বুধবার, ২১ অক্টোবর, ২০১৫

Chittagong Hill Tracts--Honjurai to Thanchi to Bandarban

After freezing the night away in Honjurai, woke up to an odd breakfast treat.  Someone had freshly killed a doe and we bought a kilo for around $4 and had doe curry for breakfast.  While the doe tasted just fine, the curry overwhelmed the gamey flavor a bit and I wasn't thrilled to know that the doe was pregnant.  As previously mentioned, my trekking poles were taken the night before and Imran and I got an early start to keep the group from being held up while I removed my shoes and dried my feet during our four river crossings.  A couple of hours after we started, the rest of the group caught up and I mentioned that my poles had been stolen.  Although that's exactly what happened, Alim became enraged and took it as a personal insult against his country.  He then went into an anti-American rant and although I tried to soothe him, he would not calm down.  Three of the other party later apologized to me and mentioned that he sometimes had anger issues and to just let it go and things would be fine within a few minutes.  This turned out not to be the case and the rant continued at the next rest stop; he mentioned that Americans had to lock their houses and villagers didn't.  I probably didn't help the matter by pointing out the two padlocks on the home we were resting within, but I was sick of listening to his shit on what had otherwise been a great trip.  I appreciated the other members who apologized for his inappropriate behavior.  The next goal was the third highest mountain in Bangladesh, Tajingdong (3488', 1063 meters).  Things got a bit weird when the nice guide, Imran, demanded an additional 3000 taka (almost $40) to "help" me to the summit.  I'll always wonder if the demand was really Imran's idea or perhaps some sort of retaliation.  I asked a few others and they said they didn't think so.  Still, it put a certain unpleasantness on the rest of the day, though Imran continued to be very friendly (and that's why I think the demand wasn't his idea).  Or maybe that's just the way things work when trekking with a non-professional agency when no contracts are involved.  At any rate, it was never my goal to summit #3, so I didn't really care and chose to wait 40-50 meters from the top with another group member.
Tanim, Masud and Nuwel
I don't believe I've expressed enough appreciation for our 2nd guide, Nuwel, who joined us shortly after Keokradong and parted with us at Tajingdong.  He insisted on carrying my pack and since I'd never really backpacked, he made my life immeasurably easier.  At no point did he ask for any additional costs, but I will make a donation to his town because he represented to me the best of a lovely civilization.  He's a Bawm Baptist with very good English skills, especially considering that he grew up in a tiny town far removed from better educational institutions.  Nuwel, you will always be remembered.

After Tajingdong, we headed for our final destination of the evening, a lovely home in Shakor Para.  I finally joined in and took a single hit of pot.  It tasted and acted like the crap we used to smoke in the '60s, but I was happy to fulfill my earlier promise to smoke with the guys on the last night and furthe happier that it had zero effect on my trekking the next day.

I've had a lot of foot problems this past year, but for some reason, my feet seem to be getting stronger and I haven't had to take any pain meds.  Had a huge fear before the trip that I would have to suck it up and deal with barely tolerable pain, but that hasn't been the case.  At this point, everyone was eager to get home and we hiked quickly to Thanchi the next morning, arriving after about 5 hours on the trail.  There were some dicey climbs and the other guys decided to rest with hits of dope, making the climbs especially scary for the users.  Once again the day started unpleasantly when an additional $25 was demanded of me for a bribe which had supposedly been paid 4 days earlier in Ruma.  And once again it was Imran who delivered the demand.  I simply said "no" and that I thought it was BS.  Once again Alim became infuriated, thus further making me question his motivations.  And once again Imran and I happily took off together ahead of the rest of the pack.

Today was provincial election day, meaning voting for various local commissioners.  In order to maintain control over the balloting, the police, army and border guards situate themselves in a very few towns where polling takes place.  In some cases, villagers have to walk an 8 hour round trip to vote....and they do!  Their turnouts for what might be considered a meaningless local election would put most countries to shame; throw in the effort it takes to vote here and I might be willing to argue that these are the folks in the entire world who most value their voting rights.

Villagers Hiking to the Polls
One thing I didn't realize (but that the guide should have) is that the roads are closed in Bangladesh during local elections, so our arranged jeep back to Bandarban wasn't going to happen that day.  The district chief of police later explained to me that it keeps violence and voter fraud (as in paying for votes and busing people to busable poll stations) to a minimum (as he put it "we're a more emotional than intelligent population and losses by our candidates are taken personally").  I certainly didn't want to spend another night with the emotional Alim, nor did he with I and he suggested that maybe I could talk with local officials and snag a ride back as a tourist.  I took his good advice and headed to an area near army HQs where the local police chief arranged a ride with the district head of police.  I had to wait in the chief's office and watch the results come in via phone while officers entered them onto a computer and checked and double-checked results.  Funny that my first experience with election control took place in a tiny town on the other end of the world.  Then I got into an 8 passenger jeep full of armed police and we drove what seemed like 100 mph on dark, windy roads back to my hotel in Bandarban where I'd left some of my stuff before the trek.  Really interesting ride as the district head was an extremely educated man (3 graduate degrees) whose perfect English allowed us to discuss Bangladesh history in great detail.  We both agreed that this is a country of the future, but that rapid development won't be far behind since people are hard workers and willing to do what's necessary to elevate their personal lives and that of their country.
Thanchi Bazaar on Election Day
Traveler Notes:

