A Vegan Myanmar Travel Guide
The civil unrest and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have not made it easy to plan a visit to Myanmar right now. I suggest you prepare yourself to visit as soon as the situation allows, because this is a country you HAVE to visit.
It’s my personal favorite country in Southeast Asia, maybe even in the entire world. The people are extremely friendly and helpful.
There is no other country in the world where so many people smile at you and welcome you with a friendly ‘mingalabar‘. This greeting literally means ‘may you be blessed’ and is as common in Myanmar as ‘hello’ in English-speaking countries.
And Myanmar is very suitable for vegans. You will generally find plenty of delicious plant-based dishes, or sometimes the locals will just prepare something for you on request.
In this blog post, I will take you around the country and recommend places to visit and restaurants to try. I have traveled to Myanmar four times now and cannot wait to get back there.
Editor’s note: at the time of writing, the political situation in Myanmar was rather unstable. The author and I have chosen to publish this article anyway, to spread awareness about this beautiful country, its people and its vegan food, in the hope that foreign tourists will be able to visit in the near future. As always, check the latest situation before setting out.
Myanmar or Burma?
This is a tricky one to answer. To read about the background on the country’s name, have a look at this Wikipedia page and make up your own mind.
I have asked many people in the country and none of them minded very much. Both names, Burma and Myanmar, are widely accepted. I myself use Myanmar, as I don’t like the colonial, oppressive connotation of Burma, which is the name that was given to the country by the British colonizers.
Vegan Food in Myanmar
Burmese cuisine is a mixture of cuisines from various regions of Myanmar and is heavily influenced by the cuisines of neighboring countries, in particular China, India and Thailand.
It includes a variety of salads centered on one major ingredient, ranging from starches like rice, wheat and rice noodles, glass noodles and vermicelli, to potato, ginger, tomato, kaffir lime, long bean, lahpet (pickled tea leaves), and ngapi (fish paste). These salads have always been popular as fast foods in Burmese cities.
Many recipes are not set in stone, and ingredients may vary per region. Dishes may be roasted, stewed, boiled, fried, steamed, baked or grilled, or any combination of cooking techniques. Burmese curries contain fewer spices compared with Indian ones, and they rely more on garlic and ginger. Most Burmese dishes are prepared with plenty of oil.
Myanmar’s traditional desserts include fresh fruits and jams, glutinous rice cakes, ice cream and steamed bananas.
Dishes do not typically contain animal ingredients as you might find in other Southeast Asian cuisines. The only ingredient you need to be aware of is fish paste, which might be used for some dishes.
Ordering a vegan meal in a restaurant is best done by explaining what it is you do NOT want to eat. The term ‘vegan’ is not widely understood and is often mistaken for vegetarian. So as long as you point out that you do not eat meat, fish, eggs or milk products you will be fine.
Vegan Restaurants in Myanmar
Restaurants that claim to be vegan are virtually nonexistent in Myanmar. If you check the HappyCow app you will find only a few green markers (used to indicate fully vegan establishments), and even these usually have the words ‘vegetarian restaurant’ in their name. But don’t worry, there is plenty of vegan food around, it’s just not always labeled as such.
While fully vegan restaurants are few, there are plenty of vegetarian restaurants in Myanmar. Because of the country’s history as a former British colony, lots of places are signposted in both Burmese and English. Which is a blessing, because trying to figure out signs that are in Burmese only can be pretty tricky.
Useful Words in Burmese
It can be very useful to have some translations at hand. Although many people speak English, especially in the more touristy areas, you cannot count on it. Here are some words that come in handy when ordering food. I suggest you print these out or save them on your phone so you can point at them. Pronunciation is a whole other beast and is beyond the scope of this guide.
I am vegan ငါ သတ္သတ္လြတ္ စားသူပါ
I do not eat ငါ မစားဘူး
oyster sauce ကမာငံပြာရည်
thank you ကျေးဇူးတင်ပါတယ်။
Things to See and Do in Myanmar
There are two major international airports in Myanmar – Mandalay and Yangon (the former capital). Most itineraries start and terminate in these two cities. I prefer to use Mandalay as my base of operations. It is not necessarily a pretty city, but it has a real Burmese vibe. Yangon is becoming too modern too fast in my opinion.
The city has a grid layout, with the palace and its moat being centrally located. The terrain is almost completely flat, so the best way to get around is by bicycle. It will take a little while to get used to the traffic, especially if you have never traveled in an Asian country before.
While it may seem a bit chaotic and lawless, after a while, the chaos starts to make sense. You just have to be assertive and decisive in the traffic, and things will work out.
