The internet's most authoritative source for vegan restaurants worldwide, The Happy Cow, once described the southern Thai island of Koh Phangan as potentially "the world's first vegan island." We at Vomad thought that sounded pretty damn cool, so we decided to live there for a month to see if the reality lived up to the hype.
If you're interested, here is the video from Happy Cow:
note: we at vomad have nothing at all to do with this video, except that we like it. :)
We stayed on the north-west coast of Koh Phangan, in the relaxing area of Haad Yao, and tried nearly all the vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants on the coast. We would have liked to travel around the whole island and try every dish and every restaurant, but we fell in love with this area so deeply we didn't really ever want to leave for too long.
The north-west, where we stayed, is known for its relaxing atmosphere, picturesque beaches, world-class sunsets every night, inexpensive over-the-counter cannabis, numerous diving schools and countless yoga retreats.
What follows below here is our most recommended places to eat for any health-conscious veg-friendly traveller who happens upon this beautiful island paradise.
Click here to see the Complete Travellers or Digital Nomads Guide to Koh Phangan that includes everything else you need to know about this beautiful island paradise.
Raw & Vegan
My favourite road-side fruit stall. Look at that awesomely mouthwatering selection.
Looking back, the place I ate from most often while here was my favourite of the many roadside fruit stalls, pictured above. I had breakfast and lunch from here every day for a month. I chose this stall over the rest because of the nice lady who worked here most days and more importantly, the epic range of everything tropical and sweet, plus a few veggies that can be eaten raw as well.
Every day I would ride my scooter down to this stall and buy approximately 5 of the best mangoes I could ever imagine, at least 10 of those mini Thai bananas (1-2 bunches), and, depending on how I felt, a watermelon or a couple pineapples. Occasionally I indulged in less sweet fruits like dragon fruits and papaya as well.
My first papaya, ever!
Along with papaya's like you see above, I tried yellow watermelon for the first time here as well... And it was excellent. The best way I can describe it was like red watermelon but with a slightly more "caramel" flavour.
Filling up every day on as much fruit as you can fit in your stomach is what I would recommend more than anything while you're here (or anywhere for that matter) as it really was the freshest and tastiest fruit I've ever had, including anywhere else I've been in Thailand. And refreshing, sweet, juicy fruit is the perfect food in the heat of the tropics.
Don't stress over the cultural myths about "getting fat" or diabetes or anything else negative from eating too much fruit... it's absolute nonsense, and anyone who's eaten a lot of fruit for an extended period of time will know this. What you can expect though, is to have more energy than normal, clearer skin and better bowel movements, to name just a few benefits of a high fruit diet.
So, almost every day, sweet fruit is what I ate up until dinner time, whereabouts we would hop on our scooters and treat ourselves to the warm culinary delights of one of the restaurants below.
Vegetarian, Mostly Vegan
no website | facebook
Taboon is one of the many middle eastern restaurants on Koh Phangan. We were pleasantly surprised to find so many Arab-options on such a small Asian island, as our collective love for hummus and falafels was able to run wild like never before.
My favourite dish from this pretty classy restaurant was actually something quite un-Middle Eastern: steamed vegetables. Just steamed vegetables. A huge plate of them, steamed to a perfection I had never experienced before. Surprisingly, it was also one of the most expensive things on the menu, but after the huge wooden plate arrived at my table for the first time and I took my first bite, it was easy to see why. Everything was very tender but never mushy, fresh, still juicy and full of flavour; truly steamed to perfection.
Falafels sitting in tahini sauce. Don't think just because that fresh, warm pita you see in the background there is out of focus it's just a side... it's worthy of the lime-light too!
Of course, they also have a full range of middle eastern options.
These include various mouthwatering falafels, the best hummus we had on the island (which comes in four varieties - three of which are vegan), various salads, sambusak, vegetable and bean stew with red rice, a few fried rice based meals, as well as a full menu of side dishes and breakfast options. They bake amazing fresh pita bread daily and it comes with Arab flavoured dips like babaghanoush, tahini, matbuha, coriander cashew pesto, and other middle eastern words I can hardly pronounce.
