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     Volume 5 Issue 98 | June 9, 2006 |

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Cover Story

Discovering Bandarban

Imran H. Khan

People discover different things in Bandarban. Some come here to get lost in the splendour of nature at its best while others come here to trek. Still others come to discover new species of flora and fauna while enjoying the beauty of the woodlands. Among the three districts of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bandarban is the most popular place because of its panoramic beauty, its vibrant tribal people, beautiful hills and valleys. It has its own personality. For first timer like me, a hill side resort called Milonchhori on Chimbuk Road under Guide Tours Ltd, is the best way to start the adventure.

The Guide Tours Ltd. is a private tour operator and has been around for nearly 17 years. The business took shape in April 1989 when Hasan Mansur, the founder and present Managing Director of the company, started giving tours with the aid of just three people. Currently, there are over 60 people employed in The Guide Tours Ltd. and over the years, they have grown strong in logistics in the form of transports, boats and branch offices. They are currently in operations in the Sundarbans Forest and in Bandarban.

There are a number of ways one can get to Bandarban. One can go from Dhaka to Chittagong by air and then drive to Bandarban. Dhaka to Chittagong air tickets are about Tk 3000 for flying with Biman Bangladesh and Tk 4500 for taking GMG Airlines. One can also take a train from Dhaka to Chittagong. First class non-air conditioned sleeping train service comes to Tk 550 while the sitting service comes to Tk 350. If you're by Shovan class sitting, the cost is Tk 200 upto Chittagong. One can take the bus from Chittagong to Bandarban or hire a micro or taxicab. The trip from Chittagong to the Hillside Resort is only 2 hours. The fare is subject to bargain but it is best if one asks the tour operators about an estimate. The adventurous ones can even take a direct bus service called S.Alam from Dhaka to Bandarban. This costs about Tk 350. Being the adventurous kind, my group decided to take S.Alam, notorious for their speed and stomach upsetting turns. The good news is they can take you to most places with about an hour to spare. Our journey started from the Kamlapur Bus Station (S.Alam counter) at about 11:30 p.m. With a single late night stop at the highway inn Cannon at about 2 a.m., we managed to reach Bandarban at about 6:30 a.m., just seven hours.

Milonchhori is located not 20 minutes off the bank of the Sangu river. Covered in vegetation, forests, hill, and valleys, this resort gives the visitors a typical feel for Bandarban; both in beauty and tranquility. M. Abdullah Abu Diyan who worked as Nature Guide in the Sunderbans for six years under The Guide Tours Ltd., was also present in Milonchhori. A graduate of Environmental Science in North South University, he is currently listing down all of the bird species found in this region. The business belongs to his uncle. "There are two kinds of people who come here in Bandarban," says Diyan. "The first type is the adventurous ones who come for the trekking, mountain climbing and exploring. They pop into the restaurant for a quick meal and a bath and are off for sightseeing," says Diyan. "The second kind of people are the romantic ones. They come to the resort and stay here, be it sunny or rain. They take a cup of coffee and watch the scenes unfold each morning. They are just here for a change of surroundings," says Diyan. The magnificence of Bandarban will surely allure one to extend his or her stay. I can vouch for a third kind of people, those that try to evade the mosquitoes. Though the situation is not so bad right now, a powerful mosquito repellent called Odomos quickly befriends anyone and everyone in Bandarban. The time of sunrise and sunset is the most dangerous period to get bitten by mosquitoes as it is feeding time. One must remember that this is a malaria prone area so precautions muse be taken.

My friends and I went up an interesting looking flight of stairs (it was made out of mud with bamboo edges to give grip), and found ourselves at the entrance of the restaurant 'Restora Riggre Khyang'. This hosts a variety of local and foreign cuisine and its balcony has the best view of the river Sangu gently flowing below. We would be on the riverbank in the evening.

