Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bangladesh Thoughts

First words are:  Get Over Here Sooner than Later!  Its been really great to step off the beaten traveler's path and go to a country where the usual almost always seems unusual to us travelers.
A Happy People
 You Indiaphiles will know what I'm talking about.
Yes, there's crushing poverty in some areas, but a surprising lack of materialism and people generally have a great deal of tolerance and joy, despite having to fight continuously for places in line and space in general.  For all the chaos and crowdedness, there's an amazing semblance of order.  Hate crowds?  Don't worry, there's plenty of uncrowded countryside to visit (anyone who spends a "vacation" month in Dhaka would have to be masochistic IMHO).  Prices are impossibly cheap for food and lodging and while the cuisine isn't as good as some of the neighboring countries, it's certainly not bad.  I've tried to stay away from the Western joints and, apart from an occasional Coke...something I never drink at home....I've tried to stay local foodwise.  They do like it HOT and since I'm a chile
freak, I've liked that part of the cuisine very much.

There is some argument whether Bangladesh is a 3rd world or 2nd world country; whatever the case, once the political situation gets worked out (and it will, since from a simplistic standpoint, it involves the jealousy of two older women in the battle for political power),  I can easily visualize more investment in the country.  This is a very, very hardworking people, proud of their country and ready to improve their generally poor lifestyle.  As I've mentioned, there's not a lot of materialistic attitude, but part of that probably has to do with the seemingly impossible ideas of owning much beyond basic survival items.  At this point, with a hardworking attitude and a very inexpensive labor force, it's only a matter of time before the big companies show up and exploit it; in this case exploit isn't necessarily a dirty word.

There's enough of an organized tourism industry that one who prefers group tours could easily manage, but it's also very possible to travel here independently; though it isn't always easy there's a certain challenge that independent travelers enjoy and you will certainly meet a few challenges which will generally tend to work themselves out if you stay calm and flexible and remember that you're in a place where hostile displays of attitude will generally not improve your situation.  While English isn't as widely spoken as in India, there's almost always someone around who will happily step in and help.  With the Sundarbans, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the long white sand beaches, the crazy dreamlike Dhaka and some of the historic Islamic and Buddhist sites, there's plenty of reason to visit.  In my 29 days I was able to only touch on some of the major highlights and I could easily envision spending a completely different 30 days here.

Off to Kolkata tomorrow, so this ends my Bangladesh blog.  Hope it has been enjoyable for my readers and remember that I'm happy to answer any questions either here or on the two best Bangladesh forums:  Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet Thorntree.

Srimongol Back to Dhaka

Things took a turn for the worse in Srimongol when several of us were told we'd have to move from our guesthouse to one of their sister properties because "we only thought you were staying a couple of days" which was a complete lie.  In fact, they didn't even tell the other couple until the late evening before they were forced to move.  I opted to change my train ticket to a bus ticket (no train seats were available for the next day) and I cut my trip short by a day, which wasn't such a horrible thing since Srimongol is pretty much only a 2-3 day kind of place.  Anyways, for this reason I would NOT recommend the Greenleaf Eco Guest House.  I've already mentioned the bait and switch they did one us for the National Park guide, so they out and out lied twice.  The internet turned out to be a 2G card in a computer and it was slower than 1995 dial up.  For the final day in town, Adam and I decided to go for a stroll that involved visiting the train station to get a ticket refund and buying bus tickets for different directions.  We then headed out to the tea plantations and spent a lovely 3 hours or so just walking about and discussing the state
of world affairs and music.  We visited the brand new luxury Sultan Resort which goes for around $120/night.  Super nice place with its own golf course.  While that wouldn't be a bad deal in the US, the price just seemed outrageous to we frugal bargain travelers.  We then went out for some of the famous seven layer tea created by a local tea merchant.  Thought it's a closely guarded secret, it appears that the proprietor puts layers of honey between the layers of different teas, with lemon juice being the bottom layer.  Quite a creative conconction and only $1 a glass.

