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.
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