At this point, you'll never get deep into the CHT without getting lucky or paying handsomely for guide services (roughly $100/day per person....more if traveling single).  Don't expect the least bit of luxury if you want to get deep into the CHT (some agencies skirt this by ending each day in larger towns, but the large town hotels would qualify as ghetto hotels for many of us.  Take a mattress or pad with you if you're going to sleep on wooden floors (unless you've got a really young, strong back. If you use a professional agency, make sure you have a contract that's specific about what's included.  Perhaps the least expensive way to get a taste of the area is to base in places like Bandarban, Ruma or Thanchi (or other places in Rangamati District) and pay local guides 700-1000 taka per day ($9-12 depending on their English skills) for daily outings.  While I visited at least a dozen different villages deep in the interior, there wasn't a huge difference from one to another...some slightly different clothing, a little more prosperity in some places, so I could make the argument that if you just want to experience a little tribal life, you don't need to organize a complicated expedition.  But man, if you love hiking, get back in there for the incredible beauty. 


Chittagong Hill Tracts--Thaikhong to Saka Haphong to Honjurai

Woken up from a deep sleep in Thaikhong at 6AM by an 8 year old reciting his ABCs right outside the door of my room.  While today was merely a positioning day prior to the Saka Haphong ascent, we still traveled close to 8 hours, and 8 hours was a pretty average day of trekking with a lot of ups and downs on unmaintained trails consisting of cow rutted paths, boulders, river crossings, steep uphill scrambling on our hands and knees in some cases, bamboo forests, climbing hand cut ladders made from tree trunks, crossing rickety bamboo bridges, and dealing with slick rocks and gravely trails in some cases.  Our goal was the town of Tandui, a simple Bawm village with simple accommodation, which seems to get simpler every night.  The once great food is beginning to taste the same most every meal, since supplies are limited and we are somewhat limited with the condiments we picked up before the trip started.  Everyone loves Bangladeshi salads (which are simple salads with fresh tomatoes, onion (what they call onion, we would call shallots) and cucumbers and whatever else can be acquired to toss in.  Essentially, we have chicken curry with rice every night.  If chicken isn't available, then sometimes just a pumpkin curry with rice.  We all like our food hot, making things easier for Imran, the chef/guide/food procurer.
That's Imran on the left in a typical tribal kitchen
  We re lucky when we can acquire the ingredients for a salad, however.  A most exciting adventure was using the toilet.  At night you just pee over the deck, and when other bodily functions become necessary, we Westerners squat and hope to hit the hole.  In the situation here, a pig awaits under the toilet to handle the sewage disposal.  I hope I can eat pork again someday without that thought in my head.

The next day started slowly as the group got up a bit late.  I was rarin' to go since this was Saka Haphong day, but perhaps the smoking of the previous evening gave more incentive to the others to just sleep in.  Saka Haphong is the highest peak in the country based on GPS measurements by an English explorer (Ginge Fullen, 2006) and various trekking groups.  It's also acknowledged as such by the US and Russian topographical maps.  Sapa Haphong means Sunrise Mountain and since it's in the Eastern part of the country, it's the first part of Bangladesh to see the sunrise every AM.  The top is literally on the border with Myanmar, though you'd have to walk off a steep drop to illegally enter Myanmar.  The official measurements are around 3450 feet (1052 meters) as compared with Keokradongs 3172 feet (967 meters).  While this is hardly mountaineering, I again mention the difficulty of the trails and it is considered the most difficult of trekking.  As we approached the peak, we stopped in the village of Nefew Para and the village headman (chief) agreed to lead us to the top.
I was thrilled because he was my age, but I soon learned that his life time in the hills made him a much stronger trekker than probably anyone else in the group.  Nonetheless, I believe I'm the first American to summit Bangladesh's tallest peak.

Village Headman Prepares Trekking Pole as Masud and Ruhan Observe

The ascent was steep and took us about 90 minutes from the village.
Finally the goal was reached and we observed incredible views of a mostly unpopulated, forested area of Myanmar several thousand feet below in a river valley prior to our 60 minute descent and further two hour hike to our final evening destination of Honjurai.

We made it!  Note how small the headman is.  He just killed it.

Goal Achieved!  The edge of the cliff is Myanmar and the distant mountains part of the almost unpopulated Western Myanmar
Masud Was Stoked to Make It to the Top
We had trekked through Honjurai on the way up to Saka Haphong.  I was not happy to hear that we'd have to spend the night there, but villages are few and far between in this distant part of the world.  On our initial pass through, locals rudely attempted to force us to us them as guides and some of the teenagers were unfriendly.  Another basic guesthouse, but the owners were friendly.  I left two very nice, favorite bamboo trekking poles outside and they were taken during the cold night.  Perhaps the locals used them as firewood since it seemed that everyone in town was huddling around a fire in the morning.  Imran and I got an early start since we had to once again ford a river four times and each time involved removing my boots and drying my feet (the others wore cheap sandals-----ah, to have young feet again.