Woke up early the next AM and headed to the bus station, where I once again snagged a front row seat (more leg room) and endured a terrifying 4+ hour ride into Dhaka.  Best thrill ride ever!  We arrrived about a mile away from the Dhaka train station, so I decided rather than pay $6 for a two hour cab ride in choking Dhaka traffic, that I'd just wait two hours at the train station for the 15 minute, 50 cent ride (actually could have been free since no one came around that early to collect tickets).  As a traveler, if the timings are right, this is a great cheap and easy way to get to the airport.  My hotel immediately sent a van and I was in my smart, a/c, good wifi, quiet room in 10 minutes.  Will be a fine place to chill out while awaiting my Saturday flight to Calcutta (which has since been changed from a non-stop to a one-stop that will take an extra two hours above and beyond the original 45 minute scheduled flight time....oh well, still beats riding the 12 hour train).  Once I've had a chance to digest Bangladesh to the fullest, I'll recap my experiences and attitudes towards visiting the country.

Traveler's tips:  See train info above.  Beware the Greenleaf Eco Resort in Srimongol since they'll throw you out if they can work a better deal with others.  Beware hanging around the train station in Dhaka for too long.  It's a magnet for beggars and if you're white, guess where they'll gravitate?  I was besieged for almost two hours and it got very tiresome.  One poor guy started licking my leg and the children were particularly obnoxious and demanding.  Best bet might be to hang out in a restaurant near the station and only head for the platform  30 minutes before your train is scheduled to leave.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Bandarban to Srimongol

Srimongol must have at least half a dozen English spellings, but I digress right off the bat.  I boarded a later bus from Bandarban for a couple of days rest in Chittagong and headed for the Asian SR Hotel.  Met a nice guy on the bus who mentioned that we lived near one another and he graciously paid the cab fare to my hotel.  Another case of typically great Bangladeshi hospitality.  He also apologized that he couldn't take me out to dinner, but that he was moving that day.  Asian SR Hotel had a huge convention going on and I was lucky (I guess) to get a closet of a room on the VIP floor.   Problem was that the place was full of Chinese businessmen playing cards and smoking and had to stuff material under the door to keep the smoke out.  My goal was to rest up, update my blog and just take it easy.  I did have to go to the train station to buy my ticket for Srimongol and it was an easy procedure since they had a separate window for advance purchases with only a couple of people in line.  Meanwhile, back at the Asian, the internet was spotty and finally crashed in the early evening.  Kept hearing different excuses and times when it would be working and when they told me the next morning that it might take all day, I decided to move.  I liked the Asian SR's location right across from the train station, but none of the other nearby hotels offered in-room wifi, so I checked out the Lonely Planet guide and found a lovely hotel near GEC circle, a much nicer part of town.  For double the $20 price I paid at the Asian, I wound up in a huge, beautiful suite with superb wifi, a nice staff and a super comfy bed.
Grand Park Hotel Chittagong
 There was a bit of the usual road noise, but it was tolerable.  The GEC area is very Westernized with the usual KFC outlets, Baskin Robbins, etc.  I chose not to eat American junk food and enjoyed some street food and caffeine as I worked on updating this blog. I could have whiled away another day at this nice hotel, but had to board the train for Srimongol early the next morning.  I was happy to have a first class ticket ($4) for the seven hour ride,
but then I got on the train and realized that on this particular line, first class is worse than most Indian second  class cabins.  They squeezed six of us into this compartment, there was no a/c and the seats were hard as rocks.  Oh well, go with the flow.  At least the scenery was beautiful:

Trip Advisor recommended the Greenleaf Eco-Tourism Guest House and they were gracious enough to send a rep to meet me at the train station.  Lodging situation here is a bit odd, with most places around $7 or less.  The Greenleaf was a bit more at $19, but they charge extra for wifi and breakfast isn't included.  The next step up is the new Grand Sultan at $375/night.  Staff here is good and right now it seems like a senior hostel, with four guests, all of us ranging from 50-64.  We have an IR Prof from University of British Columbia and a couple of Baptist Missionaries from N Texas and we're getting along like a good family.  These are the first Westerners I've encountered in more than two weeks.  The main attraction of Srimongol is the tea plantations which, unlike most tea growing areas, are roughly at sea level.  It's a relatively quiet little town with some good restaurants and a relaxed vibe and Bangladeshis flock here on the weekends.  It's mostly flat, so cycling is a good option along with hiking in the nearby National Park (Lowacherra).  I spent the first day riding out to a small lake and through the tea plantations and logged around 50 km (30 miles).  The lake was packed with high school and middle school kids, so I didn't spend much time there.  Later  Bruce and Sherry and I went out to a local Chinese restaurant for dinner (Agra).  It gets good reviews, but I'd rate the food average at best.

Local Tea Plantation
 Today Adam (the prof) and I took a tour of the National Forest with a superb local guide (Eusuf Ali, or 8801674378003).  The main attraction of the park is the hoolack gibbon and there are only a few hundred in the entire country.  Spotting one is somewhat rare, but our excellent guide  heard a family and we went tearing through the forest, carving our own path and hoping to see one.  We got lucky and spotted an entire family.  Tonight the four of us will eat at the local premier restaurant and then I plan to just wander around the next few days as I anticipate my flight to Kolkata.  Will update the Bangladesh part of the blog one last time with actions of the next few days and an overview of the experience.

Traveler Tip:  The Grand Park makes for a wonderful and relatively inexpensive splurge if you have the funds within your budget
Male Member of Hoolack Gibbon Family

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Chittagong Hill Tracts--Honjurai to Thanchi to Bandarban

After freezing the night away in Honjurai, woke up to an odd breakfast treat.  Someone had freshly killed a doe and we bought a kilo for around $4 and had doe curry for breakfast.  While the doe tasted just fine, the curry overwhelmed the gamey flavor a bit and I wasn't thrilled to know that the doe was pregnant.  As previously mentioned, my trekking poles were taken the night before and Imran and I got an early start to keep the group from being held up while I removed my shoes and dried my feet during our four river crossings.  A couple of hours after we started, the rest of the group caught up and I mentioned that my poles had been stolen.  Although that's exactly what happened, Alim became enraged and took it as a personal insult against his country.  He then went into an anti-American rant and although I tried to soothe him, he would not calm down.  Three of the other party later apologized to me and mentioned that he sometimes had anger issues and to just let it go and things would be fine within a few minutes.  This turned out not to be the case and the rant continued at the next rest stop; he mentioned that Americans had to lock their houses and villagers didn't.  I probably didn't help the matter by pointing out the two padlocks on the home we were resting within, but I was sick of listening to his shit on what had otherwise been a great trip.  I appreciated the other members who apologized for his inappropriate behavior.  The next goal was the third highest mountain in Bangladesh, Tajingdong (3488', 1063 meters).  Things got a bit weird when the nice guide, Imran, demanded an additional 3000 taka (almost $40) to "help" me to the summit.  I'll always wonder if the demand was really Imran's idea or perhaps some sort of retaliation.  I asked a few others and they said they didn't think so.  Still, it put a certain unpleasantness on the rest of the day, though Imran continued to be very friendly (and that's why I think the demand wasn't his idea).  Or maybe that's just the way things work when trekking with a non-professional agency when no contracts are involved.  At any rate, it was never my goal to summit #3, so I didn't really care and chose to wait 40-50 meters from the top with another group member.
Tanim, Masud and Nuwel
I don't believe I've expressed enough appreciation for our 2nd guide, Nuwel, who joined us shortly after Keokradong and parted with us at Tajingdong.  He insisted on carrying my pack and since I'd never really backpacked, he made my life immeasurably easier.  At no point did he ask for any additional costs, but I will make a donation to his town because he represented to me the best of a lovely civilization.  He's a Bawm Baptist with very good English skills, especially considering that he grew up in a tiny town far removed from better educational institutions.  Nuwel, you will always be remembered.

