Vegetarian Laos - The Hidden Paradise in Southeast Asia

By Hiroko Kato

Lately, when I've traveled around Southeast Asia, whenever I visited Vietnam, Thailand, or Malaysia, I have had no problem surviving as a vegetarian, thanks to the many vegetarian-friendly places. However, I had no idea what I would find when I got to Laos.

Laos is one of a few existing communist regimes in the world and it has been unfamiliar to western travelers until recently. The Internet, let alone guidebooks, gave me little clue as to how difficult it would be to find vegetarian food there. I was thrilled to discover a British website that reported that there was plenty of vegetarian food in Laos. However, my hope diminished after I attempted to verify that information with the webmaster of one major Laos tourist page. His response was, "I've never heard of that kind of thing."

One reason I couldn't be sure whether Laos has vegetarian foods is because of its religion. Generally, Laotians are Buddhists, but the predominant sect (Theravada Buddhism) doesn't have a vegetarian-eating style similar to Mahayana Buddhism, which is found mainly in China, Japan, and Vietnam. In Theravada Buddhism, monks shouldn't kill animals, but they can eat them if they don't see or hear the killings. Therefore, people can donate all kinds of food, including meat, to monks who rely on their meals coming in through daily donations. Even on certain religious days meant to shun meat, Theravada Buddhists are allowed to consume fish and chicken. I was still hopeful because of my experience with Thailand (here people follow the same sect as people in Laos), where you can find a lot of vegetarian places. Since vegetarianism in Thailand is rather a new movement, especially among health-conscious people in urban areas, there seemed to be less possibility that Laos would be vegetarian-friendly, since it is less developed and internationalized than Thailand. I was completely at a loss, but I left for the country anyway, with some useful Laotian phrases such as, "I don't eat meat (Khawy gin sin baw dai)."

Fortunately, I never had the opportunity to use those phrases during my ten-day stay. I first arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and went to a Laotian restaurant for lunch. I tried to figure out what I could eat, wondering if I would end up only with a bowl of plain rice. Instead, what I found on the menu was a "vegetarian" section. There were eight items such as, orlarm je (stewed tofu, mushroom, eggplant, and long bean), kua puk je (sautéed vegetables), gaen keo wahn je (green chili paste curry with tofu), and so on. The price was around $3 per dish (relatively cheaper than regular dishes) and the portions were big enough.

Satisfied with my first experience of Laotian food, I began to expect finding more vegetarian resources in Laos than I had anticipated. And I was not disappointed.

My next destination was Luang Prabang, the old royal capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage site, registered in 1995. In this "Gem of Mekong," a small town of magnificent Luang Prabang-style temples and French colonial houses, many Western backpackers were strolling around, which usually means that the restaurants have English menus and vegetarian items. I was excited to find that most cafés and restaurants on the main street put vegetarian options on their menus. There were so many that I gave up trying to scribble down all the vegetarian items in my notebook. With a variety of selections from pizza to spring rolls, vegetarians can enjoy eating Laotian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and Western food in Luang Prabang.

Local vegetables are another delight that will please vegetarians' palates. Thanks to the fertile Mekong River, locally grown vegetables don't need any chemical fertilizers and they keep their natural flavors. You would be entranced by a plate containing a simple salad or stir-fried greens because they're so lush and beautiful. Freshly-squeezed fruit juice (coconut milk, mango, and so on) at street vendors is one thing you don't want to miss.

Besides its vegetarian foods, Laos is a country of unique, rich culture. The pace of life is leisurely in a relaxing atmosphere. Even though it is defined as one of the poorest countries in the world, people there are generally very nice and you rarely will be annoyed by pushy panhandlers, sly swindlers, or burglars. For instance, you'll never unreasonably overpay while shopping even if you don't negotiate the sale; an expensive camera left somewhere would be returned to you; and so on.

Even once I returned home, I wondered why Laos could be such a vegetarian-friendly place. It was impossible to get a precise answer because people understand little English and I couldn't speak Laotian. I read several books I bought in Laos but there was mixed information about Laotian vegetarian traditions. My hypothesis is that the influence of tourists from Europe, the US, Thailand, and the Indo-Pacific countries has led to an increased availability of vegetarian options. As tourism is becoming a major industry in Laos these days, vendors might get accustomed to special orders requested from vegetarians.

What is Laotian Food?

If you like Thai cuisine, you will enjoy Laotian food as well. They are very similar, employing a variety of spices and herbs such as lemongrass, chilies, ginger, and tamarind. There are many common dishes between the two countries, like green papaya salad and curry with coconut milk. I think Laotian food is less spicy than Thai, though. Also, Laos has imported a lot of food from its other neighbor, Vietnam.

Still, its landlocked position dominated by the Mekong River and mountains, has managed to keep the country from mixing much with others. Laos opened its doors to only a limited number of countries until around 1990, and this probably aided its isolation as well. The situation has been changing since the late 1990s, but it is less evident than the changes in Thailand or Vietnam, where the influences of the Chinese, Indians, and their former colonist French still linger. In that sense, Laotian food steadily preserves its special character. Some people may call it less refined, but I feel it is genuine or traditional, as are other cultural aspects in Laos. Their way of using local ingredients including herbs and spices gives the impression of being somewhat eclectic in spite of its similarity to Thai cuisine.

Laos' specialty foods include laap (traditional ceremonial dish made from raw fish or meat), keng no mai (bamboo shoot soup), and keang khai mood (ant egg soup). However, the most distinguished Laotian food must be kao neaw (sticky glutinous rice). Whenever I asked the Laotians what kind of food was their specialty, they answered, with strong conviction, "Kao neaw!"

