Stuart Forster reports on highlights of the Bandarban Hills of Bangladesh.
A two hour drive south-east of the bustling commercial hub and busy seaport of Chittagong, the Bandarban Hills begin their rise above the Bangladeshi plains. Characterised by dense jungle, the hills are the home to 13 tribal groups and roll on beyond the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
Until just a few years ago this verdant landscape was off limits to foreign tourists, due to risks posed by armed rebels. Today a steady flow of visitors now trickles in and out of this hill tract and its popularity is growing. Cottages at a handful of resorts provide opportunities for visitors to unwind. The twitter of birdsong, rustle of foliage and rasp of barking deer drown out engine noises made by the few vehicles driving on the local roads.
This is a region that can be visited throughout the year. Even in high summer, the daytime temperature rarely rises above 35°C. The mercury falls by around ten degrees during darkness, allowing most people to sleep undisturbed by heat. Visitors to the region need to apply for a permit, which tour operators can provide. This means the hills are by no means overrun, despite their natural beauty.
The view from Chimbuk Peak
The majority of Bangladeshis come here to enjoy the views of the plains and rolling forestation from the vantage point of Chimbuk Peak. At 898 metres above sea level it is the country’s highest summit accessible by road. A forestry cottage with a veranda stands on the hilltop. Most visitors ignore its presence and face out towards the rural scenery below. Bangladesh is the world’s fourth most densely populated nation but you get no sense of that up in the Bandarbans.
The presence of the 13 tribal groups, some of whom rarely come into contact with outsiders, gives this region something unique. Occasionally tribal people will wander into Bandarban town to trade or pick up supplies. If you’re interested in seeing the indigenous people, it’s best to ask for a guide at your resort. Locating the tribal settlements would be nigh on impossible without drawing on local knowledge; the remotest are tucked away near the border with Myanmar. Alternatively, you can go trekking with guides, who’ll lead you along trails and through plantations towards scenic vantage points.
Inevitably, some people question the ethics of casual visits to tribal settlements, arguing that any contact from tourists, photographers and even anthropologists may result in irreversible changes to ancient traditions and result in the erosion of indigenous values. Others argue that change is inevitable and question why outsiders should be barred from seeing long-established ways of rural living, especially those visitors who do all that’s possible minimise the impact of their presence. Regional security guidelines help, to a degree, as outsiders are not permitted to stay overnight in any of the villages and have to sign in and out when passing checkpoints.
Tribal groups and fertile land
You might be wondering why this region has so many tribal groups. War in what was then Burma, four centuries ago, forced a number of hill tribes to relocate. The Bandarbans had fertile land, an abundant supply of water and plenty of animals to hunt. Remarkably, despite having lived in this region for so long, the tribes have managed to maintain distinct identities, languages and, in some cases, belief systems.
At Baganpura, a quiet village inhabited by the Murong tribe, huts stand raised on bamboo stilts. The women here, who have high cheek bones and lips red from chewing betelnut, seek out firewood, which they collect in baskets carried on their backs via head straps. You might see their men building a new hut while the children play together.
Parak Para is a Bawm tribal settlement in which the women weave at looms out on the verandas of their hillside homes. A tiny church with a blue picket fence stands in the centre of the village. Down by the roadside, in purpose built stalls, women from the tribe sell shawls, scarves and colourful bedding to visitors. The Bawm are regarded as the most commercially successful of the Bandarban tribes and trade appears brisk.
The Tripura and Hathi Bandha peoples
The village of Hathi Bandha is characterised by stilt-raised, wattle-walled houses with corrugated metal roofs. More than 300 members of the Tripura tribe live here, making their living primarily from agriculture. The women wear lobe-stretching earrings, blue blouses and dozens of traditionally made silver necklaces. Most of the men, in contrast, wear T-shirts. The children in this village are inquisitive, laugh a lot and engage with visitors, gesturing to see photos on the displays of digital cameras.
If you’re fortunate, you might see traditional Tripura tribal dancing, accompanied by music performed by the older men and women of the village. For this the men pull white robes over their Western clothing and gyrate slowly with their hands in the air. The women dance barefoot, turning their wrists and moving their shoulders to the gentle rhythm of the music.
Would the Tripura have performed like this in the past or is it something they do to fulfil the expectations of camera bearing tourists who pass through their village? Are their values being eroded by the presence of the occasional visitor or two? Those are questions that require much thought. Fortunately the Bandarbans provide just the kind of quietude suited to pondering and contemplation.
What to visit
Bangladesh’s biggest Theravada Buddhist place of worship – the ornate, gold-roofed Jadi Temple – is on a hill 4km from of Bandarban town.
Where to stay
Hillside Resort, Chimbuk Road near Milonchori (guidetoursbd.com, tel: +88 1711 858496) offers accommodation in cottages constructed using traditional tribal methods. Bus transfers and guided trekking costs are also covered in packages.
Learn more about the country on the Bangladesh Tourism Board website.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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