As soon as you leave the craziness that is Dhaka and head out to rural Bangladesh, you’ll find yourself in a world with more shades of green than you’ve ever seen in your life. The endless rice paddies, lush bamboo forests, submerged swamps and tea estates spread out over rolling hills are simply gorgeous.
To fully experience some of this stunning nature, you need to get yourself out there. So I did. It wasn’t always easy and at regular times I was asking myself: “What the hell was I thinking??” - but I would do it all over again in a blink of an eye! Below are my three favourite day trips that I did in the region:
Freshwater swamps, Ratargul
Sylhet is just a short, 45-minute and cheapy-cheap flight (25 euro’s) away from Dhaka and the capital of Sylhet province in the North East of Bangladesh. With almost 500,000 inhabitants it’s still quite a large town with the typical Bangladeshi congested streets and the appropriate sounds, smells and sights.
It does have some decent hotels to serve as your base to explore the surroundings of Sylhet. The best restaurant in town, Woondaal on East Zinda Bazar Road, will make sure you are fed with fingerlicking good biryani and kebabs and a full meal including drinks will only set you back some 400 Taka (4 euro!).
About half an hour with CNG (auto-rickshaw) from Sylhet lies the small village of Ratargul - home to Bangladesh’s only freshwater swamp forest. The villagers navigate these waters to fish and are more than happy to take you on a tour! So off I went with my CNG driver and a young boy who was peddling the long wooden canoe.
We set off in a small channel through the forest and the sounds and sightings of the birds and monkeys in the forest were beautiful. All the peace and quiet was only disrupted by chatter, chatter and more chatter between the boy and the CNG driver.
It was driving me insane!
I was hoping to enjoy this peaceful place, but instead I had to listen to a whole lot of Bangla of which I didn’t understand a single word.
So I had my grumpy face on.
But things turned around when the boy steered the canoe in very shallow waters, jumped out and nodded to me to come out of the canoe. The CNG driver joined in, enthusiastically pointing at my shoes - take them off!
I was eyeing the muddy waters a little doubtful, especially given that my feet were covered in bloody wounds after being ferociously attacked by bed bugs the night before. Bad idea. Bad, bad idea. Think of all the infections you could pick up in these waters! Who knows what bugs, creepy crawlers or parasites are roaming these waters.
But then I thought: ah what the heck! You only live once.
So they got me to take my shoes off, walk through the ankle deep, muddy water and they even got me to climb a bloody slippery tree!
I know - I have no backbone!
But it did break the ice between my new Bangladeshi friends and me, and after the whole tree-climbing-creepy-water-walking-thing, we continued exploring the swamps. In the middle of the forest was a high look-out tower, build by the military to keep on eye on the region since it close to the border with India.
We climbed the tower - just to see that the area was actually much smaller than it appeared from within the forest. Somehow, we did cruise around the small channels surrounded by milletia trees (or koroch trees) standing with their trunks in the water for roughly 2 hours.
When we got back to the village and got off the canoe, I gave the boy a 70 Taka tip, which he accepted with a beaming smile and a little victory dance. After one last chai in the village and being waved goodbye at by a bunch of small kids, we made our way back to Sylhet.
I carefully examined my legs and the wounds on my foot but all looked clean and nothing got infected (yet) - Score!
Lawachara National Park, Srimangal
A pleasant, 2,5 hour train ride from Sylhet lies Srimangal, the real star of the Sylhet region. I treated myself with staying in a cute, bamboo cottage overlooking a small stream at the Nishorgo Nirob Ecoresort, a short rickshaw ride out of town.
The Lawachara National Park is only 8 kilometers east from Srimangal and is a beautiful patch of tropical semi-evergreen forest. It is home to the endangered hoolock gibbons - the only apes in Bangladesh and one of the top 25 most endangered primates in the world.
An estimated 60 gibbons live in this piece of forest. A variety of other mammals live here too, such as the cute slow Lori, barking deer (no idea why they are called that), Himalayan squirrel, macaques and the capped langur. Not that I saw any of them.
I only seem to be running into these massive spider webs with enormous hand-sized yellow orb spiders. Completely harmless - so they say.
According to my information, I could do a three hour hike - marked by wooden signboards. So when the officers at the park entrance asked me whether I wanted to hire a guide, I was quick to say: “No no, not necessary”. I wanted to enjoy the nature and quiet by myself, this time without some chattering guide. And besides, I would be easily able to find the route myself.
Wooden signboards - yeah right. The boards were there alright, except that nobody mentioned that they would be in Bangla, not English. No problem, I thought, forget the signs - how hard can it be, just follow the main trail.
Well, all I can say is that I did end up walking for 3 hours, but never managed to find the right trail. The path would just disperse in all sorts of smaller sandy trails that would go in all different directions.
