SINGAPORE - When Mr Roy Tay goes on holiday, he usually visits beach resorts in Thailand or Bali, or cities such as Bangkok. But last November, he took a vacation of a different kind, spending a week at a monastery in central Thailand's Sing Buri province where he slept on a straw mattress on the floor and woke up at 4am for prayers.
Instead of checking his phone every 10 minutes for text messages and e-mails, the entrepreneur and self-confessed workaholic limited his screen time to two 15-minute sessions per day to answer urgent e-mails and check in with his wife. As a civilian staying in the monastery, he was allowed to use his phone but chose to mirror the lifestyles of the monks there.
It was a refreshing change from the approximately 7½ hours he spends on his phone every day.
It was his first such retreat. The 36-year-old Buddhist says: "It was interesting to realise how much I was actually using my phone. Being away from devices gave me time to reflect on things like work and family, as well as to take stock of the year."
While Wi-Fi on vacation has become a necessity, not a luxury, for many travellers, some are choosing to unplug instead. In a 2016 report on tourism trends, the European Travel Commission states that people have become more conscious about their constant use of technology, driving demand for holidays where they can relax, detox and slow down.
One such holiday is a women-only mindful surf camp in Bali held by a company called Be Kind Retreats, a six-day programme where participants take part in surfing and yoga lessons, as well as a self-love workshop that helps them foster positive habits and routines. The company, which was founded at the start of 2018, receives about 100 guests per year.
Using digital devices in front of other guests is not allowed. The retreat's website states: "Social media feeds perfectionism. Distancing yourself from social media gives you the opportunity to connect with yourself and find out who you are, what your purpose is and what you really want in life."
TIME FOR REFLECTION
Mr Jarrod Lee, 37, experienced this first-hand while staying at a Catholic monastery in Perth in 2011. He had been contemplating a career switch from teaching to musical theatre to fulfil a childhood dream, but decided to maintain the latter as a hobby in the end.
Mr Lee says the lack of distraction at the monastery helped him come to a decision. "In Singapore, I am switched on 24/7 and there is often no time to think. At the monastery, the silence is very helpful. There is nothing clamouring for my attention," adds the bachelor, who is Catholic.
He goes for retreats at least once a year at Catholic monasteries or retreat centres in Melbourne, Chiang Mai and Yorkshire, England, where phones are discouraged, although this is not enforced. His first retreat was in 2004 and he started going more frequently a few years later.
Other places are stricter about the rules. Last year, business analyst Sheana Ng spent 10 days on a vipassana meditation retreat in Kulim, a town near Penang.
Vipassana in the ancient language of Pali means "to see the true nature of reality" and to do that, Ms Ng had to turn in all electronic devices, books and writing material at the start of the retreat. Speaking, and even eye contact with the other 20 or so participants, was not allowed.
The 29-year-old says she was initially anxious about being away from her phone for so long. She spends about eight hours on it every day checking her work e-mails, going on social media and staying in touch with her parents, who live in China.
She also struggled to meditate amid physical discomforts. "When you have to sit still for an hour, you start fidgeting and feeling itchy, and your legs will get numb. Vipassana teaches you that whatever you are feeling or experiencing will pass,"she says.
While these teachings originated in Buddhism, the course is non-religious and open to all.
Without the distraction of their devices, retreat guests take part in meaningful work instead.
During his retreat at Wat Thep Mongkol, which he attended with about 15 secondary school friends, Mr Tay accompanied the monks on their daily route seeking alms in a nearby village and was moved by the generosity of the locals.
"Some of them were really poor, wearing torn and tattered clothing, but every morning they gave what they could afford," he says. The food- a mix of Thai curries and stir-fried vegetables - was always freshly cooked, plentiful and delicious.
Besides meditation and prayer sessions, Mr Tay and his friends spent their afternoons cleaning and repairing parts of the monastery as well as talking to the resident monks.
"It was not a very traditional monastery where the monks are put on a pedestal. Instead, we could chat like friends and were encouraged to ask questions about Buddhism and meditation," says Mr Tay.
BACK TO REALITY
A digital detox may be possible on vacation, but back in daily life, sustaining it is a work in progress.
For Mr Tay, the retreat has made him more mindful of how he uses his phone. While he has not cut down on screen time, he now focuses on one task at a time, such as finishing an e-mail or text message before checking incoming notifications.
As for Ms Ng, the Vipassana retreat has given her better control of her emotions and made her less quick to react to negative things. But when it comes to using her phone less, old habits die hard.
She says: "After the course, I slowly went back to my usual habit of checking my phone every few minutes. I want to give myself more phone-free time, but sometimes I forget to do so."
GET OFF THE GRID
1. Take surfing and yoga classes at a Be Kind retreat in Bali, which also features a self-love workshop that helps participants foster positive habits and routines. A six-day retreat costs €795 (S$1,219) for a shared room. For more information, go to www.bekindretreatsbali.com
2. Unplug at a Digital Detox Asia retreat in lush Khao Yai, Thailand, which is held at Parco hotel Khao Yai. A 48-hour retreat costs 7,499 baht (S$325). For more information, go to www.digitaldetoxasia.com
3. There are about 150 vipassana meditation centres around the world and two in Malaysia are located in Kulim, near Penang, and Kuantan. Students are expected to stay for the entire duration of the 10-day course and abide by a set of rules, such as abstaining from alcohol and sexual activity. Course fees are on a donation basis and students are allowed to donate only after they have completed a course. For more information, go to www.malaya.dhamma.org
4. Spend a few days at Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, England on a spiritual retreat. Accommodation starts at £36 (S$63) per person per night. For more information, go to www.ampleforth.org.uk/visitors or email firstname.lastname@example.org
5. Seek peace and quiet at the Seven Fountains Jesuit Retreat Centre in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which offers both individual and group retreats. A suggested donation of 850 baht (S$37) per night covers room and board. For more information, go to www.thesevenfountains.org
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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