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Six ways to survive (and thrive) as a vegan expat living in Thailand

Updated 12 Feb 2020

In recent years, interest in veganism and vegetarianism has seen an incredible increase. The Economist called 2019 the ‘Year of the Vegan’ and described how sales of vegan foods in the US had risen 10 times faster than other foods. With celebrities and athletes flying the flag of a plant-based lifestyle, many people have made a shift in their eating preferences. 

Staying vegan as an expat isn’t always an easy feat. As an expat, there are undeniable challenges that one already has to overcome – add an eating preference and the number of hurdles you’ll face daily goes up. Food is such an important part of any cultural experience, so here are six ways to get make the most of an expat experience while being vegan in Thailand.

1.    Understand the 90 percent rule

Communicating your needs is important, and usually helps you get what you need. However, there is always the risk of things getting lost in translation. Perhaps your pronunciation isn’t perfect, maybe the other party is unable to cater for you or simply doesn’t know what veganism is. There is often the chance of unknowingly consuming something unwanted. 

I worked on a 90 percent rule. As best as I tried, I was only ever 90 percent sure of anything. Accepting this fact is important. Think about ordering food in your home country – people make mistakes. Being friendly and polite goes a long way to building an understanding with people. 

If all else fails, print out a ‘cheat sheet’ of key Thai phrases to show to people who are struggling to understand you. By being polite and returning to the people who try to cater well for vegans, something potentially divisive can be transformed into a way to build bridges and make friends.

2.     Learn some basic phrases

Instead of trying to memorise all the foods you can eat, simply learn a few phrases to communicate what you don't want in your food. One important term that helps is the word Jae, meaning Jain Buddhist. Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand. This provides some common ground where vegan expats can connect with the locals. There is a helpful symbol for Jae (เจ), which looks similar to the number 17. This is often displayed at vegan restaurants, and on the packaging of vegan products. During October, the vegetarian month in Thailand known as Tesagan Jae, around 40 percent of the population follows a plant-based diet.

3.    When in doubt, go to the 7-Eleven 

7-Eleven stores are everywhere in Thailand. These convenient corner shops offer a wide array of vegetarian-friendly products like soy milk, red-bean buns, cooked rice and seaweed snacks. During the early days of settling in, I shamelessly ate at 7-Elevens daily.

4.    Use appliances to make life easier

One of the best things I brought with me to Thailand was a hand blender. It’s much easier to transport than a smoothie maker, and I live off of smoothies. Another way to reduce the potential foibles of navigating the language barrier is to cook from home. I had to create a makeshift kitchen in my hotel room/apartment. Though it is fairly uncommon to use an oven in Thailand, investing in a decent hot plate, a pot and a pan will allow you to make food from home. 

5.    You can get by with a little help from your friends

As an expat living in Thailand, I met many amazing people. Still, when it came to ordering food, the plant-based elephant in the room was sure to make an appearance. Making friends, you might feel pressured to conform. In the end, though, I found that you will always feel better if you stay true to your beliefs. Stick with friends who support you, and you will have a much better experience. 

6.    Remember comparison is the thief of joy

With all the marvellous options on display, it might feel impossible to opt-out. The challenge of always looking for a tasty vegan meal may feel overwhelming. What I have learnt is that each meal is unique, and that plant-based options are equally delicious. If you start small and try one meal at a time, eventually you will amass a mental cookbook full of delightful plant-based alternatives. Thailand has an abundance of unintentionally vegan foods. It might take some time, but eventually, people might even start to compare their meals with yours.

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