Things to See and Do in and around Mandalay
You can easily spend a week or more in Mandalay if you want to explore everything this vibrant city has to offer. If your time here is limited to a few days, make sure you get to visit most of the sights mentioned below.
Zay Cho Market
The local market on the corner of 84th and 26th streets is a must-see when in Mandalay. It is a vast marketplace where people from Mandalay and far beyond come to trade and buy food and necessities.
Two multi-story buildings contain anything you could think of. From fabrics to kitchenware, spices and electronics. The wet market, for fresh fruits and vegetables, is outside in an endless array of market stalls.
This area, in the northeast corner of the city, is scattered with impressive temples and other sights most definitely worth seeing. Climb to the top of the hill to get fantastic views of the city and the palace below.
There are many places worth visiting. My personal favorites are Kuthodaw Pagoda, harboring the world’s largest book. And the beautiful Shwenandaw Monastery, constructed out of teak wood.
You won’t find this one in many travel guides, but I think it is definitely worth a visit. In English it is referred to as the “Skinny Buddha”, and that’s exactly what it is. A giant Buddha statue where the Buddha looks emaciated. As far as I know, this is the only such statue in existence.
Its location and sheer size will inevitably draw you to the Mandalay Palace. The moat is impressive, and its circumference is 8 km, a nice length for a bike ride. But I would not put this on top of your list. I personally found it quite disappointing.
There are a lot of old buildings that make up the palace, but all are empty. There is no royal atmosphere. Visit it if you have nothing left to do. Keep in mind that you have to leave your passport at the entrance gate.
Inn Wa (or Inwa)
A bit out of town, Inn Wa is the former imperial capital. It has a large collection of beautiful temples and other nice buildings and a great museum. The sights are all spread out, so you definitely need some sort of transportation.
I went there by bicycle (in 38o C heat), but at least I could get around. Be aware that if you cross the river, people will be waiting with horse-drawn carriages on the other side. This is a practice that vegans will surely not want to support, so if you don’t feel like biking, better hire a taxi for the day from Mandalay.
U Bein Bridge
On your way to Inn Wa (or on the way back), make sure to visit the U Bein Bridge. It’s situated in the township of Amarapura and is definitely a must-see. The teak wood bridge spanning the lake is very impressive. It’s at its most beautiful at the end of the wet season when the bottom half of the bridge is submerged in water.
Places to Eat in and around Mandalay
Due to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the political situation, not all restaurants are currently open for service. Some are closed temporarily, while others only serve take-away meals. Before you decide to visit, check out the latest situation. All of these restaurants have a Facebook page where they post regular updates.
Very centrally located, this is the most Westernized restaurant I have visited in Mandalay. Because it’s mostly frequented by Western tourists, it’s temporarily closed. But it’s definitely worth a visit once they open up again.
They have a very extensive menu of vegetarian dishes. Vegan dishes are not marked as such, so to make sure, verify if your dish contains egg or milk.
All seating is upstairs, looking out over the alley and the Rainforest restaurant opposite.
Aye Myit Tar
My personal favorite, if you prefer to eat in a true Burmese restaurant. It is not a vegan or vegetarian restaurant, so meat will be on display everywhere. But they will most definitely arrange for vegan food on request.
Main dishes come with so many side dishes that you won’t even be able to finish it all. Luckily, when I visited one of the waiters could explain some things in English and point out what everything was. These were mostly pickled or spicy vegetables and spiced nuts. Everything was very tasty.
Diamond Ring Indian
It’s not Burmese food, but a very nice Indian restaurant with great vegan dishes. Staff at Indian restaurants typically know all about vegan dishes, so they are always a safe bet.
A tiny restaurant on 35th street with an extensive menu of vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Maybe not an obvious choice for an evening meal, or even lunch, this coffee shop has a really nice menu. It has a more Western look than most restaurants and coffee shops and is, therefore, more frequented by Western tourists and young Burmese people.
Although the menu is not vegetarian, they have some really nice vegan options, such as pasta dishes and of course rice dishes. Make sure to point out that you do not eat meat/fish/egg/dairy etc.
From Mandalay, most people make their way to Bagan, probably the highlight of any trip to Myanmar. There are many ways of getting from Mandalay to Bagan. There are regular bus services, or you can hire a private vehicle, go by train or go on a river cruise.
The train might seem like a good option, but unfortunately, trains are notoriously uncomfortable in Myanmar. The tracks are not straight, which makes the train wobble a lot. The 178-km journey takes 8 to 11 hours. I have never made this journey, but I have made other train journeys in Myanmar. Trains are definitely not on the top of my list in Myanmar.
