Country Archives: Bangladesh

Cox's Bazar - Chittagong

I changed my travel plans completely today. I’ve been in Bangladesh for 20 days, my visa will expire in 10 days, and I feel like I should see some other parts of the country before I have to leave. I’ll travel back to Dhaka by bus and train, from there I’ll head north, towards India. I also hope temperatures will be a little lower there.

Today I spent most time waiting for the bus to Chittagong.

I arrived there late in the evening. I shouldered my backpack and strapped my cycling shoes to the rack, and cycled through the dark city. When I arrived at the hotel I had lost one of them shoes. I cycled back on the same route immediately but couldn’t find it. Quite frustrating.

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Cox’s Bazar, again

Another day off in Cox’s Bazar.

Like in so many other countries, one of the unsolved challenges of Bangladesh is waste, rubbish.

People are just not aware of the problems of throwing away plastics randomly in the streets, at the beach or off the ferry.

When we returned from St. Martin a couple of days ago we wittnessed just that. At some point of the journey someone started feeding seagulls with potato crackers and biscuits. Soon many families were following suit. Seeing that was weird enough, in a country were by far not everyone has enough food every day. And then people, children and grown-ups alike, threw the empty plastic wrappings over board as well.

This unawareness is so horribly common in ‘these’ countries. I’m not sure if it is a lack of knowledge about the implications, or an I-don’t-care mentality, or what?

I am willing to give people the benefit of the doubt here. I believe ‘they’ are victims of the West’s commercial interests. ‘We’ are not interested in educating about the risks of our exports. We just ship the cheap sh!t here and let the others deal with the rubbish. ‘We’ includes the Chinese here, too. For example, they sell apples to Bangladesh, which you can buy on any market. And each and every single apple is wrapped in one of these styrofoam protective net things (difficult to describe… I’ve added a picture below.) which then clutter the streets around the market and end up I-don’t-know-where. (Well, I’m sure in the end they’re either burned or end up in some ‘landfill’, which is usually just some river bank.)

Another example:
We had some biscuits the other day. Not only were the six(!) of them wrapped in an enormous amount of plastic, but they also tasted weird. A bit like soap? No, glue. Like plastic and glue. Not very charming at all and certainly not healthy.

A few days ago I found the same ugly ‘background taste’ in the chicken I had for dinner. It must have been wrapped in some kind of plastic wrapping for transport. Isn’t that lovely.
From now on, I’ll happily opt for the ‘local’ chicken that is on some menus.

Were is ‘our’ export in this example, you may wonder? Cheap technology and ‘cheap’ knowledge that creates unhealthy sh!t with the least possible effort.

Oh, and I’ve seen people spray pesticides, here, too. With hand pumps and without masks.

Of course, this export mentality already fires back, and will do so even more in the future.

So many things go wrong here, and on so many levels…

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Cox’s Bazar – Idgar – Cox’s Bazar

Today was a bit of a failure, again. Though an interesting one.

I left around 10am – way too late. The plan was to reach Alikadam or even Thanchi today. They are both located deep inside the so-called Chittagong Hill Tracts, a tribal area at the border with Myanmar/Burma. A special permit is required for visits to the area – which I organized back in Chittagong. It has expired by now but Aaron, who was there while I cycled down to Teknaf, said that the checkpoints didn’t seem to pay much attention to the details.

After leaving the highway I was in badly mapped area. The maps I have either show no roads at all in the area or the roads they have don’t exist in reality. So I relied on the local people, and after managing pronounciation of the place names (Alikadam can be Alikodom or Alikom, depending on who you ask?) it worked quite well. Or so I thought. Late in the afternoon I arrived in a village and people pointed me in the direction where I had just come from.

The village’s name was Idgar, and it was on the map again. Unfortunately, I had apparently moved in the wrong direction, away from Alikadam, and people now pointed back to were I had come from. I was too tired of it all and too far away to get anywhere in daylight, so I hopped on a bus that happened to be about to leave. It had a flat tyre soon after the next village and the car jack broke after the wheel was removed, but eventually I made it back to Cox’s Bazar.

