Health is a form of wealth. Unlike financial wealth, most of us started with good health when we were young. Gradually as everyone gets older, our health naturally deteriorates through aging. Maintaining good health allow us to live life to the fullest. The best way for that is to eat healthy foods. Fortunately in Bangkok, eating healthy is easy if you know where to look. Santi Asoke Vegetarian Society is a cafeteria that serves organic vegan foods for free or at a very low price. In this post, I’ll show how and why they do it.
Santi Asoke Vegetarian Society, Bangkok
In Thailand, foods are like a basic human right. Unfortunately, common tasty Thai foods are far from healthy. With all the chemicals and artificial ingredients such as pesticide and MSG available today, eating well is not easy. That’s why I was very excited to find this cafeteria. Santi Asoke Vegetarian Society serves organic vegan foods prepared with organic vegetables. No pesticide, chemical, or MSG.
Not only that, their foods cost significantly below the market price. I didn’t believe myself at first. What they are charging is about the same as how ordinary foods (non-organic) cost 10 years ago in Thailand. Even better, if you order a rice plate with one topping, it’s free. For a rice plate with two toppings, it’s 15 baht. Compared to a 7-11 (convenient store), you can only buy a serving of MSG flavored instant rice porridge for 15 baht.
Vegan Thai Foods
The cafeteria serves common Thai dishes in vegan form. If you only know Thai foods from Thai restaurants in the west, you will find many new things. They have everything including rice plates, noodles, salads, and desserts. All of them are healthy to eat every day. The taste isn’t too extreme in any way except for the spiciness for some people. On the plus side, since the foods are vegan, westerners don’t have to worry about eating insects, dog meats or other weird stuffs.
On certain days, the cafeteria serves black rice. This type of rice is very expensive for its nutritional benefits. On most days, however, they serve brown rice. I’ve yet to see white rice here. That’s fine since white rice is not healthy anyway. However, if I’m one of those intolerant liberals, I would scream “White privilege!” to feebly express my disapproval of ricism.
I don’t want to disappoint you all. The foods here actually taste a little below average compared to common Thai street foods. But remember that they only have natural vegan ingredients to work with. That means no fish sauce, no oyster sauce, no MSG-infused soy sauce etc. For me, the taste is good enough. I can’t justify eating tasty foods frequently unless they are healthy.
No matter how tasty a food is, the taste only lasts briefly after I swallow it. However, the physiological effect of the food usually lasts longer in my body. For example, I could eat a Big Mac and enjoy its taste for a few minutes. After that, I must exercise for much longer than a few minutes to get the fat off. It’s like having sex without a condom. It is fun for a short time. But an STD or a baby will love you long time.
For drinks, the cafeteria serves fresh vegetable smoothies. Again, the price is affordable at 10 baht per a small cup. It tastes a bit weird for me but drinkable enough. Even kids here can tolerate.
If you plan on taking a to go, you must bring your own containers. The cafeteria uses no plastic bag. When they need to wrap something, they use biodegradable banana tree leaves.
Santi Asoke Buddhists (aka Asokes)
To understand how this cafeteria operates, you must understand their background. Located in the northeast suburb of Bangkok, Santi Asoke is a Buddhist monastery with unique followers. Unlike most Buddhists in Thailand, Santi Asoke Buddhists (known as Asokes) are vegans. They believe that consuming meat violates the first Buddhist precept – the practice to avoid killing any living being. Still, most Buddhists in Thailand eat meat because Buddha never specifically ask his followers otherwise. In fact, Buddha denied one of his monk’s proposal to make all the monks vegetarians
However, Buddha didn’t forbid anyone to be a vegan or vegetarian either. You could say that Asokes are a bit strict. But instead of virtue signaling meat eaters like how the self-righteous vegan lefties do in the west, Asokes make eating organic vegan foods affordable and easy for everyone. They want to change people by being the example of that change.
As a Buddhist, I don’t completely agree with Asokes. However, I admire their dedication and generosity. They generously work for almost nothing every day so that anyone can live a healthy life. In the US, you must be rich to afford organic foods. Since organic foods are harder to grow, they cost more. But for Asokes, everyone from farmers to cooks works to give. Everyone in the cafeteria is a volunteer. The cafeteria aims to make just enough profit to cover the operating cost. That is why the foods are very affordable.