Taboon Restaurant and Cafe also had my favourite dessert on the whole island: a fully vegan apple-crumble with ice cream combo that was so big it was almost like eating another meal. Historically I have never enjoyed apple crumble, let alone recommended it to others, but, I must confess, they fucking nailed this one. Definitely try this if you come here. Although this was my favourite dessert, they had a pretty wide selection to choose from.
The whole experience at Taboon was great. The range of foods not found elsewhere was one of the main reasons I preferred this place over others. Add to this their flawless service and unique decor that leaves a feeling of relaxation like no other place on the island, and you've got a list-topping combination. The only down-side is that it seemed slightly more expensive than other places. But as usual, you get what you pay for.
A dangerously close second was Eat.Co. (Which, I think, is short for Eat Consciously.) And if you're being a little price conscious, like we were on more than a few nights, or in the mood for more non-Middle Eastern options, you may like this place better than Taboon.
With an open-air design and a combination of tables with seats and low tables with cushions, not seats, this was a popular place for the Yogis that populate this island in the masses.
My highest recommendation goes to their mushroom and bean-based meal called "Bean Me Up". I don't even like mushrooms, but this meal was the most memorable I had on the entire island. I don't know what they did to them, but damn they tasted good. It's essentially a large, low bowl filled with brown rice, sauteed mushrooms, beans, veggies and topped in tahini sauce with a side of salad. Normally in Thailand I was eating one or two meals at least for dinner, and a smoothie, but this baby filled me up in one.
Something light for a hot hot day in the paradise: layers of goodness - vanilla date pudding, raspberry chia mousse, chocolate and blackberries.
They have a full breakfast and lunch/dinner menu that consists of a variety of fake meats in pockets, scrambeled tofu, homemade granola and marmalade, salads, soups sugar free-juice, smoothies and a lot more. They also serve homemade, refined sugar-free desserts which are incredible and change daily, also tea, coffee and vegan chai. Even though my favourite dessert on the island was found at Taboon, Eat.Co definitely had overall a better selection and looking back I actually ate way more deserts here - I just got something different each time.
Chocolate and vanilla gluten-free and refined-sugar free vegan doughnuts!
Eat.Co is to be found right in the heart of Sri Thanu, which is the nicest "town" area we found. It's not as busy as the main area you see as soon as you get off the ferry from the mainland, but it's still big enough to feel like a town. It was very easy to go for a little walk after eating here around the town or to the beach if you wish, if you're not too full from all the amazing desert options.
A++ Eat.Co, keep doing what you do.
Serves meat, with vegan options clearly marked on the menu.
no website | facebook
Look for this sign from the main road, on your right as you head North.
Unless you're on a strict budget, I would recommend nearly any other place on this list other than Big Mountain for dinner, but if all your fruit isn't ripe yet or you're just in the mood for a big western style vegan breakfast, you won't do better than here.
As the name would suggest, it's located near the top of a big hill, above the main road, and provides a beautifully peaceful view while you eat. If they're available when you get there, definitely grab a seat to the right-hand side, right on the edge, so you can take full advantage of both the view and the breeze.
The breakfast set has tempeh, baked beans, soy bacon (warning: very realistic!), a great soy sausage, fried tomato, fried onions, mushrooms and bread with jam. You get all this for 200 TBH, about 6 USD.
My main beef with this place wasn't that it serves animal flesh, but that the experience there was hit and miss. One time the service was great and the food came as quickly as you'd expect, the next time we literally had to re-order after about twenty minutes because they somehow forgot about us. The reviews online seem to reflect something similar too. Nonetheless, if your meal does come, it'll most likely be quite enjoyable!
no website | facebook
This was the first place we ate at when we arrived. My first impression was, "damn, this Israeli lady is so polite" as the sole staff member I saw there apologised to us for not having WiFi at the moment. We learnt very quickly that island life is quite different to city life... Apparently the power supply cuts in and out on the whole island depending on the weather... Which also meant that we couldn't order anything that needed electricity to be prepared.
Their Facebook page has the perfect description of the venue that I won't even try to top my writing my own...