I have just brushed the Hill Tracts today, though there were some serious hills there (ffs!). Some of the ones I had to ride down I wouldn’t manage to pedal up, nor would I want to try.
The ‘roads’ in the hills where unpaved, of course, and mostly just tracks or even single-file paths. Some were bricked roads. The latter look very nice, but can be annoyingly bumpy to ride.

I remembered one of the last conversations with Aaron.

“This may be a stupid questions, but are the Hill Tracts very hilly?”
“Nah, I don’t recall the roads being very hilly.”

Hehe, oh well. In his defense, he’d been in a different area and traveled by bus.

Cycled: 60km

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Cox’s Bazar

Lazy day in Bangladesh’s prime holiday resort town. It is not exactly my cup of tea, but the fact that I cause much less attention when walking the streets is … nice.

The past weeks have been a bit tiring in that regard, I have to admit. The problem is not the staring, I can live with that. But conversations always start the same way: “What is your country?” Most of the time nothing else follows. I hate to say it, but by now I engage in conversations far less enthusiastically – though still friendly, of course – than before.

There are a lot of (domestic) tourists here, but it is not as packed as I would have expected.

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St. Martin – Cox’s Bazar

The diving was a bit of a failure. I don’t have a diving license myself, so I relied on Aaron’s competence for this.
We carried the equipment to the boat and noticed that they didn’t have enough equipment for a certified dive master to accompany us. That’s unusual, as it were. Almost at the dive site we checked air pressure in the tanks – it was around 150bar for all 4 of them. Aaron considered this unsafe, expecting 200+bar. We discussed the issues but decided to go for it anyway, given that we were almost at the spot.

We put on the gear. My pressure gauge showed 100bar. It was broken. Also, my regulator leaked air somewhere as soon as the tank valve was opened.

Well, that was it. Obviously, these last issues rendered the whole endeavour too dangerous.
We resorted to snorkeling. Unfortunately, that wasn’t so great either. Visibility was pretty bad, and almost all the coral we saw was dead. Aaron even thought they might have done blast-fishing here, so moon-like did the underwater landscape look. (You know, blowing up explosives in the water to knock out fish for easy ‘fishing’.) Though that’s just a guess.

We took the ferry back to Teknaf in the afternoon, and hopped on a bus to Cox’s Bazar immediately after arrival.

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Teknaf – 4km – St. Martin

Everything worked out and Aaron and I met again on the 9.30am ferry to St. Martin, Bangladesh’s only coral island.

Had some interesting conversations with Aaron. Amongst other things, we talked about our experiences with rip-offs and touts and fake sobbing stories, and he had quite a few to tell. I had to admit that I hadn’t had too many bad experiences – ok, during my travels, I was lured into buying a flask of perfume for a girlfriend I didn’t have, and a pair of sandals that I was never gonna wear, and I’ve been ripped off with entrance fees or ticket prices every now and then, but I was spared from the many aggressive touts and beggars he had to learn to evade over the years. And Aaron said something very uplifting, namely that with my way of traveling – by bike – and my itineraries away from the standard tourist tracks, I was able to see more of the unspoilt human nature. I will jump on my bike tomorrow (or the day after) more light-hearted again.

St. Martin is quite touristy, and my guide book has seriously criticised the way touristic development was enforced here. There are many Dhaka-owned hotels here and overfishing of the surrounding waters – to cater for the hordes of domestic tourists (up to 1000 per day, allegedly) – is a serious problem.

Yet the money tourists bring doesn’t seem to stay on the island. People still do subsistance farming and live in the simplest of huts.

We arranged for some diving for tomorrow morning.

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A Day Off Near Teknaf

I needed a day off. The day was completely uneventful. I just ate and slept to my heart’s content.

The day before yesterday I learned from Kalim that the Muslim call to prayer is not pre-recorded here – unlike in other countries. I also learned that it is always the same text (with some addition for the morning call, as people are more reluctant to go to prayer then), but the muezzin can kind of choose his own melody. That’s why the call always sounds different from mosque to mosque.

