For me, the forests and haors of Sylhet and the mangroves of Sundarban have been the two major attractions of Bangladesh, enough to occupy my imagination. Recently, when my friend Shumon invited me to accompany him and two other photographers - Adnan and Naser - on a trip to Bandarban, I hemmed and hawed for days and almost declined, even though I have not visited the Chittagong Hill Tracts in my adult life. In the end, though, I decided to join the trip.
I am glad I went.
Otherwise, I would have missed a part of this country with mind-bending scenery, where steep hills covered in green rise skyward from the banks of a shallow, fast-flowing mountain river, where the clouds play with the sun over the mountain tops and where the ridges and valleys roll out one after the other, caressing my eyes with their voluptuous green.
I would have missed the gentle people called Bawm, fifty-four of whose families inhabit the picturesque Munlai para (neighbourhood), where they live in houses raised on stilts, where the doors are always open, where women fetch the day's water in kolshis from the community reservoir every morning, where making a livelihood by growing bananas, peanuts or cashews is not easy but where everyone appears content.
I would have missed the Pahari food, such as Chong Mung (chicken inside bamboo), Pahari aloo, and sticky pitha inside banana leaves sweetened with coconut, delectable food served in a dining room with possibly the most spectacular view anywhere.
I would have missed watching the rainbow over the spray of an exquisite waterfall called Rijuk, and, later in the day, the sun setting over a series of hills with a lone tree standing guard on a hilltop.
I would have missed standing on a bridge and looking down on a school of fanda fish swimming on the surface of the Sangu, sparkling like stars as they moved this way and that in perfect synchronicity.
I would have missed seeing not just one but an entire flock of rare raptors called Jerdon's Baza as they put on a show circling overhead in the hills, looking for prey, hovering for seconds when they spot one, then swooping straight down for the kill.
I would have missed the extraordinary sight of the life and death struggle of a White-throated Kingfisher as it fought back the predator bird that was trying to drown it in Sangu's water – and escaped.
I would have missed an epic boat ride down the Sangu while watching the fog roll in and out of the vertical walls of green that seemed to stand in our way straight ahead only to have the river deftly swing around them at the last minute, again and again.
Yes, I am glad I went to Munlai Para.
Practicalities: Munlai is a two-hour drive from Bandarban. All-inclusive adventures include trekking, kayaking, ziplining, as well as homestay with the locals and all meals. The tour is offered by Base Camp Bangladesh in partnership with the Bawm community of Munlai. See munlai.com.bd for more information. Please note that foreigners are not allowed in the Hill Tracts without government permission.
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