On the corner of a busy road and side street near Bangkok’s Grand Palace is a purple sign showing an arrow and “Chabad House” in yellow Hebrew letters. If you’re in Bangkok for Rosh Hashanah it’s very likely that this is where you’ll end up.
I was there for a recent Shabbat for the first time and turned up expecting this centre to be small and low-key. I didn’t expect the sign. I certainly didn’t expect a huge four-floor building with a kosher restaurant, shop, two synagogues, the rabbi’s family residence and a dining room seating 500 people.
But maybe I should have. Strategically placed near Khao San Road, the popular back-packer haunt in Bangkok’s Banglampu district, Or Menachem has been on the Jewish map for years. And, with six sites across the country, Chabad Thailand is the biggest and best known Chabad in the world. On the Shabbat before my visit, it served meals to 3,762 people. August is busy, but so is peak season (December to February), and Pesach Seders typically host 800 to 1,000 guests. Chabad Thailand is no small-scale operation.
When I first visited Bangkok in 1988, Khao San Road was an established hang-out with street stalls, bars and guest houses. Today, it’s a bombardment of neon lights, music and young, cool Thais encouraging customers into bars and restaurants that reach three storeys high on both sides of a paved boulevard. The traveller zone has sprawled and hotel chains have arrived, but Rabbutri, parallel to Khao San and home of Chabad, is still peaceful and pretty. Colourful lanterns hang from trees, and beauty salons outnumber bars, with uniformed staff offering pedicures and Thai massages.
That first visit was to find my Thai father, who left when I was a baby. I knew he was from a prominent Thai family; only the very wealthy could send their children to study in London and he had been at university and living in South Kensington, near the Thai embassy, as most Thais were then.
It was my gap year: I was 18 and wanted to meet him after being angry at him for most of my childhood for leaving.
I found out before I left that he’d died when I was five or six, after inheriting a vast fortune. I managed instead to locate three of his four sisters, found out about him and my family, and learned that my great-great (and a few more greats) grandfather was King Rama the First, an ancestor of the then King Rama 9th, who died last year.
I didn’t come back for 20 years, during which time, I had become Jewish. The two cultures didn’t have much overlap. Recently, I learned Thai for two terms at SOAS, and I’ve come to Thailand three times in the past five years, wanting to learn about and bond with my heritage.
Friday afternoon, and the kosher restaurant is now closed. Upstairs, behind an unstaffed reception desk, is a large photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. To the left, computers with headphones back on to an area with armchairs and books, predominantly in Hebrew. An Israeli with patterned trousers and a ponytail strums a guitar; a woman in a sleeveless dress speaks loudly on the phone in Hebrew. The synagogue behind is empty. Toddlers play on a plastic slide in the children’s area, their mothers chatting nearby. The shop stocks Bamba, biscuits, tuna, pasta, olives, frozen veg and ice cream.
This place is a haven. It has air conditioning, useful phone numbers in Israel on the walls, a large urn beside free tea and coffee, and a cold-water dispenser. It is only when I see Thai employees in purple Chabad shirts and a sweating delivery man carrying six-packs of water upstairs that I remember I’m in Thailand.
One floor up is the Thai Kashrut office and Rabbi Wilheim’s house. On the top floor is a table of unlit tea-lights and another covered in kippot; two rows of sinks; another synagogue; and a hall with 20 tables, each with seating for 24, laid for dinner.
It’s empty now, though. A smiling Israeli called Shmulik from Kvar Chabad is downstairs and says of course I can take photos, but maybe after candle-lighting when there’ll be more going on. “Are you Jewish,” he asks. “Give me the camera afterwards. I’ll keep it for you.” So I photograph empty tables and go to rest.
Later, the lit tea-lights twinkle as I enter the dining room. In the adjoining shul, they are mid-Kabbalat Shabbat, so I choose a place near an older woman, who counts empty chairs and bumps me two along. After maariv, the tables fill quickly. Some guests wear white shirts, others vests and shorts. Not many are religious. Almost all are Israeli.
Signs in Hebrew read:“No photos after 6.30pm,” and, respectfully, no phones are visible.
Shmulik makes Kiddush, some wash hands, he blesses the challah and the starters arrive: tahini, salads and fish — familiar fare, and tasty.
In fact, it’s all familiar: this could be any simchah in Israel. Balding men in kippot, their knees wide apart, their arms over the backs of chairs, sit near grandmothers doting on toddlers, and teens with questionable haircuts.
On my right is an Israeli family: Nurit, her elderly parents, her four teenage children, her husband, Jacki, his mother, Yael, and his sister and her family.
