I was searching for a place to stay in Luang Prubang, Laos, and passed by the Beit Chabad. It was Friday night and I stopped in to find out when Shabbat services would start. After I dropped my stuff off at my $3 palace, I returned for Shabbat. When I arrived, I was the eighth person, not enough for a minyan. I thought I might be the last one, but Israeli backpackers trickled in and we had more than enough.
After services, we gathered for a lovely Shabbat meal. There were more than 30 people at the Beit Chabad, almost all of them Israeli backpackers, either coming from Thailand or from southern Laos. We enjoyed a kosher meal of halla, Israelis salads, soup and schnitzel, and sang many Shabbat songs.
I didn't mean for this series to turn into a public relations piece for Chabad, but they are really the only ones out here with any Jewish communal institutions. The Beit Chabad in Luang Prubang serves as an outpost of Judaism, a place to find the familiar in a far-flung land. It is a beacon for Jewish travelers and Israeli backpackers, all of whom are quite thankful to find community and a kosher meal in the middle of Southeast Asia.
Four Jews live in Luang Prubang, not including the Chabad emissaries. But because of the many Jewish travelers who pass through Luang Prubang, Chabad in Thailand decided to open a branch in Laos. Luang Prubang was chosen over Vientiane, as travelers tend to spend time in Luang Prubang but pass through the sleepy capital.
Beit Chabad opened in Laos just before last Pessah. Some 120 people attended the first seder. Close to 70 people came for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Between 30 to 60 people attend Shabbat services.
Beit Chabad provides travelers a place of study and kosher food, and helps them many other ways, such as contacting relatives. There is no mikva that meets halachic standards for women, but there is a bamboo mikva men can use. The kosher meat is brought from Bangkok, where there is a shochat. Kosher milk products and other food items are sent to Bangkok every year and distributed to Beit Chabad in Laos. Some kosher products are sold in stores.
I spoke with Avraham Leiter, an amiable 22-year-old from Safed. He has been a Chabad shaliach in Luang Prubang for three and a half months. He said Chabad helps people as a tenet of Judaism.
Leiter said the Beit Chabad would like to open a kosher restaurant and a tourist center. For now, it helps Jewish travelers, something this wandering Jew happily appreciates.
Paul Rockower served as the press officer for the Israeli Consulate in Houston from 2003-2006. He is on a six-month trek around the world. You can read more of his misadventures at his blog: