As my purple painted night train arrived Chiang Mai a few weeks ago, on a Friday morning, I realized what little research I had done on Thailand‘s “second city”. Whether it was the religious epicenter of the country, full of Buddhist monasteries, surrounded by lush jungle and farmland, I already knew. But I hadn’t done my usual tedious search for coffees, Restaurants, bookstores and swimming pools, for fear of disappointment and for some pandemic related reason out of my hands, I am failing here.
But the travel gods have been kind and so here I am, in one of Thailand’s oldest cities – which also turns out, to my surprise, absolutely awash with vegan restaurants. Nearly 200 options are reviewed on the Happy Cow classifieds site and more than 40 of them are plant-based only, which is quite a high density in a city of just 120,000 people.
I must say at this point that I am not 100% vegan. I’m a lifelong vegetarian with a relatively new dairy intolerance, which is difficult in meat-loving Southeast Asia. Suddenly having a delicious range of tasty choices at your fingertips is a very welcome development and, as I marvel at the menus, I wonder – how on earth has Chiang Mai become such a vegan paradise?
Lisa Nesser’s community center, the bright and airy, non-profit Free Bird Cafe (100% of profits go to her charity that provides education for Burmese refugees, Thai Freedom House) was one of the first to open in 2009. on Khao Som, rice balls topped with tomato and turmeric sauce and fried garlic, one of the many tasty Burmese dishes on its menu, Lisa tells me about the changes she has seen in town. “There have always been foreigners living here – the yogis, massage students and NGO workers,” she says. “Then, in 2015, digital nomads arrived. They have disposable income because they make money and live cheap here, so they can invest in really good, healthy food. We really started to grow with them.
As more Western countries have gone vegan, so have these remote workers; despite the pandemic and a drastic reduction in the number of international visitors, the demand for vegan dishes is still strong in the city. Sarah Supharueang opened her restaurant, Vegan Society, in February this year, operating from her kitchen and welcoming customers to her lovely garden.
As I marvel at the menus, I wonder: how on earth did Chiang Mai become a vegan paradise?
“I wanted to create a friendly place where people who don’t have a lot of money can come and eat at Sarah’s five days a week,” she says. Most of the options on its menu are vegan versions of local dishes like Khao Soy noodle soup and sell for 40 or 50 baht per plate (90p to £1). “I love to cook and I wanted people who can’t cook vegan to have a choice,” she adds. It’s a brave decision to open in the middle of the pandemic, but she assures me it was the right one: “For me, it’s good to start slow and learn as you go. I finally want to open an all-you-can-eat vegan buffet. While cheap buffets and world-class street food are plentiful in Chiang Mai, none are selling vegan these days – Sarah might be onto something.
On his recommendation I will meet Usatip Kidhen, or Fon at his friends, the owner of the Rad Rabbit, the only vegan pizzeria in Chiang Mai. Sustainability and the prevention of food waste are at the forefront here, with Fon’s chefs using a special pre-fermentation technique to make the dough – “it’s a great way to reduce waste because anything that isn’t cooked because a pizza only needs a few ingredients and it’s turned into focaccia,” says Fon. She also struck a deal to get the best tomatoes in town: “We use this big organic tomato supplier, who usually sells to fancy supermarkets, but we buy the ones that don’t look perfect, which they would throw away, we got them at a really good price and use them for our sauce.
Her tomato sauce is gorgeous, as is her vegan cashew cheese, piled profusely on the must-have “parmigiana” eggplant focaccia, as well as most of the pizzas on the menu. Her take on the vegan scene goes back to the city’s spiritual roots: “I think Chiang Mai appeals to people who care about health and wellness. There are a lot of yoga studios out there and these people really care about what they put into their bodies. I think that’s how it is veganism flourished here”.
No self-respecting investigation can be complete without going to the source of the investigation, so I end my quest for knowledge at the oldest of such establishments in town, Aum Vegetarian Restaurant, which opened in 1982. The current owner Gasom Saifa is the third generation. of his family to run the ship, inheriting the place from his aunt 13 years ago. She has her own small farm nearby and uses herbs, fruits and vegetables from her land to make vegan sushi, gyoza, dumplings and a long Thai menu that has been pleasing backpackers for decades. How did his family come to be so forward-thinking?
“My aunt took over Aum from her uncle-in-law. He was a university professor here, but he originally wanted to be a Buddhist monk. He failed to join a monastery but opened this vegetarian place instead.
And with this revelation, I am convinced that Chiang Mai is the perfect intersection of religious devotion and smoothie bowls, where a benevolent approach to all living beings as well as the good of the environment is actively promoted by a growing group foodies – and for that reason I may never leave.