Source: http://bruce3404bangladesh.blogspot.com/2014/03/chittagong-hill-tracts-thaikhong-to.html

সোমবার, ১৯ অক্টোবর, ২০১৫

Bandarban to Thaikhong in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

This will be a long post simply because I've been out of internet range for days.  Pretty much once you leave Chittagong city, you'd better have a wifi stick if you want to use a computer.  Incredibly, with the right carrier, some of our group members were getting phone signals in some of the remotest parts of the hills, so you can always use a smart phone for basic email and texting.

 Anyways, took the bus from Chittagong to Bandarban, about a 2.5-3 hour trip.  Many would consider Bandarban to be a good place from which to base a hill tribe trek; I chose to stay at the Royal Hotel ($4/night) in a non a/c room since the weather has been very pleasant (mid 80s days and mid 60s evenings--thats 29 and 18 for my celsius readers).  I was looking for something a bit more mid-range, but that sort of hotel doesn't exist right in town (there are a few resorts 3-4 miles from town, but I wanted to be right in the action.  Unlike Chittagong, Khulna and Dhaka, at least it was a relatively quiet hotel late at night, with little traffic outside.  In case I haven't already mentioned it, Bangladeshis are pretty much continuously honking their horns and large buses and trucks can be particularly annoying when you're trying to sleep.

Royal Hotel Bandarban
I loved this Rickshaw Popcorn Business
Bandarban isn't a particulary spectacular place and, unlike some villages in Laos or Vietnam, you won't see a lot of folks in tribal garb.  There are over 10 indigenous tribes in an area which covers roughly 5000 square miles (13,000 kms) and consists of three separate regions.  Most travel is to the Bandarban region.
Bandarban, The Main Drag
While I had general goals of seeing some of the remote hill tribes, my main goal was to hike to the top of Bangladesh's highest peak, Saka Haphong, a trip that's very difficult to arrange due to the distance of the mountain from larger villages, various tribal conflicts, the fact that it's right on the border with Myanmar and the purported kidnapping dangers.  Bottom line is that none of the major trekking agencies I contacted would have anything to do with it, so I set off for the closest large village of Thanchi (a 5 hour bus ride) to take my chances.  Bangladeshi's are generally smaller people and the smaller buses are constructed for kids of American school size, meaning every bus ride involved a small amount of torture on my long legs and very little space for my bags.  I spent several hours in the police department (just the permit isn't enough....you need police and/or army and border guard permission to do much more than wander a few kms outside of main towns), only to be turned away because of local elections coming up.  The local police are very involved in elections and are responsible for tallying votes and making sure no violence occurs before or after the elections.  While the local police agent was willing to allow me a 3 day/2 night trip with 4 armed officers, that wasn't going to be enough time.  While I was unsuccessfully seeking lodging for the night, I met a great group of Bangladeshi engineering students (mostly) who were on their way back to Bandarban and graciously allowed me to hitch a free ride in their rented jeep.  They even bought dinner and then surprised me by asking if I  would like to join another trek led by one of their group in a few days.  Of course, I jumped on the idea and spent the night back at the Royal with one of the group members. We agreed that I would pay $150 for the trip while the students would pay about $50/each.  I was happy to help subsidize the costs (more on this later).  The goal was to head to a different town (Ruma) and obtain local police and army permission for the trek which was now to include the #1, #2 and #3 highest peaks in the country.  Prior to heading to Ruma the next day, we visited a large Buddhist temple and I took a few at bats at a local cricket field (hit one ball pretty well, but completely missed two others before I was done.
Bangla Buds Group One

After the 2.5 hour bus ride to Ruma, we holed up in another meh hotel to await the arrival of the rest of the group the next day.  We also hired a guide and purchased some supplies (packaged masala, garlic, onions, turmeric, oil and chiles) so that we'd be all set to go the next day.  The new group (also mostly engineering students) from the city of Khulna showed up around noon and we set out for Boga Lake, a pretty little volcanic lake of about 15 acres a few hours from Ruma.  (We pulled a fast one on the students and convinced them for a short time that I was going to be the guide and that they'd better be prepared to trek 40km (25 miles) per day and speak only English).  This relatively easy trip along a brick road in a jeep had its moments, since we had to stop at an Army installation for approval and spend a couple bucks bribing one of the officials for permission, despite the fact that the guys assured me that there would be zero problems (and maybe a few hundred taka here IS considered close to zero problems).  They also had to be convinced not to send along an armed escort, something that none of us wanted and something that would have added to the cost, though in general a group would only be responsible for the minimal food and lodging costs for the armed escort.

