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

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