After Tajingdong, we headed for our final destination of the evening, a lovely home in Shakor Para.  I finally joined in and took a single hit of pot.  It tasted and acted like the crap we used to smoke in the '60s, but I was happy to fulfill my earlier promise to smoke with the guys on the last night and furthe happier that it had zero effect on my trekking the next day.

I've had a lot of foot problems this past year, but for some reason, my feet seem to be getting stronger and I haven't had to take any pain meds.  Had a huge fear before the trip that I would have to suck it up and deal with barely tolerable pain, but that hasn't been the case.  At this point, everyone was eager to get home and we hiked quickly to Thanchi the next morning, arriving after about 5 hours on the trail.  There were some dicey climbs and the other guys decided to rest with hits of dope, making the climbs especially scary for the users.  Once again the day started unpleasantly when an additional $25 was demanded of me for a bribe which had supposedly been paid 4 days earlier in Ruma.  And once again it was Imran who delivered the demand.  I simply said "no" and that I thought it was BS.  Once again Alim became infuriated, thus further making me question his motivations.  And once again Imran and I happily took off together ahead of the rest of the pack.

Today was provincial election day, meaning voting for various local commissioners.  In order to maintain control over the balloting, the police, army and border guards situate themselves in a very few towns where polling takes place.  In some cases, villagers have to walk an 8 hour round trip to vote....and they do!  Their turnouts for what might be considered a meaningless local election would put most countries to shame; throw in the effort it takes to vote here and I might be willing to argue that these are the folks in the entire world who most value their voting rights.
Villagers Hiking to the Polls
One thing I didn't realize (but that the guide should have) is that the roads are closed in Bangladesh during local elections, so our arranged jeep back to Bandarban wasn't going to happen that day.  The district chief of police later explained to me that it keeps violence and voter fraud (as in paying for votes and busing people to busable poll stations) to a minimum (as he put it "we're a more emotional than intelligent population and losses by our candidates are taken personally").  I certainly didn't want to spend another night with the emotional Alim, nor did he with I and he suggested that maybe I could talk with local officials and snag a ride back as a tourist.  I took his good advice and headed to an area near army HQs where the local police chief arranged a ride with the district head of police.  I had to wait in the chief's office and watch the results come in via phone while officers entered them onto a computer and checked and double-checked results.  Funny that my first experience with election control took place in a tiny town on the other end of the world.  Then I got into an 8 passenger jeep full of armed police and we drove what seemed like 100 mph on dark, windy roads back to my hotel in Bandarban where I'd left some of my stuff before the trek.  Really interesting ride as the district head was an extremely educated man (3 graduate degrees) whose perfect English allowed us to discuss Bangladesh history in great detail.  We both agreed that this is a country of the future, but that rapid development won't be far behind since people are hard workers and willing to do what's necessary to elevate their personal lives and that of their country.
Thanchi Bazaar on Election Day
Traveler Notes:
At this point, you'll never get deep into the CHT without getting lucky or paying handsomely for guide services (roughly $100/day per person....more if traveling single).  Don't expect the least bit of luxury if you want to get deep into the CHT (some agencies skirt this by ending each day in larger towns, but the large town hotels would qualify as ghetto hotels for many of us.  Take a mattress or pad with you if you're going to sleep on wooden floors (unless you've got a really young, strong back. If you use a professional agency, make sure you have a contract that's specific about what's included.  Perhaps the least expensive way to get a taste of the area is to base in places like Bandarban, Ruma or Thanchi (or other places in Rangamati District) and pay local guides 700-1000 taka per day ($9-12 depending on their English skills) for daily outings.  While I visited at least a dozen different villages deep in the interior, there wasn't a huge difference from one to another...some slightly different clothing, a little more prosperity in some places, so I could make the argument that if you just want to experience a little tribal life, you don't need to organize a complicated expedition.  But man, if you love hiking, get back in there for the incredible beauty.

