Chitmorong Pilgrimmage

Chitmorong was the Buddhist hamlet where I had wanted to attempt to find a bed when our bus had stranded us on the side of a river. Before Yann and I had agreed on it, we were picked up by a bus and swept away to Rangamati (as had been the plan before being abandoned by the bus driver). Now we wanted to attempt to visit the village before returning leaving the area and heading back to Dhaka.

We had abandoned the idea of getting there by boat, but we knew we could catch a bus heading to main city of Chittagong and get off along the highway from where we would be able to get to Chitmorong. So this is what we decided to do. We would never have known to get off had we not been in the company of a Bangladeshi Navy officer who spoke some English AND had visited a Canadian ship in Hong Kong. We added his address and cell phone number to our ever growing list, if we ever got into trouble we now had at least half a dozen people to bail us out.

From the side of the highway, we found the stair case leading to a small dock where we paid a few takas to be rowed across the river. Once in the small village we quickly identified the beautiful wooden temple and stood around its outer courtyard with our huge packs, dripping in sweat, not really knowing what to do next. A few teenage monks passed us and giggled, saying hello once they were at a safe distance from us then bursting into further laughter. We still had a long day of travel ahead of us so we felt tempted to just poke around and head back to the bus stop across the river. The village was so quiet, beautiful and tiny, but somehow we were disoriented. Maybe it was the contrast with most of the rest of Bangladesh that threw us off. Before giving up returning to the river a young monk finally approached us and offered to show us around. He turned out to be a visitor himself, as were many of the people we subsequently met at the larger temple. As Chitmorong is home to one of the largest temples in the area, monks and Buddhist pilgrims from surrounding areas and smaller monasteries come to worship and meet the senior monks. Visiting women were beautifully dressed and made-up, and all had their own baskets in which to carry offerings to the temple and monks. We were led to the large new "modern" temple a little bit further into the village. Although not an architectural gem, it benefited from thick concrete walls to keep the heat out, and it seemed that most of the village made us of the main hall in the hot afternoons. Yann and I were terribly embarrassed when we were ushered past all the actual pilgrims to the front of the hall to meet the head monk. As locals offered up relatively large sums of money and other offerings, we were offered cakes, fresh fruit and soda (other people's previous offerings perhaps?). We sat and ate under the nose of the entire village and the old monk looking down on us carefully perched on his seat. We were anxious to leave, but we didn't know how long we should kneel. We watched other pilgrims around us placed money at the monks feet during their bow, and tried to emulate them. We tried to look pious and serious but neither of us knew what we were doing "you do it", "no you do it", "Is this enough?"... Of course, no one around us seemed to be as bothered by our presence there as we were.

After a few minutes we exited the temple with our young guide and joined the small crowd of villagers and pilgrims gathered outside in the shade. We were introduced to his family, a large group of men and women, who we understood later to simply be other inhabitants of his small village, making the size of the group slightly less impressive. After a few family photos, our guide, along with his fellow villagers rushed back down to the river to catch their boats home. We were left in a small riverside tea stall where we sat for a drink and to plan our return back to the big city.

Next to us was a young man who had been next to us at the temple, kneeling silently while we ate offerings. Judging by his facial features, he was Bengali, so his presence at a Buddhist temple was a little bit of a curiosity to us (less than 1% of Bengalis are Buddhist or Christian). I can't recall who initiated conversation, but we ended up sitting together, sharing tea and discussing onward travel. Suman spoke English quite well and when we left insisted on paying for our tea. Suman explained that he was from a village near Chittagong, where there was no Buddhist Temple where he could worship. We didn't push too hard, it appeared as though his family might be the only Buddhists in his village.

Suman stood out from people that we had met on our travels, he spoke with such honesty and frankness. It is difficult to explain why he marked us so much. Among thousands of meetings with locals from dozens of different countries, it often seems difficult to get passed the typical curiosities that we have for each other. Suman seemed to know exactly where we were coming from, and was more interested in our reflections on life than the weather in Canada or whether we approved of sex before marriage.

