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.
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