Ruma, Not Exactly Conde Nast's Room With a View
We arrived at Boga Lake late in the afternoon and found it full of partying college students (this is Spring break for a lot of the students here).  A few were just spending the day, some spending the night and partying until the late hours, and a few more on their way to Keokradong, the official highest peak in Bangladesh.  Our guest house was a nice enough little place with a bare light bulb and some mats on the floor.  Cost for the room (and most others on the trip) was a little over a dollar per person, with food adding a couple of dollars more per day.  Imran, our guide, did most of the cooking and the guest houses supply simple stoves and cookware.  Bringing an REI air mattress was the smartest thing I did on the trip. 
One thing I hadn't counted on was that the students with me all smoked a pretty good amount of weed.  I didn't really want to be involved in getting stoned, worrying more about my hiking condition, something that wouldn't be helped with a hangover.  While all the kids were nice (well, except one...but more on that later), we were on different planets once their pipe came out.  Oh well, can't say I wouldn't have done the same thing at their age and I guess my main surprise was that engineering students in my days in college were always the most serious, non-party types.  They later explained that it was still mostly the same with their fellow students.

Boga Lake

Top of Keokradong
Next morning we all awoke early for the long day of trekking which would involve Keokradong.  Pretty popular place and their is even an army/border guard station at the mountain.  Of course, my credentials needed to be checked, but it was a simple process that didn't involve anyone having to give permission to continue.  The Army and Border Guards are two separate organizations, and the Border Guards are especially active along the Myanmar border, due to smuggling of drugs, alcohol, and who knows what else.   I had a surprisingly good day and reached the peak first.  One of the group members made it, but decided to turn back since he found trekking not to his liking nor conditioning.  I should mention that each of the four group members who joined Amir and I (Nur, Masud, Ruhan, and Tanim) had never trekked before.  Nur quit, Masud and Tanim were in physically good condition, and Ruhan toughed it out and grew from a pretty poor trekker to a pretty good trekker by the end of the trip).  BTW, reaching the peak first did not at all mean I was in the best condition; most of the group held back trying to help Nur and sent the guide, Imran, along with me.  After reaching the peak, we descended to the village of Thaikhong, another Bawm village like Boga and  spent the night in a very basic guesthouse, but this time without electricity. I committed a bit of a gaffe by wandering around town without the chief's consent and without the guide and apparently a few town folk got excited and reported my wanderings to our group leader.  Lesson learned.  Later the owners (who spoke good English) shared a bit of their lives with us and a few townspeople came by to see and say hello to the white guy.  Up until this writing, I hadn't seen a white person in well over a week. The Bawm villagers keep their villages immaculately clean, cleaner than most villages in the US and way cleaner than the average Bangladesh city or town where trash is routinely discarded in the streets.  The urban parts of the country could take a good lesson from the supposedly ignorant tribal people when it comes to public sanitation and cleanliness.
Downtown Thaikhong
Maybe the worst bathroom in the world

I don't generally like to sleep with others, so each night was quite the challenge as the six or seven of us slept at close quarters.  15 mg of Valium sure helped me and I don't think my snoring had much effect on most of the group since they were using their own sleep aids every night.

 Most of the tribal villages are non-Muslim, with Christianity, Buddhism, Animism and some Islam being practiced.  There is a great tolerance of different religions in this area.  However, my bunk mates insisted that I sleep in the same direction as they did, with head facing West I believe.  I guess it's a Muslim thing and while I protested that I didn't want to bother them with my snoring, I gave in on the battle and slept the way they asked me to, a small concession. 

Source: http://bruce3404bangladesh.blogspot.com/2014/03/bandarban-to-thaikhong-in-chittagong.html

Mongla to Chittagong

As a result of the inclement weather, we arrived from the Sundarbans tour a few hours early and I decided to catch a bus to Barisal rather than endure any further time in Mongla.  Was fortunate to find a seat after transferring at the T junction near Bagerhat and made it to Barisal in about four hours, slowed by a driving rain and a ferry crossing.  Barisal is sorely lacking in good, mid-range accommodation and I took an $8 room in what is supposedly the best hotel in town, the Athena International.  For my $8, I got a very clean room that smelled of cat piss.  Exhausted as I was, it didn't really matter and a big plus was that the room was within walking distance of the launch ghat, where I caught the 6AM ferry for Moju Chowdary Hat, where I was able to catch a bus to Chittagong, the second largest city in BD, with a population of close to 3,000,000.  The exhausting trip took almost five hours on the ferry and another 5 hours on the most terrifying bus ride of my life.  The Dhaka-Chittagong highway is known as the most dangerous in BD.  Despite the huge volume of truck and bus traffic, it's a narrow two lane road and our driver passed on blind curves, ran CNGs and cycle rickshaws onto the shoulder and beyond, and drove on dirt sections of the highway under construction (it's slowly being widened to four lanes).  I was in the front seat and after awhile, couldn't help but laugh at how crazily this guy was driving  (maybe it's the valium I've been taking for sleep).  Arrived at the excellent Asian SR hotel and while it's the priciest hotel of the trip ($31/night), I've got a high floor room with little street noise, a real plus in a city of this size.  Had the country's standard meal of mutton biryani (and that mutton can be old) and went to bed early.

