Itchy feet, the term is an apt description of my state of being. Since I was born I have dreamt about travelling to distant parts of the world — watching the sun set in surreal settings, watching people dive into food that would make my mother squeamish and connecting with people who have different perspectives on life. I have had the fortune to visit and reside in a few countries, although there are many countries upon which I have yet to lay my feet. For over 15 years I have lived abroad and when I returned to Dhaka I felt like a stranger in my own country.
When I repatriated back to Bangladesh, I could barely speak in Bangla and people would constantly mistake me for a “Bideshi” (i.e. a foreigner). After spending a couple of years in Bangladesh, brushing up my linguistic skills and re-orienting my societal compass, I realised that I need to rectify a great injustice to the nation of which I am a citizen.
For the longest period of my life, I have been chasing the dragon of the West — i.e. looking for beauty in far away places particularly in Europe and America. Then I remembered the trials of Santiago, the protagonist of the Alchemist, and realised that the treasures that I have been seeking all my life are actually in front of me… waiting to be discovered. I just did not have the gumption of engaging with the surreal beauty of Bangladesh because of historical and mis-perceived biases that have been unwarily ingrained into my mind by my progenitors.
It took me a significant part of life to realise that in order to find my place in this world; first and foremost, I have to learn to appreciate the things that I have. Bangladesh has had the misfortune of getting a lot of negative attention recently, mostly because of the myopism of a minority who shun modernity yet rely on it to market and disseminate their convoluted ideals. It is about time that the people of the world know that the most densely populated place on the planet has many breathtaking sights and smells to entice visitors from all over the world.
Over the long weekend of Independence Day — March 24 through March 26 — I decided to venture out of Dhaka and go visit the southern regions of Bangladesh. I travelled to Cox’s Bazaar with a close friend of mine. The last time we were there was so long ago, that the place had become completely byzantine to us. I was in Cox’s Bazaar in the mid 1990s when I was still a child. We stayed in a motel managed by the Parjatan Corporation of Bangladesh, which had seen better days.
Things have come a long way since then. First of all, the transport links have improved phenomenally. There is still a lot of room for improvement, but considering the historical condition of the infrastructure, the situation had improved tremendously. We travelled overnight by coach which was quite luxurious and spacious — although they were a bit on the pricey end of the market. Much cheaper options are available, but due to lack of advance planning on our part we did not have many options.
The journey took longer then expected because of the holiday traffic. We arrived at Cox’s Bazaar around the afternoon of 24th. As we were staying at a cottage on the outskirts of Cox’s Bazaar City, we had organised a three-wheeler to take us from the bus drop-off point to our residence. The sights along the tuk-tuk ride was amazing — Cox’s Bazaar has come a long way in 15 years — although we were too tired to appreciate the views. The rest of the day, we spent walking along the red-crab beach just outside our cottage.
The views along the beach was mesmerising. It was secluded, which is a manna from heaven in Bangladesh. The sensation of warm water on our feet, the susurration of the sea and the breeze in our hair teleported us to a world free from all the trails and tribulations of reality and ushered us into the realm of fantasy.
For people who have an affection for adrenaline rush, number of options are available. These include: parasailing, speed-boat ride on the sea, jet-ski rental and quad-bike rentals. We were too tired to be tantalised by the prospect of stimulating our adrenal glands, and we walked along the beach immersed in the natural beauty of our surrounding. If you are not averse to the idea of sauntering, I would highly recommend the walk. It is a great way to acclimatise to the place and rejuvenate yourself.
We had a really early start the next morning because we hoped to catch the sun-rise. The setting was surreal. Tucked between dwarf mountains (…really hills) and the Bay of Bengal we consumed our breakfast of bread, fried eggs, jam and tea. Then we set out. We left our cottage and within minutes we were at the beach.
Watching the sunrise with the soft refreshing breeze on our back was divine. It is an experience that is worth the hassle of leaving one’s warm and cozy bed in the morning. After the sunrise, we opted to take a little nap, just to catch up on our sleep.
After a refreshing nap for a couple of hours, we headed out for Cox’s Bazaar. We decided to opt for local transport, which is basically traveling in a tuk-tuk, but with the locals. I would recommend this mode of transportation if you are on a budget because it is substantially economical than organising your own private three-wheeler. However, there is a catch. You need to be able to negotiate and be quite well versed in Bengali. Please be mindful that, in accordance with the concept of subjective value in economics, prices will have a tendency to rise for a non-local person. With a dose of charm, however, you can negotiate the price down quite substantially — although that would still be more than what the locals pay. That is the price of exploration and the handicap of not being from the local area, so please do not be upset if you feel that you have been over-charged.
On our way to Cox’s Bazaar we met a couple of medical students, who were also visiting. This is the upshot of travelling on local transport — you allow room for serendipity. By the time we reached central Cox’s Bazaar it was 10 am, but boy it was hot. Icarus’s wings would have melted just by standing on the beach for two minutes. Nevertheless, with our tool kit of modern wonders, namely, a massive umbrella, heavy-duty sun-screen and towels, we decided to take on the heat. We traipsed around the beach and the surrounding areas for a couple of hours. By the end of our jaunt, we were veritable fountains of salty sweat. Nice! Right?
By noon, we were hot and hungry. So we decided to find an inn that would replenish our nutritional needs. We ended up in a local inn which specialises in Bengali food, i.e., rice, lentils, fresh fish, delicious bhartas (mashed vegetables with seasoning) and delectable bhajis (deshi version of stir fired vegetables). The food was so good and we were so hungry that we ate like people suffering from acute starvation. By the end of lunch, we were stuffed and we could barely move.