Chittagong Hill Tracts--Thaikhong to Saka Haphong to Honjurai

Woken up from a deep sleep in Thaikhong at 6AM by an 8 year old reciting his ABCs right outside the door of my room.  While today was merely a positioning day prior to the Saka Haphong ascent, we still traveled close to 8 hours, and 8 hours was a pretty average day of trekking with a lot of ups and downs on unmaintained trails consisting of cow rutted paths, boulders, river crossings, steep uphill scrambling on our hands and knees in some cases, bamboo forests, climbing hand cut ladders made from tree trunks, crossing rickety bamboo bridges, and dealing with slick rocks and gravely trails in some cases.  Our goal was the town of Tandui, a simple Bawm village with simple accommodation, which seems to get simpler every night.  The once great food is beginning to taste the same most every meal, since supplies are limited and we are somewhat limited with the condiments we picked up before the trip started.  Everyone loves Bangladeshi salads (which are simple salads with fresh tomatoes, onion (what they call onion, we would call shallots) and cucumbers and whatever else can be acquired to toss in.  Essentially, we have chicken curry with rice every night.  If chicken isn't available, then sometimes just a pumpkin curry with rice.  We all like our food hot, making things easier for Imran, the chef/guide/food procurer.
That's Imran on the left in a typical tribal kitchen
  We re lucky when we can acquire the ingredients for a salad, however.  A most exciting adventure was using the toilet.  At night you just pee over the deck, and when other bodily functions become necessary, we Westerners squat and hope to hit the hole.  In the situation here, a pig awaits under the toilet to handle the sewage disposal.  I hope I can eat pork again someday without that thought in my head.

The next day started slowly as the group got up a bit late.  I was rarin' to go since this was Saka Haphong day, but perhaps the smoking of the previous evening gave more incentive to the others to just sleep in.  Saka Haphong is the highest peak in the country based on GPS measurements by an English explorer (Ginge Fullen, 2006) and various trekking groups.  It's also acknowledged as such by the US and Russian topographical maps.  Sapa Haphong means Sunrise Mountain and since it's in the Eastern part of the country, it's the first part of Bangladesh to see the sunrise every AM.  The top is literally on the border with Myanmar, though you'd have to walk off a steep drop to illegally enter Myanmar.  The official measurements are around 3450 feet (1052 meters) as compared with Keokradongs 3172 feet (967 meters).  While this is hardly mountaineering, I again mention the difficulty of the trails and it is considered the most difficult of trekking.  As we approached the peak, we stopped in the village of Nefew Para and the village headman (chief) agreed to lead us to the top.
I was thrilled because he was my age, but I soon learned that his life time in the hills made him a much stronger trekker than probably anyone else in the group.  Nonetheless, I believe I'm the first American to summit Bangladesh's tallest peak.
Village Headman Prepares Trekking Pole as Masud and Ruhan Observe

The ascent was steep and took us about 90 minutes from the village.
Finally the goal was reached and we observed incredible views of a mostly unpopulated, forested area of Myanmar several thousand feet below in a river valley prior to our 60 minute descent and further two hour hike to our final evening destination of Honjurai.
We made it!  Note how small the headman is.  He just killed it.

Goal Achieved!  The edge of the cliff is Myanmar and the distant mountains part of the almost unpopulated Western Myanmar
Masud Was Stoked to Make It to the Top
We had trekked through Honjurai on the way up to Saka Haphong.  I was not happy to hear that we'd have to spend the night there, but villages are few and far between in this distant part of the world.  On our initial pass through, locals rudely attempted to force us to us them as guides and some of the teenagers were unfriendly.  Another basic guesthouse, but the owners were friendly.  I left two very nice, favorite bamboo trekking poles outside and they were taken during the cold night.  Perhaps the locals used them as firewood since it seemed that everyone in town was huddling around a fire in the morning.  Imran and I got an early start since we had to once again ford a river four times and each time involved removing my boots and drying my feet (the others wore cheap sandals-----ah, to have young feet again.

