A Very Untraditional Traditional Passover Seder in Laos

On April 15, 2014 by Oren and Cassie

I had no one to blame but myself. We were supposed to be somewhere with a legitimate Passover seder to celebrate the holiday. But here we were in Luang Prabang, Laos where the last organized seder happened around 2008, when the Chabad was kicked out of town.

We extended our stay in Laung Prabang by two days for the Lao New Year and Passover, which happen to coincide this year. Massive city-wide water festival during the day, traditional millienia-old ceremonial meal at night. The plan sounded perfect.

I had the address of the Chabad in town from a quick internet search. Except when we went to the address, we saw nothing there but a “For Sale” sign. A neighbor told us the Chabad had a few misunderstandings with the local government and soon found itself persona non grata in Luang Prabang. That happened 6 years ago. In that time, no one ever updated the Chabad website.

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Cassie and I at our seder in stunning low resolution.

LOOKING FOR PEOPLE TO CELEBRATE WITH

We knew we could improvise if we had to, and I made it my mission to find some Israelis. Surprisingly, this is pretty easy in SE Asia. While walking through the night market of the city, I heard some Hebrew in another row of vendors. I burst through the stalls and asked without bothering to introduce myself, “I’m sorry. I heard Hebrew. Are you here for Passover?”

My none-too-trustworthy Hebrew turned out to be pretty trustworthy on this night, and we were invited by Shachar and Adi to a small get together at Spicy Laos, a hostel they told us was pretty close by.

HOME AT THE HOSTEL

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Part of our group!

We showed up at the designated place and time and found a group of about 12 Israelis, ready for a makeshift seder in this makeshift backpackers’ hostel. Spicy Laos is the very definition of budget accommodation. What the dorm rooms lack in A/C they make up for in free mosquitoes. The pool table, which qualifies as the most luxurious amenity available, has about 8 different tears in its green felt, with 6 or 7 people gathered around to play. The kitchen was humming along, quite busy with the orders for $1 papaya salad or $1 fried noodles. The food was irrelevant. Only the price was critical. Young backpackers were sitting at the tables, drinking BeerLao and smoking cigarettes or some other varieties of flora.

In this crazy environment, we found ourselves at our Passover seder. The two girls in charge had masterfully improvised our meal for Passover. They didn’t even mind the incredibly drunk French guy who just happened to pass out a few feet to my right. (He came to about halfway through the meal and left.)

OUR IMPROVISED PASSOVER SEDER

The wooden tables were covered in banana leaves instead of a tablecloth.
We had hot chilis instead of the bitter herbs, called maror.
We had bananas instead of the sweet mixture, called charoest.
We had a grilled chicken leg instead of a lamb bone.
We had rice cakes instead of matzah.
We did have lettuce for karpas. And an egg. We had an egg! Yay for international foods!

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Our seder plate.

We read the Hagaddah on our iPhones, passing around the few phones that had a decent internet connection. It certainly wasn’t traditional, but it was a bit magical. Thousands of miles away from Israel (or America for that matter), a group of Jews came together to celebrate Passover. Why? Because it was that important to all of us.

THE MORE THE MERRIER!

An hour into the meal, a German guy sat behind us and started smoking a bong quite loudly.

“Now it feels like Passover!,” Shachar quipped, “instead now it’s this guy smoking instead of Grandpa.”

The formal part of the seder involves reading the story of Passover and then a grace after the meal. We got through all of that in about 2 hours before singing a few Passover songs. I even learned a new tradition. Persian Jews hit each other with leeks while singing the chorus of Dayenu. (If you know what this means, try it. It’s fun!)

Then, after wandering through the streets of Luang Prabang for what seemed like 40 years, we all went out to eat together to wrap up our first seder.

Was it as good as my father’s seder back home? No, and nothing ever will be that good. He is a master. Was it a great experience that I will remember forever? Absolutely, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Now I wonder where I’ll be for Shavuot…

-O.L.

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