I kept on trying all routes, backtracking each time when I was convinced I was on the wrong trail. At some point I ended up on a hill in a tribal village, where the people looked at me as if I just arrived from another planet.
The trail ended there anyway, so I backtracked (again) to the park’s entrance. I also don’t know whether or not I saw that rare hoolock gibbon. There were plenty of monkeys high up in the trees, jumping around and making all sorts of hooting sounds - but they might have been lemurs. I have no idea.
I did take the opportunity to do a small photoshoot at the rail track that runs straight through the forest - all the time listening and watching carefully for any train creeping up on me. Because, yes, every 20 minutes or so a train comes ploughing over this -seemingly deserted- track.
The photoshoot was abruptly broken off when a man approached me, who spoke no English, but started to point passionately at a wound on his foot followed by the bushes I was standing in to set up my camera and tripod. Whatever animal or insect did that to him I will never know, but it was enough to let me jump up half a meter and quickly make my way out of the park.
For a short moment I considered going back to the officers and ask for a guide after all, but then the first raindrops fell and I knew it was time to go. Even though the monsoon season is almost over in late September, every other day or so there was absolute torrential downpour for 1-2 hours - something you just don’t want to be caught up in.
As soon as I reached the CNG to go back to the my bamboo cottage, the heavy rains started and we were just in time to cross a few places where small trickles of water on the road quickly swelled to brown, muddy rivers.
Hum Hum Falls, Kolabagan Village
As if these forest escapes were not enough yet, I decided to go for a real off-the-beaten-track adventure, and try and reach the Hum Hum Falls. I learned from my mistake at the Lawachara National Park, and decided to take a guide with me.
One of the staff of the Nishorgo Nirob Ecoresort where I was staying had never visited the falls and asked me if he could join me. Why not - so we set off with CNG to Kolabagan Village. For 250 Taka, a local guide would lead us to the falls and back - bargain!
The hike would take 2 hours one way, but our guy marched through the thick jungle as if he was running late for a job interview, so we did it in 1 hour each way. I was sweating like a pig and covered in mud as I slipped and fell a few times but at least all the trekking I recently did in India had made me fit enough to easily keep up with our guide.
As we got closer and closer to the falls, the real obstacles begun. We had to wade through a river for about 10 minutes, and this water was literally crawling with leeches. I never encountered these creatures before, and don’t intend to ever again! I was wearing long pants and that most likely saved me from getting bitten by them.
There were several leeches crawling over my salwar kameez trousers but we could easily wipe them off. My guide got bitten several times on his legs but expertly removed them with one swing of the blade he was carrying with him. Nice!
By the time we almost reached the falls, I started hearing loud music.
Well, that’s weird - we are in the middle of the jungle here, I thought.
“Today is a holiday!” The guide happily announced. “Many, many people coming today!”
Well, he was right about that. When we finally reached the opening in the bush to the falls, all I could see was hordes of Bangladeshi men. Not a single foreigner, not a single woman. Only Bangladeshi men. I got to admit, I was feeling slightly intimidated, especially because they all stopped with what they were doing and turned to stare at me.
I was almost at the point of saying to the guide “Come on, let’s uh, go back!?” when someone jerked on an Indian hitsong on the music player and a whole bunch of them bursted out in singing and enthusiastic dancing with plenty of hip-thrusting and arm swinging moves. The rest of them went back to their photoshoots at the waterfalls. I felt myself relax.
We spend an hour or so at the falls, taking pictures in the water, eating snacks and chatting with some local students who wanted to know more about my country. I got offered soft drinks, locally baked cakes and other goodies that they’d brought for their waterfall picnic.
I even started to appreciate the loud music because the people were so joyful, full of life and appreciating their outing at the falls that I couldn’t help but start to smile and enjoy this slice of Bangladeshi culture.
We hiked back at even greater speed (perhaps he did have a job interview in his village after all) and when we finally returned to Kolabagan, my hair was dirty and wet, my clothes soaked and sweaty and my sneakers unrecognisable under the thick layers of brown mud. The CNG driver looked at me in shock.
“What happened to you??”
“Uhh yeah, I hiked to the falls” - I laughed.
He threw me a disapproving look and pointed at my shoes.
“Need to wash!”
He had just spend all his waiting time cleaning his rickshaw and was not happy with my muddy appearance.
“Yeah, no problem, I will just take my shoes off OK?”
He was only satisfied when I took my shoes off and had wrapped them in thick plastic so his spotless rickshaw would not be affected.
“Ok Ok, CHALLO!” (Challo means ‘let’s go!’) he shouted.
That shower I had in my little cottage was just the best feeling in the world! And after one final check for any cheeky leeches, I felt that it was time to move south. Enough with the forests and creepy crawlers, let’s board the night train and explore South Bangladesh and all its tribal villages!