While we were stuffing our faces, we started conversing with a couple of middle-aged men about their trip. They were on an official holiday tour and they were very excited about their trip to Maheshkhali, which is a technically a peninsula but could also be classified as an island. They seemed really happy with their trip, so placing our faith in serendipity once again we decided to head to Maheshkhali.
The trip to Maheshkhali was mine-blowing. We took a rickshaw to the local ghat (i.e. ferry stand) and took a speed boat to Maheshkhali. If you take a liberal interpretation of safety regulations, then the boat ride is quite exciting. The boats are not released until they are full. Expect to pay around 75 BDT for the boat ride one way, and about 10 BDT (max) surcharge at the ghat (prices may change).
You get to travel along the Bay of Bengal on a speed boat. How awesome is that? The navigators were quite experienced and proficient, given the context. As we came into Maheshkhali, the tide was out. The low tide attracted a lot of hungry birds in search of their lunch. The ferry ghat protrudes out of a mangrove forest and the only way to get to the peninsula is through a narrow bridge that extends all the way out to the sea. There are rickshaws and three wheelers at the stand. The prices are a bit high. Try to negotiate. A rule of thumb that generally works for me is: always try to negotiate the asking price down by 50 percent. Start your negotiation from 40 percent, which gives you room for negotiation. However, keep market conditions in mind because that could affect the bargaining position. For example, if it is raining and you have no clue of how to speak Bengali — you are unlikely to reduce the asking price by much. However, with the right approach you could reduce the cost quite substantially.
Maheshkhali town is an enclave trapped in time. There are three famous temples. My personal favourite is the Adinath Temple. It is situated on top of a hill overlooking the mangrove forest on one side and tropical forest on the other.
Maheshkhali is a paradox. You can 3G coverage but the base infrastructure is quite limited. The primary industries there include: agriculture, dried fish production and salt production. The methodologies are quite archaic, so you would feel like you have crossed through a portal into a different era.
From the perspective of a visitor, the peninsula is picturesque. But there are causes of concern. The people who live there do not have access to decent education and local infrastructure is quite poor. Without proper oversight and investment, I am worried that the place will become overcrowded with tourists very soon and the pressure of increased foot fall will upset the delicate ecosystem of the place. The result would be dire, because it could lead to the decimation of the mangrove forest and the loss of one of the most beautiful natural habitats of Bangladesh.
By the time we got back from the peninsula, it was late afternoon. We walked around on the beaches in Cox’s Bazaar and had dinner. By the time we got back to our cottage it was quite late. Completely spent, but content with our excursion, we went to bed — excited for the final phase of our trip.
We slept in the next morning. After breakfast, we headed out to Inani beach which was near Teknaf, south of Cox’s Bazar. We took the local tuk-tuk which cost around BDT 120 for two people. Inani beach was stunning. We decided to tickle our adrenal glands and hired a quad-bike. It cost us BDT 450 for a twenty-minute trip. A guide will go with you on the bike, which can accommodate up to 4 medium-sized people. You can ride the bike and I would highly recommend it. After the ride, we decided to walk along the beach. Most people generally congregate around one location, but the beach is immense. You can walk there for hours. We were approached by two local girls (Fig. 1) as we were walking. They were really nice and we shared some snacks and water with them as they walked with us.
We caught some red crabs and sauntered crabwise in the pristine beauty of the beach. It is mesmerising. The sounds of the wave crashing, the sweet salty breeze in your back and the feeling of complete and total freedom. I have seen beaches, but I have not seen any beach like this one.
There is a check-post that you have to cross before you can get to Inani beach. So, a foreign citizen may need permission from the Government of Bangladesh to get to the beach. Please be advised. But you will be richly rewarded for any hassle that you may encounter.
Although Inani beach is breath-taking now, it’s increasing popularity with tourists can be observed on the delicate ecosystem of the beach. There were some oil spills and some polluted water on the out-skirts of the beach. Also people were parking their cars willy-nilly all over the beach. I would implore our Government to get ahead of the potential complications that could arise there by developing a plan for managing the in-flow of well meaning but naive people who do not seem to appreciate the precarious nature of the local ecosystem. With some creative thinking, it would be quite possible to raise funds to manage the site so that we can preserve the natural beauty of Inani for perpetuity — so that our offsprings would be able to appreciate the place long after we cease to exist and continue to preserve it
Inani beach was the last stop of our trip before we headed back to Dhaka. Although this was the end of this trip, I will come back again to venture further south. I want to see more. The best time to travel in Bangladesh is the winter season, November to February. The summer months are quite intense because of the heat. Although with the correct tools, namely, huge umbrella, water bottles, sun-screen, skimpy clothes, etc., it is possible to travel through out the year. The rainy season can be a bit intense, but then again the thought of large raindrops on my skin as I walk along the beach with the waves crashing in the background appeals to my wild side. So, people who have a penchant for the unconventional, may enjoy the south of Bangladesh throughout the year. Although, you might reconsider the trip to Maheshkhali on a speed boat.
I hope this piece gives you some indication of the wonders and hidden gems of Bangladesh. I will continue my adventure and hopefully, will be able to convince the world that there is more to this country of 160 million people than religious zealots and floods. Bon Voyage!
If you need any advice or information please feel free to contact me. My email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org