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|Volume 12 |Issue 03| January 18, 2013 ||
A Roman Column
New Year at a
The Department of Theatre of the University of Dhaka is trying to change society's perception about the arts through dynamic and practical learning
I have been away to paradise. That too, in Bangladesh. Tucked away to the north-east of Sylhet, a hidden gem among the green foothills at the border of the cloud-kingdom of the Indian state of Meghalaya, Lalakhal is located at the point where the blue Shari river leaves the Jainta hills and enters Bangladesh.
My husband and I first saw Lalakhal two years ago when Nazim Kamran Chowdhury took us in his speed boat across the Shari river to glimpse the vista that had inspired his most recent passion. Having finished successfully with his Nazimgarh resort he was about to embark on his latest project, the Wilderness Resort at Lalakhal.
What we saw back then was the delightfully situated restaurant, the River Queen, built like a Mississippi riverboat whose curves hugged the bend of the crystalline Shari. After lunch we had walked up a dusty, wooded path to a concrete platform built high among the hills. This observation point was like being on the deck of a ship from which we could look down to the magnificent blue river and the verdant shores rising to hills that melted into the horizon where Meghalaya and Cherrapunji lay.
“Gorgeous in any season, but you have to come here during the monsoon. It's an unforgettable experience: the music and peace of rain coming down in sheets through the green light of the surrounding lushness. To feel at one with nature, and in world class comfort, this is what I want to offer. Look at the pristine beauty of this place. This panorama, the serentiy here, is unique. Ibne Batuta wrote about it when he came up the Shari river in 1334! I want to make this secret nook of the world accessible to today's travellers who appreciate nature.” Kamran inspires you with his vision and imagination. But while Kamran's soul is that of a poet and a dreamer, his feet are solidly planted on the hard ground of reality. He is a man who gets things done, who knows how to flesh out his fantasy. And the proof was right before us, two years later, as we stood in the open lobby of his Wilderness Resort, a sophisticated and international standard hotel perched among the wooded hills.
It was the 30th of December and we, a sizeable group of friends, had just arrived from Dhaka to Sylhet by air (a smooth flight on Regent Air) to celebrate the new year away from the city here at the soft opening of this new resort. Other guests had already arrived the day before, by car and by air; yet more arrived the next day in time for the New Year's Eve celebration. My husband and I had already sampled the impeccable comfort of the Nazimgarh resort and so were prepared to be impressed by the Lalakhal hotel. But when we entered our room in the part of the building that housed the 'Nest' we were completely bowled over. First, by the warmth and elegant decor of the bright lemony room; then, as soon as the drapes were drawn away, we were stunned by the view. The ceiling to floor windows brought the forest into the rooms. We felt nestled among the branches and leaves outside. In the morning, as the sunlight filtered through the blue sky wedged between the branches, we saw the creek below with ducks gabbling and waddling into the water. Goats grazed on the grassy mounds, and in the distance village girls washed vessels and clothes upstream. As I let my breath go, I realised that I had been gazing at this real life painting without breathing. I have seen many a beautiful sight, but not one that made me feel, at once, at home and also, away to some untouched paradise.
We spent three memorable days at Lalakhal. The chef at the restaurant was superb and we had the most satisfying breakfast, lunches and dinners. The setting was not always the restaurant, but often outdoors. For example, the dinner on the 30th was around a bonfire at the campsite near the river reached from the hotel by walking down the path and through the River Queen restaurant. Here we discovered the line of tent-house rooms ideal for the young and sportive, to give them a feel of camping in the open and sleeping in tents. After a magnificent barbeque dinner we escaped the mist rising from the grass and the river and returned to our luxuriously comfortable hotel beds.
In the morning we explored the premises. The whole hotel complex is built at various levels around views from the hills. Verandahs, terraces and open staircases connected different parts of the hotel named evocatively, the Lodge, the Nest, the Chalet, the Tree House etc. People gathered after breakfast in the open lobby overlooking an Eternity Pool. Many of us lazed in the sunshine sipping coffee, playing scrabble, chatting and greeting new arrivals; while, more energetic members went off to do various sight-seeing trips organised by the hotel. Some went off on speed boat rides down the Shari river; some went shopping for Manipuri saris and crafts in Jafflong; some went off to the shrine of Hazrat Shah Jalal; some went trekking, hiking or walking; some took a guided trip to the Khashi village. In summer, canoeing and kayaking is also possible.
Two years ago my husband and I had spent a few days at Nazimgarh and taken many of the side trips offered by the hotel. I had especially enjoyed a morning walk in the Rainforest not far from Nazimgarh. The sun-dappled path through the dense hush of trees had been memorable, as was the jeep ride through one of the oldest tea estates, with the terraced emerald green tea gardens rising through the morning mist like a picture postcard. Fascinating also was a trip to a Khashi village or Punjis with its houses built on stilts. We had tea in the home of one of the chiefs of an indigenous community. Jafflong was a disappointment with its moonscape of a city ruined by relentless quarrying for stone, redeemed for us by stopping at a Manipuri village to buy handloom saris.
This time we stayed put at Lalakhal enjoying its natural beauty. After a sumptuous picnic lunch served on the riverside, everyone took the time to dress up for the 31st party in the hotel's open lobby. New Year morning was refreshingly quiet and meditative. An open air lunch of fresh fish curries, typical Bengali bhortas and plain rice was a welcome change and proved the chef's ability to provide every kind of cuisine, from continental to Chinese- Thai to local fare. The evening brought everyone together in the lobby to listen to live musical entertainment provided by the versatile Masud Abedin, who is not only the young architect who makes the stones sing by putting structure to his patron's dreams but also strums a guitar and makes his audience hum. Popular English numbers like Hotel California of the Eagle's soared equally with Simon and Garfunkel's Sound of Silence. Every now and then Kamran came up to introduce and thank members of his loyal team of years, among them Khun Mui, the Thai lady who manages the smooth as silk running of the hotel's housekeeping side.
Kamran had a faraway look in his eyes as he thanked architect Masud. “He and I literally slashed our way through the jungles and discovered this place, where we are now sitting. “ It was obvious that they would not be sitting for long. He confessed: “We have another project in the pipeline.” So, dreams are brewing again in the tea hills. What better moment to unveil a new vision than the first day of the new year, and what better place than the site of a successful mission. We were all gathered happily at Xanadu, listening to Kubla Khan decree his next 'stately pleasure- dome'. May this be a fruitful year for the realisation of his and everyone's dreams.
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