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a cop. I was just having a short break at the side of the road. I had found a magical spot – little traffic, NO people around, lots of shade. Almost paradise. So he stopped next to me and told me (in good English and very politely) that he wanted me to move on as he didn’t consider the spot safe. I asked why it was dangerous here, thinking of elephants (there is a wildlife sanctuary around here), tigers (no tigers here), or snakes (the only wild animal (except birds and fish) I have seen in Bangladesh so far was indeed a dead snake). It’s not dangerous, he said, but he didn’t want me to be here all on my own. It would be safer with people around. I wonder if that’s the key to a foreigner’s safety here, that there is always someone around…

I’m the only guest in the hotel’s restaurant again. One of the waiters unfolds his prayer rug between two tables and starts praying.

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Maheshkhali - Teknaf - 4km

Oh, another exhausting day.

I woke up late – too late to visit Kalim’s college.

So I left Maheshkhali by ‘speedboat’ (old motorboats for approx. 12 passengers), towards Cox’s Bazar (that’s really the place’s name). I was probably ripped off with the price for that one. Everyone laughed when I was quoted additional 75 Taka for the bike – and everyone was in on it, too, so there was no haggeling and no finding out of the real price.
Also, I had to pay a ‘bicycle tax’ on arrival at Cox’s Bazar’s ghat. A what??? I wasn’t the only one to pay it, apparently, so that one seemed legit. But still, a bicycle tax? Really?

The countryside became slightly more hilly at times, but then again it was as flat as can be. There were fewer trees along the road. Also, temperatures are now seriously higher than expected (35+ vs. 25°C).

I caught myself day-dreaming of lush green and cool mountain forests, streams full of fresh and clean water jumping from stone to stone.
There is water here everywhere, but it doesn’t look exactly inviting.

I made two little detours off the main road – which saw amazingly little traffic, by the way. The first was to a crocodile farm. There wasn’t much to see except for a few bored crocodiles. They didn’t let me see the little ones, unfortunately, which is what I had hoped for.
The second detour was a short ride on the Bangladeshi-Myanmar-Friedship Road – to the Burmese border. It is amazing to be here. Burma – that sounds seriously exotic. There was no crossing there, though – I think there are no open land border crossings between Bangladesh and Myanmar/Burma at all. All I could do was have a short chat with two border guards and snap a picture of the fence.

Like I said, the day was very exhausting and I made it to a hotel a few kilometers north of Teknaf with my last energy. There is no mobile reception, no TV (they usually have two or three English-language Indian movie channels here) and electricity is flaky anyway, but according to my guide book “the restaurant outperforms the hotel”.

Cycled: 98km

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Chittagong – Maheshkhali

Quite an exhausting day. I cycled south from Chittagong. The forested hills closed in from the east, but the road itself stayed nice and flat. Annoyingly, I took a wrong turn in Anwara and lost an hour or so. (One hour is quite valuable here. It gets dark around half past 5 and by approx. 6pm it is dark.)

More than once I was stopped by curious people who more or less just wanted to take pictures of me.

The road’s quality deteriorated badly on the island of Maheshkali. This must be one of the poorest areas I’ve been to in Bangladesh. I made it to the southern end of the island, where I found a very basic hotel for the night.

At dinner I met Kalim and his friends, students at the local Australia College as well as a madrasah (an islamic school – I hope that’s the right description). We spent an hour or so in the streets – we were kicked out of the restaurant to make room for other patrons – before he had to go study for his exam tomorrow.

Cycled: 126km

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This is hopefully my last day in Chittagong. I have to catch up with work and won’t do anything else today. I’ll use this post to mention a couple of things I may have forgotten before.

I haven’t seen many foreigners in Bangladesh. There was a group of Japanese(?) in Dhaka, and a British(?) here in Chittagong, and Aaron. I’m pretty sure most of the villages I cycled through haven’t seen many, if any at all. That, of course, explains people’s curiosity. When I stop somewhere to have a break it takes half a minute and there is a small crowd watching my every move. Usually someone with some English skills will step forward and ask the standard questions, country, name, job.

As far as I can tell, there are people everywhere. I think the longest stretch of road without a person can’t have been much more than 500 meters.

The kind and amount of manual labor being done is incredible. And so is people’s stamina. Cycle rickshaw drivers don’t have the luxury of gears on their vehicles. More often than not I see them literally standing on the pedals – left, right, left, right, for the whole ride – to actually move the heavy thing and the cargo or passenger.

