Ben Bowler is an Irish-Australian expat who lives in Northern Thailand. From there, he runs a series of “religious immersion tours”, designed to let participants experience what life is like for the followers of other faiths.
Ben, what led you to move from Australia to Thailand?
My wife and I were quite settled in Melbourne – just about to get a mortgage, and do the whole suburban thing. Then, at a conference in Sydney, an opportunity came up to do some voluntary work in Thailand with refugees who had fled over the Burmese border. So at the very last moment we changed direction. Once in Thailand, we learnt so much about what the Burmese people have suffered, and the help they needed, that we decided to stay here.
Your “day job” is running an NGO for Burmese refugees, I believe?
Yes: we set up Blood Foundation shortly after we arrived in Thailand. It concentrates on running facilities for refugees in the Fang area on the Burmese/Thai border. There’s over 80,000 of these refugees in the Fang area alone, all at various stages of legality. Because their education level is often very low, we decided to focus particularly on education projects. So we run schools for children, and adult learning classes in the evening, that sort of thing.
Tell me a little about the “religous immersion experiences” you run on the side of your work for Blood Foundation. The first one you established, “Monk for a Month”, sounds pretty interesting
Yes – “Monk for a Month” is about spending a while in a Buddist temple in Thailand. It’s quite common for Thai men to do this, so we thought it would be great if we could open the experience to foreigners.
Hypothetically, anyone could walk up to a temple and ask for teaching, but there’s a lot of difficulties involved in foreigners doing that, like understanding the language and knowing to behave. What we do is facilitate for people so they get the most they can out of it.
Some people might be surprised to hear that the monks are so keen to have what are essentially tourists spending time in their temple.
They like it. It’s a good way to get the message of Buddhism out there, in an authentic setting. And there’s never more than two or three people on the programme at a time.
You also offer a “Muslim for a Month” programme, in Istanbul. That sounds pretty timely.
We like to think that “Muslim for a Month” facilitates more understanding of a religion which gets a lot of bad press. There’s a huge difference in the public perception of of Buddhism, for example, and Islam – Islam is thorny, while Buddhism is warm and fuzzy. The best way to overcome fear is to face it. We hope people come out of the experience with more understanding and even a bit of inspiration.
You’ve faced some criticism in the past for what people say is “selling” or making money out of religion. What do you say to these people?
I’m not open to that kind of criticism. We charge around £600 for a 28-day “Monk for a Month” package, but the stay in the temple is absolutely free. What we’re charging for is facilitating the experience: picking them up from the airport, taking them to Tesco when they need to go, and sightseeing trips to places like the Golden Triangle which are incorporated.
And it’s a social enterprise. We don’t think “How can we make money off Buddhism or Islam?”. The One Blood Travel programmes support the basic running of our Blood Foundation, in the hope that one day donations can go directly to the people who need the money, not just on the charity’s offices and cars. Besides, we like to think it’s very authentic, not just some Disneyworld experience.
You’re clearly very interested in religion, and the idea of learning from other people’s cultures and beliefs. Where did this interest come from? Are you religous yourself?
I don’t want to be public about my own beliefs, but I value religion, and think secular culture could learn a lot from ancient traditions. I think there’s a bit of a spiritual vacuum at the moment – I look around at countries like the UK and Australia which are so secular, where all the structures of religion are crumbled and decayed, but where people still yearn for answers to the big questions, like who we are. I’d hope these packages are a good start.
Gandhi famously said “I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.“ At the end of the day, humanity is a big crazy family, and it’s all our heritage.
Blood Foundation is a small NGO based in northern Thailand near the Thai-Burma border