This is in contrast with most Thai Buddhist monks. When they talk about generosity, they usually want people to donate money.
Happiness from Giving
According to Buddha, the root of suffering is desire. To be happy is to not have a desire. One way to not have the desire is to give things away. For example, by giving money away, I now have less money to exercise my desire that could have caused suffering to me. I am happier because I have less desire.
Desire only grows stronger when I give into it. But when I resist it, I become stronger. Therefore, the practice of generosity is, in fact, the practice of self-mastery over desire.
By giving their labor, Asokes are training themselves to eliminate desire. Most of them are not rich, but all of them seem happy.
The reason why Asokes insist on organic farming is safety. If pesticides can kill insects or weeds, they can harm human bodies as well even in a tiny dose.
Because the farmers are Buddhists too, they practice the precept to avoid killing. This means they cannot use any insecticide or any chemical that harm living beings through any contamination of the environment. Consequently, Asoke organic farmers have many difficult jobs. To keep insects away from their plants, for example, they use natural insect repellents that are harmless to the insects. These repellents are more expensive than insecticides.
That’s just one example I talked to the supply person about. Organic farming also means using organic fertilizers. There are more to it than I know.
Let’s face it. Most so-called “organic” produces in reputable groceries today still have some small trace of GMO or chemicals. In the US, USDA organic certification means that the produce contains less than a certain amount of GMO and chemicals. It’s rare to find 100% organic anywhere.
Asokes said that their entire farming process is completely organic. They use no chemicals to grow their vegetables. However, they do purchase seeds from external suppliers that they do not control. Therefore, they cannot say that their vegetables are completely non-GMO. They are aware of the difference between GMO and non-GMO but they have no mean to reliably test seeds for GMO. As of now, they are working to use more non-GMO seeds. The Asokes were very open to this question I asked. They have no intention to deceive anyone by calling their vegetables organic. In fact, they often call their vegetables “poison-free” rather than “organic.”
On every weekend, farmers gather to sell their organic vegetables and fruits next to the cafeteria in the morning. To sell here, they must be inspected and approved by the Asokes to ensure proper organic practice. Like the cafeteria, the price is below the market.
In the morning, Asoke monks come to gather alms from people in this area. It’s interesting that they wear brown robes mostly.
I like the atmosphere of the market. There is no foul smell from meats. Everyone smile most of the time for some reason.
For weekdays, there are several small Asoke groceries nearby. The largest and closest one to the cafeteria is Palangbun. All their products are vegan and organic. They sell everything from raw vegetables to ready-made meals and snacks. Expect to find Thai herbal soaps, deodorants, and shampoo here too.
Like the cafeteria, Palangbun sells below the market price. They even list how much they spent on the goods and how much they are selling them for. I’ve never seen such transparency in commerce.
For snacks, I recommend the spicy baked herbs. It’s basically crunchy Tom Yum. Careful with the chili though.
Remember to bring your own bags to Palangbun. They do not use any plastic bag.
Plan a Visit
Santi Asoke Vegetarian Society opens from 6 AM to 2 PM. The juice shop opens from 6 AM to 10 AM. Visit the cafeteria early if you want the best food selections. After 12 PM, there aren’t many dishes to choose from. As mentioned before, there are several other health-related stores nearby. However, all these Santi Asoke cafeteria and shops close on Monday. Asokes welcome everyone of any religion, provided that they are respectful.
The most conveniet way to travel is taxi. Tell the driver you are going to Nawamin 44.
You can also visit the peaceful Santi Asoke garden behind the cafeteria. This is where the monks live in small huts surrounded by trees.
In the middle of the garden, there is a skeleton and two dead bodies in display cases. They serve as a reminder that all things are impermanent and cause suffering.
Vegetarian Society is a charity-based cafeteria that serves affordable Thai dishes cooked with only organic vegetables. This is a place where you really eat to live. Still, the foods are tasty enough to enjoy. Most people think vegan foods are boring. I thought that too until I got here. With a little effort, I’ve been a vegetarian for about three weeks now. The Asokes welcomed me very well. They allowed me to take pictures and ask anything. They also invited me to their community farms.
What’s amazing about this place is I get to see how money isn’t the goal of some people. With all the corruption, greed and conflict in this world today, one could be better off to live a simple life and follow the path of Buddha like these Asokes