On Suman's suggestion, the three of us hired a boat all the way to Kaptai, which was only a few kilometers down river. The sun was excruciating out on the river but could only slightly detract from the surrounding scenery. Along the banks of the river we passed groups of bathers, clothes washers and even a few brave fishermen anchored in the few shady spots along the water. Within half an hour we were wandering the streets of Kaptai, heading to the bus stand. Within sight of the buses we were intercepted by an English speaking gentlemen who introduced himself as a government official, a self-proclaimed mayor of sorts. He was adamant that we take a tour of beautiful Kaptai before even considering stepping on a bus to Chittagong! We had a train to catch, and Suman clearly wanted to get home (to make matters worse was now carrying my heavy backpack), but it was impossible to turn down such enthusiasm. After all, Kaptai was the home of Bangladesh's only hydro electric project.

The contrast between Chitmorong and Kaptai was striking. The rows of shacks that led from the docking area to the main street were squalid, and the main street was not much better. The town was a seedy military base and there really was nothing for us to see. We were prevented from taking photos of the only somewhat decent view due to the presence of the Kaptai Dam in the photo. We did at least attract the attention of a sweet journalist who popped out of his office to be photographed with us and to exchange e-mail addresses as we passed by (the photos were in our inbox by the time we next had access to internet). Our guide was however becoming increasingly annoying, asking us for gifts, and parading us around town like trophies while Suman exhaustedly lugged my bag around (his pride was no match for the heat though, and he eventually let me take my bag back).

We had now drawn enough attention to ourselves to be summoned into the nearby military office, where luckily, the bored soldiers simply wanted to get in on the excitement. Our small tour of Kaptai had now been dragged out much longer than we had wanted, and we finally managed to say escape from with "the mayor", the journalist and the soldiers. Suman got us onto a direct bus to Chittagong and waved goodbye, once again we were parting ways with a stranger who had gone out of his way to help us, this time it felt like we were leaving an old friend.

Note: After a little bit of research back home, we discovered that Suman is a member of the Barua Buddhist community. For a short article on the Barua you can click here .

Friendly Rangamati

After a harrowing bus ride to get to Rangamati, we were exhausted and checked in to the first hotel that we visited. For dinner, we spotted an outdoor restaurant directly across the street where, after sampling the deep fried paratha bread stuffed with egg, we ate every night. After a few meals, the kitchen staff knew us (I admit we were somewhat recognizable) and would send over the "English speaking" waiter to serve us. Our hotel was slightly more upscale than what we are used to, we met many Bangladeshi families vacationing ... we posed in a few family photos. I enjoyed the hotel even more once I convinced Yann to move into an air-conditioned room. We spent quite a few hours hiding from the mid-day heat watching Al-Jazeera coverage of the Iranian elections.

Rangamati is actually a series of islands on Kaptai Lake, an artificial lake cause by the Construction of Bangladesh's only hydro-electric project. Some of the main islands are connected by causeways, and others are only reached by boat. We were a causeway away from the centre of town. Getting around was actually fun, once we understood the system. Since the town is actually quite sprawling, it was difficult to walk anywhere, but there were motorized rickshaws abound. The rickshaws operate almost like public buses. They ply the two main roads and pick up and drop off customers. You simply pay a few takas and climb on to the rickshaw with other passengers. It was amazingly efficient, and great for keeping the fare low, as the other passengers intervened if they thought the driver was charging us too much. We ended up going back and forth between the two main docks for almost an entire morning, trying to get someone to let us on a boat. We wanted to take a boat back towards Kaptai, returning to visit some of the villages that we had passed on our bus ride from Bandarban. We first went to the main docking area at the very northern tip of Rangamati's main island. Various boats were docked on the sandy shoreline, with passengers loading onto the boats via thin wooden planks leaning up against the boats. The area was bustling and the boats were completely packed, but apparently none were going in our direction. We worried that no one could understand our Bengali. Many people had told us that this was the place to catch a boat to Kaptai, so we were weary of anyone trying to tell us otherwise. That our guidebook's list of scheduled departures from this boat terminal would be accurate now seemed to be more than a little bit optimistic. There was no ticket booth, no signs, certainly no staff member, simply a few shacks along the beach and a few unmarked boats. It seemed that the local system was to hope that your boat would eventually arrive. Of course there was probably more order than was apparent to us, but without a local guide to help us, getting on the correct boat was close to impossible. At one point we gave up trying to find a boat to Kaptai and decided to get onto any boat that would take us anywhere. No one would let us on. We had been warned that this might happen, as theoretically our permits were not valid for any travel that strayed too much from the main towns. The boat drivers may have been weary of carrying foreigners to "restricted" areas. Whatever the reason, we spent most of our afternoon inquiring about boat rides for the next day. Everyone tried their best to help us, but not a single person gave us the same instructions. The only person who seemed to maybe have an idea was a young man who spoke a bit of English, he instructed us to go to the other docks across town the next morning, a boat would be leaving for Kaptai the next morning.

