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Want to play monk? Fork over $700

Drawing Buddhism-curious foreigners to a Thai temple through Facebook.

FANG, Thailand — Two freshly shaved white guys, scalps an uncommon pink, mill about the Sri Boen Ruang temple’s courtyard.

The duo mingles with a flock of orange-robed novice monks, busy sweeping the plaza with straw brooms. Like the resident “naehns” — or child monks — these grown, pale-skinned, monks-in-training rise before dawn for alms runs and devote hours to quiet meditation.

But in a twist that would startle most Buddhists, both men paid $700 to become apprentices here through a charity called “Monk for a Month” that attracts Buddhism-curious foreigners via Facebook.

In Thailand, which is about 95 percent Buddhist, meditation centers and various Buddhism-themed tour packages abound. But there is nothing quite like “Monk for a Month.”

Though it offers non-Thais unfiltered access to Thai temple life, it is criticized as spirituality-for-pay — a practice some compare to charging tickets to church.

“We’re aware that combining commerce and spirituality is a bit of a tinderbox,” said Ben Bowler, the 35-year-old Australian creator of “Monk for a Month.” “I’m prepared for all the question marks.”

In Thailand, gilded Buddhist temples are found crammed between deluxe shopping malls, tucked into quiet neighborhoods and gleaming on emerald mountainsides. Ostensibly, any man can enter any temple’s gates and — after swearing off sex, intoxicants, materialism and more — live on temple grounds and begin the path to monkhood.

For Thai men, it’s a rite of passage that lasts as little as one week or as long as a lifetime. Bowler, who runs a small non-governmental organization near the Thai-Burma border, now wants to offer the experience to foreigners. For a fee.

“Look, you wouldn’t climb Mount Everest without a tour guide,” Bowler said. “This isn’t easy. It isn’t pre-packaged for foreigners, like a human zoo.”

Erik Jorgensen, a 27-year-old recent monk-in-training from Los Angeles, was looking for a place that wouldn’t just “drop me off in a golden room and say 'meditate.'"

Seeking an escape from his hectic job, which involves faring the seas to lay underwater fiber-optic cables, Jorgensen discovered “Monk for a Month.” Days after arriving, his hair and eyebrows were razored off, leaving wet clumps clinging to his shoulders.

“This is more genuine. There’s a non-appetite driven life at this temple. You don’t look at girls. You don’t drink or smoke. Everything that equates to ‘vacation’ in the west, you can’t do it here,” he said.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/thailand/090429/want-play-monk-fork-over-700