Embracing the plant-based lifestyle in Malaysia

Cafe Scouting: Koh Phangan

Cafe Scouting: Koh Phangan

For the past three years, I have been hearing stories from my husband about the mystical land of Koh Phangan. He has been making numerous visits to this small Thai island for the sole purpose of attending silent retreats, but he has also been telling me about the bountiful plant-based options available there. On a separate occasion, another friend was raving to me about his adventure on ‘Vegan Island’ in Thailand, but had forgotten the geographical name. A few minutes of me trying to guess what it was, my lips got round to ‘Koh Phangan’. The moment his face lit up with affirmation was the final moment I knew for sure that I had to experience this place out for myself.

True to its nickname, Koh Phangan, despite being a little more than half the size of Kuala Lumpur, has by manyfold the number of vegan dining options. I could only sample so much food with the 4 days I was there for. And from what I sampled, I could imagine staying on this island for a month and still being excited about the options. From the no-frills to the fanciful, here’s a list of the places I got to experience in no particular order, and my honest feedback about the food and drinks I ordered.

For currency reference, 1 Malaysian Ringgit is currently equal to 8 Thai Baht.

NIRA’S HOME BAKERY

74/10 Moo 1, Thong Sala

This is my husband’s favourite cafe on the entire island and it’s not hard to see why. Bright interior, appealing menu and spot-on service, this European-style bakery and cafe has been serving locals  and travellers alike since the 1980’s. It is conveniently located near the pier where you depart from the island.

The husband is an avid coffee drinker, and only picks a latte over a long black if it is worth it. This is one latte he trusts. I’m not huge on coffee myself, but I could tell that it was a well-rounded cup and very pleasant to drink. I also tried the Iced Thai Milk Tea, and asked for the soy option. It was distinctively strong and robust, and the neutral-tasting soy complimented this wonderfully. I apologise for not remembering to note down the price of either drink, but I do recall that neither cost more than 70 Baht.
The most exciting thing about this bakery is that it DOES NOT CHARGE EXTRA FOR SOY. This is the first place in the world that I have seen this. Perhaps the demand here is large enough to cover the cost of soymilk, or maybe the owners understand and value the importance of healthy, affordable options. Whatever the reason is, I’m so darn grateful for it. Nira’s is hands down the best place to get a dairy-free coffee fix.

LOCAL FARE

If you’re on a budget, Koh Phangan has got the vegans covered. Plant-based options for no-frills local Thai food is plentiful around the island, and typically ranges from 50 – 80 Baht. Many places advertise the word ‘vegetarian’ on their signboards, and if they don’t, it’s easy to ask for vegetarian options regardless.

Along the stretch of road between Ban Kai and Thong Sala was this cafe. It’s not something you can find on Google, but if you’re driving around on a motorbike along the stretch of road that connects Ban Kai village to Thong Sala, this bamboo crib is part of a small strip of laidback local cafes, most of them bearing the aforementioned vegetarian signboards, so as a herbivore I didn’t find this strip too hard to miss.

The Panaeng (note: NOT Penang!) Curry can be ordered with Vegetables only for 60 Baht. We ordered it with Veggies and Tofu, which cost 80 Baht. The plain rice cost 20 Baht. The curry was tasteful, rich and milky with coconut cream. I can’t remember the price of the Fried Tofu at the back! It wasn’t anything to shout about, and if you’re already ordering a curry with Veggies and Tofu anyway, I’d say the Fried Tofu is worth skipping.

If you’re a Pad Thai fan like myself, you can eat cheap Pad Thai here til it comes out of your ears! Pad Thai is a traditional stir-fry of flat rice noodles, and each cook has their own manner of preparation and presentation, but I found that the Pad Thai dishes don’t deviate too far from each other in terms of taste. This plate was ordered at Rose Villa at Au Chahloklum. It cost 70 Baht, and it came with a crystal blue ocean view. Amazing.

 

PURE VEGAN HEAVEN

64/46 Moo 8, Sri Thanu

The village of Sri Thanu seems to be the spiritual hub of Koh Phangan, with most establishments focusing on yoga and wellness. Of course this was a sign I was immediately drawn to, and despite the alarmingly voracious mosquitoes, the open-air concept of the place has a beautiful relaxing layout.

Husband ordered the Falafel Bowl (189 Baht) with Quinoa and Wild Rice, Beet Hummus and Za’atar Turmeric Tahini, and I had the Smokey BBQ Bowl (199 Baht) with Roasted Sweet Potatoes, BBQ Pulled Jackfruit and Probiotic Kimchi.

The Falafels were juicy with just the right about of crunch from the crust. The BBQ Bowl was surprising in a strange way. I was expecting unripe jackfruit to be used, but the dish instead came with the strong taste and smell of sweet, ripe jackfruit. I also did not find it all that smokey as the name suggests. The roasted sweet potatoes were so-so and a bit on the plain side. The verdict between the husband and I was that the dishes we ordered were nice, but we’ve had much more impressive dinners for the same price elsewhere.

 

PHANTIP NIGHT MARKET
Thong Sala

My husband playing perfect food tour guide, he took me to the Phantip Night Market: a complete ambush of the senses, and a gastronomic go-to for street food lovers. Offering a plethora of local and international dishes, we made three trips here to eat, and still didn’t have enough tummy space to cover all the plant-based options available. It is, by and large, my most recommended spot on the island for vegans to check out. Many of the stalls stay open during the day, allowing you to have lunch here too, but nightfall is when the real madness happens.

