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We arrived at the India/Bangladesh border, stood in one line, got moved to another, answering the repetitive “why were you here?” Question time and time again. Stamps, sweat, goodbye India, 44 degrees, welcome, visa? Paperwork, money, wait, wait, wait, receipt, stamp, Hello Bangladesh. That is most of what I can remember, and all that really needs to be said about the hot, bureaucratic process. And we’re we were I’m Bangladesh heading for the capital, Dhaka. The roads were bad, and we crossed the Ganges (called Padma in Bangladesh) on a flat open bed ferry, with the 201km journey taking 9 hours. Arriving in Dhaka at just after 23:00 we happily showered and went to bed.
Since our time for Bangladesh was short we had toyed with going to Cox Bazar and the beaches. But since we had just done beaches in Sri Lanka and since it has been raining with thunderstorms on the forecast for the next week we decided to head to the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. So, our job for the next day was to obtain a ticket on one of the steamers (they have now been converted to diesel) known as the Rockets.
The Rockets earned this name since they were the fastest thing on the river 80 years ago. Though this honor has long since been usurped, the name stuck. Riding one downstream is an adventure unto itself and after a wrong stop, tea and conversations with the big man of the office and a new address we found ourselves in possession of one 1st class cabin ticket for the following evening.
What to say about Dhaka – it was hot and frustrating and did not grab us the way other cities have. The traffic is really really bad – it took us 1 hour to go 2kms one time. It’s crowded and of course dirty. Cycle rickshaws are a mainstay and clog the streets but we took them a few times and it was quite fun zipping down the narrow streets dodging and weaving numerous obstacles. Other than that, we saw Lalbagh Fort, an incomplete Mughal for somewhat complete, the side of the Pink Palace (since we were half an hour before closing and they wouldn’t let us in), the Star Mosque which is a small beautifully tiled mosque. And the rest of the time we spent sleeping, eating, or stuck in traffic.
So, while Dhaka was not awful it just wasn’t for us and we were happy to be heading for our boat. The Lepcha was built in 1938 and was a steam, now diesel, paddle wheel. The cream coloured boat bobbing at the end of the pier looked her age with rust and worn wood showing. We walked through the lower cargo area passed the diesel engines up to the second open deck where locals were setting up camp on the floor for the journey. Through a small door to the 1st class area with a few dirty fans pushing the warm air around. We had cabin 3, two little bunks with fans and surprisingly an old ac unit humming on the wall.
The 1st class cabins had a big perk – access to a little deck on the front of the boat. It was from here we sat at we pushed out into the harbor. Little wooden canoes and rowboats by the dozens weaved around us as they crossed the river. The banks lined with old ships being dismantled, as the sun set the sparks from the cutters cast eerie shadows amongst the large hulk. Then it was a simple but tasty vegetable, rice and dal dinner and off to bed with the low murmur of the engines and rock of the boat helping us drift off.
The morning came, and we were on the Ganges, the river swelled and became so large it looked like a lake before we turned off into the smaller channels of its delta. After a simple breakfast Andrea took tea on the front deck and made friends with two local girls who were intent on talking to her even if they didn’t speak English or Andrea Bengali. Stops at ports to load and unload people and cargo, mostly food stuffs. Floating past brick factories with boats being loaded with the finished product back dropped against large chimneys pumping out smoke. Fishermen, villages, other boats, fields, cattle, we passed it all. The large river had narrowed significantly but it shrunk even more as we entered a
Our ultimate destination for the day was the town of Khulna, which the Rocket used to service but due to river silting the old heavy boats can no longer make it there and it must stop downstream. We disembarked at Hularhat and hopped a bus the final leg of the journey.
Khulna has nothing of note, but it’s the jumping off point for tours to the Sunderbands, the largest mangrove forest in the world. We were hoping to visit the Sunderbands, but it was dependent on us finding a tour we could afford. Luck was with us though, and we found an operator that had a one-night tour leaving the next morning with two other people. Since we were just being tagged on to another tour he gave us a good deal. He was a nice guy called Johnny who was very passionate about his work. We ended up having dinner at his house, a delicious meal cooked by his grandmother who was just delighted to see us – she pushed food on us and laughed the whole time.
Food in Bangladesh for us has mostly centered around rice with a mixed vegetable dish of lady finger, or spinach, or potato and onion. A dal that is like India but waterier and some chicken or beef in a simple gravy. Andrea has had a much harder time finding vegetarian food here than anywhere else and has been eating more fish or shrimp which is plentiful.
