went out of their way to help me, which is something that I loved so much about the various cultures I immersed myself in around Asia.

I’ve had strangers come over to the cashier while I’ve been ordering and translate for me, which was amazingly helpful. It’s not a lack of empathy or care, by any means, it’s just a different attitude that can make being vegan in Asia a bit stressful.

Some cultures around Asia just don’t really embrace or even acknowledge the fact that some people have dietary requirements. It’s a bit of a faff to explain sometimes, and people don’t always understand why it’s so important.

Which is fair enough, as there are clearly hospitality staff in the West who might not understand the importance of not using pork in certain dishes that a Muslim customer orders.

Despite the frustration and confusion all of this can cause, the root cause of it all is a difference in opinion and beliefs. And why travel to Asia unless that’s something you can embrace? The first few seconds of finding out your meal isn’t vegan can be really upsetting and can cause a lot of anger.

After that subsides, you have to find the funny side, embrace the fact that you’re in another culture and just enjoy it. And eat around the cheese, of course.

Travelling is all about diversity and contrast and discovering new things, and eating plays a huge role in all of that. It’s important to remember, through the haze of disappointment, that you’re in a different country, often among a different culture, and that that in itself is wonderful.

You can eat around the meat, ask for a replacement or just order another meal.

Missing Out?

One of the main issues I had while I was travelling was the fear that I was missing out, or not fully embracing the local culture. I love travelling because of the total immersion you get into a new place, through the calls to prayer dictating your sleeping pattern, the fact that children zip around on motorbikes and the fact that there are so many amazing new foods to sample.

I love eating and cooking new things, so travelling around Asia was a fantastic way to explore that. The problem is that a lot of local delicacies just aren’t vegan.

It was pretty hard to watch my friends enjoying all the tasty street-food on offer while I lamely asked what vegan options were available at a food cart in the middle of nowhere.

‘Let’s go for a nice meal’ is music to my ears and I’m always up for a sociable, fun evening with plates piled high with delicious food. It’s a struggle to get a vegan side salad at some places, let me tell you.

The sociable aspect of dinner is often marred by the anxiety around ordering and then actually eating your supposedly-vegan meal, and that lack of options can make going out for dinner a big strain.

I made an effort to find vegan-friendly restaurants wherever I stayed, but most of my friends/ random people in my hostel who became dinner partners just weren’t vegan. It can be tricky to persuade someone who’s a meat-lover not to go to the top-rated restaurant in the city and go to a plant-based café instead.

While I found some incredible vegan-friendly places, I could tell that many of the people I took to them weren’t very impressed with the ‘small, boring meals’. It can be tricky even at home to find a balance, but there’s normally a lot more choice!

It can feel as though you’re missing out on tasty food, fun experiences and the carefree attitudes of those who can, and do, eat anything.

Attention to Detail

You’ve ordered a vegetarian dish, hold the cheese, and everything seems to be going well so far. Lots of veggies, they held the cheese and it tastes okay so far. Until you realize that there’s a meaty undertone.

It’s been a while since you ate any animal products, but your trusty sidekick (aka food taster) confirms that you meal tastes a bit like meat. You double check with your waiter, only to be informed that the dish itself doesn’t contain meat but the stock is made from chicken bones. Lovely.

Lots of dishes claim to be vegetarian or vegan, but these definitions seem to vary a lot. There’s only so many times you can double check that your meal really doesn’t contain traces of animal products before you’re just ‘another rude, entitled Westerner’, let’s be honest.

There are so many things to think about – stock, seasoning, ingredients that aren’t listed on the menu, secret gelatine in a random meal that really doesn’t need it, and is that sauce padded out with anchovies?

It can be stressful enough back home, but there are normally culinary guidelines in place that demand allergen/ ingredient lists for every dish on the menu. This means that staff should know exactly what ingredients are in each dish, or can at least check if they’re not sure.

It’s fair to say that most places I ate at around Asia barely had a proper menu, let alone government-level binder full of ingredients.

