What better place to go to than the beaches along the Bay of Bengal I figured. Bangladesh unsuspectedly boasts the longest continual natural beach on the planet (a mind-blowing 125 km!). The gateway to this very popular place among Bangladeshis is Cox Bazar, a rather over-developed town full of beach resorts.
In an attempt to escape those local tourist crowds, I made my way to St Martin’s Island, the only real coral island of Bangladesh and supposedly a beautiful place to relax and recharge those travel batteries. In Cox Bazar I tried to get some information on how to reach the island. It was one of those great conversations in which confusion takes the upper hand. In. Every. Sentence.
“Tomorrow I want to go to St. Martin’s Island”.
“Not possible, there is no ferry from Cox Bazar”, said the manager, shaking his head.
“No but I don’t want to go from Cox Bazar, but from Tekna”, I told him.
“Aaah Tekna, yes yes”.
“So from where leaves the bus to Tekna?”
“Check-out is 11 o’clock”.
I looked at him puzzled.
“No, not when I am leaving, when does the bus leaves”?
“Morning time bus leaves yes!”
“So what time does the bus leave then?”
“I don’t know”, he said, shaking his head.
“So the bus to Tekna leaves from the bus terminal? There is only 1 bus terminal in Cox’s bazar?”
“Bus terminal, yes!”
“But I mean, when I ask the rickshaw driver for the bus terminal, he will know which one right, there is only one bus terminal?”
You won’t be surprised if I told you that in there are in fact 3 bus terminals in Cox Bazar and there was again plenty of confusion with the rickshaw driver as to where to drop me.
“Ok, so do you know what time the ferry from Tekna leaves”?
“No ferry from Tekna”
“There is no boat going?”
“Only Fishermans boat going, but sea very rough, very very very dangerous!”
“Ok, so I will just leave in the morning and see how it goes. What time can I have breakfast?”
“Breakfast not included”. *Speaks with colleague. “Ok, yes, breakfast included. Breakfast starting at 06:30”
“Ok, so I have the breakfast and then I leave”.
“Yes, breakfast and then leave”. *Speaks with colleague. “No no, you need to leave 06:00, or you are too late for boat”.
“Ok, so I guess no breakfast then”.
At this point in my masterplan to visit St. Martin’s Island, I still hadn’t fully realised that I was really traveling off-season. I was excited and looking forward to a tropical coral island all to myself. Perhaps for the best I didn’t know yet what was waiting for me.
The journey to Tekna was surprisingly smooth -after the struggles with the rickshaw driver to find the right bus terminal-. I paid 0,50 eurocents to travel 2 hours by bus, south towards the Myanmar border. Arriving in Tekna, I took a cycle-rickshaw to a small jetty with several fisherman’s boat.
It was a hustle and bustle of people carrying goods in and out of the boats. None of the fisherman’s boats looked like they were about to leave in the next few hours or so, but luckily I got targeted straight away by a speedboat driver.
Well, when I say speedboat, it was a tiny plastic boat with an engine. But compared to the slow wooden boats ploughing through the waters, this one did have considerable speed. It was a 6-seater boat, and for some reason, as soon as I got on, it filled immediately with other passengers. I had the feeling I was paying for everyone in the boat. But whatever - we were on our way. Challo!
Within the hour, we reached the jetty of St. Martin’s Island. We were met by a huge crowd that all tried to squeeze themselves on one of the departing fisherman’s boats. Too eager to get away from the crowds, I walked off without paying the speedboat driver. Whoops. He quickly chased me down and I settled the bill.
After trying 3 different hotels -all closed-, it slowly started to dawn on me that perhaps everything was closed. After patiently cycling me to all the hotels I had indicated, the cycle rickshaw driver then happily announced: “All hotels are closed. Only place open is Blue Lagoon”.
“Oh, you are telling me now”, I laughed.
Off-season accommodation - get ready for roaches
So off we go to this Blue Lagoon place. Knowing that I wasn’t in a position to be picky, I settled for a room in the Blue Lagoon. Extremely grotty and extremely overpriced -the room smelled damp and filthy and by nightfall I spend a full hour smacking huge cockroaches with my Lonely Planet Guidebook. So handy these books!
But going to this island out of season didn’t only mean no accommodation options, but there was no food available either. The only place to eat something, was all the way back at the jetty where you could get some seafood with rice.
I ate a lobster which had been cooked (what looked like) hours before and was sitting on a plate, half-covered by a another plate and half-covered by flies. Ugh.
Without a doubt (several locals confirmed it), I was the first tourist of the entire season, and the only tourist on the entire island. I could not walk anywhere on the island or the beach without being followed by kids, shouted at by men (“HELLO!!! HELLO!!!”) or stared at by groups of local women.
It was exhausting, and although I enjoyed a beautiful sunset, loved the sight of the fisherman’s boats and thought the island was generally really pretty - after 1 night I made sure I got the hell off that island again!
But there is something else which has been keeping tourists away from this corner of Bangladesh - even during the peak season. Sadly enough, it’s the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
Traveling from Cox’s Bazar to Tekna, it was clearly visible that the closer we got to the border, the more Rohingya refugee camps we passed. Almost 1 million Rohingya people fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, and most of them are now living in refugee camps that spread out for miles and miles.
On the way up there, I remember thinking that it looked pretty well organised, with signs indicating different places for specific aid, children safe-playing zones and medical care. When I was on the way back from St. Martins island though, passing the same road again, it was raining heavily.
The previously well organised looking camps were now a muddy, flooded affair and conditions looked extremely harsh.
The bus journey on the way back took almost twice as long, because of the frequent army check points in which soldiers would enter the bus and check on the Bangladeshis ID-cards. At first I was surprised that I wasn’t targeted, because on all other journeys when a bus had been stopped, it was only myself who had to show my passport. But this was an entire different affair.
They were making sure that not one single Rohingya refugee was on the bus.
Since the people in this part of Bangladesh speak Rohingya and their dialect is very similar to that of the Rohingya’s of Myanmar, they can often only be distinguished by (not having) a Bangladeshi ID-card.
But despite the check-points, many refugees have sneaked passed them and are now illegally working around Cox’s Bazar or even Dhaka in an attempt to provide for their families. Thousands have been caught and sent back to the camps - this is a struggle of which their is no light at the end of the tunnel. Yet.