Bandarban to Thaikhong in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

This will be a long post simply because I've been out of internet range for days.  Pretty much once you leave Chittagong city, you'd better have a wifi stick if you want to use a computer.  Incredibly, with the right carrier, some of our group members were getting phone signals in some of the remotest parts of the hills, so you can always use a smart phone for basic email and texting.

 Anyways, took the bus from Chittagong to Bandarban, about a 2.5-3 hour trip.  Many would consider Bandarban to be a good place from which to base a hill tribe trek; I chose to stay at the Royal Hotel ($4/night) in a non a/c room since the weather has been very pleasant (mid 80s days and mid 60s evenings--thats 29 and 18 for my celsius readers).  I was looking for something a bit more mid-range, but that sort of hotel doesn't exist right in town (there are a few resorts 3-4 miles from town, but I wanted to be right in the action.  Unlike Chittagong, Khulna and Dhaka, at least it was a relatively quiet hotel late at night, with little traffic outside.  In case I haven't already mentioned it, Bangladeshis are pretty much continuously honking their horns and large buses and trucks can be particularly annoying when you're trying to sleep.
Royal Hotel Bandarban
I loved this Rickshaw Popcorn Business
Bandarban isn't a particulary spectacular place and, unlike some villages in Laos or Vietnam, you won't see a lot of folks in tribal garb.  There are over 10 indigenous tribes in an area which covers roughly 5000 square miles (13,000 kms) and consists of three separate regions.  Most travel is to the Bandarban region.
Bandarban, The Main Drag
While I had general goals of seeing some of the remote hill tribes, my main goal was to hike to the top of Bangladesh's highest peak, Saka Haphong, a trip that's very difficult to arrange due to the distance of the mountain from larger villages, various tribal conflicts, the fact that it's right on the border with Myanmar and the purported kidnapping dangers.  Bottom line is that none of the major trekking agencies I contacted would have anything to do with it, so I set off for the closest large village of Thanchi (a 5 hour bus ride) to take my chances.  Bangladeshi's are generally smaller people and the smaller buses are constructed for kids of American school size, meaning every bus ride involved a small amount of torture on my long legs and very little space for my bags.  I spent several hours in the police department (just the permit isn't need police and/or army and border guard permission to do much more than wander a few kms outside of main towns), only to be turned away because of local elections coming up.  The local police are very involved in elections and are responsible for tallying votes and making sure no violence occurs before or after the elections.  While the local police agent was willing to allow me a 3 day/2 night trip with 4 armed officers, that wasn't going to be enough time.  While I was unsuccessfully seeking lodging for the night, I met a great group of Bangladeshi engineering students (mostly) who were on their way back to Bandarban and graciously allowed me to hitch a free ride in their rented jeep.  They even bought dinner and then surprised me by asking if I  would like to join another trek led by one of their group in a few days.  Of course, I jumped on the idea and spent the night back at the Royal with one of the group members. We agreed that I would pay $150 for the trip while the students would pay about $50/each.  I was happy to help subsidize the costs (more on this later).  The goal was to head to a different town (Ruma) and obtain local police and army permission for the trek which was now to include the #1, #2 and #3 highest peaks in the country.  Prior to heading to Ruma the next day, we visited a large Buddhist temple and I took a few at bats at a local cricket field (hit one ball pretty well, but completely missed two others before I was done.
Bangla Buds Group One