Nourishment

One of the other problems I suffered from while travelling was a lack of nourishment. Yep, my regular rice, pea and carrot dish was vegan, but it didn’t really give me much in terms of goodness. Being meat- and dairy-free means that it can be tricky to get enough nutrients from your meals while you’re travelling.

Back home, menus will have carefully-created dishes, designed to be full of vitamins, minerals and deliciousness. We often have vegan- or veggie-specific restaurants, who know all about cramming goodness into their meals.

When you’re away, however, it can be tough making sure you’re actually getting anything other than a food-baby bloat from your dinner.

Money

For some reason, the fewer products your meal contains, the more expensive it is. That can be said of food back home, to be fair, but it’s often annoyingly-true when travelling. Taking the chicken out of ‘chicken and veg noodles’ somehow counts as going ‘off-menu’, or costs the exact same as a meal with chicken in it.

Weird, right? Makes you glad you’re not eating the chicken that’s clearly so low-priced for a reason!

That said, I found some wonderful little places that offered meat- and dairy-free meals for really reasonable prices. I pretty much lived off pumpkin and tofu curry for five months, and I have zero regrets.

My Vegan Highlight

My vegan ‘Peace-Lover’ burger was listed as having vegan cheese, a dairy-free bun and fakey-bacon. Sounds too good to be true, especially for the tiny beach-front restaurant I found in Indonesia.

The meal arrived and it looked and smelt amazing. My first mouthful just had to be the meatless bacon! I tried a tiny bit at first, unsure of what to expect. I haven’t eaten bacon for a long time, but it tasted just like I remember from all those years ago.

I called a waiter over instantly, wanting to double check, but also wanting to praise them and ask what the plant-based miracle was made of!

‘Beef-bacon’. Oh, right. So, not the vegan version then? He suddenly looked very panicked, asked what I’d ordered and grabbed the plate away as my tears of guilt splashed onto it.

Apparently, the chef thought he was making a different burger and totally forgot to add the fake version of the meat instead of the real version. Right then.

My experiences of being vegan were pretty mixed, I think it’s fair to say. I could have made things a lot easier for myself by learning more of the local languages of the countries I visited.

There were times where I just gave up on the meat-filled menus and ate fruit and soda in bed, crying and hysterically texting my sister that I was booking a flight home.

Sounds a bit dramatic, but food is something that is not only essential but also enjoyable, normally at least. Feeling isolated and dismissed is pretty horrible, even if the decision to be vegan is one that nobody should ever feel guilty for.

Yes, it’s a choice to be vegan, but it doesn’t feel very fun when you have to consider 170384 things before taking a bite of anything. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I take a secret supply of Quorn nuggets with me? Yes, yes I would.

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Leave a Comment

  1. Support
    Support
    Thanks for filling us in on your travel lessons, Katie! We hope to read more from you soon.
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    Thanks for the advice and heads up on potential communication problems. This is a great topic. I've lived and traveled in Asia. Here's what I do: 1. Shop in supermarkets/groceries/convenience stores where you can read labels carefully. Lots of store-bought foods (produce, beans, nuts, breads) don't require cooking. You may want to explore local restaurants, but it's nice not to have to struggle with limited restaurant choices for every meal. 2. If you are an ethical vegan as I am, and you are not physically repulsed by meat, you might give yourself some slack when you are mistakenly served meat. Living ethically doesn't have to be a purity contest. The animal is already dead and you didn't order it. Educating the restaurant staff by complaining will be counter-productive as they will just think you're a difficult western tourist. It's more effective to write an online review in which you politely explain that you were mistakenly served meat - the owner will probably be reading online reviews or having someone read and translate them for him/her. If they want to expand their clientele to include vegans, you've given them valuable information. (If you really are physically repulsed by meat, have a health issue with meat, want to set an example for people with you, or you have some religious purity requirement to be vegan, then this advice doesn't apply, of course.) 3. Travel with vegan friends, or at least cool people, who don't insist on going to the local steakhouse, etc. when they know you are vegan. 4. "Happy Cow" is very useful. Do research in advance on the best vegan restaurants near where you will be staying. 5. Do research on local foods so you know what's vegan and what's not without having to rely on waiters or vendors to guess what 'vegan' means.
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