We booked flights to Thailand not because we’d always wanted to visit, but because Jetstar was advertising a $600 return trip special, and we couldn’t resist such a ridiculous bargain.
Unlike other big holidays I’ve started planning months in advance, this time I didn’t do much research, and wasn’t sure what to expect, especially in terms of food. A few people had told me that vegetarian food in Thailand was amazing, others had said there’s fish sauce and shrimp paste in everything and it’s hard to communicate about vegetarianism because it’s not a Thai concept.
As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. I found amazing vegan food in each of the three places we visited: Phuket, Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Even where there were language barriers, we usually managed to communicate with our few learned words (‘jae’), pointing at ingredients and friendly optimism.
Here’s what I recommend in Phuket, where we landed and spent the first couple of days.
Follow the jae symbol
Arriving in Phuket was an adventure. Our couchsurfing host had given us his address, and instructions about how to find a taxi that wouldn’t rip us off (use the taxi booking booths set up outside the airport arrival area, and negotiate the fare in advance).
It wasn’t until the taxi driver had circled around the same stretch of road five times, after first stopping and asking for directions, that we realised the address we’d printed out didn’t actually include a street name. We’d later discover that this was because the pace of development in Phuket has been so rapid that there are major roads that don’t really have official names yet and don’t appear on maps. The street address we had was within a housing complex, one of several around the same area with very similar names.
By the time we eventually arrived, and were greeted by a kid who didn’t speak any English and couldn’t tell us which direction Phuket Town was in, we realised that our usual methods of navigation might not be useful here. We were hungry, but weren’t sure that our printed lists of vegetarian-friendly eateries from Happy Cow would be of any use in a place where knowing an address didn’t mean you could find it.
So we went out, flagged down a passing tuktuk and asked to go to Phuket Town. On the edges of town, Erin spotted a sign saying ‘Vegetarian Food’, so we stopped for lunch.
Later when we’d found a map, we identified this place as Jeh Palem, one of Happy Cow’s recommendations after all. But wait, Happy Cow said that it was at 9 Bangkok Road, and there was that big sign outside that looked like a number 17?
It turned out not to be a 17, but the symbol for jae, or Thai vegan food. Knowing this helped us find other places to eat later in the trip – if you’re visiting, I’d definitely recommend familiarising yourself with what it looks like in different scripts.
We walked into town after lunch, and ran into a fresh fruit market. We tried fruits that were new to us (rambutan, mangosteen) & things that were familiar, but more delicious (sweet tiny finger bananas, mangoes). We also bought a fresh young coconut, and drank its milk from a straw while walking into town.
So much of the best food we ate in Thailand was on the street, from small vendors who specialised in making one thing and carried their whole business on the side of a motorbike, in a little cart, or on their shoulder in baskets. A few of the best things we found in Phuket were:
Boiled peanuts, which looked from the outside like roasted ones. The insides were pale and soft, and delicious.
Melty, sweet fried banana on a stick, from this woman.
The night market
The NY Times’ 36 Hours in Phuket recommended this place to us: a night market next to Robinson’s department store in town. During the day, it’s a produce market. At night, food carts line the outsides, offering freshly cooked deliciousness. On one side of the square, carts are open to traffic, & motorbikes drive up to collect takeaways.
We picked one of the carts that had tofu and vegetables among its ingredients on display, and negotiated with pointing & ‘jae’ & a bit of mystery about what exactly the outcome would be. The result was this clear soup with tofu and greens, one of the most delicious things we ate on the trip.
Gallery Cafe by Pinky
In the middle of Phuket town, we found a likely-looking coffee place: the Gallery Cafe by Pinky. I had a good, strong espresso and Erin had the best juice of her life to date: lemongrass, ginger and passionfruit. We sat down for a while to read and write.
It seems like every convenience store in Thailand is a 7-Eleven. As well as being a welcome air-conditioning break from the heat and humidity outside, the 7-Eleven was always a reliable source of bottled water and snacks. Some things we bought for the plane flight home: dried durian chips, salted broadbeans, sesame seed puffs and a raisin mix.
I’m sure there is good pad thai in Phuket, but we didn’t find it. This dish, eaten in our first Thai sit-down restaurant, was only okay. We had the most amazing Pad Thai a couple of nights later, in Chiang Mai: stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.