Searching for a boat took up most of our morning and early afternoon, so for the rest of the day we explored the dried fish market, near the main docks. We were followed by a steady stream of curious locals who wanted to have their photo taken and see themselves in the camera viewfinder. Adults and children were equally giddy at our presence and would usually burst into laughter when we smiled at them. On our second morning in Rangamati, we headed to the docks where the boat to Kaptai was apparently leaving from. Everyone we asked told us that we were in the wrong place and that we had to go to the main boat area (where we had been the day before). As we went from boat to boat being turned down, the young man who had given us the departure information appeared and we quickly questioned him: "where is the boat to Kaptai?". "Oh.... friends, no boat to Kaptai. I give you private boat tour around Rangamati?". What? We had been duped? It had been too long since we had seen other tourists and it seemed we had let our guard down. Luckily, we had pretty much given up hope on getting onto a boat, so we were only mildly pissed off, even though our friend had arranged so that we would miss the actual boat that we wanted to catch.

It turned out to be market day in Rangamati and boat loads of people and products were arriving as we stood around explaining to the sneaky boat driver that we would not be taking a private boat tour. Instead we followed the stream of women in their colourful sarongs into the packed market streets where hundreds of people had already set down their blankets and neatly displayed their fresh produce. The beautiful Chakma women who manned the stalls seemed to smile more than most people we had encountered (maybe this is the reason we remember them as being particularly beautiful). We spent a lovely morning photographing them as they smoked, laughed and sold their fruits and vegetables. In the afternoon we headed to the largest Buddhist temple complex in the city, Bana Vihara. We ended up there two hours before visiting time was to begin, and we felt that if we returned to our air-conditioned hotel room we might never returned, so we decided to wait it out. We spent at least an hour at a small local tea shop outside the temple gates. The minute we sat down, other shop owners came to see their neighbor's bizarre guests. We ordered tea and we were promptly served along with a plate of soggy cookies. We sat most of the time with a sweet old man, who seemed to be a family member of the tea shop worker. He spoke to us most of the time, in a local language. He didn't seem too worried that we spoke a different one. Other family members entered the shop, one smoked a huge bamboo pipe, the others just hung around and had tea. Before returning to the temple we handed out postcards of Montreal which proved to be a huge hit. Little did we know that the Olympic Stadium postcard would be the most coveted. It seemed that locals knew the word "stadium" from cricket, so they cared much more about our stadium then say, the postcards depicting 4 feet of snow.We made note to only hand out the same postcard the next time around so as to not cause the jealousy that was brought on by the stadium postcard. To finish off the day, we watched the sun set over the temple, accompanied by a sweet local student who had seen us entering the temple rather confusedly. He gave us a tour of the complex, explaining each building and even bringing us to the "question period" where locals come to ask the elder monks for answers to their queries. The temple grounds were quiet and peaceful and were just beginning to fill up as we left. After a full day, we finally headed back to our hotel where we crossed the street for our last meal of fried paratha, just one of many pleasures of Rangamati that we would be sad to leave behind.

Yann Gets Us to Rangamati

Yann and I argued about how to get to Rangamati. I am usually the one who carries and actually reads the guidebooks when we travel, so I was surprised when Yann expressed confidently that there was a direct bus to Rangamati from Banderban. There was definitely no such bus listed in the guidebook (although Yann was absolutely convinced). The officer in Chittagong who had issued our permits had told us that there was a bus, but I didn't think he knew what he was talking about either. My suggestion was to back track along the main highway to Chittagong, then take another main highway to Rangamati, rather than take the more direct route through the back roads of the Hill Tracts, this, I guessed, would take us 6 to 7 hours. But locals quoted us much faster times along the more direct route, and Yann was already convinced that it was the best choice for us, based on the mysterious advice that "he had read somewhere".