Divided into two relaxation areas you can enjoy music, library and art in our indoor restaurant or enjoy the scent of our native flowers while you sit in the shade of a tree in an enchanting garden where you will find a natural pool, a meditation pyramid, a pacha mama, kid's playground and an organic food growing space where we grow our own vegetables and local fruits. You can even stroke our loving pet duck Muli who is a rescued duck from the vicious meat industry.
Sweet potato latkes with tahini sauce.
I don't know if you've noticed, but vegan shawarma ("doner kebab") is a rare find. On our international adventures, we have come across a few places that serve it (mostly in Europe), but they are few and far between. So when Hish saw the shawarma at Green Gallery (no pictures, sorry), he had to have it... and, apparently, it was mind-blowing. "Very realistic to the real thing," he says, "probably because of the sauce they used. Pretty sure it was tahini sauce."
It also states, "We combine familiar Israeli home dishes we grew up with and love, coupled with original, full of surprises fusion dishes. We bring you those extra ingredients that make all the difference and come up with daily seasonal specials, following wherever our inspiration takes us.
In addition to our basic food menu where you will find breakfast, starters, main dishes and desserts, you will also find a raw food section, salad bar, gluten-free options, green shakes, herbal teas, cleansing juices and more."
One of the twice-weekly events held in the garden just behind the main restaurant.
In addition to serving some of the most renowned vegan food on the island, they have a great garden spot just out the back where they host events twice a week. The one we attended looked a lot like the picture above, a big group of people all gathered around a campfire, some playing instruments, some singing, but most just chatting and enjoying the vibes. They have artists and musicians from all over the world come to play intimate night time gigs here, so even if this doesn't sound like your idea of a good night out, it is free to enter, and is definitely worth stopping by just to experience. Grab a raw dessert or two while you're there too.
Everything from the immediate friendliness of the staff, to the care they put into each meal, to the unique events they hold all come together to create a business that you don't find in many places around the world. It was the first place we ate at on this island, and I think you'll find it an excellent introduction too.
Evolution Yogi Cafe
Vegetarian, vegan options.
Vegan mushroom burger and "sauca" (Sanskrit for purity) juice made with fresh carrots, oranges, ginger, turmeric and lime.
As the name would suggest, this restaurant is an addition to a Yoga centre and specialises in big bowls of goodness, salads, smoothies and juices, as well as a variety of Thai and other Asian and western cuisine.
We went to the Evolution Yogi Cafe on the few nights I wanted a raw dinner, and it did not disappoint. They appear to specialise in "bowls", big bowls filled with all sorts of things, so I got mine filled with a lot of salad, with a smoothie or two on the side.
The reason to come here is for the fresh juices, food and the relaxing atmosphere, but we found ourselves coming back here despite the service. Whoever was behind the counter never seemed pleased to take our orders, or to even be there in the first place.
Never-the-less, the food is more than un-complainable and their opening hours are a little later than nearly anywhere else on the island, which did come in very handy more than once. It get's very busy in there some nights when a huge flock of yogi's come to feast after a day of practice, but don't let this dissuade you, it's a good sign if anything.
Vegetarian, vegan options.
This place I would have liked to have gone to more. Located in a relaxing bay the south-west of the island, and part of a bigger retreat called the Orion Healing Center, it was the restaurant we ventured to that was furthest from our home.
When we ate there it was not crowded at all, which only added to the relaxing vibes that permeated this whole retreat. From where we ate I noticed a group of people behind a thin sheet on a large stage doing some evening yoga.
We didn't get there early enough, so the best seats were taken. These were private tables that sit isolated from everyone else and look straight out onto the small bay that the retreat is located in. Perfect for couples who want a relaxing and romantic evening together.
Raw Vegan Caesar Salad with Dairy-free Caesar Dressing.
Unfortunately for us, the food we got was good, but not great, and the smoothie was a let down (sorry, I can't remember what exactly I ordered). The experience of eating at such a beautiful place was actually way more memorable than the food. But we did only eat here once, so maybe we just ordered the wrong things, or maybe we location is just so good it's hard to compete with... Either way, their menu is as you would expect from a place designed for feeding yogis: exceptionally healthy. Which means fresh veggies galore.
