Thanks to Durga Puja and Eid al Adha – two holidays I never knew existed before I moved to Bangladesh – I was able to enjoy a nine-day vacation. And thanks to the second teacher who finally arrived a month ago, I was able to explore some of the country … with a travel buddy. Hooray! (Part 1.)
First Stop: Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bandarban
When searching for information about the Chittagong Hill Tracts, I came across various travel alerts stating things like, “all non-essential travel to the area is not recommended,” or “reconsider your travel plans.” I was a little alarmed by the warnings, but I wanted to understand why the area should be avoided. I couldn’t find any specific or recent information to illustrate the danger — just instructions to notify the Bangladeshi authorities and obtain a permit before entering the region.
It sounded sketchy enough that I did consider changing my plans, but then I talked to my boss. She assured me that the warnings were outdated; she had been a few years back under the same conditions and everything was fine. Besides, Bandarban is touted as a must-see in Bangladesh, so travel there should be considered essential, right? Plus, from what I’d heard, the Hill Tracts region promised a very different view of Bangladesh, and I really wanted to see it! So my new teacher friend and I decided to go for it.
As you might imagine, the tourism industry in Bangladesh is virtually non-existent, so it’s rather difficult for independent travelers to find good information about where to go, what to do and where to stay. Pre-booking accommodations – even in big cities – can be challenging. There are a few reputable tour companies in the country (Bengal Tours, Unique Tours and Travels and Guide Tours) but I’m not really an organized tour kind of person, so I tend to avoid them. Guide Tours, however, runs the one and only resort in Bandarban, so I decided to give them a try.
When I called the contact number, a friendly woman who spoke excellent English answered the phone. I asked a gazillion questions and she patiently answered each one. I learned that she could obtain the necessary permits for us and that we could hire local guides (for a reasonable price) to take us to the tribal villages in the Hill Tracts. When I asked about safety, her nonchalant, “No problem,” put any lingering doubts I had to rest. Apparently, we could even visit the tribes that Lonely Planet described as potentially off-limits. I was sold.
I decided not to share the details of the trip with my parents, though. (They’d just worry for nine days and what’s the point in that?)
So after a few email exchanges and an infuriating trip to the bank to transfer our payment (don’t get me started on the antiquated banking system in Bangladesh!), we had everything we needed for our adventure.
First we flew to Chittagong and then, with permission slips in hand, embarked on a bus journey to Bandarban. It was the first time on a Bangladeshi bus for each of us. Considering the decrepit buses I see every day, packed to the gills with people, I was expecting a horrible ride, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined. Although, I’m pretty sure we ran over a dog at one point.
After bumping and jerking along for two hours, we knew we were getting close to our destination when the driver pulled to the side of the road, and we, the only white people on the bus, were instructed to disembark to show our passports and permits to a man in a small guard shack.
The man knew exactly who we were as he greeted us with a smile and asked us to sign a book. We obliged, got back on the bus, and continued on our way to Bandarban. Totally painless and anything but sketchy.
When we got to the resort (“resort” might be a bit of an overstatement), we were relieved to find a clean, comfortable bamboo hut nestled among the trees with a large balcony overlooking the hills and valleys below.
So far, the adventure was off to a great start. Thank goodness I wasn’t scared off by those silly travel warnings!
Next up … visiting the tribal villages.