The local buses leave from a different bus station than the one we had arrived at. Judging by its appearance, we should have been able to predict what kind of ride we would be having. Many of the "buses" were beat up vans whose seats had been ripped out and replaced with wooden benches so as to squeeze in more passengers. And the actual buses looked like they had been salvaged from scrap-yards. We had a two hour wait for departure, so we hauled up in a local restaurant with our bags trying to keep cool (as in temperature). The restaurant we picked was the one with a fan and an empty bench to sit on. There wasn't actually any food available, and there was quite a number of flies hovering around, but we could get semi-cold drinks. A teenage boy had followed us into the restaurant and was quick to strike up a conversation. His dream was to become a tour guide and he would practice on us. Upon hearing that we were taking a later bus, he changed his bus ticket so that he could leave with us. We insisted that it was not necessary but he felt that it was his responsibility to take care of us. At the time we were a little bit annoyed, and we took turns chatting with him, but we would later be very grateful for his presence. When the bus finally took off, it was quite packed, people on for shorter rides got the standing room only, and those like Yann and I traveling the whole length of the trip got seats. We were near the front, just behind the woman traveling with her young son and a baby goat. Our new friend Anik, could not be seated with us, and as is customary in Bangladesh, we the foreigners had been given a prime seat while poor Anik had been relegated to the back of the bus. The bus was in rough shape, but not in any worse shape than any of the other ones we had taken in the country. Anyways, we were so eager to start moving and get some a bit of air blowing in our faces that we couldn't be bothered worrying about the holes in the floor of the bus. Being a local bus or train in Asia means being painfully slow. A local bus will pick up anybody who hails it down, from anywhere along its route. Even if it is to drop the person off 500m ahead. Passengers are simply charged according to how far they travel and how well they can negotiate with the conductor. We could be wrong, but we figure that all the money that the driver and his conductor make from picking up passengers goes directly to their pockets. Only the money from ticket sales goes to the bus company, particularly ambitious driver-conductor pairs will stop for everything. Our bus was in high demand, as the second of only two buses to travel the route in the day, so we stopped a lot. The road however, didn't seem to be terribly bad, and I was beginning to doubt my objections at traveling by this route. And by the halfway mark of the trip we'd only had to empty the bus once to make sure we'd make it over a bridge. After four hours on the road, we ended up at a river crossing. The waters were still quite low and the river was calm, so we weren't too worried about making it across. It seemed like the bus had its own raft and the passengers would cross in smaller boats, in groups of 7 or 8 passengers. As we waited for the process to get organized we found Anik to figure out where we were and what was going on. It turned out we weren't exactly making great time and the raft that was supposed to be bringing the bus across the river was still parked on the other bank. At some point we noticed that the passengers that had remained in the bus were now exiting and crowded around the driver. Anik investigated and returned with the news that the bus driver no longer wanted to continue the trip. He was giving the customers half of their money back and was turning around. As soon as he gave us back our money, Anik had already led us to the river where the three of us got in a small boat that sped across to the other side. From there, we caught a taxi to drive us a few kilometers up the road to a bus station. When we arrived at the "bus station" (this is how Anik had sold it to us anyways, it was actually the fork in the road, one direction leading to the main highway, the other leading to Rangamati) we were told that there were no more buses for the day heading to Rangamati.

Under normal circumstances we would not have worried, we would probably have found a place to sleep, but we were traveling with a permit that only allowed us certain stops in the region. At this point we were between two of them. We eventually figured out that we were quite close to the town of Kaptai a military outpost where we really didn't want to end up. Anik, as well as many fellow passengers (most of whom had now caught up to us and were also at the bus stand) were going in the direction of Kaptai. Anik now was trying to convince us to travel with him and find a place to stay there, but we were very weary of spending the night in a military town. We worried that our permits would be scrutinized more closely and we absolutely wanted to make it to Rangamati.