They offer cooked and raw Japanese and Thai meals, sattvic-yogic food (prepared according to Ayurveda, which is based on the idea of balance in bodily systems). All their food is made with organic ingredients from their own garden as much as possible, or the local markets. They also have a large range of teas, smoothies and juices.
A great quote to always keep in mind, found on the wall of the Orion cafe. You may remember this from our Instagram page.
Aside from what I said a few paragraphs up, I would highly recommend having a meal or two here, especially if you're travelling with a romantic partner. And if you enjoy yoga and are in need of a detox, why not stay here as well? They have a fair amount of accommodation available scattered around their lovely gardens.
"Mamas Kitchen" (Haad Yao Family Restaurant)
Serves meat, vegan options.
no website, no facebook
While every other place we ate at had a nicer decor, better marketing and more "inviting" atmosphere (at least initially), the place we ate dinner at the most was the Haad Yao Family Retaurant.
The sole sign advertising "Mamas Kitchen" can only be seen when heading south on the main road. If you're coming north then look out for a laundry just across the road.
By chance, we happened to rent a bungalow for the month that was owned and operated by the most gregarious lady in Thailand, who also just happened to be a very passionate chef who enthusiastically cooked us the best traditional Thai home-style food we could hope for. She referred to herself as "Mama", and because of this, we affectionately dubbed her small restaurant "Mama's Kitchen."
The experience of eating here was like, I imagine, being a member of her family: we sat a table no more than three meters from her open kitchen where you could see and hear her preparing the meal at every stage. Normally she cooked everything herself but sometimes was accompanied by her daughter, Mini-Mama. As we were chatting and awaiting our orders the sound of her chopping vegetables was almost soothing.
Before ordering she always let us know which ingredients were freshest and what meal she would recommend ordering tonight. And even when I went against her best wishes, the meals never disappointed. I say meals, plural, because the taste sensation of her perfect blend of spices always led us to order seconds or thirds... which was never a problem because her prices were also, without question, the cheapest we found on the island. A curry and rice, for example, averaged 1.00 USD. (Even if you don't stay at one of her bungalows, the prices remain the same.) At times when my appetite was very specific, Mama would even cook me meals that weren't even on the menu... Now that's service!
Just for the experience and personality alone, I highly recommend hunting down the Haad Yao Family Restaurant and trying it for yourself.
About a week into the trip we realised that all over this island were scattered small home-style kitchens with signs reading something to the effect of "Mama's Kitchen". We ate at a couple of these, and they were all nice, but, I'm almost sorry to admit, none of the other Mama's had our Mama's personality and charm. And considering she catered perfectly to my sometimes annoying orders (no fish sauce, no nuts, extra veggies, extra this and that) and even went as far as remembering this from day to day, I couldn't recommend any other "Mama's Kitchen" other than this one.
We love you, Mama. xo
Hish enjoying the sun at this small but beautiful waterfall.
We would have liked to have eaten at the Karma Cafe, as we rode past it nearly every day on our scooters, but it was mysteriously closed for the entire month we were there.
We also ate at the newly opened Pure Vegan Heaven, which looked so promising, but had ridiculous service that was beyond horrible so we never even considered coming back. Hopefully, by the time you go there they will have stepped their game up.
On a few occasions we left the peaceful Haad Yao area and made our way into Thong Sala, the busier main town area that you see when you first get off the boat from mainland Thailand. Here we tried some different meals here from a few different places, like snacks and smoothies at the main market in town, the Pantip Food Market, and most of it was great - like the cheap falafels, choose-your-own-fruit smoothies and tofu and veggies on sticks - but considering how much more "hectic" it is in this area, I think we nailed it by nearly exclusively staying and eating where we did.
So, did Koh Phangan live up to the hype that the Happy Cow video embedded above made it appear like? YES.
Would I call this "the worlds first vegan island?" NO. Definitely not. Even though there was a great selection of very-vegan-friendly places, there were, as usual, many more restaurants catering to carnists. But did this really matter? Definitely not. It's to be expected. And what is there is so incredibly tasty, healthy and cheap that neither of us can wait to go back again.
PS. I took some of the photos above, but the rest were taken from the respective restaurants' facebook page. I don't own them and all rights belong to the original photographer. If you wanna use my photos, just link back here.