Sonny Bono Did NOT Produce This Film

After arriving exhausted, I fully expected to hate what is considered the most polluted city in the country.  In fact, Chittagong turned out to be a pleasant surprise, with lots of interesting food and clothing markets.  The main reason to stop here was to pick up the mandatory Chittagong Hill Tracts permit for trekking and it turned out to be an almost pain free experience, thanks to a kind gentleman who led me through the rabbit's warren of offices at the old British High Court Building.  Prior to encountering this kind man, I got into a shouting match with an attorney who accused me of blocking his way while I was trying to get directions from a couple of other barristers.  I congratulated him on being the least polite Bengali I had met on the trip and, being a lawyer, he refused me the last word and we both continued shouting at one another as he ascended the stairs and I left the building.  After leaving the building with my permit, I picked up a Bengali flag and since I lost my trusty sun hat while being rushed off the bus on the way to Barisal, I found this gem of a hat.
Not Sure What Sport They Play, But I'll Bet It's Contested In Back Alleys

Travelers Notes: 

For the permit process, head to the old British High Court Building just off Station Road.  Ignore the newer buildings and look for the old brick portico.  From there head to the extreme left hand side of the building and go up one flight of stairs where you'll see an incorrectly spelled English sign which reads:  Division Office To (instead of two).  Your contact will be Mr Sharif, phone number 017770330066.  This is a different place than is listed in the most current Lonely Planet (2012).  At this time, the application process has been greatly simplified.  While it was once necessary to account for practically every minute of your stay and the hotels you would be using (a Scot friend of mine was actually hauled out of a hotel by the police and made to stay at the hotel he listed on the application).  At this time, just be prepared to list the places you intend to visit and remember that the local police have the authority to dis-allow visits to places the district commissioner has approved.  I got approval for Mowdok Taung and, if allowed, I would be only the 3rd foreigner to hike to the top.  Note that I wasn't forced to add a lot of the info regarding arrival and departure dates.

Source: http://bruce3404bangladesh.blogspot.com/2014/02/mongla-to-chittagong.html

Mongla and the Sundarbans

After getting completely jerked around by not one, but two travel agents regarding my Sundarbans boat trip.  I got a call late Wednesday night asking if I’d be willing to change my travel date from Friday to Thursday because the Friday boat was booked.  Never mind that I’d made and paid for a reservation a month ago.  After getting everything packed and ready to go I got another call indicating that I would now be going on Friday but instead of leaving from Khulna, where I am staying and where I was originally scheduled to leave from, they decided that I would leave from Mongla, a two hour bus ride away.  Also, my departure time was revised from 7AM to 7PM, a loss of twelve hours.  Complaining did no good.  The man with whom I originally booked told me my complaints were “making him sick” and he hung up on me and refused to return my calls.  He's a well-known poster on various Bangladesh forums and I'll spare him the embarrassment of revealing his name here, but feel free to PM me if you'd like to know who he is.  His partner travel agent could not be budged and told me that because of fog, the boat would have to leave from Mongla.  He also indicated that my real issues were with the original booking agent.  Talk about passing the buck.  There has been zero fog in Khulna the past three days and other boats leave from Khulna.  It was my bad luck to deal with a couple of less than ethical travel agents and I later found out from the boat owner that I could have booked directly from him at a savings of roughly 40% ($165 vs $265).  His name is Mr Rahman and he can be reached via email at thesoutherntours@gmail.com.  His phone number is 01712-773361 (add 88 if calling from outside of Bangladesh).  There are thousands of travel agents in BD, but only 15 boat owners.  Mr Rahman owns two boats and is having a third built.
The Mongla Market
Anyways, I was escorted to Mongla on an old non-A/C bus (other passengers were driven in private cars) and arrived at 2:30PM, so I had almost 5 hours to kill before boarding the boat (the info from the travel agents was wrong once again).What a shithole is Mongla!  Just a dirty port town with a bunch of seedy characters hanging around.  Not a place you’d want to spend 10 minutes.  Let’s call it the Tijuana of Bangladesh.  At least dinner on the boat was excellent and the live chickens provided some fresh food along with some loud squawks as they were being butchered on board.

My Cabin with King Size Bed
 The cabins on our boat weren't luxurious, but represented good enough value (the luxury boat companies charge $500 for the 3 day/ 2 night tours).
All 8 of us passengers (2 young French backpackers, a Swiss guy about my age and four Bangladeshis) were all impressed with both the quantity and variety of the food.  We had chicken, beef, fish, pullao rice and plenty of fresh veggies for every meal.  There were as many crew members as passengers and they all went out of their way to make our trip as enjoyable as possible.  I can highly recommend Southern Tours and Travel for those looking for good value.  As I understand it, all boats go to the same various beaches and use the same jungle viewing platforms and hike the same trails.