We knew there was a tiny Buddhist hamlet nearby, with no accommodation, but we thought we might get a floor to sleep on there. I tried to convince Yann and Anik that this was our best option, but I was fighting a losing battle. Anik was determined to have us go his way (he was now probably regretting having changed his ticket, and he was eager to get home) and Yann was too worried that we would be lost with no place to sleep with nightfall approaching. I saw it as the perfect opportunity to ditch our "permit route" because we had been dumped by our bus driver and thus had a perfectly valid excuse for being stranded in the Hill Tracts. At some point a bus arrived heading to Kaptai, and Anik reluctantly got on after asking us permission to do so. We were now alone.

Now I was beginning to panic, and I was getting pretty angry at Yann. I wanted to go to the nearby village and beg for a place to sleep and I had decided that Yann was being too cautious. After all, he had put us on this route in the first place. We were beginning to argue a little bit more aggressively when barreling up the road appeared a bus. As it slowed down the conductor leaned out the door yelling "Rangamati Rangamati" and we picked up our bags and jumped on. I have never seen a bus as packed as this one. There seemed to be two bus loads of people crammed into one (which was most likely the case). There was luggage piled on the roof and people hanging out of the doors and windows. Again, we were given seats, Yann refused his, as an old man had been kicked out to make room for him.

Yann spent the next 2 hours or so, standing in the bus as we raced through the hills towards Rangamati, picking up more and more passengers, including a group of about 20 school girls walking home. We arrived in Rangamati 8 hours after having left Banderban. The friendly conductor dropped us off right in front of a hotel where we checked in immediately. We were immensely relieved. A foreign engineer that we had met in Banderban was sitting in the hotel lobby, I wondered what route he had taken to get here?!

I scoured the guidebook for a mention of the road, and there really wasn't anything talking about direct travel between the two cities. Finally I tracked down the source of Yann's information: he had read about it on wikitravel, (actually a great source of travel information). The website had the following description of the road "it is possible to get to Bandarban directly from Rangamati by way of Chandraghona, but the perilous route is not advisable at all. " Somehow, between the time Yann read this and the time we had to set out to Rangamati, the sentence had become transformed in Yann's mind as something along the lines of "the fastest way to Rangamati is through the backroads of the Chittagong Hill tracts via Chandraghona". Yann is yet to admit that my route may have been faster, but I will concede that it would not have been as much fun.

Market Day in Banderban

We decided to spend our third day in Banderban without a guide. Since we were going to the town itself and not into any of the villages we felt comfortable getting around. The manager of the Hillside Resort tried to encourage us to take a tour and wasn't too generous with information sharing, but Banderban isn't very big so we weren't worried.

We planned to hitch a ride downhill on the back of a truck but it was still quite early in the morning and one never crossed our path. About half way into town we spotted an older woman dressed in traditional village clothing accompanied by two young girls in jeans and t-shirts. We decided to follow them to town as we knew it was market day. Unfortunately, we scared the old woman who quickly accelerated to the point that we had trouble keeping up. The two girls hung back to try a few words of English on us, but then raced ahead to catch up with their elder. By the time we entered Banderban they were out of sight. So we followed the pedestrian traffic into the main part of town.

