Before I started my round-the-world trip in 2015, a few people asked if I would still stay vegan while travelling, sceptical that it was possible. In the early days of the job I had before this trip, I remember talking to the director of the company at lunch about the topic of vegetarianism (after she discovered I don’t eat meat), and she mentioned that she had a friend who was vegetarian but who later gave up the diet. I asked her why. She said: “She went to Latin America”. Already this sowed the seeds of doubt as to whether I could remain vegan in countries such as Argentina, which is famous for its beef-oriented diet.
However, I’ve travelled as a vegan in Mexico, a country where meat and dairy feature heavily in the diet, and it wasn’t an issue. I didn’t find myself hungry and desperately roaming the streets for something to eat. With a little preparation – such as looking up vegetarian restaurants in each city or town I visited – and a willingness to cook a lot of my meals, I was able to try a lot of interesting vegan food and eat pretty well.
Food was one of my main worries about backpacking around the world. But a little research can go a long way. Whenever I had WiFi, I just went on the HappyCow website (now available as an app, too) which was honestly a life-saver, and looked up vegan/vegetarian restaurants in each city or town that I was visiting. I then just entered the addresses of various places into Google Maps and saw which one was closest to where I was staying. I would get directions before leaving my accommodation and then just use Google Maps offline, with GPS. It’s through the HappyCow site that I’ve been able to try a lot of new and amazing food. I also looked up vegan travel blogs for recommendations on where to eat or search which local dishes happen to be vegan by default.
To make sure I didn’t get hungry while travelling (such as on long bus journeys) I always seemed to have a ‘just in case’ supply of food with me: usually nuts. These are a decent source of protein and fat, and if I eat enough, they can definitely keep me going for a while. Dark chocolate and energy/protein bars are also good snacks to carry around. I tend to eat a lot of bananas while travelling as well.
Of course, there are bound to be mistakes made along the way, given the language barrier and the fact that veganism is sometimes not understood as a concept at all. For example, before the Mount Rinjani trek in Indonesia, I tried to explain to the tour operator what I can and cannot eat. Perhaps the request wasn’t made fully clear to the cooks or guide, but my first meal of the trek consisted of noodles, vegetables…and an egg. I had to be a bit less fussy since I was on a trek, so I just picked out the egg.
Another time, before going on a snorkelling trip in Malaysian Borneo, I said to the woman organising it that I don’t eat meat or eggs, to which she said “Okay, vegetarian, no egg”. When I was given my lunch the next day I took a bite out of something that looked like cabbage, but which turned out to be a fish ball. Since when is fish considered vegetarian? Well, as it turns out, because vegetarianism isn’t commonplace, fish isn’t really considered meat. And at a vegetarian buffet (in Borneo as well), I helped myself to some rice, and I was sure I could taste egg, and sure enough, it turned out to be egg-fried rice.
I’ve learnt not to beat myself up about these mistakes and feel guilty about them. Sure, I found the taste of fish and egg a bit gross, and wish I didn’t eat them, but I view these mishaps as lessons on how to avoid similar situations in the future. (To avoid situations like these, you can use the Vegan Passport from The Vegan Society, either as a physical phrasebook or as an app – it explains what you do and don’t eat as a vegan in 96% of the world’s languages.)
Besides the few stumbling blocks I had, sticking to a vegan diet while travelling the world was a breeze. Not only was travelling as a vegan easy (for the most part) but it was also a great way to try new dishes and flavours. I enjoyed veganised versions of traditional food (kebab, meze platters, gyros, ‘chicken’ kievs, and Chinese-style mock meats), as well as vegan burgers, sandwiches, nachos, pizza, and desserts.
Some of the best meals I’ve ever had, not just as a vegan, but in general, I had on this trip. From the Sudanese-influenced falafel in Berlin to the creative and health-conscious food in Ubud, eating out was definitely been one of my favourite things about travelling. Even though there are not as many vegetarian restaurants in Indonesia and Malaysia as, say, Berlin, it was easy to eat pretty much anywhere as a vegan.
This isn’t to say that there were zero challenges. There were a few occasions where I didn’t get to have a particularly healthy or tasty meal. One example would be when I was in Sandakan, a city on the northeast coast of Borneo. I was here for one night, before heading off to the Kinabatangan River the next day, Malaysia’s second-longest river and home to abundant wildlife. At night, there was torrential rain, so I didn’t really fancy the idea of walking very far, trying to find somewhere offering vegan food listed on HappyCow (it’s possible that a lot of places were shut, too, as some often close after lunch).
