Anxious about doing the vegan thing abroad?
Steve Clarke, Cafe Van Gogh founder, gives the lowdown on his vegan Sumatran adventure...

On Christmas Eve, we flew into Singapore, on a budget Norwegian airline flight, with the intention of hoot-footing it into Sumatra for some adventure, rest and relaxation and vegan food.

Singapore is an excellent place for vegan food. We ate Monkey head mushrooms which was a first for me. Loads more places that we didn’t get to can be found on

After two days in the expensive and slightly too commercial for my taste city, we flew into Medan, the largest city in Sumatra, and one that isn’t going to win any awards for contributions to architecture, or care of the environment.

Easy wins so far, each day was started with a young green coconut, at a cost of approx 40pence, the juice was drank first and then the nut was machete’d in half on request, and the young flesh was scooped out with a spoon. Top tip, do marine life a favour and avoid using the ubiquitous plastic straw, take a glass and pour the juice out instead.

Tempeh, a fantastic source of soya bean protein, with origins in Indonesia, tempeh is found pretty much everywhere, from high end restaurants to street side hawker stalls. It’s expensive and not as frequently used as it could be in the UK, so it’s a delight to have it on tap, as it were.

Language. Certainly most places you’ll go to on the tourist trail in Sumatra will have plenty of people who speak English, but be prepared that vegan isn’t necessarily a frequently banded about term here. As an example, shrimp (Udang) seems to be used pretty much like we’d use bayleaves in Indonesian cuisine, so you might want to copy down this terminology which worked well for me on my travels.


Saya tidak makan : I cannot eat

Daging : meat

Ayam : chicken

Ikan : fish

Udang : shrimp

Telur  : egg

Susu : milk

Keju : cheese

Hanya buah dan sayur : only fruits and vegetables

This made a difference when I would otherwise have been served egg noodles etc.

If you head to Sumatra, theres a pretty good chance you’ll visit Bukit Lewang, which is on the edge of a rainforest national park, and perhaps the best place to see Orang utans in their natural environment. Please note, many of these orang utans are ‘semi-wild’ which means they have been rescued from the illegal pet trade, or as orphans from the massive areas of forest that have been brutally cleared for palm oil plantations. This does mean that the chances of a sighting is good, but it also means that some of the apes are a bit over-familiar with humans, and threateningly demand fruit from tourists and guides etc. Be careful to explain to your guide that you don’t wish to participate in the feeding of them. It’s risky in terms of their ongoing health, and personally I find it disrespectful.

If you do head to Bukit lewang, consider staying at Kupu Kupu gardens guest house

It’s just outside of the village along a riverside pathway, and has glorious views of the rainforest, and is uninterrupted by modern day hassles such as a wifi connection etc. The owners are lovely, and will cook vegan meals on request. We ate really very well there, including things such as fern frond curries, and a pineapple rendang (watch out for that one appearing in the café soon) through the lenses of retrospection, I’d recommend having their driver pick you up from the airport at Medan, it could save you the best part of a day.

Tip. Bring a reusable water bottle with you. Many guest houses and shops in Sumatra offer cheap water refills. Plastic waste is a very depressing reality all throughout Sumatra, please do your best to not be a part of it.

Sumatran Vegan Feast.jpg

From Bukit Lewang we flew up to Banda Aceh, which was massively hit by the 2004 Tsunami. From here we took a ferry to Pulau Weh, a beautiful tropical island in the Andaman Sea, famous for it’s corals and scuba diving and snorkelling opportunities. I think it’s fair to say this Island is somewhat avoided by a lot of tourists because of the incorrect belief that the sharia law system that is in place makes it an unwelcoming destination. I saw nothing to back this up, the people we met all over Indonesia were incredibly friendly and hospitable, with a huge sense of fun.. Here’s me doing some sober karaoke on the ferry

(Note- I wasn’t able to stand up, I’d taken my money belt off and knew that my trousers would have fallen down around my ankles, which would be a sight for sore eyes for anyone of any faith, or none).

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