There are no lifts at construction sites. If there are bricks and sand needed at the top of a building, it’s people who carry the stuff up. Two piles of bricks or two bowls of sand hanging from a long stick, carried across the shoulders and up stairs.

People pushing 8m long bamboo sticks piled up on a hand cart through Chittagong’s heaviest traffic.

Shipbreakers risking their health and their lives by cutting through the massive hulls. No safety gear, no insurance, no compensation in case anything goes wrong.

And almost everyone here, especially those doing the heavy work, is more than a head shorter than me and weigh half as much, if at all.

Me cycling through the country, with little luggage and a filling meal at the end of the day is certainly less challenging.

And when I say that the countryside is beautiful and the villages look quaint, I must not forget that the people are very poor and live in very simple conditions.

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Chittagong & Bureaucracy

I have been kind of unhappy with the quality of the photos my camera takes. Aaron happens to be an enthusiastic photographer and gave me some tips about current camera developments. I am almost convinced that a new one is in order.

We said good-bye after breakfast and I went to the local DHL office to send off yesterday’s acquisitions. I learned that, due to the precious looks (brass, glass, wooden case, etc.) I would need an export permit for customs from some obscure Import/Export bureau – which has their only office in Dhaka! There was no way to send the stuff without such permit, and apparently there is no way to get one here in Chittagong. Bummer. I’ll have to fit the things into my luggage somehow.

I rented a boat for an hour and did a tour on the Karnaphuli river. It is full of fishing trawlers, small oil and gas tankers and all kinds of other cargo ships. Small wooden boats ply the waters between the ships to ferry people from one bank to the other. It is quite a sight.

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The Chittagong Shipbreaking Yards, part II

We went back to Sadarghat in the morning to try to rent a boat for the day. We managed to explain our case again. And better so than yesterday, because the quote went up considerably once the boat drivers realized how far we wanted to go. We did the maths (which we should have done much earlier) and realized, too, that our idea was complete bollocks. All in all, we were looking at a 40km boat ride – and that’s just one way.

We gave up and instead took a CNG to Kumira’s Sandwip Ghat, at the northern end of the shipbreaking yards, where I had first spotted the ships two days ago. I had somehow remembered that there is a ghat (wharf) there, too. Upon arrival we were immediately quoted 2000 Taka for a 2-hour boat ride, which we found steep compared to the 400 Taka a rental of the same duration would apparently have cost at Chittagong’s Sadarghat. To our dismay, the guy we had spoken to first ‘warned’ all the fishermen at the ghat so nobody was willing to go for less. It took us quite a while, but eventually we found two guys who took us out to the yards for half of the initial quote.

The tide was already going out but we managed to get reasonably close to the massive dead ships. Visibility was not great due to mist, but the whole scenery was impressive enough.
We saw people on the ships, and clotheslines. At least some of the workers must live on the hulls. It must be weird to make a living from destructing your own home. Use a toilet today, throw it out tomorrow.

On the way back to Chittagong I found some cool souvenirs in a shop on the road side that were salvaged from the ships. A 1920 telescope and a 1915 compass. Pretty awesome! I’ll have to post them home tomorrow, though, as they’ll be too heavy and bulky (and fragile) to carry on the bike.

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The Chittagong Shipbreaking Yards, part I

Last night I had met Aaron, Canadian backpacker, in the hotel. Today we went to get permits for the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a tribal area at the border with Myanmar/Burma. The permits were easy to get and cost us a baksheesh and 10 minutes of our time.

We then left for Bathian, a village north of Chittagong near the highway, to see if we would manage to have a glimpse at the shipbreaking yards. My attempt from yesterday at the other end, near Kumira, hadn’t been too successful, but that didn’t put us off.

We didn’t have any luck, though, and were not allowed in. We just managed to walk along a river bed which was kind of no-man’s land, towards the beach. We didn’t get very close to the ship corpses, but at least we had an unobstructed view at them along the beach.