Tiger Food
The main goal of visiting the Sundarbans, besides seeing the largest mangrove forest in the world, is to spot a tiger.  The owner of the company has seen 12 tigers in 20 years, so your chances of seeing one approximate a Powerball lottery win.
Our Boat
Along with the deer to the left, we saw a wild boar, some kingfishers and various other birds.  We got out of the boat for a couple of hour long hikes.  Our late start the first day meant that we pretty much all slept as the boat ran most of the night down to the Bay of Bengal.  From there the idea was to visit Bay of Bengal beaches, spend another night on the boat and then work our way back to Mongla with numerous stops along the way.  Unhappily, it didn't quite work out as planned since we experienced a steady rainfall that only enabled a few stops at government research stations.  No one was particularly dis-appointed since they kept feeding us well and, to be frank, how much mangrove forest does one really need to see?
I find it almost unimaginable that some folks book 5 day/4 night trips.  Although the guide books and travel agents would have you believe that single day, inexpensive trips don't give one enough of a true experience, I'm not sure that I buy that argument.
Nonetheless, the Sundarbans is rightfully considered one of the top tourist destinations in the country and shouldn't be missed, however you decide to go about seeing it.  Oh, and a most special thanks to my French buddies who shared a bit of their precious pastiche (Pernod) with me as we cruised the river on a magical full moon night on day 2.
Part of the Tour Involved A Trip Down a Narrow River on a  Small Boat

Fishing Village in the Forest
  Traveler's Tips:
They're pretty much all in the above narrative.  Unless you're traveling to BD during a special holiday season, you should be able to get on a boat with just a few days notice.  An email to Mr Rahman might also be a good idea if you prefer to make your plans further in advance.  Tell him Bruce from the US sent you.  I'll get nothing out of it, but I did tell him I'd post his contact info.  The French backpackers showed up less than an hour before the half-full boat departed and were able to negotiate a slight discount from the normal rate, though the negotiations ran hot and heavy.  My three day/2 night tour turned out to be a 42 hour tour, so it might be wise to get an exact accounting of the proposed trip and then hope that the plans are honored and the weather is good.
Source: http://bruce3404bangladesh.blogspot.com/2014/02/mongla-and-sundarbans.html

Bagerhat and Khulna

Shait Gumbad Mosque 1459
Received a late night call indicating that the original planned trip to the Sundarbans was now back on, so spent a good part of the day at the World Heritage Site of Bagerhat.  In an effort to spread Islam to the hinterlands about 150 km S of Dhaka, Khan Jahan Ali, a Sufi began a huge building campaign in the mid 15th century.  The trip out to Bagerhat involves a one hour bus ride and several kms of walking from site to site, including some delightful paths through working villages.  I visited six mosques and the tomb of Ali and I was the only person at three of the mosques; I was shocked to visit one mosque and be invited in during prayer time, but this is more reflective of the relaxed nature of the religion as practiced here in Bangladesh.  In fact, both women and men pray at the same time here and that's a real no-no in more radical Muslim countries.  I continue to be amazed at how kind and helpful Bangladeshis are towards foreigners.  While there's little tourist infrastructure (meaning few English menus among other things), someone always seems to step out of nowhere and lend a hand.  While the food is tasty here, I've been a bit disappointed with the variety on offer; curries or biriyanis seem to be the same everywhere with mutton, chicken or beef being the only variation.  There are some tasty fish dishes as well, both fresh and salt-water.  With no alcohol available, it gets a bit old drinking water with every meal.  I've heard of a few clandestine places selling foreign beers at $5 a can, but so far a $5 can of some lousy domestic beer like Heineken just doesn't appeal.

A Ladder of Rope and Bamboo Reaching Nine Stories High!

Traveler Tips:  
The entrance fee of 200 taka for foreigners is the most expensive yet in BD.  Cattycorner from the official entrance gate is an open, unguarded gate for townsfolk.  It's through this gate you can also visit two additional forest mosques.  I'm not necessarily advocating using this gate to avoid paying, but merely mentioning it.  If you choose to enter through the gate, you won't be able to enter the rather mundane museum on the grounds.  No other sites charge admission, though they'll try to shake you down for donations at Ali's tomb.  Bus fare from Khulna (or Mongla) is around 50 taka.  Be sure to ask the driver to drop you off at the first mosque, otherwise you'll have to backtrack about 4 km from the main bus stop in the town of Bagerhat.
Source:  http://bruce3404bangladesh.blogspot.com/2014/02/bagerhat-and-khulna.html

রবিবার, ১৮ অক্টোবর, ২০১৫

Dhaka to Khulna

Found myself awake at 5AM and rather than face the traffic nightmare in visiting the airport, I headed out at 6AM and made it in 25 minutes (vs the 1:45 trip from the airport to the hotel).  Airport security is pretty lax at DAC, at least for domestic flights.  Today I flew an AR-72 to Jessore, only a 30 minute trip by air, but about a 10 hour bus ride.  Upon arrival at Jessore, was placed on an airline-run mini-bus that took my group the further 90 minutes to Khulna.