Banderban was bustling with market day activity. The first group of people we encountered were the banana and jackfruit sellers. Truck and boat loads of fruit had been brought in for the day, and vendors watched sat by their goods along the road. We watched as buyers attempted to set the world record for most fruit in a vehicle. As we wandered among the fruit vendors we were greeted in English by a fat little Bengali boy on a bicycle. We were taken aback by his English, although not perfect, he was the most understandable local we had heard in a while. We asked him where he had learned, I can't remember his exact response, but I do recall that we had concluded that he was the son of some rich businessman or politician who had just moved to the area. He led us through the busy streets of Banderban to the permanent market near the river and we thanked him heartily, he seemed pretty proud of himself as he biked off. We were actually looking for the "tribal market" (as referred to by locals) that sets up every Saturday, regrouping villagers from around the area. We never found it, but we spent the whole morning at the town's main market which itself was packed, probably more than other days of the week. The market is set up near the river to allow for large shipment of goods from nearby villages. Porters carry the goods on their backs up the steep flight of stairs that connects the back of the shops to the river banks. We headed down to the river passing a constant stream of sweaty, barefoot porters, who usually stopped to be photographed despite their back-breaking loads. Wandering through the market stalls we were greeted with the same curiosity and enthusiasm that we had encountered throughout Bangladesh. People greeting us, posing for photos, trying out their few English words on us. One vendor insisted that we pick a complimentary item from his stand. I'm not sure what we eventually picked, but with a choice of onion, potato or hot pepper I think we walked away with a hot pepper. There was quite a variety of produce on display, of course the in-season bananas, pineapples and jackfruit, but also bright green herbs, betel leaves, dried fish and seafood, hot peppers, eggplants, pumpkin... We couldn't figure out why the only thing we could ever get to eat was bread and lentils. After a while in the market we decided to catch a rickshaw ride to the Buddhist Temple at the other end of town. We had somewhat unconvincingly argued to ourselves that we had in fact seen the Tribal Market. And since it was not even noon and we were already hot, sweaty and exhausted, we didn't know if we could handle another crowded market. A barefoot rickshaw driver agreed to take us to the temple for a small fee. It tooks us many tries to explain where we wanted to go, we had forgotten the name of the village where the temple stood (that had been taught to us earlier in the morning). Eventually it seemed we struck the right combination of syllables and we were off. Leaving behind the crowd that had gathered around to try to help with communication.

Banderban would probably rank first in the list of least pleasant places to be a rickshaw driver. Only a small area in the center of town is actually flat, and this is where of most of the drivers operate. Balaghata, home of Bangladesh's largest Buddhist temple is actually 4km outside of Banderban on a hilly, pothole-filled road. On multiple occasions I insisted that Yann jump out of the rickshaw to help our struggling driver haul his rusty, one-geared bike up a steep hill (I of course, had to stay in the rickshaw in order to preserve the driver's pride). The minute we cleared a hill though, the driver was quick to signal Yann to get back in. We arrived at the "Suprem Bliss Full Filled Buddha" temple around lunch time and hiked up the long flight of stairs leading to the temple. complex. A young, chubby monk led us into a dark cool room and directed us to sit down. We joined a family of pilgrims. The monk could speak some English (I am somewhat abusing the use of the word 'some' here), and he explained that we couldn't visit the golden stupa until the visiting hours, which weren't for another few hours. Yann and I, feeling particularly awkward with the dialogue (or lack-there-of) were eager to escape for lunch and return later but our host insisted that we stay. He brought out a bottle of Pepsi and some snacks which we were grateful for but did not really want to accept (in the end we did, thus feeling obliged to put some money in the offering box). The family of pilgrims presented money and gifts to the monk and we sat and watched while drinking soda. Eventually we freed ourselves and spent an hour or so at a small canteen at the base of the temple, where we drank more soda and ate stale pastries for lunch.

When we returned to the temple, we found a group of American university students waiting for us to join their tour. They were on a summer exchange, working in Dhaka and had come to the Hill Tracts for a short weekend holiday. One of the girls with the group was of Bengali origin, so she was able to help translate some of our guide's painfully detailed descriptions of the temple. The monk loved taking photos and would make us pose in various positions, including hands together in prayer. The Muslim girls seemed particularly uncomfortable doing this, but Yann and I thought the whole thing was hilarious (although we have made sure to destroy any evidence of these photos ever being taken). Eventually, the American group's driver stormed into the temple yelling that he had been waiting too long and that they had to leave. The group left without saying goodbye and without leaving an offering to the temple, despite having a personal tour outside visiting hours. The monk seemed disappointed, so Yann and I had to remain perky and interested for the rest of the tour, despite the absence of our translator. Our guide was extremely sweet and took more photos of us on the scorching roof of the temple. The tour eventually ended with our monk handing us a business card including his bank account number where we could send money. He showed us design plans for the the intended finished product. For 50,000 Takas (about 800 CDN) we could pay for a whole stupa . We kept the business card just in case we ever had the urge to have our names engraved on a golden stupa next to those of generals of the Burmese military junta.