Brett, a vegan polyglot, has been living in Chiang Mai for 10 years and has watched the city grow from a quaint little town into the sprawling metropolis of today. He’s been teaching Thai for over 6 years over at Learn Thai from a White Guy.
People often wonder how I could possibly survive in Chiang Mai as a vegan. Considering I’ve been here 10 years and I still haven’t died, I think I’m doing fairly well. There is plenty of vegetarian food in Chiang Mai, and I’m not just talking the salad shops that have sprung up in the last 2 years or.On Suthep road alone, there are 3 lined up in a row each doing their own thing and there are 3 more down back roads within 5 minute walking distance from the first 3. They rarely have signs in English however, so you have to know what you’re looking for.
There are 2 main types of vegetarian eats in Thailand. While they both avoid meat entirely, there are a some important differences.
Jeh versus Mung
มังสวิรัติ [mung sa wi rut] comes from the Sanskrit mamsa, which means “meat” and virat which means “without.” So this is essentially an acceptable translation of “vegetarian.” As with in English, some people may or may not eat eggs and/or dairy.
เจ [jeh] comes from the Chinese word 齋 (jai1/jaai1) which is also the source for the equivalent words in Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese.
If you happen to be reading this in October, then you are in luck my friend. This is when the Vegetarian Festival (เทศกาลกินเจ, thetsagaan gin jeh) happens. During that time almost everybody gets on the jeh train for a bit. Some people eat jeh for the entire month, the entire 10 day festival, and most franchise restaurants (Black Canyon, MK, etc) offer at least one jeh option, but some actually have a full jeh menu during the festival. The only downside is that a lot of regular jeh restaurants don’t really do anything special during this time except get a lot more crowded than usual and in some cases raise their prices. Yay for jeh.
As far as the food goes, the main difference between Jeh and Mung is that real Jeh food forbids eating really strong flavours and/or smells as it is believed that certain types of vegetables, such as chives, garlic, parsley and onions are damaging to some of your internal organs.
So what does all this mean for you? Real Jeh food will always be vegan. But, you need to be careful as some jeh places will have 1 or 2 Mung options which may contain egg. And even though jeh avoids really strong flavours, it can still taste pretty awesome. They often make all kinds of fake vegan meats to help ease the suffering of all those poor meat eaters who torture themselves during this festival.
If you can’t find a jeh place, don’t worry - some regular restaurants may attempt to accommodate you, or at least make you think they are doing so. First thing you want to do is find out if they are willing to try to make you something jeh/mung. And just because they tell you they can, doesn’t mean they aren’t going to forget and give you something with oyster sauce or fish sauce. Here are the Thai phrases you'll need to make it happen.
Watch out for:
Vegetable food in Chiang Mai's regular spots will always contain oyster sauce. Oyster sauce is dark, oily and gummy. And it comes from oysters! If you don’t want it in there, you gotta say so. You’ll know if it’s not in there, because they will probably only have used soy sauce and vegetable oil. So it may be bland, but vegan.
Solution: ไม่ ใส่ น้ำ-มัน-หอย (mai sai nam-man-hoi) - "Don't put in oyster sauce"
Fish sauce is another standard ingredient in a lot of (almost all!) Thai dishes.
Solution: ไม่ ใส่ น้ำ-ปลา (mai sai nam-plaa) - - "Don't put in fish sauce"
Dishes that usually Contain Egg:
ข้าวผัด - fried rice (khaao pad)
ผัดไทย - pad thai
ผัดซีอิ๊ว - pad see-yu
*ผัด (pad) = stir-fried/sauteed
Solution: ไม่ ใส่ ไข่ (mai sai kai) - "Don't put in eggs"
Even if you ask for something jeh, they don’t always really know what that means so you are better off making it as clear as possible.
Full Sentence: เอา ข้าวผัด เจ ไม่ใส่ไข่ (ow kaaw pad jeh mai sai kai) - I’d like jeh fried rice without egg.
Finally, a word about soup broth - at non-jeh places, even if they say there isn’t any meat in it, it will still be made of meat stock. Skip the soup.
Be patient with restaurant staff, as you are the one who needs something out of the ordinary from them. Aside from being a tonal language, Thai also contains a whole lot more vowel sounds than English and when you say the vowels wrong, people probably won’t understand you. I remember this one time, a buddy of mine ordered a bottle of water and got a coconut, so watch out friends, watch out.