We then had the smart idea to rent a boat to have a look from the sea side, but with no port or wharf near-by (that we were consciously aware of), we retreated to Chittagong’s Sadarghat ferry terminal. With the help of some students we started negotiating and the price would have been about 200 Taka (approx. 2 Euros) per hour. It was too late to set out today, so we decided to come back first thing tomorrow morning.

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Feni – Chittagong

I left early, as usual. Today’s destination was Chittagong, to the south. To avoid having to ride the same stretch of highway as last night, and to avoid the highway in general, I left Feni to the east on smaller roads, then turned south. That way I also saw a tiny bit of that Bangladeshi pocket I mentioned yesterday, and came pretty close (about 500m) to the Indian-Bangladeshi border. The Bangladeshi side consists of a massive fence and is heavily guarded. I didn’t see the Indian side, but I guess it looks similar.

I crossed the Dhaka-Chittagong-Highway very close to where I had reached it yesterday, and cycled to the west, towards the Bay of Bengal. Again I crossed yesterday’s route briefly, but then disappeared in the most remote area so far. The road was only a mere track and there were no villages anymore. The countryside, still flat, consisted of fish ponds. Next to each pond there was a house, probably inhabited by the guy – I didn’t see any women – working and guarding the pond.

The track, situated on a dam, was in reasonably good shape and went west at first, then turned south, parallel to the Bay of Bengal, but still quite far away from the actual shore. I only got to see it 50km or so further south.

Later the land was used agriculturally and the track led through villages. I stopped at one of the roadside ‘bars’, where you can have a tea and a smoke and a bag of potato crackers if you have the money for luxury. I had two of those bags and a bottle of some fizzy drink there for lunch. The few people present showed the kind of curiosity I had gotten used to. Then they asked the one question I was not prepared for. “What is your salary?”

Much later, the track was merely a single-file path now, I reached Kumira and its Sandwip Ghat, the ferry terminal from where you can go to Sandwip Island. I shall be back. But most importantly, from here southwards are the shipbreaking yards, where oil and gas tankers and container frighters and all other kinds of ships are being taken apart for want of steel and other precious materials. They say that all the steel that is used elsewhere in the Bangladeshi shipbuilding industry comes from here.

I wasn’t allowed into the yards, as the owners are not proud of their health and safety measures.

I reached the highway again, unavoidable here, and pressed on, as the sun was already setting. I cycled through Chittagong’s City Gate with last light, pretty much exactly at 6pm, then had to continue through the city’s tremendously congested streets for another hour – not without getting lost and avoiding two crashes by just a few centimeters – before arriving at the hotel of choice. (Nothing spectacular, don’t worry, just one I had picked out before.)

Cycled: 137km

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Noakhali – Feni

It has become routine by now to wake up slowly at 6am and be on the road by 8am at the latest. Today breakfast was even included in the steep room price.

I cycled to the east, and the plan was to add a little detour before reaching the city of Feni for the night. North of Feni there is a kind of Bangladeshi pocket that reaches into India for a few dozen kilometers (see the map below). There is also a border crossing there. My idea was to cycle up to the northern tip of that pocket, have a look at the border crossing, and go back down to Feni.

But much earlier I had to stop at a river that had no bridge. I saw a few people climb up the embankment, and a boat in the distance. But it didn’t move.

Two men were dropped of by a CNG and a bunch of kids from the near-by village gathered around me. It took some gesturing to find out that the river was mostly very shallow – too shallow for the boat – and we would have to wade through to the deeper section where the boat was waiting. Funny.

From the other side of the river I continued, still heading east, towards the Dhaka-Chittagong-Highway. Not far from the highway I stopped at a building that looked like a Hindu temple – and was invited to lunch at his family’s place by a guy who was just about to leave the temple when I arrived. Suman was most lovely. He brought a friend, Tapan, who translated between Bangla and English, and I had lunch with his older brother, who showed me how to eat with my hands properly.
I learned that the local Hindu population had not seen the recent ‘communal violence’ (that’s the term used by the Bangladeshi government and press) by Islamists as other parts of the country. That is, their houses have not been burned down.

I left their place somewhat in a hurry, but it was apparent by then that I wouldn’t be able to do the planned detour. So I hurried along the crowded highway northwards to Feni, which I reached with last light.

Cycled: 97km

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