This was a pleasant drive through rural Bangladesh and at one point we were only 20 miles from the Indian border.  Lots of rice paddies and farmers tending their crops.  A nice change from Dhaka, though for some reason there were also a lot of brick and cement factories in between the farms.  Khulna is a rather non-descript city of 1.5 million people, the third largest city in Bangladesh.  At one point it had a thriving port and one could take a ferry steamer from Dhaka to Khulna.
Bangla Logging Truck
 Apparently the river isn't deep enough anymore for this sort of travel.  Wound up checking in at the excellent City Inn...make that kind of excellent since they're doing a lot of new construction and what might have been a quiet night in a room at the back has now become a noisy night in a room up front by the road.  The choice was jackhammers or horns honking.  Looks like my trip to the Sundarbans might be moved up to tomorrow, so this may be the last post for a few days as there isn't any internet down there.


Airfare from Dhaka to Jessore is $45, plus an additional $2.50 for the bus to Khulna.  Unless you plan to visit Bagerhat and/or the Sundarbans, there's really not much to recommend in Khulna.  The City Inn is far and away the nicest place in town and a single with a/c and breakfast costs around $30 including all taxes.  Hopefully if you stay there, the construction work will be finished.

Source: http://bruce3404bangladesh.blogspot.com/2014/02/dhaka-to-khulna.html

বৃহস্পতিবার, ১৫ অক্টোবর, ২০১৫

Bangladesh Thoughts

First words are:  Get Over Here Sooner than Later!  Its been really great to step off the beaten traveler's path and go to a country where the usual almost always seems unusual to us travelers.
A Happy People
 You Indiaphiles will know what I'm talking about.
Yes, there's crushing poverty in some areas, but a surprising lack of materialism and people generally have a great deal of tolerance and joy, despite having to fight continuously for places in line and space in general.  For all the chaos and crowdedness, there's an amazing semblance of order.  Hate crowds?  Don't worry, there's plenty of uncrowded countryside to visit (anyone who spends a "vacation" month in Dhaka would have to be masochistic IMHO).  Prices are impossibly cheap for food and lodging and while the cuisine isn't as good as some of the neighboring countries, it's certainly not bad.  I've tried to stay away from the Western joints and, apart from an occasional Coke...something I never drink at home....I've tried to stay local foodwise.  They do like it HOT and since I'm a chile

freak, I've liked that part of the cuisine very much.

There is some argument whether Bangladesh is a 3rd world or 2nd world country; whatever the case, once the political situation gets worked out (and it will, since from a simplistic standpoint, it involves the jealousy of two older women in the battle for political power),  I can easily visualize more investment in the country.  This is a very, very hardworking people, proud of their country and ready to improve their generally poor lifestyle.  As I've mentioned, there's not a lot of materialistic attitude, but part of that probably has to do with the seemingly impossible ideas of owning much beyond basic survival items.  At this point, with a hardworking attitude and a very inexpensive labor force, it's only a matter of time before the big companies show up and exploit it; in this case exploit isn't necessarily a dirty word.

There's enough of an organized tourism industry that one who prefers group tours could easily manage, but it's also very possible to travel here independently; though it isn't always easy there's a certain challenge that independent travelers enjoy and you will certainly meet a few challenges which will generally tend to work themselves out if you stay calm and flexible and remember that you're in a place where hostile displays of attitude will generally not improve your situation.  While English isn't as widely spoken as in India, there's almost always someone around who will happily step in and help.  With the Sundarbans, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the long white sand beaches, the crazy dreamlike Dhaka and some of the historic Islamic and Buddhist sites, there's plenty of reason to visit.  In my 29 days I was able to only touch on some of the major highlights and I could easily envision spending a completely different 30 days here.

Off to Kolkata tomorrow, so this ends my Bangladesh blog.  Hope it has been enjoyable for my readers and remember that I'm happy to answer any questions either here or on the two best Bangladesh forums:  Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet Thorntree.

Courtesy: http://bruce3404bangladesh.blogspot.com/2014/03/bangladesh-thoughts.html