After a quick shower and breakfast, we set forth to visit come indigenous villages. Our guide for the trip was Khawl Khup Bawm, who has been working at Milonchhori for about two years. He comes to work from Farook Para close to Shailapropat. There are more then a hundred families residing where he comes from and most of them work in fruit gardens, growing pineapples, papayas, bananas and mangoes and selling them to local markets.

After 20 minutes of driving, we came upon Changgyye Para, where two tribal villages were located. As we went down the mountain through the lush green hills, accessible only through unpaved roads, the settlements soon came into view. Some of my friends made walking sticks out from bamboos lying about and we were quite energetic as we made our way down the hill. I wish we had conserved some of the energy for the later climb back, uphill.

The ancestors of these indigenous people basically came from Myanmar. Chiefly Buddhist by religion, these tribes are Sino-Tibetan in origin and appearance. Bandarban is home to thirteen of such hill tribes, the well known ones being Marmas, Bawms, Chakmas, Tongchangoys, Tripuras and Morangs. Though they welcome visitors, there are certain norms which they expect of them, such as asking permission before taking pictures or entering into their huts. Each tribe has their own distinctive rituals, dialect, culture and traditional attire.

Mombao, a Buddhist, is a local resident in Changgyye Para from the Marma tribe and his neighbourhood is called Marma Sangia. He does odd jobs for a living but mostly likes to work off from the forest. One of his hobbies is to collect pho (mushrooms) from the forest, which he cooks in oil and his children love it. His son Tum Ya Mo helps out at home and also goes to a local school. There are about nine Marma families living here in this para and their children all go to Laimy Para to attend schools there or to Bandarban School.

On the other side of the hill is the Tripura village, called Tripura Sangia. Breoshpati and her grandchildren are busy, playing in their makeshift living room. Her sons and daughter are out on the fields and in the forests. There are 16 Tripura families living in this village in rather close proximity to one another, as compared to the other village.

After drinking a gallon of water and having walked for what seemed a mile (it was actually a 20 minutes walk uphill), we got into our transportation to Milonchhori. One has to inform the tour operators well in advance about the transport as it is not easy to get it high up in the mountains. Once back to the restaurant, we raided the fridge of all the mango juice and water that we could get our hands on and then hit the showers.

After lunch and a nice nap, it was about 4:30 p.m. when we set off on our evening trekking. In twenty minutes, we had reached the bottom of the mountain and found ourselves on the banks of Sango River. It seems low in ferocity as it waits for the onslaught of the rainy seasons. Not everyone can charter boats on this river. With a little aid from The Guide Tours, one can easily avail a boat for a fare of Tk 150 to Tk 250, including tips, which is subject to bargain. It would be best if a guide was available to do the haggling beforehand to avoid misunderstandings later on. The boat ride lasts for about 40 minutes and it is one of the most memorable ones ever. We passed several fisher villages and the scene was something out of a postcard. There were children playing by the beach, women washing pots and pans, men washing themselves and it seemed that all the indigenous people were out in full force. I even witnessed a soccer game, or rather 20 young boys in shorts and lungis chasing a ragged ball. One can swim in the river or stroll along the sandy river beach, visit the hanging bridge, the waterfalls and lookout points. One could even make a pit stop visiting the homes of the locals, the tea-stalls or simply check out the bazaar.

The walk to Sangu River involves trekking through a range of mountains, fruit gardens as well as paddy fields

The boat dropped us off at Nobhi ghata and we walked along shops of all kinds reaching Traffic Morr, a considerably busy cross road. It's here that one can avail transportation back to the resort, or one could have transportation waiting here before- hand. On this return trip, if one rides an auto-rickshaw, the rider must mention Miloncchori as the destination as most of the locals are unaware of what The Guide Tours resort might be. The cost of a trip from Traffic morr to Miloncchori is about Tk 100. These auto-rickshaws can accommodate six persons including the driver. Luck for us, we had a Mahindra Pickup as our mode of transportation. It accommodates about five people on the inside and about eight more people in the rear. Most of us chose to ride in the back.

In the evening it was showering as we took shelter in our resort. The scene had now changed from one of serene beauty to one of wild terror. There was lightening illuminating the evening sky as we looked on from the balcony. There was beauty in that ferocity too.

A boat trip on Sangu River is quite exciting. One can see indigenous people going about their business by the sides of the riverbank

Hasan Mahmood Khokon, one of the Directors of Guide Tours, joined us at our table where we were snacking on tea and French fries. We came to know that this resort started its operations during the end of the year 2000. "We started off with one or two huts and a few simple meals and later on expanded on that," says Khokon. There are a lot of package programmes available and the guests select what they want out of their stay in Bandarban. We have a security check-post right by the entrance, continues Khokon. "One thing about visitors who are of foreign descent is that we have to inform the D.C. about their presence. The foreigners have to get clearance from their embassies and they are charged Tk 100 for processing their papers."

At present the resort can accommodate about 50 people but with increase in demand, the resort can build more cottages. The water that is available in the resort is spring water so, an added benefit is that while there is a water shortage around that area during the dry seasons, the resort always has water. Many people think that during the off seasons, Bandarban is not as pretty, says Diyan. "That is a misconception because during off seasons, the scene changes and one can witness a different sort of scenery." We also give a 20 % discount on accommodations during the off season (June to August), Khokon informs.

At night four fire performers from the group Agni Shikha performed some fire stunts for the guests. Though Miloncchori does not have their own entertainment systems, guests often bring along their guitars and strum tunes and sing. The ambience around the restaurant is very cozy, but one must be aware that it is in the middle of the jungle and so one has to be careful not to disturb the natural setting of the place.

By 11 p.m. we were in our cottages, ready for bed. It was then that I heard the sound of dogs barking. I came to know that Miloncchori has six trained German Sheppards in the compound. They are released from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. They have specially been trained to leave visitors (namely people who walk on the hand made routes) alone and they scare away any unwanted people who may be wandering elsewhere.

It was about 5 a.m. when the frenetic chirping of birds woke me. It was a rather noisy morning in the bamboo huts that we stayed in because sounds tend to enter from every direction, even the floors. One surely has to experience the morning sunrise to get an authentic feel of Bandarban. After the night's storm, almost all the leaves and the barks were covered in dew. As the sun began to rise, the dewdrops slowly disappeared and the onslaught of the mosquitoes began. I quickly ran to my hut to put on my morning dose of Odomos.

Indigenous people display their crafts outside the entrance of Shailapropat.

There is a full day excursion to Ruma Bazar from Miloncchori. The trip is about five hours long, three hours drive and then two hours on boat. One can hire jeeps, micros, or a certain four-wheelers called chander gari, meaning the Vehicle to Moon. The scenes are picture perfect. From there, one can even take a boat ride back to the main town of Bandarban but that is possible only during the rainy seasons, when there is enough water in the river. From Ruma onwards you are on foot and there is only wilderness. This place has the last market, the last rest house and the last signs of civilisation. On foot, Keokradong takes two days of trekking, but one has to stay over night at one of the local huts. Another spot of spectacular beauty is the Baga Lake in Ruma. It is a natural lake 2200 feet above sea level. There are some rest houses there along with some nice picnic spots. Speedboats are also available for boating on this majestic lake.

Our group on the other hand, decided on an excursion to Chimbuk Mountain, presumably the highest point in Bangladesh. This is an hour's drive from Miloncchori, 32 kilometres up and down the weaving mountain range. Throughout the ride, one can witness the rich fauna and flora in Bandarban. The Chimbuk mountain is 3000 feet above sea level, densely covered by forests and on a clear day, one can get a glimpse of the Bay of Bengal. Some people compare it with the beauty of Darjeeling, minus the cold. Chimbuk is home to the Morangs. This tribal group is still untainted by all the urbanisation around them. They take great care of their appearance. A curious ritual in this tribe is that the unmarried bachelors who are searching for a bride wear flowers behind their ears. This is a way of drawing out a possible bride. They also have a special flute called the Morang bashee. It looks like a bagpipe but instead the pipes come out of a lau.

