The Best of The Rest of Bangladesh / by David Johnstone

HIGHLIGHTS FROM DHAKA, SYLHET AND CHITTAGONG REGIONS

The tour I joined left little time to document the places I visited, particularly as I was constantly on the go day after day and the WiFi was poor in some places. However, that’s all done and I’m back, thankfully, as an independent traveller once again. On the whole, the experience was decent and I would’ve saw a fraction of the sights had I travelled alone. The country just isn’t set up for tourism and it can be a nightmare, or impossible, getting into the further flung regions without local assistance. The tour group were older and well-travelled and, despite the quirks and personalities, Tom, Ann and Jake were nice people. It also helped that our guide Arafat was excellent.

Back in Dhaka again!  As I mentioned before, the previous tour fuck-up left me running out of time and I’ve had to get my visa extended, possibly a first for a tourist visiting here! Bangladesh bureaucracy, as you can imagine, is grindingly slow but, with the help of Super-Arafat I was in and out of the visa office in under three hours, $110 dollars lighter and armed with a temporary paper visa which was absolutely vital to get into the tribal areas in the south of the country. However, I’m back now having to wait several days in the capital to be issued with a proper stamp to get out of the country and into India hopefully early next week in time for the colourful Holi festival. 

I was a little harsh on Dhaka in previous posts. The area my hotel’s in, Uttara, is decent and less manic than other parts, residential and wealthier. Gulastan and Banani are plush too and I’m sure there are others to accommodate the burgeoning middle class. The traffic is still nutty but less so than downtown. There’s a great cafe downstairs selling excellent coffee and a Johnny Rocket’s burger joint across the road. There’s even a little supermarket close by and I’ve been gorging on Oreos and Snicker bars since I got here. Like many developing countries, there is a real chasm between the have and have-nots with the urban poor having no access to social or health care and one sees some sorry sights. It makes your heart sink and I’m sure India will be much the same.

Below are some of the highlights of the second part of the tour. 

 

THE CHARS OF THE JAMUNA RIVER

After an overnight stop in the city of Bogra, we travelled next morning to the Jamuna river - one of the three main waterways of the country - to visit the Chars. Essentially they’re very large sandbanks that are submerged during the Monsoon season and are occupied and farmed during the Dry or Winter months (I arrived here in the latter, the best time to come - less heat, humidity, mosquitoes and zero rainfall). 

They’re highly susceptible to changes in climate and early monsoon rains can devastate crops and livelihoods, The Char we visited has a population of around 40,000 people and is 7kms wide. These people may well be displaced as the planet warms, a frightening prospect for an already poor and over-populated country.

Arafat steered a steady course throughout

Arafat steered a steady course throughout

 

LAWACHARA NATIONAL PARK

After another stop in Dhaka, we took the train to the small city of Sreemongol in the north eastern Sylhet region. Famed for it’s tea plantations, started by the British, it’s a less populated region and has several protected forest areas that I was keen to visit. 

Lawachara is one of them and it’s sadly the last remaining stand of primary forest in the country. It offers a tiny glimpse of the remarkable beauty the country has lost through rampant population growth, war and corruption. At only 12.5km square (1,250ha) it’s small and highly vulnerable to encroachment and poaching though, remarkably, full of wildlife.

Despite there being a tribal villages inside the park - they’ve been here for years before the park was gazetted in 1996 - roads and the main Dhaka to Sylhet train track running through it, we were blessed to spot a group of Western Hoolock Gibbons, the only ape in South Asia and a highly endangered one at that. Their range spreads from Bangladesh, into NE India and Burma.

 

It offers a tiny glimpse of the remarkable beauty the country has lost through rampant population growth, war and corruption

 

Their numbers have dropped from 100,000 to around 5,000 since the 1970s, a decline of 95% due to human encroachment, forest clearance for tea cultivation and slash-and-burn agriculture. They are now completely dependant on human intervention. With only around 70 individuals existing in the park, they are of critical importance and are the last viable population in the country. The park insanely let Chevron drill here a decade ago causing major environmental disruption including the deaths of some Gibbons.

 

THE CHITTAGONG HILL TRACTS

We took the train from Sylhet and arrived back to Dhaka. Again. Thankfully a one night stopover and a decent hotel this time. I was looking forward to the final part of the tour, the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), the only extensively hilly area in Bangladesh, forested and bordering India and Myanmar. I was down that way before, visiting Cox’s Bazar and the refugee camps and had intended to take a trip there earlier. With my extended visa, I was assured by Arafat that we’d encounter no problems getting into this troubled region. I took my first flight, Dhaka to Chittagong, then headed east to the hills of Rangamati.

Having travelled on everything from fishing boat and rickshaw to CNG and bus it was now time to take my first plane ride

Having travelled on everything from fishing boat and rickshaw to CNG and bus it was now time to take my first plane ride

We were informed by Arafat that we’d have to present ourselves and our passports to the numerous police and military posts dotted around the region. The history of the Hill Tracts is a past that still haunts today and the lingering foment is tangible. For good reason.

During the Partition of 1947, we British in our wisdom decided to split India into disparate parts. The Muslim population were given Pakistan which was made from two areas: West - as Pakistan is today; and East which is now Bangladesh with India (and Kashmir) wedged in between. The tribal areas, having been settled in the 16th century by Burmese refugees and containing around 12 different tribal peoples, were given over to East Pakistan - much to the chagrin of India - with an understanding that it would remain largely autonomous. 

 

Violence from both sides effectively forced the area to become a militarised zone and it remains that way today. A country within a country.

 

Troubles arose when the Pakistanis created a large hydroelectric dam in 1962 (now Kaptai Lake), flooding a vast area of forest and settlements and displacing 100,000 tribal people who received zero compensation. Many fled to India where, in the 1970s, a guerilla force was formed to fight increasing settlement of Bengali peoples into the area by the Pakistan government in an attempt to dilute the Buddhist and Hindu populations. At one point, during an act of horrific vengeance, the Pakistani military razed an entire village area, murdering 20,000 people in one night. Despite numerous peace accords, Bengali migration continued unabated forcing the tribal peoples off their land and deeper towards the border forests. Violence from both sides effectively forced the area to become a militarised zone and it remains that way today. A country within a country.

We were under strict instructions not to speak, let alone visit, tribal people and we were to have armed police with us most of the time. It all felt a little excessive. When I had planned my trip back in the UK I’d hoped to get into the eastern border areas of the CHT where large forests and wildlife still remained. No chance. I would leave disappointed. 

Sleeping Policeman -  We were accompanied everywhere by armed cops and were stopped numerous times at military posts to show our identities throughout the troubled Hill Tracts area

Sleeping Policeman - We were accompanied everywhere by armed cops and were stopped numerous times at military posts to show our identities throughout the troubled Hill Tracts area

On the surface of things, the Hill Tracts are beautiful. Lake Kaptai is enchanting and peaceful. But scratch beneath that and you feel an enmity towards you from the tribal populations as if you’re another alien invading their space, someone else to subjugate them. The Bengalis who migrated to the area seem to control everything now. And the land can barely support this many people with crops like tobacco, replacing traditional agriculture, the cause of land degradation and rampant deforestation.

I felt a resentment towards a nation that I’d hitherto loved meeting so it was a good thing to leave without scarring my opinions any further.

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THE SHIP-BREAKING GRAVEYARDS OF CHITTAGONG 

The final part of the tour was an hour’s boat trip along the coast to the boatyards north of Chittagong on the Bay of Bengal.

Bangladesh is one of the world’s principle ship-breaking countries. Men disassemble the world’s old oil tankers, cruise liners and boats by hand right down to the last bolt. Nothing is wasted. Materials are smelted down to form new bridges and roads and even the fixtures and fittings end up being upcycled. It offers opportunities for an impoverished people and a chance of steady employment. So far, so good.

With labour salaries amongst the lowest in the world, little workplace protection and no environmental policies, the ship-breaking industry can maximise profit whilst continuing to ignore international norms with impunity. The ships are deconstructed on the beaches whilst spilling out harmful toxins and degrading the environment. Deaths are common with no compensation offered and poor excuses made from an industry that’s often in collusion with a powerful elite.

 

The ships are deconstructed on the beaches whilst spilling out harmful toxins and degrading the environment

 

For all of the above reasons, it was a no-go for us to enter the shipyards. Both Greenpeace and National Geographic had uncovered their bent practices so all foreigners were now banned. But we could still go by boat. 

It would have been ideal to have gotten up close to the ships, to have seen the detail, the hard graft and the toil. But then again perhaps it’s best not to embroil oneself in something so damaging and dangerous.

On reflection, someone has to do it. Bangladesh needs industry and people need income. It’s just a shame that it’s government doesn’t protect it’s people and their environment. That should be, without doubt, it’s primary concern.

I’m almost at the end of my journey through Bangladesh bar a post or two and the trip to the Indian border. It’s been a fascinating visit and, though tiring and intense, an incredible experience full of warm and generous people that I’ll never forget. Why it’s ignored by the world’s travellers is a real head-scratcher. What they’ll find is a country getting to grips with itself, proud and impatient for change, full of natural beauty and stunning landscapes.

A green and wonderful jewel indeed.