Buses run regularly and are inexpensive, so this is probably the best option if you are on a budget and have limited time. If you are not used to traffic yet in Myanmar, don’t sit in the front! Drivers all seem to be suicidal, and they commonly overtake other vehicles on blind corners. But there is order in the chaos! Just make sure you are riding in the largest vehicle possible, so no others will push you off the road.
A more scenic and relaxing option is to take a boat. There are various options, depending on the time of year. I have taken a river cruise once, which is basically a ferry boat with comfortable seating on the top deck, for the best viewing options.
These tourist boats (no Burmese people on this one, as it’s far too expensive for locals) will take you to Bagan in 5 to 7 hours. Lunch is included, and they will serve a vegan meal on request. But don’t be surprised if it’s the same meal given to other passengers with (most of the) pieces of chicken removed.
If you want to do what the locals do, take a slower ferry boat to Bagan. It will make a lot of stops, will take easily twice as long, only offers plastic chairs to sit in (if any) but is far cheaper than the tourist boat. Of course, no lunch is included.
Things to See and Do in Bagan
Well, that’s an easy one. Visit as many of the more than 2,000 pagodas still standing in this UNESCO World Heritage Site as you possibly can.
It’s not about the quantity of course, as it would take weeks to visit even half of them. Take your pick of the most beautiful ones, or more remote ones, whichever you prefer. Some of these pagodas and temples are quite touristy and draw busloads of tourists (Western, Chinese and Indian), while others are left completely alone.
I would definitely include the following pagodas/temples in a visit to Bagan: Dhammayazaka Pagoda, Lawkanaka Pagoda, Pyathetgyi Pagoda, Ananda Temple and Shwezigon Pagoda.
To get around this vast area, you will need transportation, as walking everywhere is impossible. If you are very brave and fit you could rent a bicycle, but remember that most tracks consist of loose sand, so they’re not very suitable for bikes.
Of course, you will want to avoid the horse-drawn carriages, which are unfortunately still on offer. The best option by far is to rent an e-bike. These are electric scooters (mopeds) that last all day, are rented out everywhere and are incredibly cheap. I normally pay US$4 per day.
Make sure you have at least three full days in Bagan to make the most of your visit.
Places to Eat in and around Bagan
As Bagan is frequented by many Western tourists, this destination has a relatively large selection of vegetarian restaurants. The ones advertising with vegan/vegetarian menus especially draw mainly Western tourists. Expect higher prices than in more authentic restaurants.
Bagan actually consists of three different towns, all conveniently called Bagan by Western tourists. In the center is Old Bagan, with many of the famous pagodas and temples, the Bagan museum and fancy hotels.
A few kilometers south of Old Bagan is New Bagan. As the name would suggest, this is a fairly new area, mainly consisting of hotels and restaurants. But it’s not a bad place to be. Remember you don’t have to be in Old Bagan to see pagodas; they are everywhere, also in New Bagan. New hotels are being built all the time, and this part of town is growing quickly.
A few kilometers north of Old Bagan is the township of Nyaung U. It’s not a particularly beautiful or attractive place, but this is where most ferries from Mandalay dock. It has its fair share of hotels and restaurants, but it’s further away from all the pagoda action.
Moon – Be Kind to Animals – Old Bagan & New Bagan
Very highly acclaimed by many TripAdvisor reviewers, this nicely decorated restaurant in Old Bagan (they have now opened another location in New Bagan) has a great menu with vegan and vegetarian dishes.
It definitely has a more Western feel, and dishes are priced accordingly. The only two times I have been sick from food poisoning while traveling in Myanmar, it happened just after eating at Moon. It could be a coincidence, but they are off my list entirely.
Yar Pyi Vegetarian – Old Bagan
Run by a lovely Burmese family, this restaurant is situated next to Moon. They are trying to compete with their Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor-endorsed neighbor, and I think they definitely deserve it! The seating and atmosphere is less fancy, but the food certainly isn’t! The couple is very welcoming and will be keen to chat with you.
Black Bamboo – Nyaung U
Looking for vegan food in Nyaung U, I ran into this restaurant. It’s more upmarket and has a beautiful garden setting. The menu is not vegan/vegetarian, but there are plenty of delicious plant-based dishes to choose from. It’s more expensive than average, but the food is delicious.
Golden Bamboo – New Bagan
A low-budget restaurant on the main street in New Bagan, they have a very extensive menu with many vegan dishes. The place is frequented by Western tourists but also by Burmese tourists. The food here is delicious, and portions are large. I have eaten here many times and will continue to return on future visits.
