Originally, this area close to the Myanmar border of Bangladesh was the eastern wing of Pakistan. After years of unrest and bloody conflicts in the 1970s and 1980s, the Chittagong district is now a semi-autonomous region within Bangladesh.
It is the home of a dozen different Adivasi tribes - collectively called the Jumma people - each with its own language, religion, physical appearance, dress and customs.
What to see in the Chittagong District?
The best base to explore this spectacular hilly area is the town of Banderban - a mere 2-hour drive from Chittagong. From here you can explore the different tribal villages by foot, auto-rickshaw or by bamboo boat.
Try and spend three full days in Banderban, which will allow you enough time for below 4 must see & do’s in the area:
1 - Tribal Market
Every Wednesday and Sunday morning, the elder tribal women will make the journey from their villages to Banderban to sell home-grown produce. They bring a dozen different types of vegetables, fruits, dried fish, chunks of iguana meat and live animals with them (frogs, snails, eels and chickens) and all are laid out next to each other on the side of the street.
It’s a lively scene and a great place to see the different tribal women gathered all together. Most of the women smoke self-rolled cigars from tobacco leaves and seeing women smoking on the streets is a sight you will see nowhere else in Bangladesh
2 - River villages
Many of the tribal villages in the area are only accessible by water: navigating the wide Sangu river that snakes it’s way through the thickly forested landscape. When I visited some of these villages, it was clear that most of the people had never seen a foreign visitor before and I was met with big smiles and curious glances.
The guide that I had with me told me that the people were very surprised to see me, but overall shocked that I came to Bangladesh by myself. I was some sort of superwoman to them - nice!
The bamboo huts on poles that the tribal people live in are quite similar throughout the villages and although they look small from the outside - once inside, they feel cool, airy and light. The braided bamboo floors are comfortable and the walls have several different designs.
The closest braided walls are most expensive as they require more bamboo and are only used in areas were privacy is required. The other outside walls are more loosely braided - letting in enough air that the homes feel breezy.
But perhaps the best part of visiting these people was the boat ride to get there. Seeing the sun set while slowly drifting down the river on a rustic bamboo boat was to me a great inside in local Bangladeshi river life. A three-hour boat trip down the river and into the villages will only cost you 500 Taka (5 euro).
3. - Golden Temple - Dhatu Jadi
In a country where more than 90% of the population is muslim, the Chittagong district has the largest community of Buddhists in Bangladesh. Balancing on the top of a hill, overlooking the jungle, is the Golden Temple. The monastery is built in Arakanese-style, home to several monks and very much Burmese looking.
The golden stupa houses the second-large Buddha in Bangladesh, but when I was visiting I couldn’t check out the Buddha statue unfortunately as the monks closed the stupa for prayers. Still, it’s a nice refuge from the busy streets of Banderban and only a short auto-rickshaw ride out of town.
4 - Tiger Hill
Once home to the magnificent Royal Bengal Tiger, this hill was a famous place where one of the tigers would come to overlook its kingdom nearly every night. Unfortunately, the tigers vanished from this area and can nowadays only be spotted in the Sunderbans, worlds largest mangrove forests, located in south-west Bangladesh.
On the upside, the place is now safe to go for people without having to fear to being stalked by a big cat! Watching the sunset from this place, in the same way as those big cats had been doing for a long time, gives an extra special feeling to the place.
Beginning 2018, a new resort opened on the hill which is popular with local tourists so don’t expect to have the place to yourself!
Is it safe to visit Chittagong Hill Tracts?
This area of Bangladesh is perhaps the hardest part to visit as a foreign tourist. You’ll need to have a permit which states all your details; full name, passport number, visa number, when you are arriving, where you’ll be staying, where you’ll be visiting each day and when you’ll be leaving.
You’ll have to hand in a copy at a police check point just outside Banderban. But that is not the only security precaution that is in place in the area. After the terrorist attack in Dhaka in 2016 in which two dozen foreign tourists were killed, several countries red-flagged Bangladesh and tourist numbers dwindled even more (since Bangladesh was already the least visited country in entire Asia).
As a result, tourist security was increased even more, especially in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area (don’t ask me why as this area had nothing to do with those attacks in Dhaka). So besides the permit, you are not allowed to explore the area by yourself. On top of that, police officers call the guide that is with you twice daily to ask what the plan is for the day, and to check that you are actually following that plan.
And if that weren’t enough, in the nighttime, two police officers will sit with you in the place you’ll be staying until they are convinced that you’ve gone to your room to go to sleep. I’ve never felt so safe in my life - HA!
But I can promise you, this area is worth the extra security hassle every bit and I can highly recommend visiting this special slice of Bangladesh! The people made me feel right at home and I never once felt unsafe during my entire stay.
Tips to get your permit sorted
Although there is the possibility of arranging your permit in Chittagong itself - I wouldn’t want to spend time in Bangladesh’s second largest, congested and noisy city but head straight for Banderban. Especially because getting the permit might take up to 5 days!
Better is to arrange it from Dhaka, so while the permit is being processed, you can visit Sylhet Province for example. A highly reputable company to contact is Guide Tours, located in the area Banani, North Dhaka.
They also run the Hill Side Resort in Banderban which had several guides to escort you around. Sitting on a hill side (duh!), about 8 kilometers outside of Banderban, it’s a quiet and beautiful place to stay while you explore the tribal villages scattered around in the surrounding jungle.