Yael, it turns out, has known my father-in-law’s sister since she was 18 and that’s it: I’m in the family. Israel is like that, and this might as well be Israel, so I’m not all that surprised.
Thai staff serve food and clear plates and, between courses, Shmulik and two other bochers walk around, shushing loudly, then lead the singing. Everyone joins in, and it’s wonderful. Here we are, hundreds of us, in South East Asia, sharing Shabbat together. I look around wondering why more British Jews don’t holiday here with extended family. I have ideas as to why, but ask Nurit what she thinks.
“Kedusha is on our doorstep,” she answers in Hebrew. “We want to experience something else. Israelis like Thailand because we like cheap and we like pinuki (pampering). You have beaches, water parks, shopping, and for what we pay for a massage in Israel we can have a month of massages. In the US, this trip would cost double.”
Their fortnight itinerary includes Bangkok, Hua Hin and Kanchanaburi. Nurit is religious, so I ask about food. “We brought two suitcases only of food,” she says. “One with kabbanot, pasta, a saucepan and gas, and one with peanut butter, chocolate spread and jam. Bread and fruit we can buy. Shabbats we’re here.”
It’s symbiotic, I realise: Chabad is here because Jews come here; Jews come here because Chabad makes travel in Thailand possible. Their shops sell kosher food and Shabbat is taken care of. Nurit says in the Ibis hotel opposite, you say “Shabbat,” and the Thai staff keep your keycard, come to your room when you return, open your door and slot in the card so the lights come on. And with Chabad Houses in Chiang Mai in the north, Phuket and Koh Samui in the south, and three in Bangkok, you could Chabad your way around the country, if not the world.
After the second course of chicken, we sing again, then fruit arrives, we bless and it’s over. We spill into humid streets of bar girls and Buddhas. There are grilling pork skewers and frying shrimp noodles; monsoon rains, mosquitoes and money-changers. As I head to my hotel, I’m astounded at what Chabad is doing, week after week, year after year, across the globe, and plan to donate after Shabbat so they can continue doing it.
The next day, only half the tables are set, and for seudah shlishit, half again. Between lunch courses, each table chooses a song so it feels like home for everyone. After lunch, most people leave but some snooze on armchairs. A group of post-army-aged travellers play cards. The rabbi’s daughter sings songs with small children. It’s Shabbat afternoon, no mistaking it, but the religious aspect is gentle, Shmulik says, because they want people to come.
My only niggle is that it’s so Israeli. If I didn’t speak Hebrew, I’d have felt lost. I mention this to Rabbi Yosef Kantor when we meet a week later. Thailand’s first resident rabbi grew up in Australia and New York and is based at the centre in Sukhumvit Soi 22, which has more Jewish expats and businessmen and is currently being rebuilt. He arrived in 1993, newly married with a baby, and learned to shecht before coming so there’d be kosher meat.
“At Pesach, we have English-speaking tables and English-speaking yeshiva bochers overseeing them,” he tells me, “and lots of French visit Koh Samui. But here it’s 95 per cent Israeli. Everyone is welcome, though. We want to also include people who wouldn’t come for religious reasons. We recently changed the branding to purple and wrote, “Experience Shabbat” because it’s the experience we want people to have.’
I tell him I’m amazed and impressed by the work Chabad is doing, and he explains how their slichut started. “Our aim was to provide whatever people needed to lead a Jewish life, wherever they were. Whatever that was. There was no cemetery or kindergarten here so we built them. During the tsunami, we set up a temporary centre in Phuket, organised kosher meals, held Shabbat services for Jewish volunteers from across the world, spoke to relatives on the phone around the clock, and identified and stayed with bodies until they were repatriated.”
Last year, Chabad Phuket served 10,400 Shabbat meals and 27,000 in the kosher restaurant. Its a new, purpose-built, seven-storey building, opened on August 27, and includes a restaurant, mikveh, shul, and rooftop chupah. It hopes to create “a warm feeling of camaraderie” between the 500 travellers and high-end tourists it expects each day. Funds are still being raised — they’re $360,000 short — but over Shabbat, we weren’t asked to donate, and no posters appealed for money.
Before I go, I eat Pad Thai in the kosher restaurant (90p) while Thais deliver water for this week’s Shabbat meals. As I leave, Chabad’s work continues.
I imagine my children marrying under the chupah in Phuket, my Thai and Jewish worlds unified for once, and feel emotional. I want them to experience Shabbat and Pesach here. Actually, I think everyone should.