From Bagan, most travelers make their way toward Kalaw and beyond to Inle Lake. A nice stop along the way is Mount Popa, a monastery on top of a mountain. The town itself is hardly worth visiting unless you are hungry or thirsty, but I definitely recommend a climb to the top of the mountain and a visit to the monastery.
The stairs are covered with canopies to shield you from the sun (or rain), but it’s a long way to the top. The mountain is home to families of monkeys, who are quite aggressive. They keep chasing each other, and many of them are hurt and have open wounds. It is not a pretty sight and is something to be aware of.
Once at the top, you will be rewarded with an interesting monastery and temple, and of course breathtaking views of the surrounding lands.
This mountain town was built by the British occupiers to get away from the stifling heat in the lowlands. It is now a quiet town, mostly visited by people going on a trek in the surrounding jungle. There are many treks to choose from, ranging from half-day to multi-day treks, accompanied by local guides.
Apart from the trekking, the town has some beautiful architecture, lovely gardens and even a train station. It’s lovely to stay for a few days and discover the town center, the local market and the beautiful Shwe Oo Min pagoda with an interesting Buddha cave.
Places to Eat in Kalaw
There are plenty of restaurants advertising vegan food. I have not visited all of them, but I can recommend these ones.
Thiragaya 7 Sisters
A lovely restaurant with a homely atmosphere just off the main road in Kalaw. There are various small rooms for dining. The cook speaks good English and will happily make vegan food on request.
They have a special section of the menu for vegetarian cuisine, ranging from curries to noodles and salads.
Everest Nepali Food Center
Obviously not authentic Burmese food, but very nice vegan food nonetheless. A large menu with many plant-based dishes, including thalis that come with many small side dishes.
Nyaung Shwe (for Inle Lake)
Probably the second-most touristy place in Myanmar after Bagan, Nyaung Shwe is the base point for visiting the stunning Inle Lake. The busy town consists almost entirely of hotels and restaurants, catering for the tourists that visit the lake and its surrounding area.
Nyaung Shwe is not directly situated on the lake. A 6-km canal will take you to the lake itself.
Things to See and Do in and around Nyaung Shwe and Inle Lake
Most attractions are situated on the lake itself, from floating gardens to markets and temples. The best way to visit them all is to hire a boat (and driver) from the docks on Strand Road in Nyaung Shwe.
A boat seats five people in comfy chairs. Five Western tourists, that is. I have seen local boats with 25+ people on them, but they are not quite as comfortable.
Disclaimer: as soon as the boats enter the lake, ‘traditional’ fishermen will be waiting for photo ops. I have been told they are paid by the local tourist board but will try for some tips by posing with their nets, balancing on one leg. And subsequently pushing a dead fish in your face. As a vegan, I do not particularly endorse this practice. Just something for you to be aware of.
A full day will typically take you to any or all of the following sites:
- Floating gardens: absolutely a must-see, especially for vegetable-minded people.
- Nga Phe Kyaing Monastery (also known as Jumping Cat Monastery): a beautiful monastery in a stunning location.
- Shwe Inn Dein Pagoda: a beautiful cluster of pagodas at a remote temple, most certainly worth a visit. You will have to walk the last few kilometers.
- Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda: right in the center of a floating town, a stunning temple in a great location. The surrounding town is also worth a stroll.
Your boat driver will take you to many shops, where he will earn a commission for dropping you off. Some of these shops and workshops are worth visiting, others not so much.
- Silk weaving: plant-based silk is woven from fibers extracted from the stems of lotus flowers that grow on the lake. This is, of course, a far better alternative than having silkworms making silk. Staff will happily explain the process, and of course show you the shop. Be aware that lotus silk garments are extremely expensive!
- Cheroot making: other shops are specialized in making cheroot cigars, traditionally smoked by many people in Myanmar.
- Be aware of shops that employ women from the Kayan tribe, the ones with the brass rings around their necks. They are not from this area, and their sole purpose is to draw in tourists. It is a pathetic sight and also quite embarrassing to see.
Places to Eat in Nyaung Shwe and Inle Lake
There is an abundance of vegan food on offer, which shouldn’t come as a surprise with so many Western tourists around. I have only visited a few of the restaurants in the area but would certainly recommend these ones.