After the 2.5 hour bus ride to Ruma, we holed up in another meh hotel to await the arrival of the rest of the group the next day.  We also hired a guide and purchased some supplies (packaged masala, garlic, onions, turmeric, oil and chiles) so that we'd be all set to go the next day.  The new group (also mostly engineering students) from the city of Khulna showed up around noon and we set out for Boga Lake, a pretty little volcanic lake of about 15 acres a few hours from Ruma.  (We pulled a fast one on the students and convinced them for a short time that I was going to be the guide and that they'd better be prepared to trek 40km (25 miles) per day and speak only English).  This relatively easy trip along a brick road in a jeep had its moments, since we had to stop at an Army installation for approval and spend a couple bucks bribing one of the officials for permission, despite the fact that the guys assured me that there would be zero problems (and maybe a few hundred taka here IS considered close to zero problems).  They also had to be convinced not to send along an armed escort, something that none of us wanted and something that would have added to the cost, though in general a group would only be responsible for the minimal food and lodging costs for the armed escort.
Ruma, Not Exactly Conde Nast's Room With a View
We arrived at Boga Lake late in the afternoon and found it full of partying college students (this is Spring break for a lot of the students here).  A few were just spending the day, some spending the night and partying until the late hours, and a few more on their way to Keokradong, the official highest peak in Bangladesh.  Our guest house was a nice enough little place with a bare light bulb and some mats on the floor.  Cost for the room (and most others on the trip) was a little over a dollar per person, with food adding a couple of dollars more per day.  Imran, our guide, did most of the cooking and the guest houses supply simple stoves and cookware.  Bringing an REI air mattress was the smartest thing I did on the trip.
One thing I hadn't counted on was that the students with me all smoked a pretty good amount of weed.  I didn't really want to be involved in getting stoned, worrying more about my hiking condition, something that wouldn't be helped with a hangover.  While all the kids were nice (well, except one...but more on that later), we were on different planets once their pipe came out.  Oh well, can't say I wouldn't have done the same thing at their age and I guess my main surprise was that engineering students in my days in college were always the most serious, non-party types.  They later explained that it was still mostly the same with their fellow students.

Boga Lake

Top of Keokradong
Next morning we all awoke early for the long day of trekking which would involve Keokradong.  Pretty popular place and their is even an army/border guard station at the mountain.  Of course, my credentials needed to be checked, but it was a simple process that didn't involve anyone having to give permission to continue.  The Army and Border Guards are two separate organizations, and the Border Guards are especially active along the Myanmar border, due to smuggling of drugs, alcohol, and who knows what else.   I had a surprisingly good day and reached the peak first.  One of the group members made it, but decided to turn back since he found trekking not to his liking nor conditioning.  I should mention that each of the four group members who joined Amir and I (Nur, Masud, Ruhan, and Tanim) had never trekked before.  Nur quit, Masud and Tanim were in physically good condition, and Ruhan toughed it out and grew from a pretty poor trekker to a pretty good trekker by the end of the trip).  BTW, reaching the peak first did not at all mean I was in the best condition; most of the group held back trying to help Nur and sent the guide, Imran, along with me.  After reaching the peak, we descended to the village of Thaikhong, another Bawm village like Boga and  spent the night in a very basic guesthouse, but this time without electricity. I committed a bit of a gaffe by wandering around town without the chief's consent and without the guide and apparently a few town folk got excited and reported my wanderings to our group leader.  Lesson learned.  Later the owners (who spoke good English) shared a bit of their lives with us and a few townspeople came by to see and say hello to the white guy.  Up until this writing, I hadn't seen a white person in well over a week. The Bawm villagers keep their villages immaculately clean, cleaner than most villages in the US and way cleaner than the average Bangladesh city or town where trash is routinely discarded in the streets.  The urban parts of the country could take a good lesson from the supposedly ignorant tribal people when it comes to public sanitation and cleanliness.
Downtown Thaikhong
Maybe the worst bathroom in the world

I don't generally like to sleep with others, so each night was quite the challenge as the six or seven of us slept at close quarters.  15 mg of Valium sure helped me and I don't think my snoring had much effect on most of the group since they were using their own sleep aids every night.

