Vegan travels – how easy is it? 

Jun 11, 2020 | 6 comments

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on vegan dining options around the world. To read the first part, click here.

By John Keeble

Vegan dining has changed. At one time, only vegans ate plant-based meals. Now non-vegan friends are happy to try it. In this photo, right to left, Cuenca expats Richard Signes, Bob Itami and John Keeble share a meal at El Buda Profano vegan sushi restaurant in Arequipa, Peru

How we travel after Covid-19 reorganises transport, accommodation and restaurants is far from settled – but one thing is certain: people will still want the adventure and pleasure of visiting other countries.

Many of those travellers will be vegan and vegetarian (V&V) as the drive to plant-based food strengthens in the wake of the pandemic’s alarm call to protect the planet and all life on it.

The manner in which local eating opportunities develop is impossible to predict but there are strong reasons to believe that vegan eateries will be available widely.

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Vegan eateries tend to be run by dedicated people ready to fight to survive in meat-dominated cultures; more cities and tourist locations have good, profitable vegan scenes; and new growth always surges when older businesses are cut down.

Based on the pre-Covid-19 world, just how difficult is it for V&Vs when they go off roaming the planet? What are the easiest countries? What are the most difficult?

At one time, life could be very difficult for V&Vs. I recall almost starving during a month in Sumatra in the 1980s and being refused vegetable versions of standard dishes in some places in central Malaysia and eastern Thailand in the 1990s.

The Big Buddha on Lantau Island, Hong Kong – next to Po Lin Monastery, which has a 300-seat vegan canteen with spectacular food. A great experience, an unforgettable memory.

But there have been big changes. Not everywhere, of course, but most places. Now, V&V dishes are a joy to find and devour. And many food businesses and tourist sectors want a slice of the booming action.

The change has been driven by rising awareness, consumer demand, and the basic business need to sell meals in increasingly competitive local markets.

The enormous spread of “imported” cuisines has had a significant impact too – with eatery start-ups ranging from those by migrants with no other chances to multinational chains.

Cuenca shows how rapidly change has come about. Four years ago, when I first visited the city, it was difficult for me to eat out enjoyably as a vegan. Now it is a V&V paradise with scores of restaurants that offer V&V options across more than a dozen national cuisines. Plus dedicated vegan and vegetarian eateries, too.

Eric Brent, CEO and founder of the HappyCow vegan and vegetarian app guide to the world, said there was a rising understanding of vegan needs.

“It’s easier than ever for vegans to travel,” he said. “HappyCow lists restaurants and stores in more than 180 countries.” [Survival note: download HappyCow, play with it before you go, use it when away]

Eating and relaxing … they go together anywhere in the world. Vegans now benefit from far more choices almost everywhere.

The focus on vegan food has come to the fore with rising concern about global warming and other ecological crises, increased media focus on health issues caused by meat, fish and dairy consumption, and the cruelty of factory farms being exposed through documentaries and media.

“Restaurants and stores have needed to change through the years to keep up with increasing consumer demand for plant-based options, and many purely vegan restaurants have been created to meet the demand,” Mr Brent said.

Indeed, many locations now compete hard for V&V business. Here travel magazine recently reported that Palma, on the Spanish island of Mallorca, “is the next vegan capital”. It will certainly have to do well to beat all the competition.

​”Vegan options in the USA and UK are moving at an amazing pace,” said Mr Brent. “London is in the lead as a city, far outpacing other top vegan cities like Berlin.

“Other popular cities include New York City, Paris, Toronto, Bangkok, Taipei, Prague, Warsaw, Portland, Los Angeles, Sydney, Melbourne, Montreal, Brooklyn, Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Hanoi, Kyoto, and Singapore.

Ancient Egypt, modern vegan meals based on traditional recipes. The best of both worlds.

“However, airports can be challenging, as can certain areas of the world like the Patagonian region of Chile.  The more popular cities for international travellers are, for the most part, quite easy to find vegan options in, but there are places where fewer tourists go that can be more challenging like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the rural areas of South American countries. Even places like Saudi Arabia, which had no vegan restaurants for years, now is the home to two vegan restaurants.”

Airlines, too, can be challenging for vegans, though less so for vegetarians. I always order VGML meals and usually something turns up. [Survival note: take enough food for a meal on long haul flights, and maybe a snack on short].

On the basis of putting my vegan mouth where my money has been spent, here are some countries where I have had exceptional and not-so-exceptional meals:

Peru: Great flavours, and very easy to find vegan and vegetarian food in tourist locations and cities. My favourite place in Peru was the fabulous El Buda Profano vegan sushi restaurant in Arequipa. It was an example of multicultural influences: historic Peruvian location, Japanese cuisine, Canadian owner, Peruvian chefs … and ethnic Spanish, Japanese and British customers at our table alone.

Wat Arun, one of Thailand’s iconic landmarks in Bangkok where you can find endless options for vegan food.

Thailand: Thai food is like eating in Technicolor. It delights the eye and the palate. V&V options are easy to find in almost any eatery in tourist areas and in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. It can be more problematic in rural regions, especially Isaan in the northeast. My choice of best location: Chiang Mai with maybe 50+ places to eat vegan in and around the historic centre.

America: Wonderful choices in all the locations I have visited, though some small places struggled during a Blues trip in the southern states. In happier times, I could be very enthusiastic about a vegan tour of the US.

Laos: If you are looking for a little bit of heaven in our wicked world, go to the City of Temples, Luang Prabang on the Mekong, for a few days and try its wonderfully creative V&V meals. French, Laotian, fusion, international. I have eaten incredible southern Indian meals all along Laos’s Mekong, including at the river-stop village of Pak Beng half way between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang, and in the city of Vientiane.

Ireland: Sophisticated creations, tasty, served with a warmth that makes you want to return. Many V&V choices. Even Guinness is vegan now.

Hanoi offers cultural and historic fascination as well as tremendous vegan food

Vietnam: Easy for V&V travellers from one end of the country to the other, though maybe the best food is in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Truly memorable meals and experiences are sometimes in the most unexpected places. One evening eatery in HCM City was in a domestic garage and driveway. It had beaten-up tables and chairs, it was packed with people, and table sharing was the norm. Half a dozen monks ate together at the back (including one who came to talk to me later)… and the food was beyond incredible with sparkling flavours that exploded in iridescent waves in the mouth.

Egypt: The V&V food in the Nile towns is startlingly good. Spices, rice, vegetables … I would go back there tomorrow. I did not find the same to be true on the touristy Red Sea side but maybe this has changed, like Cuenca, in recent years.

Singapore: If you can’t find a good meal in Singapore, you had better give up travelling. Malay, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Western, fusion… try a four-day eating break from whatever else you are doing.

Napal: Good V&V meals in Kathmandu and tourist locations but less easy in rurul areas. The people, warm and welcoming, are willing enough if you can convey what you need.

Sri Lanka: Fantastic choices for V&V eaters. A few years ago, but still in my mind like a video, I had a very relaxed vegan meal on the veranda of a rurul colonial-style hotel. I asked for a beer without realising the land was Buddhist owned. The waiter said he could not serve beer and offered tea. Okay, no problem. An elegant white teapot and cup arrived. When I poured, it was beer.

Malaysia: The people and the experience are great but the idea of veganism can be hopelessly difficult to convey away from the bright restaurant lights. You won’t starve but it can be hard work on the food front.

I wonder how difficult it would be to eat with V&V confidence in most of China, though I’ve had good meals in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Maybe the best way to find out is to try it … if you are adventurous enough to be a traveller and a vegan, how difficult can it be?

HappyCow figures on V&V destinations

Check out the stats page here:
https://www.happycow.net/reports/stats

Top vegan-friendly city report, here:
https://www.happycow.net/vegtopics/travel/top-vegan-friendly-cities

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