Bandarban Hill Tracts–A Different Side of Bangladesh

Nine days off?! It’s time to explore. Part 2.

The Bandarban hills are alive with … indigenous tribes.

On our first full day in Bandarban, my teacher friend and I–plus a Swedish woman who was traveling solo–hired a guide for 1,000 Taka ($12) and a baby taxi for 1,500 Taka ($18) for the whole day. Take a moment and do the math. That’s only $10 each … for the entire day!

We could have gotten a nice truck for 4,000 Taka ($50), but we opted for the more economical version. As we discovered, it was the better choice, not just because it was cheaper but because, in the baby taxi, which is basically a roomier version of a motorized rickshaw, we were able to feel the air and see the view more completely than if we were trapped behind car windows. Plus the ride up the steep hills was significantly slower, so we had more time to take in the scenery as we headed to our first destination.

Bawm Village
Our guide (let’s call him Lek) was a member of the Bawm tribe, so for the first stop on our tour, he took us to his house, which sat on a lovely hill IMG_4778-2 a few miles away from the main village. Getting to his house required a short walk down a narrow dirt path, across a stream (where his goose was swimming), and up another dirt path to his front door. He invited us inside where his daughter and wife were sitting on the floor, watching a small TV at high volume. As they turned down the television, we joined them on the floor and sat looking around the modest home, trying to figure out where they slept.

I noticed a pile of woven rugs sitting near the TV. (Weaving is the Bawm people’s specialty.) Lek asked if we wanted to see any of them. At the time, I declined, thinking of the days of travel ahead and the burden that a heavy rug would add to my backpack. I now regret that decision. What a unique memento or gift one of those rugs would have made!

After sitting and smiling and looking around awhile longer, Lek asked if we were ready to leave. We nodded yes, expressed our thanks, and headed back over the stream to the baby taxi for our next stop at the main village.

As we wandered around the main village, taking photos and asking questions, we learned that the tribe, which is Christian, comprises about 100 families. I asked what it was like at Christmastime. Lek explained that each year, one house is chosen to host the festivities and everyone from the village comes over to eat and celebrate. (As I sit here in Jessore on Dec. 21st with no sign of Christmas in sight, the thought of spending the holiday at the Bawm village sounds pretty delightful.)

Murong Village
After our short stay in the Bawm village, we continued up the hill to visit another tribe, the Murong people. Their village was made up of about 20 families who still embrace the ancient beliefs of animism.

Murong Home EntranceLek escorted us through the village to one of the huts and invited us to check it out. In this village, the homes were raised off the ground, so we had to climb a narrow piece of carved wood to get inside. As we entered, I noticed how much bigger it was than Lek’s house. Several children and a few women where sitting around the large, open room. (Here, there was no TV.) A few kids were doing something with flowers. One boy was eating sugar cane. The women seemed to be preparing food. Again, we sat on the floor, smiling and observing. Again, I wondered where they slept. This time, I asked. Lek motioned to the floor around us and pointed to some long wooden blocks along the edges of the room. “They sleep here,” he said. “Those are the pillows.”

I snapped some photos in the dark hut and quickly discovered that, unlike most of the children I’ve met in Bangladesh, the Murong kids were incredibly camera-shy. Every time I raised my lens in their direction, they scattered … and it soon became a little game.

IMG_4827-2As we continued looking around the hut, each of us commented on different things. The open fire in the room with no barrier between it and the small children all around. The gaping holes in the floor. The saws and knives hanging on the walls. We talked about the crazy safety standards in each of our home countries. Those standards didn’t apply here, yet somehow, these children were happy and healthy and injury-free.

I noticed another interesting thing: the storage area hanging below the ceiling. According to Lek, that’s where the family keeps their homemade musical instruments. (Music seems to be the Murong specialty.) I tried to imagine a typical day in this family’s life. Hanging out, cooking, playing music and dancing. Yes, they’re poor and they don’t have much in the way of material possessions, but it seems to me, they have an abundance of the things that make one truly rich.

Lek indicated that it was time to go, so we said goodbye and headed off for the second half of our tour (which would involve truckloads of men with Hindu statues and a river), but I’ll tell that story in a different post. For now, I’ll share the experience I had the next day with the Tripura tribe.

Hatibandha Tripura Village
According to Lonely Planet, “Very few people make it to this village and it’s essential that you obtain the permission of the village headman to be there and remember to tread carefully with your photos.”

This, combined with warnings that the path to the village was steep and possibly slippery made the hike SUPER interesting to me, but not so much to my teacher friend. Lek said it would be no problem for me to go alone, but I decided to hire a guide anyway, so I paid a whopping 500 Taka ($6) to have Lek’s brother accompany me.

The warnings about the path were accurate. It was paved with stone bricks and the morning dew had left them slicker than a slip ‘n’ slide. I had to focus on each step, gingerly sidestepping my way down the trail, while Lek’s brother (let’s call him Sahn) moved quickly and effortlessly ahead of me, continually pausing to make sure I was ok.

Tripura Boys Cricket The hike was supposed to take an hour, but, even at our slow pace, it took only about 30 minutes. As we entered the village, we were greeted, not by a scary headman, but by a group of boys playing cricket.

Normally, when I walk near a group of children in Bangladesh, everything stops and I’m quickly surrounded by excited, curious kids. Not here. These boys were completely uninterested in the foreigner in their midst. In fact, if Sahn weren’t with me, I might have turned around and left, feeling that my presence wasn’t welcome.

Thankfully, though, he was there, and he shared some interesting information about the tribe. (How accurate it was, I do not know.) He pointed to the women wearing hundreds of beaded necklaces and explained that the jewelry’s original purpose was not ornamental. According to tribal folklore, the beads provided protection. When the women wore them, their enemies couldn’t cut their throats!

I asked Sahn if I could buy some necklaces and take a few photos in return. He said it was no problem and led me to one of the houses. We were not invited inside, but were allowed to sit down out front as they retrieved a large plastic bag of necklaces. I found a few I liked and asked how much they cost. The prices were much higher than I expected, and I kinda felt like I was being ripped off, but when you think about it, each string of beads is truly one of a kind. And how many people can say they hiked into a remote village to meet the people who created and shared a traditional piece of their culture?

Note to friends and family: If one of you receives one of these necklaces from me, you better appreciate it! ; )
Tripura Bead Necklaces

If you’re ever in Bangladesh, I definitely recommend taking a trip to Bandarban to see the tribal villages. It’s an interesting, perspective-gaining experience like none I’ve ever had.

Here are some more photos, but out of respect for the villagers, they’re mostly just buildings and animals.

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8 thoughts on “Bandarban Hill Tracts–A Different Side of Bangladesh

  1. Pingback: Warnings Shwarnings | Untitled Adventure

  2. My goodness, Ang… I absolutely love reading your blogs and seeing the photos of the amazing places you’re visiting, learning in, and experiencing first-hand — places the rest of us would only get to see on Lonely Planet or some National Geographic special. =) I’m so proud of you, and thrilled for you to be on this continuous adventure. xo

  3. Several years ago, I visited a German folk village in the Black Forest. I am stuck by how similar some of these places look to those reconstructed German houses of 200 years ago. It appears you’ve truly gone back in time.

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