Bandarbans

About two weeks after my first brush with the great outdoors of Bangladesh, it was time to head out again, the confines of Dhaka proving to be unbearable. Thus, we headed out for Bandarbans, the “forest of monkeys”, in the east of the country, located in the Hill Tracts surrounding Chittagong, the second-biggest city in Bangladesh. It is notable for having the highest elevation of any countryside in Bangladesh, a fact that we would truly come to appreciate.

We took off from Dhaka late Wednesday evening. What we had, foolishly, not considered was how much attention we would draw at the train station. Though we’ve gotten used to plenty of staring and being surrounded by people, it is different to be surrounded by 50 or so, transforming our little circle into an inferno of body heat. We were luckily able to escape this cauldron when our train finally arrived.

We spent the night on the train and were woken up at 6am in Chittagong. The driver that was provided by the agency picked us up and we started our journey further east. As we passed through villages and green rice paddys, slowly, but surely, we noticed that we saw hills creeping up in the distances and before we knew it, we were climbing up steep slopes. It is difficult to convey the sense of finally seeing and experiencing elevation after months in unyielding plains. As we climbed higher and higher, we could see the endless plains beneath us and the rivers winding throughout until we finally reached our destination atop one of the mountain ranges.

Our resort was composed of about a dozen huts with space for two in each of them. Two of us got a hut overlooking the valley below and thus we set up camp there. We were then treated to breakfast and then left to our own devices. After a refreshing nap, we hopped onto a jeep and were whisked away to our first sight. We all felt like kids again on the back of the jeep, with our driver firmly intent on breaking his own best time as we sped up and down rickety roads. Our destination was the largest Buddhist temple in Bangladesh; a majestic, glistening golden structure atop a mountain. The setting was so peaceful and meditative that we would have very much liked to stay there.

The night was spent on the aforementioned veranda, drinking our wine, overlooking the jungle at our feet and far into the distance. The next day, one of our guides took us around his village and even invited us into his house for tea. He is of the Bawn tribe and exemplifies the struggle the minorities in Bangladesh. He and his fellow tribes are the indigenous people of Bangladesh, having been pushed further and further into isolation by the massive migration of Bengals into this country after the partition of India in the late forties. What makes their case even harder is that they are noticably different ethnically and are not Muslims, making them very prone to discrimination and abuse. The entire situation in Bandarbans is one of desparate control by the central government to extend their reach and keep the tribes from autonomy. In fact, it was a bureaucratic nightmare to get into Bandarbans as we had to pass several government checkpoints along our journey and were turned away once when we tried to visit another tribal village because we didn’t have the necessary papers. This vast government control stems from massive unrest that the region experienced throughout the nineties. Overall, the situation in the Bandarbans of the Bangladeshi central government controlling ethnic minorities of different religious denominations, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, fighting over land and autonomy, is a fascinating study on the effects of displacement and post-colonialism.

In the afternoon, we were accompanied by the same guide to the river that snaked its way through the hills. To get there, we journeyed up and down hills through countless banana trees along barely trodden-upon paths which skirted dangerous precipices, all of which, hazardous as it was, ended up being great fun. When the dense vegetation finally cleared and the terrain evened out, we beheld the river lazily making its way through the river-bed, little huts dotting the landscape alongside it. After taking in the scenery, we took a swim in the river, though it was less of a swim than a drift since the water at that point was only about a foot and a half deep. Nevertheless, it was a great opportunity to take in the green hills surrounding us while being caressed by the cool waters.

After the swim, we got on a boat and drifted along the river, towards a bridge where we disembarked and made our way back home. After this relaxing day, we spent the night reminiscing on the veranda. Dotted along the hills we saw fires, signs of the unfortunate slash-and-burn still practiced in the forests.

The next morning was spent lounging around more and saying goodbye to our guide. Unfortunately, the city was calling us again and we boarded the train back home after a 3 hour bus ride to Chittagong. Once again, a fantastic  weekend spent learning about this amazing country, its people and also getting some much-needed rest.

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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    papa said,

    each and every time……

    ‘having so much fun to read your blog

    papa


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