In fact, it is Laos's staple food, whereas Thai or Vietnamese prefer steamed rice or noodles. Served in a small bamboo basket, kao neaw is eaten for each meal, along with a couple of other dishes. It is eaten with the fingers, by pinching off a walnut-sized piece and using it as a spoon to scoop the food. Amazingly, the rice never sticks to your fingers so that it is easy even for foreigners to eat kao neaw the same way Laotian people do. I should add that the flavor of kao neaw, a subtle sweetness with delicate aroma, is the reason kao neaw is the Laotians' favorite food. It does not mean that other Laotian dishes are boring. I now understand why people proudly claimed kao neaw as their national food, and truly, I would never get tired of eating kao neaw simply with soy sauce three times a day. In Luang Prabang, moreover, you will find red kao neaw. In a colorful bamboo basket, red rice has a flavor stronger than regular kao neaw.

Besides red kao neaw, Luang Prabang has its own culinary specialties. The most famous one is khai pehn, dried riverweed (it comes from the Mekong River and tastes like seaweed). If small fish or shrimp are not added, it can be a good vegetarian appetizer. Jeaw bong, assorted fresh vegetables with paste very similar to miso, is another option for vegetarians, though you need to check whether the paste contains fish sauce.

As in Thailand or Vietnam, you should make sure that your dishes don't contain fish sauce. In Laos, it is called nam paa, made of small freshwater fish, while elsewhere saltwater fish are used. Since nam paa is a hidden ingredient in almost every dish and dipping sauce, you should tell waiters that you don't want nam paa. They will simply use soy sauce as a substitute.

Desserts usually don't contain eggs or dairy, and are generally safe for vegans. The main ingredients found in desserts are fruit, coconut milk, and again, sticky rice. For snacks, banana tips and fried sticky rice (which has a texture similar to crackers) are good choices. A cup of strong coffee (one of the influences from the French colonial era), green tea, and herb tea will make your meal complete.


For tourists, it is easy, as well as safe, to eat in restaurants. You will usually find an English menu, English speaking people (even if they understand just a few phrases), and relatively hygienically cooked food. Food is inexpensive, generally three to five US dollars per dish. In Vientiane and Luang Prabang there are quite a few restaurants and cafés, although they are generally small. There seem to be fewer choices in rural areas, but hotels and guesthouses in these areas tend to have good restaurants where tourists can enjoy both Western and Laotian foods. There are a couple of vegetarian restaurants in those cities, too. Also, you will easily get vegetarian options in most restaurants offering Western foods, such as Italian, French, continental, and fusion cuisines. For breakfast, a crispy French baguette (another of the French colonial era's influence) can be a good morning treat to start the day. If you like to add soymilk in your coffee, you can take your own. Some shops in cities sell soymilk and some vegetarian foods, such as Thai-style vegetarian instant noodles.


If you want real Laotian food, markets are the best place to go. Although you will see some bloody meat and fish (including dead mice), the fun of admiring local vegetables and fruits can't be replaced.

Generally, markets are held early in the morning. In the evening, they open small street vendors in marketplaces so that you can see what kinds of foods local people eat. Unfortunately there are few choices for vegetarians at those open-air food courts. One item that I enjoyed at a market in Luang Prabang was savory steamed tofu with sweet syrup. At markets, you should pay in local currency, kip, instead of US dollars that are readily accepted in restaurants and hotels.

I prefer markets in Luang Prabang to those in Vientiane; they are cleaner, have many unique local ingredients, and the people are extremely nice. Though they don't understand English, they let you taste their merchandise and resist accepting money, as if saying with a gentle smile, "It's my treat, dear friend."

I personally didn't have any problems eating those "treats"; however, to prevent any digestive troubles, it's a good idea to wash and peel fruits you buy at markets.

Restaurant Information

It is hard to describe exact locations because the Laotians generally don't use street addresses. They often don't have telephones either. Thanks to the small size of cities, names of restaurants and the streets will lead you much more easily than you might expect. The following are some of the establishments that I recommend.

In Vientiane:
Kua Lao (Laotian) on Samsenthai Road. Tel: 215-777
L'Opera (Italian) in Nam Phou. Tel: 215-099
In Luang Prabang:
Laofood Vegetarian (Laotian) on Sisavangvong Road
Le Cafe des Arts (Western) on Sisavangvong Road
Tel: 252-415
Villa Santi (hotel's Laotian and Western restaurant) on Sisavangvong Road. Tel: 212-267
Yong Khoune (Chinese) on Visunnarat Road

Useful phrases

You should expect that, in general, Laotians don't understand English. It is difficult to communicate in English, even with the staff at high-class hotels, though they are very eager to learn. French is usually fine, especially with the older generations, but the most useful foreign language in Laos is Thai. Still, at restaurants, people may understand the word "vegetarian." Also, an English menu is common so you will easily find what you can eat. To be on the safe side, here are some useful phrases for vegetarians who travel to Laos.

Khawy baw ao sin sat: I don't want any meat
Baw sai paa leu kai: No fish or chicken
Kalunaa baw sai naam paa: Please don't use fish sauce
Naam-man pheut: vegetable oil
Tao-huu: tofu
Sin: meat
Paa: fish
Khai: eggs
Naam paa: fish sauce
Naam sayuu: soy sauce
Khawp jai: thank you

Since the pronunciation is difficult for novices, you might bring a phrasebook also written in Laotian, such as Lonely Planet's Lao Phrasebook, to show in case people can't figure out what you are saying.

Hiroko Kato is a freelance writer living in Tokyo, Japan. She is a former VRG intern.