The following day on the way south to the Sunderbands we passed through loads of shrimp ponds. Huge tracks of lands divided in the squares with banks around then and flooded with a little hit on stilts at each one. Flooded with sea water locals buy baby shrimp and raise them here where they are then bought and sold locally and abroad. The flooding with salt water has been a problem for the fresh water aquifers though and since lots of good agricultural land has been flooded, which can’t go back due to the salt, local food production has also been impacted.
Our short step into the Sunderbands was pleasant. On the first day we had a small walk through the mangrove swamp while the tide was out. We dodged the protruding roots that jutted up like spikes while parting legions of red clawed crabs that scuttled around our feet in futile displays of dominance over their subterranean homes.
Then we were treated to a unique display of otter fishing which used to be widespread in the area. We watched as six adult otters and one juvenile were let out from their cage and splashed into the water. They were on leads attached to poles sticking out of the boat with three otters at the front and three at the back. A net was then lowered from other poles from the side of the boat and the otters went to work. Swimming back and forth their job was to scare fish and preferably shrimp into the net which after a while was lifted emptied and the process repeated. After a few sessions the otters gathered at the side of the boat and they were rewarded with fish. The juvenile otter was free this time, since it would always follow its parents, and would spends its time wondering off up the bank before sliding down when mum and dad got too far. The whole system seemed to work well, and the families here have been doing it for generations, but the practice is dying out quickly with the younger generation not interested in it. The otters appear healthy and treated well, but it is always hard to tell, they were very cute to watch play and tumble as they worked.
After this we walked through the local village checking out a few houses, simple in design and very similar to other tropical reed houses with the kitchen using an earthen covered firepit set in the group. From here our dinner sprang, delicious barbequed chicken, and mixed veggies with a dish that had a vegetable that was similar looking and texture to a cucumber with the taste and skin of a pepper. And then we drifted to sleep as the jungle noises played out around us.
Up at 5, we headed out on a smaller paddles boat, we silently slipped up smaller canals past early morning fisherman. We saw lots of bird life from kingfishers to eagles, plenty of tracks on the backs of otters and deer but not much else. It was still enjoyable to watch the jungle wake up. Then breakfast and the trip back to the main town before heading north to Bagerhat. Badgerhat has several Important Islamic sites mostly built by Khan Jahan Ali who is revered in the area for increasing the presence of Islam. The main mosque being the Sixty domed Mosque (it actually has 81 domes) which is a beautiful, yet simple building set out next to a lake.
Back in Khulna in the evening we had a chat with Johnny the tour guide and owner of the tourist agency. We had enjoyed our time with him and he was obviously passionate about what he does. He asked Andrea and I to stay for a couple days and help him make a small video to promote his business, and he would in turn sponsor us to stay and show us round the local area. Since we were kind of stumped in what else to do in Bangladesh and were considering just heading back to India this sounded perfect.
We spent the following 3 days running around in cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, and tuk tuks going all over the Khulna district seeing lots of Things most tourists don’t get to see. I played cricket in a village, visited a colonial railway office, and fruit and fish and seafood markets. The size of the shrimp here is crazy, we thought they were lobsters. Mosques, Hindu temples in small villages, river banks, farms, cafes, and bridges, we covered it all. The locals were overwhelmingly friendly and always smiled and were excited to see us since we were often in quite rural areas, they were always ready with a cup of tea.
We had one 22-hour day trying to see some sites more north, that was hard, and we were very glad for bed after that. The roads here are really bad, it took 5 hours to go 155km for instance. Johnny took amazing care of us though and we were thoroughly overfed the whole time. Culminating in a delicious seafood dinner at his friend’s house, where randomly of the 3 non-family picture pieces hanging on his wall was unbelievably a picture of the Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC, Canada, our home town. It is a funny small old world sometimes.
Setting off at 5:30am, Johnny was there making sure we got tickets and seats for the 6:00 train to Benapole, the border Town for India. The cool morning air kept the simple carriages comfortable, and it was a lovely green journey through the countryside. Bangladesh is a wet country, there are rivers, lakes, ponds everywhere. From man-made to natural, fish and shrimp ponds, rice paddies, and reservoirs. This will be my lasting impression of Bangladesh – green and water.
The train took just over 2 hours to do the journey (would have been 6 in a car), then it was a quick rickshaw to the border. The standard lines, stamps, questions and selfies and we were back in India for the third and final time of the trip. We spent a quiet night in Kolkata before boarding our overnight train north to New Jalpaiguri, our gateway to Darjeeling.