 Most of the tribal villages are non-Muslim, with Christianity, Buddhism, Animism and some Islam being practiced.  There is a great tolerance of different religions in this area.  However, my bunk mates insisted that I sleep in the same direction as they did, with head facing West I believe.  I guess it's a Muslim thing and while I protested that I didn't want to bother them with my snoring, I gave in on the battle and slept the way they asked me to, a small concession. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mongla to Chittagong

As a result of the inclement weather, we arrived from the Sundarbans tour a few hours early and I decided to catch a bus to Barisal rather than endure any further time in Mongla.  Was fortunate to find a seat after transferring at the T junction near Bagerhat and made it to Barisal in about four hours, slowed by a driving rain and a ferry crossing.  Barisal is sorely lacking in good, mid-range accommodation and I took an $8 room in what is supposedly the best hotel in town, the Athena International.  For my $8, I got a very clean room that smelled of cat piss.  Exhausted as I was, it didn't really matter and a big plus was that the room was within walking distance of the launch ghat, where I caught the 6AM ferry for Moju Chowdary Hat, where I was able to catch a bus to Chittagong, the second largest city in BD, with a population of close to 3,000,000.  The exhausting trip took almost five hours on the ferry and another 5 hours on the most terrifying bus ride of my life.  The Dhaka-Chittagong highway is known as the most dangerous in BD.  Despite the huge volume of truck and bus traffic, it's a narrow two lane road and our driver passed on blind curves, ran CNGs and cycle rickshaws onto the shoulder and beyond, and drove on dirt sections of the highway under construction (it's slowly being widened to four lanes).  I was in the front seat and after awhile, couldn't help but laugh at how crazily this guy was driving  (maybe it's the valium I've been taking for sleep).  Arrived at the excellent Asian SR hotel and while it's the priciest hotel of the trip ($31/night), I've got a high floor room with little street noise, a real plus in a city of this size.  Had the country's standard meal of mutton biryani (and that mutton can be old) and went to bed early.
Room View Including Old British Rail Station
Sonny Bono Did NOT Produce This Film

Now This Should Have Been the Stones' Album Cover for Goat's Head Soup

Apparently Building a Better Brand Didn't Include Building It in the US

After arriving exhausted, I fully expected to hate what is considered the most polluted city in the country.  In fact, Chittagong turned out to be a pleasant surprise, with lots of interesting food and clothing markets.  The main reason to stop here was to pick up the mandatory Chittagong Hill Tracts permit for trekking and it turned out to be an almost pain free experience, thanks to a kind gentleman who led me through the rabbit's warren of offices at the old British High Court Building.  Prior to encountering this kind man, I got into a shouting match with an attorney who accused me of blocking his way while I was trying to get directions from a couple of other barristers.  I congratulated him on being the least polite Bengali I had met on the trip and, being a lawyer, he refused me the last word and we both continued shouting at one another as he ascended the stairs and I left the building.  After leaving the building with my permit, I picked up a Bengali flag and since I lost my trusty sun hat while being rushed off the bus on the way to Barisal, I found this gem of a hat.
Not Sure What Sport They Play, But I'll Bet It's Contested In Back Alleys

Travelers Notes:  For the permit process, head to the old British High Court Building just off Station Road.  Ignore the newer buildings and look for the old brick portico.  From there head to the extreme left hand side of the building and go up one flight of stairs where you'll see an incorrectly spelled English sign which reads:  Division Office To (instead of two).  Your contact will be Mr Sharif, phone number 017770330066.  This is a different place than is listed in the most current Lonely Planet (2012).  At this time, the application process has been greatly simplified.  While it was once necessary to account for practically every minute of your stay and the hotels you would be using (a Scot friend of mine was actually hauled out of a hotel by the police and made to stay at the hotel he listed on the application).  At this time, just be prepared to list the places you intend to visit and remember that the local police have the authority to dis-allow visits to places the district commissioner has approved.  I got approval for Mowdok Taung and, if allowed, I would be only the 3rd foreigner to hike to the top.  Note that I wasn't forced to add a lot of the info regarding arrival and departure dates.  Here's what the app looks like: