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    Volume 9 Issue 5 | January 29, 2010|

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Shakil Rabbi

The Golden Temple can be seen from miles away, standing high atop the hill like a beacon for those seeking the spiritual.

We got into Bandarban bus stand around ten at night. Compared to the biting cold we just left behind in Dhaka, Bandarban was so warm that it might have been in another hemisphere. A crowd of rickshaws rushed us as we got off the bus, offered out names of hotels they could take us to, or said, “Bandarban Bazaar, ten taka to Bandarban Bazaar.”

We had heard from friends that Hotel Royal was a good place, named so because it is purportedly owned by members of the Marma royal family. When we asked a rickshaw-wallah about the place he said it was not far, that it was in Bandarban Bazaar and he would take us there for ten takas.

Maybe I am just cynical but whatever the reason I was apprehensive about the bazaar; half-expected it to be a dirty intersection where hawkers sold clothes or fruits piled up on mats, and the hotel to be a yellowing building that sold tehari and biriyani on the ground floor and rented out spare rooms on the floors above at negotiable rates. But the street and the place was a good surprise. Neon signs hung over fully stocked stores which looked as if they saw a lot of tourist traffic and the people wore relaxed manners that spoke of their comfort with strangers.

Hotel Royal was well inside the bazaar street and quite pleasant. Its entrance was an unostentatious stairway behind a black old-style sliding gate. There was a bank on the first floor and an Adivasi doorman asked us to take off our shoes before we climbed the carpeted stairway up to the lobby and check-in desk. Our room was cozy and clean, with comfortable furniture and a bathroom that would put even a mysophobiac at ease.

The next day we hired out a CNG after lunch from the bazaar to do some sightseeing. We picked out a green CNG there were many of the older yellow baby taxis that can no longer be seen in Dhaka all over Bandarban town. We haggled with the driver and set a price for the entire afternoon, covering both the lookout point at Nilachol and the park at Megla, agreeing to pay him at the end of the day.

It was a warm day and I soon wished I wore something lighter than a sweater. The sun was shining sweetly and it was too hot for something heavy, yet still too chilly for just the t-shirt I had on underneath. Unlike the drive up during the night, the CNG ride through the twisting roads provided a chance to look at the gorgeous vistas made up of Bunyan trees standing on top of hills and valleys carpeted with thickets of variegated green. There were rain-smoothed steps cut everywhere into the acclivities which led to settlements of houses made up of bamboo and straw on platforms of loose earth. We passed many women making brightly colored thamis in front of their houses, studiously weaving away and soaking up the sun on the cool day.

There were already a couple of vans and several families at the lookout point when we got there. Even though a crowd is an inevitability in Bangladesh, I was still disappointed to see the people there. After the wonderful ride up, the view was also anticlimactic. The horizon was draped with fog and most of the hills were flat silhouettes; two empty watchtowers stood on two hills, supposedly holding watch over the denuded wilderness. It was somewhat noisy with the visitors continuously talking and the place just looked too small.

Megla Park was nicer and bigger, allowed us to get away from the crowd and into nature. We found a path after squeezing past the rows of people taking pictures on the hanging bridge or chattering away in front of the animals cooped up in a little zoo setup there and it led down to the other side of the hill. It winded downwards over little bridges, past overturned trees and stacks of cutup greenery. We could hear the voices of people on the top but we could not see any other signs of them, and were sure no one could see us either. We walked the dirt path till it started becoming dark and we were forced to turn back. It was already sunset when we got back to our CNG, and the driver bemoaned that we had eaten up his entire day, that it would be a cruel if we did not give him something extra.

The next day we took a rickshaw to the famed Golden Temple; it was about half an hour's ride from the town past the army camps and Bandarban Cantonment. Bandarban has a troubled history. It suffered through three decades of insurgency till the Peace Accord was signed in 1997, and is currently in a state of uncertain expectancy as the implementation of the accord continues to move, if at all, at a snail's pace. There is a heavy military presence testifying to the battle-fatigued history throughout the area. The cantonment situated on the outskirts of Bandarban is one of the most picturesque and beautiful I have ever seen; its clean and organised settlements are ensconced in the midst of hills that rise up all around like natural walls of fortification.

The Golden Temple is absolutely spectacular; it stands high atop like a golden crown on the head of the hill. Getting up its stairway is like a marathon, my thighs burned and my body ached. The main alter of the temple hangs over the edge of the hill and is skirted by a border of Buddhas statues sitting in their meditative poses. Unlike the day before, the sun was shining brightly and there was no fog. As I stood by the railing, I could see the entire district spread out beneath my gaze. The landscape was checkered into neat little farm plots or patches of trees. As I looked at the hills and valleys, I felt glad that I had come; the place was clean, the view was breathtaking.

Left: An Adivasi woman makes her way through a path cut into the underbrush. Right: A hut built upon the thin outlet of a hill overlooks a steep precipice.
A view of a path from a hilltop in Megla .



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