Day 3 – In search of Royal Bengal Tigers – The Sundarbans
Location: Society Hotel, Khulna,
So everyone starts asking, why Bangladesh? Why not India or Sri Lanka or some other South Asian country? This entry’s why. The Sundarbans. A complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests, the Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world, a UNESCO world heritage site, a finalist in the New 7 Wonders of Nature, in general it’s a little piece of awesome within Bangladesh.
Actually, only part of it is included in Bangladesh, albeit the larger part. A smaller chunk of the forest lie within India’s borders, where it is known as the Sundarbans National Park. The Bangladesh part though, is what we are interested in. Home to various flora and fauna, the beast that captures most visitors’ imaginations would be the endangered royal bengal tiger, a native of the forests. The tiger, numbering around 300, is the single biggest bengal tiger concentration in the world. Here, as elsewhere, tiger poaching remains a problem, but the Sundarban tigers do pretty well in these freshwater swamps, tiger attacks account for 100-250 (source:Wikipedia) attacks per year. This number is unusually high, and the more aggressive behaviour of the tigers in this region has been attributed to several possible reasons. One of them is apparently due to them drinking the salty water, which makes them slightly crazy, and results in them attacking humans.
And thus, The Sundarbans would have to be one of the highlights of my Bangladesh trip, and prior to leaving Singapore, I arranged for a day tour of the Sundarbans.
Today morning, I got up at 7am, had a quick cup of locally brewed fresh cha, (which came with free attention from the cha drinking locals) before making my way across the river back to Hotel Pashtur, where I was to meet my guide. There were two of them, and we proceed to get some packed lunch before loading onto the boat. Somewhere along the way, one of the guides went off to another boat, which apparently had more tourists, and I was left with the other. This chap, whose name I didn’t clearly get, didn’t speak the best English, and I only realised that after we set off.
The boat-man was actually a boat-kid, an overeager young boy named Al-Amin, and his job was to start the engine and steer the boat through the canals. The boat itself was a small seaworthy wooden structure, agile enough to weave around the narrow canals and rigged up enough to plow through the muddy waters of the Sundarbans, chugging away on its noisy engine. I was of course the only passenger on this boat, which would explain why the one day tour was so costly (by Bangladesh standards, 120 USD is a small fortune; for comparison, my hotel last night was 1.50 USD). Ok, most of the cost went to the park entrance fees, the hiring of an armed guard (to protect from tiger attacks, no less!) and other neccessities like the boat rental etc, “and of course the profit margin, which isn’t much”.
The boat would set off from Mongla port, toward the Karamjal camp, and then towards Habaria camp, and from there make the return trip back to Mongla. It was a serene boat ride, the first part was through a large channel, deep enough for large ships, anchored in the middle, just off Mongla port, ready to set off into the Bay of Bengal. Our little vessel hugged the river bank, and I was treated to the sight of mudflats and a thick expanse of mangrove, leading off from the bank and getting thicker and thicker the further inland you look. It looked a bit, for those of you Singaporeans, like the mangrove swamps you find in Pulau Ubin (Kampung Chek Jawa area), except you need to multiply that area by one billion ^^.
Going deeper into the Sundarbans, I perched myself on the roof of the boat, which resembled a sun-deck. I laid a cushion, and after about 20 minutes of admiring the natural surroundings, proceeded to read my book. I tried holding a conversation with Guide Whose Name I Didn’t Catch, And Is Unpronounceable, but gave up since it was too tedious. We passed by several little settlements on the outskirts of the Sundarbans, there were a few thousand living within the Sundarbans, moving around, possibly becoming tiger food once in a while. More interestingly, I read about the honey hunters, men who braved the deadly Sundarbans bees to collect their honey and sell. And then I realised that was the bottled yellow stuff the guy behind the Hotel Pashtur counter was trying to show me. Orh.
We reached Karamjal camp within the hour, and disembarked. There were plenty of locals here, visitng the Sundarbans as part of a weekend day trip, since today (Saturday) is a non-working day. There was a zoo, or rather a wildlife conservation area, which is sadly, nothing much to get excited about. There were a couple of monkeys in cages, a spotted deer enclosure and many, many baby crocodiles. No tigers, unfortunately, lol. And anyway, I was a better exhibit than the animals. These Bangla tourists and their families were queuing up to take photos of/with me.
Also in Karamjal camp, there was a raised wooden boardwalk that meandered through the mangrove forest, giving the visitor a glimpse of the inland terrain. The boardwalk ended but the path continued. I followed my guide who kept stopping, and using my camera to take photographs of me. Now, for any of you who has traveled anywhere with me, you already know that I hardly take any photographs of myself. Other than one or two pictures for memories and to prove I’ve been there, I don’t really see the point. So it is to my chagrin that the guide kept offering to take my picture. After a while, I just told him upfront that I’d rather take nature, without me inside the photo. He duly obliged, and I get off with a souvenir of 20+ shots of me in various poses modelling in the Sundarban wilds.
We set off on the boat again, I bade farewell to my legions of adoring Bangladesh fans in Karamjal (hey I can be delusional if I want to, it must the salty water the tigers drink, it gets in the air…) before setting off towards Habaria, the next destination and final stopover point. This was at least a two hour journey, and the initial awe of passing through these waterways had long since subsided. It was getting hot too, so I decided to take a nap. The scenery was similar all the way, and other than a few birds, whose fancy colours I was unable to distinguish since I did not carry binoculars, there weren’t any other animals.
