Tourism and travel means different things to different people, and to one man, discovering another faith and way of life is what travel experiences are all about.
Ben Bowler, a charismatic Irish-Australian entrepreneur has created a unique series of spiritual travel programmes - “Monk for a Month” and “Muslim for a Month”, among others - that have seen him heralded as a trailblazer for a new kind of tourism.
Ben, raised a Catholic, remembers how his love for different cultures started, that is through his father Jim, an Australian geologist who discovered the human ancestors Mungo Man and Mungo Woman in New South Wales.
“My dad was quite a spiritual guy. He’d take me with him to Uluru to meet Aboriginal people on their sacred lands,” Ben says. “On one occasion, my dad was sitting down with some elders while I climbed a tree. I was probably nine or ten, but I sat up there for an hour and a half and just watched, you know, the white scientist talking to these Aboriginal leaders. It’s a really clear memory for me - the connection; two worlds becoming one.”
The Muslim for a Month trip was amazing. We couldn’t have been treated any better if we were royalty. I learned that charity is a....
Growing up Ben took an interest in New Age philosophies and following a conference on spirituality in Sydney, where he saw a moving presentation by Mark Bloomfield, a Brit who’d been running free schools for Burmese refugees in Thailand, Ben was left inspired. The following year he and his wife Jildou were teaching Burmese youngsters English in northern Thailand.
Ben quickly fell in love with the country and became fascinated by the local Buddhist tradition and teachings, he particularly and quickly fell in love with a rite of passage where men of all ages would stay in a temple for a few days or even months to learn about Buddhist teachings and hopefully grow as people.
A thought occurred to Ben: Wouldn’t it be fun to bring in foreigners to live in the temple, too?
So Ben set up the “Monk for a Month” programme, where tourists could come and experience the Buddhist religion for themselves, living in the temple, staying with local families and going on yak safaris.
Soon after, he decided to take this further. “I’d always been fascinated by Islam, in the sense of not knowing much about it,” Ben says. “But a Christian guy who was doing our monk website said, half-jokingly, that we should do a ‘Muslim for a Month’course - 9/11 had led to a vicious circle of ignorance and contempt, but perhaps such a project could help break it. A light went on in my head, and I registered the URL the next day.”
The programme began in Istanbul, and again guests stayed with local families, learned about the Koran, how to pray like a Muslim, visited holy sites and even carried out a one-day fast.
Both ‘Monk for a Month’ and ‘Muslim for a Month’ have proved a success with travellers from all over Britain and the US embarking on the remarkable journeys.
Ben has, however, faced criticism along the way for the programmes. ‘Monk for a Month’ was stopped briefly after unfair complaints from some quarters that he was profiteering from an experience that Thais undertook for free.
And the Islamic programme soon proved controversial, too.“When my friends and family in Australia heard about it, half of them said: ‘Will we be learning how to make bombs?’ Ben says. And there was significant opposition on the internet. “Please keep Islamic filth away,” wrote one person under a blog about the course.
Parts of the travel industry still refuse to promote it, perhaps because of Islam’s negative image.
But, says Ben: “Spending time with Muslim families is a powerful way to break down prejudice and to correct distorted perceptions.”
Terry Goldsmith, 53, who has been on the ‘Muslim for a Month’ programme, says: “The Muslim for a Month trip was amazing. We couldn’t have been treated any better if we were royalty. I learned that charity is a pillar of Islam and a major part of Muslim life, but that’s ignored by the British press.”
Ben is now planning a ‘Sikh for a Month’ programme in the Punjab, and is in discussions to run a ‘Christian for a Month’ course off the west coast of Scotland at a historic monastic community that dates back to the 6th century.
Ben and Jildou have now returned to Australia - travelling back to Thailand frequently - to build up a marketing business so they can continue their good work, and Ben remains sanguine about his own future. “I’m not independently wealthy. Nobody pays me a wage,” he says. “We’ve got a couple of kids and the money is always tight. But I’ve realised that if you really want to make change, you can’t hang on to those sorts of worries.”
Full article appears in January issue of Reader’s Digest, in shops 20th December