I thought this was just at one stall, but after seeing more than once elsewhere, I guess No Name Vegetables are a thing here! They are basically mixed vegetable fritters, served with chili sauce.

Health food? No. Guilty one-off pleasure? Yes.

Out of all the stalls outside the seating court, there is one that caught my eye. It is the only one that sells such food, and every meal is priced at 80 Baht.

First, I tried the Curry Rice with Mixed Vegetables and Coconut Sauce. The rice was yummo but extraordinarily spicy… it’s not for the faint-hearted! The vegetables were not over-cooked, although the gravy that came with it was a little on the sour side for me. The coconut sauce was not very strong-tasting, and I feel it’s mostly for decoration.

On another night, I tried the burrito. It is stuffed with the same curry rice, but the spiciness was pared down with the addition of chili beans and flatbread. And here too is a drizzle of green coconut sauce. This was delicious and satisfying.

For dessert, Grilled Bananas! These bananas are slowly cooked until the outer part dries, then the vendor uses a wooden block (seen on the left of this picture) to flatten the slices.

You can choose from three different sauces to coat it with and I went for coconut milk. I suspect it’s condensed coconut milk, because of the sweetness and consistency. It served as a sweet and simple end to a street food overload. And at 10 Baht per stick, it’s a steal!

During the day time, the Padaeng Thai Food stall is one of a few open for lunch. It’s a ‘Mixed Rice‘ style of stall.

I had some red curry tofu, stewed pumpkin and stir-fried morning glory over rice for 70 Baht. The morning glory tasted suspiciously like it was cooked with oyster sauce, so I would not recommend it to be on the safe side. The curry was bursting with flavour and only mildly spicy for me. The Thais seem to usually prepare their pumpkin in large chunks, and with the skin intact. This pumpkin was cooked perfectly, boiled first then made into stew after. Every bite was silken pleasure.

Other stalls worth checking out, but I didn’t have time to try, is Soul Organics, to the back left of the sheltered area of the food market. It has a small menu featuring Thai fare and using locally grown organic produce.

Capana is right next to Soul Organics and takes up prominent space in the court. They offer more western-inspired dishes like burgers, wraps, salads and smoothies, at higher, restaurant-y prices.

SEED TO FEED

57 Moo 5

The husband read about this farm-to-table concept restaurant in a free map of Koh Phangan, and he was keen to support it. Seed to Feed is tucked in the middle of the island somewhere, and due to the lack of proper road signs for it (one sign led us to a hotel, and the lady at the reception told us that this has been deceiving a lot of people!), we spent a fair bit of time finding the place. I’d only recommend this if you are getting around by rented motorbike.

The restaurant has a quiet, cozy garden setting and you can see the farm right next to it. Apparently, 80 percent of their farm produce is used in the menu.

Since we made a morning visit, we had breakfast here. We both ordered a Super Bowl (195 Baht), filled with homemade muesli, fruit and a smoothie of choice – we went for the Coconut Cream, Berries, Banana and Mango. I also ordered a Green Tea Latte (85 Baht + 15 Baht for soy). The latte was milky and piquant, and the outstanding green colour, which I’m sure is natural and perhaps added in, made it more fun to drink. The Super Bowl? Not as super as we expected. The smoothie had a thin consistency and tasted quite flat. The total amount we paid here seemed expensive for an ‘okay’ breakfast. It’s a shame that we didn’t stick around on the island long enough to try their lunch and dinner options, which may be more worthwhile. Out of all the places on the island, I found the atmosphere here to be the most relaxing and picturesque. It’s easy to stay here for a few hours with a book, but either only order drinks, or be prepared to spend.

 

FRUIT SHAKES

Fruit shake stalls are speckled all over the island, and typically start at 30 Baht. Despite what the name implies, there is no milk used for a basic shake: just ice and fruit blended together for some quick and tasty hydration. It is served in a disposable plastic cup and straw, so if you are carrying around your own flask or bottle, do ask the vendor to use that! The mixed fruit shake that this lovely woman made for us had all sorts of everything: mango, banana, apple, orange, dragonfruit, ginger and lime. It was the most solid 50 Baht we spent!

Shakes are also available at some bars. We found ourselves one night at Haad Rin, where the famous Full Moon Parties are held. On any other non-party night, this stretch of beach seems to be a really nice, laidback place, and we found Sunrise Resort Bar & Restaurant with Thai mats laid out in the sand for you to unwind and enjoy some chillout grooves.

The Banana Oreo shake is normally made with a bit of milk, but I asked for no milk and the staff was more than happy to whip one up for me. It was just like having a chocolate banana slushie! I could barely taste any crumbs, since the blender used for shakes here are the commercial type and wouldn’t be slow enough to leave crumbs. But I’m not fussy with that sort of thing. It was a cool, refreshing treat to cap off a hot day of exploring.

NOTE: Oreos are technically vegan but others may perceive otherwise. It’s up to personal judgment, and I never buy Oreos at home, so I figured it was a good moment to try out something new.

All in all, Koh Phangan is one of the most exciting vegan-friendly places I have ever visited, and the only reason why a plant-based eater would be stumped for dining choices is because there’s just so many of them! I thoroughly enjoyed my stay, and something tells me it won’t be long before I return to continue my cafe-hunting exploits.


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