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Off the Beaten Track in Bangladesh

Harold Stephen explores the roads less traveled in Bangladesh.

THE exciting thing about Bangladesh, someone recently told me, is when you get off the beaten track. I found this amusing. Isn't Bangladesh itself off the beaten track? The person who told me didn't think it was amusing. He was from Bangladesh.

However, I have to agree with him. When you get away from the big cities, Bangladesh can be one of the most interesting destinations in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, it isn't a country most travel offices would recommend; in fact, some travelbooks don't even mention it, or if they do, they just gloss over it.

And with Bangladesh making news recently when floods inundated two-thirds of the country and left millions homeless, there seems to be more cause to stay away. Hearing such reports, one would hardly consider it as a tourist destination, a place that one goes to find enjoyment. But Bangladesh, for the traveller looking for something different, does have something to offer.

Study a map of Bangladesh and you will begin to understand the country. Upon this vast delta where the Ganges and Brahmaputra overflow once a year, some 125 million people live. Next to Java in Indonesia, it is the most densely populated area in the world (not counting city-states like Singapore), with 1,566 people per square mile. (Any figure over 1,000 is considered to be over-populated.) And yet there are dense jungles, home of the Royal Bengal tiger; an empty, white sandy beach that stretches 75 miles; remote hill tribes who live in seclusion in the mountains above Chittagong; and an area called the Sunderbans which you can explore by small boat and not see another soul in days.

I first saw Bangladesh when it was still called East Pakistan, and Dhaka, the capital, was spelled Dacca. I came overland by jeep from Calcutta, when the rivers were high, and it took four days to travel 250 miles. It seemed we spent more time on ferries than actually driving on roads.

But what a novelty it was to drive aboard a ferry and travel long distances by river. Some rivers were so unbelieveably wide they looked more like lakes and inland seas. We could hardly see the other side.

The first ferry we took was little more than a raft-like boat, not much larger than our jeep. It appeared safe--until a hundred or more passengers swarmed aboard, almost swamping us. Nevertheless, with jeep and an army of passengers, and only inches above water, it carried us safely across the Bhirab River east of Jessore.

After landing on the other side and then driving no more than an hour, we reached the next landing at Goalundo Ghat, only to discover we had to wait until the following morning for the ferry. We quickly learned that patience is a virtue when travelling in Bangladesh. And if you don't mind putting up in old fashioned resthouses, some that still have puka fans suspended from the ceilings, accommodations are no problem.

Resthouses are comfortable, and for those who are driving they offer security. Often called Dak Bungalows, they are inside enclosed compounds, like fortresses, in which the gates are closed during the night.

The ferry the next morning left at 6 a.m. It was a five-hour journey. I felt that we were sailing on the Nile 2,000 years ago. Hundreds of black-hulled ships, their triangular sails filled with wind, made a striking sight on the river. I watched one convoy of double masted sailing vessels cross our bow. Their gunwales were high off the water, and their bowsprits turned upwards like huge ramrods. These looked like18th century pirate boats, with billowing square sails and seamen guarding the foredecks.

Farther down river there were smaller, red-sailed boats. Silhouetted against the glare of the morning sun, near-naked seamen with outstretched arms stood along the decks, tending the sails and tiller. I have never seen so many different types of sailing craft anywhere else in the world as I have in Bangladesh.

Where there aren't rivers, a network of canals serve as water roads for the smallest sailing boats. When the wind fails, a score of men leap off and walk along the sides of the canals, pulling the boats by long lines fastened to their bows. And every so often, usually where two canals converge, there will be gigantic fishing nets worked by half a dozen near-naked men.

One is hardly ever out of sight of a village. With a population well over 100 million, 91 per cent of the people live in villages and there are more than 68,000 villages scattered around the country. Jute is their major crop.

Monsoon rains in Bangladesh are both a blessing and a curse. Rainfall in the delta reaches 226 inches a year. (Both Paris and New York, which are considered rainy, have an average of 45 inches a year.) In an average year, the floods inundate 28,000 square kilometres of the country, bringing rich layers of silt that make land fertile. In a bad year monsoons can play havoc and cause untold destruction. Yet without the monsoon rains, there could be no crops.

The country has 6,000 miles of roads, but during the monsoon, ferry boats and river steamers are the main means of transportation.

The Bangladeshis are a curious people. They live without privacy. You can be on a seemingly empty road, without a soul in sight, stop your car to relieve yourself, and a hundred people will suddenly appear out of nowhere. A Baptist missionary I met on a ferry, who had spent 20 years in the country, told me that the people loved books, especially if they had pictures and photographs in them. "Give them a Sears catalog and it replaces the Bible," he said. "They cut out the pictures and paste them on their walls. The women copy the dresses; the men make furniture from the pictures — toys, tables, chairs, everything."

Dhaka is not an impressive town, and there is little to see and do, but its importance cannot be underestimated. Established in 1608 as the seat of the Imperial Mongul Viceroys, it is the Far Eastern centre for the teaching of Islam.

Ten miles south of Dhaka is Narayanjanj, the largest inland river port in Bangladesh. Its colourful harbour swarms with thousands of small boats bringing jute to the mills, the largest in the world.

Throughout the country when jute is being harvested, the 6,000 miles of roads become drying beds for jute, making driving difficult as motorists literally drive over the jute, thus helping break down the fibers.

Chittagong, to the south on the Bay of Bengal, has more to offer. It's the country's major port and second largest city. From Chittagong one can venture northeast to the famous Chittagong Hill Tracks. Two main tourist centres are located on the shores of a 256 square mile lake. Nearby the Murong and the Mogh people are specially worth visiting.

Ninety-four miles south of Chittagong along the coast is Cox's Bazar. 75 miles long, it's the longest stretch of unbroken beach in the world. There are resort accommodations and resthouses for the budget minded.

Then, for the true adventurer, there are the Sunderbans, tropical jungles and marshes that lie deep in the delta areas of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. They were once the hunting grounds for the Royal Bengal tiger. Today you can see wild pigs, abundant bird life and deer, as well as the occasional tiger. Travel to the Sunderbans is by boat through a myriad of backwaters. Boats are available for hire by the hour or by the day. Guides are also available.

Khulna is the principal town of the region and can be reached by the famous Rocket Steamer from Dhaka. Or one can travel by air to Jessore and go overland from there. There are a number of rest houses in Khulna. Modern excursion lodges in the jungles are also available.

The real thrill of touring Bangladesh is to travel by ferries and old fashioned steamers. Boats of all kinds operate throughout the country and often local inquiries are necessary for both schedules and prices. The Rocket Steamer between Dhaka and Khulna in the Sunderbans takes 19 hours. Service is good; the food is excellent. Service is every other day, but advance reservations are needed for first class.

Harold Stephens is one of Southeast Asia's best known writers. Having lived in the area most of his adult life, he's authored 17 books--most recently, The Last Voyage, about his 18-year journey aboard a schooner he built himself--and more than 3,500 newspaper and magazine articles, covering everything from travel to jungle exploring and searching for lost cities. He lives in Bangkok and the San Francisco area. This article originally appeared in the Bangkok Post.

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