Inle Pancake Kingdom – Nyaung Shwe
Really, pancakes?? Well, they are delicious and can be made vegan on request. The restaurant advertises with the slogan ‘Are you tired of rice?’, and many people are after a few weeks in Myanmar. This is the perfect place for some alternative food. It is family-run, and they produce great-tasting pancakes with fresh fruit.
Golden Moon – Inle Lake
This fantastic-looking restaurant is situated on the lake and can only be reached by boat. It’s the perfect place to have your lunch when taking a boat tour. Make sure to tell your boat driver that this is where you want to stop for lunch.
It’s a nicely decorated place with tables on the first floor, overlooking the canals and the lake. The staff is really friendly and attentive and will prepare vegan food on request.
Many dishes will be vegan anyway, but they will take special care to make sure everything is vegan for you. I enjoyed a lovely tofu curry and have not found such a nice one anywhere else.
Next stop on most itineraries would be Yangon, the former capital. There is not much in between that’s worth seeing, unless you want to explore the newly erected capital city, Nay Pyi Daw.
It’s a long day’s drive from Nyaung Shwe to Yangon, but once you are out of the mountains and onto the Yangon-Mandalay highway, things go pretty smoothly.
Buses make a couple of stops along the way. These usually take place at truck/bus stops with a couple of buffet restaurants and market stalls selling sweets. To me, the dishes on offer did not look very appetizing, and many of them had meat in them.
Your best bet would be to order a vegetable dish and boiled rice, otherwise bring your own food along. For emergencies, I always carry some vegan snacks in my bag.
Things to See and Do in and around Yangon
As the former capital, and by far the largest city in the country, Yangon has everything you’d expect from a major Asian city. Development has sky-rocketed in the last decade, and new hotels and flashy shopping malls are being built all over the place.
Yangon attracts an international crowd, and prices have also gone up considerably. Some hotel rooms have tripled in price compared with 10 years ago. The first Western fast-food chain to get its foot on the ground was KFC, and others are likely to follow.
Luckily there is plenty of old charm left in the city; beautiful colonial buildings are everywhere. The city center can easily be explored on foot, but taxis are readily available and inexpensive.
As the most sacred of all pagodas in Myanmar, this one is a real eye-catcher. It’s situated on top of a hill and can be seen from far away, especially at night when it’s beautifully lit. The grounds contain many temples and stupas, with the large, gilded stupa at the center.
Many Burmese people come here to pay their respects to the Buddha. It’s a great place to sit and observe.
Also known as Bogjoke Aung San market (named after the father of Aung San Suu Kyi), this is the place to find some last-minute souvenirs. It’s less authentic than the market in Mandalay, and very much aimed at Western tourists, but worth a visit nonetheless. The central part is focused on art, souvenirs and jewelry.
If you’re interested in learning about the history of the country, you should definitely visit this museum. It has four floors and is quite vast. The collection is enormous, so you can easily spend the entire day here if you want to see everything. I have visited a few times, and each time I had the place to myself.
Places to Eat in Yangon
Because of the international crowd of expats, there are plenty of restaurants that advertise vegan food. One of them even claims to be vegan (although they still use honey). Many of these restaurants are up-market and have near-Western prices.
I have been to a couple of them to check them out, but I did not eat there. If you are in the mood for a sophisticated atmosphere, being surrounded by expats and rich Burmese, check out some of these places: Sofaer & Co, Rangoon Tea House or Nourish Cafe.
But don’t worry, there are plenty of inexpensive vegetarian restaurants and other places that offer vegan food.
This is my personal favorite, but it seems to be closed now. A bit fancy, and a bit more expensive than my usual budget, but a great place to eat. The menu is extensive, with many international and Burmese dishes. The waiters treat you like royalty. Hopefully it will open up again in the near future.
999 Shan Noodle Shop
A chain restaurant with a few locations in Yangon. They are small eateries for Burmese clients, but menus in English are available. It’s non-vegetarian, but many dishes are vegan or can be made vegan on request. This is not a place to linger, but the food is great. It is served quickly after ordering.
Nepali & Indian Food, Pure Vegetarian
My personal favorite for non-Burmese food. At this small restaurant located at 648 Merchant Street, most dishes are vegan, and 95% can be made vegan. The owner is very friendly and happy to talk about veganism and vegan food. Lovely food for a very affordable price.
Conclusion on Vegan Travel in Myanmar
Myanmar is a fantastic country to visit, with the friendliest people in Southeast Asia. It is not yet spoiled by tourism and has so much to offer visitors interested in its culture. The sights are amazing, with Bagan equally as impressive as Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Above all, it’s easy to travel as a vegan in Myanmar, as most dishes are vegan already or can easily be made vegan.