I have been living in Asia for over 25 years and have seen the development of Vegetarianism in many countries. Even when I became a vegetarian in Australia 35 years ago, some people would ask what I eat when lettuce and tomato were not in season? How can I stay healthy and active? In Asian communities I was questioned as to why I wanted to live like a monk when I was still so young. There were also the concerns for health and the belief that one becomes very weak on a vegetarian diet. These are still the concerns in developing countries.
I now live in Cambodia, a country recovering from 30 years of war, where the concern is to be too skinny not too fat! I can imagine if I was hungry that I would think that meat would help be to become strong. It is considered in Asia to be the food of the wealthy and strong. Meat is seen as a luxury after years of deprivation. A Chinese family mentioned to me in the early eighties, that to ask them to stop eating meat would be such a great renunciation as it is the one small luxury they can now afford.
I had visited Vietnam many times in 1997-1998. Many Vietnamese would proudly proclaim themselves to be vegetarian, often associated with their practice of Buddhism. I only discovered after 2 years that being vegetarian meant just one day a month!
Many visitors expect Buddhists, and especially the monks, to be vegetarian. One of the main five precepts is not to kill. However, I have not yet met a vegetarian Buddhist monk in Cambodia and hardly any in the whole of South East Asia, even though I have attended interfaith conferences and met hundreds of high level Buddhist teachers and monks. The Dalai Lama himself is not a vegetarian although he has tried and become a vegetarian at different times. Monks say that they are to accept whatever food is offered to them. One monk has told me that he can and will become a vegetarian when he stops being a monk, that now he has no choice. Of course it would only take one announcement that lay people are only to offer the monks vegetarian meals to change all of this.
There is a misunderstanding saying that Buddha died of eating pork and so all the monks believed that they could eat meat. At his death in the paranirvana sutra, the food that poisoned him and led to his death was at one time translated as pork. The terms have been translated as "pig's truffles" which was originally mistranslated as pork. Today, it is the consensus that the Buddha ate poisonous mushrooms which led to his death at the age of 80. (In the scriptures the Sanskrit word for this food is sakkar skhandh.)
In December 2009, my husband and I took over the Singing Tree Café in Siem Reap which had been set up as a community café and served vegetarian meals as well as fish and eggs. We were strongly advised against going totally vegetarian as there are no local vegetarians and we would need to wholly rely on tourists. We are happy to say that for the first few months we did very well. It is now the low season and without the locals frequenting the café it is a little challenging, especially as we have not yet introduced any alcohol onto the menu.
Some of the orphanages are now looking into providing more vegetarian food. The awareness of the need to change to a plant based diet to address global warming is helping to persuade them to move in this direction. At least one 13 year old orphan is trying to maintain a vegetarian diet. With 67 children to feed, the individual attention required for this is a challenge for the organization trying to keep to a tight budget.
Time will tell if Cambodia is ready for Vegetarianism ... meanwhile the support of travelers visiting Angkor Wat will hopefully keep the Peace Café afloat. There are vegetarian cooking classes, monk chats, yoga and pilates classes, meditation, child friendly gardens and trainings in positive thinking, values education, a bakery, Fairtrade shop, permaculture, and much more. Vegans are catered for but we have not gone that far ... yet! Please visit our website on line www.peacecafeangkor.org