23.03.2014 - 26.03.2014
We were pleasantly surprised by the 'luxury' bus to Bandarban and found it hard to stay awake despite the erratic driving and constant use of the horn. Our permits were checked and we were dropped into town where we were getting nowhere fast with our negotiation of tuk tuk fares to our guesthouse, Milonchori Hillside Resort that is 4km from town. Finally a young boy barely able to see over the steering column took us half way up the hill, dropping us by a bus stand. In the bus we were positioned very precisely at the front while layers of people climbed in after us, the driver set off chatting on his mobile phone while negotiating the narrow, winding mountain roads.
The resort is run by Guide Tours, a tour company that has been running for 10 years in Bangladesh and the first to cater for foreign tourists. We were invited to meet Hussan, the charismatic owner in his home. He greeted us with a cup of Darjeeling and we sat on his balcony while he talked with great pride of his country and achievements, telling us how he has seen a slow gradual increase in tourism and his dream to develop this further.
We had arranged a boat ride for the following morning and we set off in the general direction of the river down the steep, narrow jungle path, passing several dried up waterfalls. The walk must have taken us 40 minutes and as we came to the river, the view opened out past fields of tobacco plants. A teenage boy walked towards us and at first we didn't recognise him as our boatman, although once we had established he would take us to Bandarban town, he waded across the water and started to bail out the narrow boat. We paddled along the sandy banks of the Sangu River, pockets of people bathing and washing clothes, children laughing and swimming, shouting "how are you?” The peaceful boat ride at an end, we clambered up the hill to cross the high bridge, and the walk to Bandarban town took us past rural life, carpenters handcrafting bed heads and chairs, metalwork, a few restaurants and we stumbled over an artisan shop selling handcraft from local tribes where we bought a blanket.
We were woken up by a storm in the middle of the night, the rain hammering against the corrugated roof of the little bungalow and the flashes of lightning highlighting the gaps in the woven wicker walls, filling the room with hundreds of stars. We got up early needing to organise a ferry to Barisal and spoke to Reema who said she would investigate for us. The low level water during this season meant we had to change our plans, unable to cross by boat and unfortunately our only option was to return to Dhaka before heading south.
After breakfast we picked up a hand drawn map and walked up the steep hill to the Hatibandha Village to meet the Tripura tribal people. Nestled in a valley, the village can only be reached on foot, down some near-vertical brick roads we slowly made our way. At one resting point we were attacked by red ants, their red hot little bites travelling up our legs. The village has 25 people living there, and we felt a little like we were intruding without a guide as an intermediary. We walked through, passing little faces peering around doors and windows, shy and curious. The village was spotless and they were busy drying what we thought looked like ginger or a type of root in the sun. We returned to the terrace of the resort for some tea and a few games of Yahzee, followed by some rounds of table tennis in the indoor games room.
The next day we heaved on our backpacks that seem to be gaining weight, I have somehow added a kilogram to mine making it 8.5kg, and James is now carrying a neatly packed 15kg! The bus was due to leave at 9.30am and our packs were placed into the rusting hold under the bus whose bodywork appeared to have been patched together with papier-mâché. We were a little apprehensive at the speed the driver might go, especially where poor James couldn't sit straight where the seats were packed so tightly. As the last few people climbed on top of the bus for the cheap seats and a couple of attempts to get the bus started, the creaky bus slowly meandered along the windy roads, and both of us, and I'm sure the men sat on the roof were quite happy for the 3.5 hour journey.