I was woken up by my guide. Still woozy and trying to orientate myself, I was told we had reached Habaria. With all the expectation that came along with a two hour trip, it ended up being a bit of a disappointment. From Habaria was where travelers set off towards their 4 day Sundarbans trip, and here was where you would need to pay for the armed guard and also the park fees. (I may be wrong, but I read somewhere while researching the Sundarbans that getting the boat up to Karamjal would not require any park fees or armed guard fees).
I spent a grand total of 15 minutes following my guide and the bored armed guard into the Habaria undergrowth. We had to stop and turn back when the guide pointed out dried blood on the ground just off the path. He said that the blood was less than 3 days old, and it was not safe to go further, unless I had a death-wish to get mauled by a Bengal tiger. And so, disappointed, but glad I won’t be tiger fodder, I made my way back to the campsite, stopping by a gazebo, where I would find a group of other tourists. There were 5 of them, curious mix of 3 Germans, 1 Chinese, 1 Mexican, 1 Brazilian. I learnt that they were a group of students interning at the local Garmin Bank, and having met each other only a week ago, they had decided to go out on this Sundarbans trip together. They offered me some of their packed lunch, and we had some conversation, mainly me asking them about their backgrounds, and them asking me why in the world would a Singaporean go to Bangladesh for a solo holiday destination. It was probably the best part of the day, I realised I missed the friendly banter, and really wondered why I could not have been put on the same boat. After all, I found that my missing guide from earlier in the day was their guide!
After lunch, we retraced our steps back to the moored boat, and began the long journey back to Mongla. I would have loved to go deeper in, and dreamt of setting off from Habaria all the way south till I could see the Bay of Bengal, but that would require at least a 4 day trip. Thinking about it, i would probably die of boredom if I was out 4 days alone, with a guide who doesn’t speak English and a boat-kid who’s more interested in my flashpacking gear.
The trip itself was good, I expected to see the beautiful scenery and I did. An added plus was that during the return trip, we detoured a bit and went through some narrow canals near Karamjal. However, on the whole, I found the entire experience quite unprofessional, especially since it came from a proper tour company. It seemed that the standard basic service that was to be accorded to a tourist on a tour was not there. This is probably attributed to my tour guide with the unpronounceable name who doesn’t speak good English, who seemed more eager to shepherd me through the entire trip during the trekking bits in Karamjal and Habaria. Also, Al Amin didnt leave me much privacy by sitting on my shoulder while I was typing these entries as well as checking my online maps, and when he started asking for freebies. I wondered how much of the share of what i paid these guys actually got, and how much went to the middlemen who did the liaising online. It seemed to me at least that with the way these two are behaving, they got pittance. Either that or they think im a Dubai prince with a bottomless bank account.
End of trip: It left me strangely unsatisfied, and I looked back and realised that a 1 day trip was simply too short to see anything. A 3 to 4 day trip through the Sundarbans would make more sense, with friends to enjoy time on the roof of the boat. With a 4 day trip, the journey would take you through the entire length of the Sundarbans, and culminate in a visit to the southeastern tip of the forest, aptly named Tiger Point. The day trip I took barely scratched the surface, Karamjal Camp to Habaria Camp was just the appetizer. And too little time was spent in Habaria, no thanks to the tiger blood trails.
From Mongla, I decided to make my way up north to Khulna. During the long boat ride, I had planned to go up north to Rajshahi, after a recommendation from one of the German exchange students to take the country train. The train sets off early morning from Khulna, and so I took the one hour bus ride that evening into Khulna. Khulna, described in Lonely Planet as a town with a frontier feel, would have been a problem because I reached the bus station at 8pm, with no orientation of the town whatsover. I do hate reaching towns (cities are worse) at night, because of the myriad of uncertainties. At best, I would be overcharged by the cab driver, or CNG over here, for a trip to my hotel. Worse case scenario, I would get mugged or robbed. Fortunately, I would come across more Bangladeshi hospitality. During the bus ride from Mongla to Khulna, I was seated at the front of the bus. As usual, a local youth, Talat Mahmud, came up to seat himself beside me and proceeded to Facebook on his phone. Curiousity eventually got the better of him, and he asked about me. I learnt that Talat is a student in the local college university in Khulna, and we talked a little. When I got off the bus, he accompanied me on a rickshaw to the train station, where I would buy a train ticket to Rajshahi (6.30am intercity train) before we went to the motel I found in LP, Hotel Society. I invited Talat to have dinner with me, but he declined. Between speaking Bengali to get my train ticket for me, and bargaining and even paying for my rickshaw, Talat probably saved me an hour of aimless wondering around Khulna.
I dumped my bag in my room, and went downstairs to get some dinner. Hotel Society was located in a colourful part of Khulna, with many jewelry shops, which made me feel safer walking alone in the street at night. I bought random food to try from the street vendors, packed them and went back to my room to relax. Tomorrow, I would head off to Rajshahi, and from there, make my way to Bogra, the launchpad to my third World Heritage Site, the Sompuri Vihara.