মঙ্গলবার, ১৩ অক্টোবর, ২০১৫

Dhaka--Takin' it to the Streets

After a nice long rest, availed myself of the excellent free buffet breakfast in the 19th floor restaurant.  Some Trip Advisor reviews have bemoaned the lack of European or American breakfasts, but I quite liked the Bangla breakfast which included Paratha (unleavened bread cooking in layers), daal, goat shanks, papaya and pineapple juices, coffee (instant!), mixed veggies, pancakes, toast and a few desserts, one of which was a carrot pudding that tasted much like rice pudding.  I ate a lot of the excellent daal.
Since it wasn't far from the hotel, I decided to visit the War Liberation Museum first.  After reluctantly forking over the 7 cent admission fee, I was able to learn about the ins and outs of the liberation war of 1971, the war from which East Pakistan became Bangladesh.  The atrocities committed against the Bangla people by the Pakistanis are well-documented, along with the heroic actions of the Bangla freedom fighters which included students, women and some military defectors.  One section detailed worldwide reaction to the war of liberation, including photos of the Bangladesh concert and the US reaction (Nixon backed the Pakis, but there was a lot of Democratic resistance to Nixon's support as well as various US student groups in favor of Bangla independence.  Fucking Nixon lives on, even in the hinterlands of the 3rd World).  I'll digress a bit here and say that the Banglas are big fans of the US.  Several people thanked me for the US aid as well as the movements to ensure safe working conditions for garment workers and their knowledge of US politics is quite good.
Next stop was a walk through old Dhaka which is far and away the most interesting part of the city.  Being a white guy who stands 6" taller than most locals, I became the subject of a lot of staring and questioning.  This was a good opportunity to exchange dialogue with English speaking folk, take some photos (Banglas love having their photos taken), shake hands and generally show a culture with quite an inferiority complex that they're a lovely people worthy of respect and admiration.
Cycle Rickshaw Driver
 As previously mentioned, trades tend to gather in groups and I could have spent hours watching the sometimes rudimentary ways people go about fabricating goods.  Though 16 million people somehow fit into an area the size of Manhattan (1.6 million people), there's a certain calmness in an area that might drive some foreigners crazy with traffic, huge crowds on the sidewalks, crossing streets, etc.
Yep, It Really IS This Crowded
 At one point I tripped over some barbed wire and went flying into the street, I got hit by a car (just barely) and just about walked into an open manhole.  You'd better be looking in at least 4 directions when you walk around here, but damn, it's just so fascinating to see things somehow come together in one of the most chaotic places in the world.
Then it was down to Sadergat, which is the riverbank where everything from huge ferries to rowboats take off.  I opted for a quick rowboat ride across the river and back after haggling with the rowers; one guy wanted 100 taka, but I eventually paid 5 taka (the locals pay 2). Like most SE Asian nations, everything here is haggled upon.  I'm trying to keep perspective and realize that 10 taka is only 12 cents and that 10 taka means a lot more to the guy cycling you around town than it does to most travelers.  While one doesn't want to get taken advantage of, one also doesn't need to fight like a Bangla for every taka.  That said, the rickshaw drivers will try to pull fast ones;  a ride yesterday that was agreed upon at 50 taka wound up with the driver demanding 500 taka (which is close to two days pay for some of these guys, even though the ride took only 30 minutes).  I followed proper etiquette and placed the 50 on the driver's seat and just walked away.  Today was quite a bit more difficult as three drivers agreed to take me places and none had a clue where they were going.  In one case I gave an old guy an extra 20 (25 cents) because he got me to my destination, in another I just got miffed and told the guy to stop and paid the agreed fare of 40 cents and walked the rest of the way.  The final guy got bad directions from one of his fellow drivers and wound up pedaling twice as far as he needed to.  He kept apologizing and when I patted him on the back I realized the guy was practically skeletal.  In his case, his 35 taka fare became 100 and I probably bought a little good karma.

Eating has been good.  Managed to make it to Haji Biriana for some mutton biriani.  Probably the most famous restaurant in town.  You get a plate of cumin rice with maybe 4 ounces of mutton and some hot green chile to munch on.   Total tab was 130 taka (about $1.75) for a filling meal.  You eat with your hands, though they will offer a spoon.  Also ate at a kebab house tonight and for less than $3 received a tasty spread that included mustard stuffed beef kabobs, two salads, rice and a large cold bottle of water.
$3 Buys a Lot of Food and Drink

Two days in Dhaka is quite enough.  There's limited sightseeing activity, beyond simply observing the mass of humanity.  I did make it to the National Museum, the Pink Palace, an old fort, Curzon Hall on the Dhaka University campus, and a shopping district specializing in clothing (most of it was junk and cut for much smaller people than I---too bad because I really wanted a t-shirt that had James Dean in a Laker jersey with Magic Johnson's number on it.  It just said "Angeles" instead of "Los Angeles".   One of the highlights was getting to play some cricket with a youth group.  I batted a bit and also bowled for the first time every.  Hitting isn't as easy as it might look.
My Cricket Buddies

I Liked This Guy's Beard
And Since I Needed a Haircut Anyways......

 Tomorrow I take a plane to Jessore, the gateway city for the Sundarbans National Park, home of most of the few surviving Bengal Tigers in the world.  Sorry about this annoying color; can't seem to get rid of it in this post.

  Look for a uniformed guard near the pay station for visas on arrival.  You'll see this pay point a few minutes after dis-embarking.  He expedited things and while he didn't ask for a tip, I gave him a dollar for all his help walking me back and forth between the immigration authorities and the pay window.  The only form you need to \fill out will be given to you on the plane.  Once you have the stamp, head to the far left Visa on Arrival line.  When I was there it was much shorter than any other line.  Just opposite the line is the Bangalink phone center and you can buy 1GB of data and a goodly amount of phone time for around $10; the young guys there know what they're doing and will have you up and running in no time.  They do ask for a passport photo, so bring extras.  Hotels exist in all price ranges.  I opted for the business class Hotel 71 ($29 single with huge buffet breakfast) which is about a 2 mile walk to the river (or roughly a 50 taka cycle ride).  I wish it were quieter here, but not sure you'll find any quiet hotels in this town unless you head to the distant suburbs or perhaps find a hotel down a narrow alleyway.  Most restaurants do not have English menus (though there are a few listed in the Lonely Planet).  Please feel free to subscribe to this blog and ask any questions you wish.