Anyway, I just went into one of the nearest shops to pick up some semblance of a dinner. I ended up buying a tin of baked beans, which I then ate (cold) in an empty dorm room in the hostel where I was staying. I can only recall a few times I’ve ever found myself in an empty dorm room. In Sandakan, though, this was a rare time when the whole hostel itself seemed to empty. The upside of that was that I could eat my cold baked beans free from the judging eyes of others.
But, there were some welcomed surprises as well when I was travelling; like being in Lahad Datu, a small town in Borneo, where there was an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet for under £1; or the empty vegan café in Valparaiso, Chile, which had Latin American hardcore punk music playing in the background, animal rights posters on the walls, and printed out pamphlets of classic Marxist and anarchist texts, translated into Spanish, of course (here I enjoyed an excellent seitan burger).
In Indonesia, I ate a lot of gado-gado (rice, boiled vegetables, and peanut sauce) and fried tempeh and tofu. I tried many new and interesting kinds of vegetables and fruits, and grew a strong liking for water spinach and morning glory sautéed with garlic. I could eat plate after plate of that stuff.
In Southeast Asia, there’s no need to cook for yourself since food is so cheap. Vegetarian and vegan food can also be easy to find, especially in Thailand, where ‘jay’ food is abundant: this is the closest equivalent in Thai culture to vegan food, and it is vegan by default. You can spot ‘jay’ restaurants by the distinct red and yellow signs they display, which have the word ‘jay’ written on them, either in Thai or Chinese.
In Europe, on the other hand, eating out all the time can become expensive. I would cook for myself a lot, mostly making the same kinds of meals: vegetable stir-fry with peanuts, bean chilli, wraps, and vegetable pasta. All pretty easy to make. Using lots of different vegetables, herbs, and garlic was enough to keep me from getting bored with these dishes.
I’ve heard stories of people being vegetarian and vegan before travelling and then quickly giving it up. I understand that there can be challenges in ordering food, such as communicating your dietary needs, or not wanting to be perceived as difficult in front of others for avoiding certain foods. Sticking to a vegan diet when travelling is, on occasion, an awkward experience. With all of the stresses that come with travelling alone, why add another stress to the mix?
On the other hand, I still oppose abusing and killing animals for food and I don’t believe I have to become complacent about my principles just because I find myself in a different country. If anything, finding myself in a country where animal products feature heavily in the diet helps to remind me of the sheer number of animals that have to be exploited and killed to meet this demand.
Some people might say that I’m missing out by not trying the steak in Argentina or all of the sushi that Japan has to offer, but I don’t see it that way. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on these foods any more than I’m missing out on fish and chips or a roast dinner back home. For me, these foods carry with them ethical and environmental costs and I wouldn’t be able to stomach them knowing this.
The travel blogger Nomadic Matt has said, when commenting on a blog post, “I understand why people want to be vegetarians and I really think it is great but for me, I’d think I’d miss out on too many cultural dishes by limiting my diet to just non-meats. After all, food is huge part of culture.” I can see where he’s coming from, but I can’t accept that as a justifiable reason to eat meat abroad, simply because it is ingrained in the culture. You can rationalise anything if you start invoking cultural relativism.
For example, a guy I met in the hostel I stayed at in Granada, Spain, went to see a bullfighting show, because it’s a part of Spanish culture. As a supporter of basic animal rights, or even just as someone aware of what bullfighting involves, I can see the cruelty at the heart of the tradition. He went on to describe how this particular matador was a bit of an amateur and so couldn’t kill the bull instantly at the end. The animal had to be speared several times before it was finally put out of its misery.
Now I didn’t criticise his decision for going to see the bullfighting show, in the same way I don’t demonise people when they eat meat. It’s just not a polite and productive way to get your message across. I explained why I personally could not have gone to see it myself, which he understood.
Returning back to the subject of travelling the world on a vegan diet, I think most countries that people travel to have fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and beans readily available. And since doing this trip in 2015/16, many countries have become even more vegan-friendly. Even when I did this trip, I had some incredible vegan food in so-called vegan-unfriendly countries, including Hungary, Poland, Japan, Colombia, and Argentina. Every year that passes, it becomes easier to travel as a vegan; although, regardless of how known or common veganism is in any particular country, with a little research and preparation, there is no reason that you have to abandon a vegan diet while travelling.