On our way back, we stopped at the Shailapropat waterfall, about four kilometres from the resort. Adventurous groups have been know to trek to that site and it's about four hours walk, up and down the mountain road. There is a stream there and one can even go for a nice cooling dip. Close by is the Bawm village of Farukh Para which our guide was talking about. At the entrance of the Shailapropat, adivasis can be seen selling shawls, fruits and vegetables. One should try the bon kola (forest banana) which has quite a unique taste.

Mombao is a resident of Changgyye Para from the Marma tribe Agni Shikha entertains the guests' with a dazzling fire performance

Some points need to be mentioned for first time visitors to Bandarban. It is useless to wear fancy clothes and shoes as one can expect to sweat and do a lot of walking. So loose-fitting, comfortable clothes and sensible walking shoes should be worn. Take plenty of water, sugar and salts on you. It is recommended to also keep a torch, camera and spare clothes. It is pointless carrying your cell phone with you as you will only get network in one or two places. Therefore it is important that you make plans beforehand and inform your tour operators about it. Foreigners must remember to register in the police stations and army camps in Bandarban and Ruma.

Khokon runs The Guide Tours Ltd. with two of his brothers. "Hasan Monsoor, my younger brother, is the Managing Director and he manages the operations in the Sunderbans along with his wife and son," says Khokon. "My wife, my other brother Hasan Mahboob Bablu and I look after the operations here in Bandarban."

One thing must be said about the people who come to visit Bandarban is that at least half of them are repeat clients, continues Diyan. "I guess you only need to come and experience the wonder of this place once to becomes addicted to it. One has to return," he concludes. With me, the addiction had already started.

Code of Ethics and Conduct
While visiting any indigenous villagers or their homes, it is strongly suggested that one goes by the following rules:
a. Do not take photographs of the adivasis without asking for their permission.
b. Try to send a copy of the photograph to the person.
c. Respect the local people and their cultural tradition.
d. Carrying some small gift items (chocolates, pencils, pens, etc) for the children is a nice gesture and will help in building a good relationship.
e. Don't litter near their homes.
f. In case of any accidents taking place during these trips, everybody at Miloncchori shall extend their full co-operation. But in no way 'The Guide Tours Ltd.' should be held responsible for that.

Accommodations at the Hilllside Resort (Milonchhori)

Munia 1
This room is half of a cottage made of concrete, bamboo and wood. The walls are elegantly decorated with bamboo sticks such that one can get a natural feel of the surrounding, while availing modern amenities such as hot running water.
Single Occupancy - Tk. 1000/-
Double Occupancy - Tk. 1250/-
Triple Occupancy - Tk. 1500/-
Extra Bed - Tk. 250/-

Tuntuni 1, 2, Munia 2, Moyna 1, 2, 3 and 4
The rooms in these cottages are a combination of bamboo and wood. Each has its distinctive interior. Some of these cottages are lavishly furnished and even have air conditioning.
Single Occupancy - Tk. 750/-
Double Occupancy - Tk. 1000/-
Triple Occupancy - Tk. 1200/-
Full Cottage - Tk. 2200/- (Max. 6
Extra Bed - Tk. 200/-

Bawm 1
This is an independent bamboo hut made only out of bamboo. As this hut is a little further from the restaurant and the main entrance, it allows its resident a quiet and relaxing stroll to and from the compound.
Single Occupancy - Tk. 400/-
Double Occupancy - Tk. 700/-
Triple Occupancy - Tk. 850/-

Marma 1A and 1B
This too is a room made of bamboo and is part of a tribal house. Living in one of these will give the guests a taste of how the Marma tribal people live.
Single Occupancy - Tk. 400/-
Double Occupancy - Tk. 600/-

There is also a Dormitory to accommodate drivers and maids at a very cheap cost.


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