Sundarban - February 20-23, 2007

Why did I wait so long to go to Sundarban? It's easily the most fun thing I've done in Bangladesh and it's actually a world-class thrill. The funky tourism resources are part of its charm.

Sundarban (sundar = beautiful, ban = forest) is claimed locally to be the largest coastal mangrove forest on the planet. The claim is probably true and more likely than some others: eg, the beach at Cox's Bazar is the longest in the world, Bangladeshis are the happiest people in the world, etc. It's an astonishing labrynth of river channels and sloughs inhabited by deer, wild boars, tigers, pirates, honey-gatherers, poachers, clandestine loggers, naturalists and a tiny number of winter-season tourists. Mangrove trees can live in salt water.

I went with about 45 other people, mostly foreigners (Swedish garment company employees, various UN people, Indians, Bangladeshis and a German), on a The Guide Tours ship called MV Aboshar. I understand that "aboshar" means "leisure" in Bangla.

The tour company took us in buses to a place an hour south of Dhaka on the Sitalahkaya River called Narayanganj where the ship was double-parked alongside a freighter. We shuttled out to it in a launch. I shared a tiny cabin slightly shorter and narrower than my height with a pleasant German man, Robert, who charmed me by laughing at most of my jokes and contributing many bon mots of his own. Ours was the closest cabin but one to the engine room. The ship departed soon after we boarded, at about 7pm. I turned my GPS receiver on to track our route and left it on the roof of the wheelhouse.

The red line is the route we took.

wheelhouse (photo by Robert)

The ship stopped in the middle of the night for several hours somewhere, I guess so we wouldn't sleep through more interesting parts of the trip. Starting and stopping the vessel is a noisy business: the helmsman controls the engines by means of a telegraph, which is a contraption in the wheelhouse with handles and dials indicating "full astern", "half ahead", etc., connected by cables with another contraption in the engine room with the same indicators and also bells. Two guys down there all of the time, stone deaf I'm sure, watch them and respond by winding furiously on little hand-wheels to adjust the throttle settings.

engine room telegraph (photo by Robert)

In my bunk at 2am, by this time more or less accustomed to the roar of the diesels, I was startled awake by bursts of electric buzzer tones ordering a change in engine speed, then a thunderous roar of loosed anchor chain, more bells in various tones, engine speed briefly picking up to set the anchor, and then abruptly, silence. Peering out the window from my upper bunk I could see dim stars and the black on black of the shore.

The diesels rumbled into life again well before dawn, first gently to warm up, then a complicated sequence of bells directed them to growl separately in forward and reverse to turn the ship, and finally their tempo rose past any reasonable speed to a constant scream as we bustled off down the river in the pitch dark. I, and I guess we all, went back to sleep.

At 6:30 I wasn't the first person up. Swedes were busy everywhere snapping pictures of the fascinating sights on the river. We were in the Lower Meghna, about 8km wide there. The skipper threaded through fishing fleets without slackening speed, running over their nets with no apparent effect. Some of the net sets were vast, maybe 500m in diameter. Once we entered a set and a fishing boat headed us off our course with shouts and frantic waving; I didn't understand the situation but I supposed that some gear was closer to the surface where we were headed.

They're yelling, "Hey! Don't run over our net!"

I had installed a map I'd made of the delta in my GPS receiver so I could see that we were about to leave the big channel of the river and enter a jigsaw puzzle of river islands on a heading toward the Sundarban park, still 150 crow-flying kilometers away. The river banks were much closer now, offering intimate views into homesteads, of children playing and women doing chores.

The river channel was busy. Mostly a "keep right" protocol was in effect, with some ad hoc behavior to keep a skipper on his toes. The larger vessels, like ours and bigger, had sirens to clear the way ahead, operated in the same mode as car horns in Dhaka: I'm coming, get out of the way.

paddle-wheeler (photo by Robert)

river whistle stop

We slowed for these cattle

The ship sailed down the channel past Barisal and then took a hard right into a skinny channel that I had not thought to include in my map in the GPS because it barely showed up in Google Earth. I assumed we'd follow the bigger channel all the way to the Bay of Bengal but this one took us east to an adjacent river that provided a more direct route. The day passed. Children ran shrieking all over the ship. We watched the river banks glide by, had lunch, read, napped, conversed. Night fell. While we were having dinner the ship stopped at Sopoti Forest Station on the edge of the park to pay our entry fees and take on a guide. At 10 we stopped again at Katka, on the very outer fingers of the delta at the edge of the Bay of Bengal. The plane of Venus and a crescent moon with its dark portion faintly apparent showed the ecliptic and our place in the solar system, then they slid below the horizon where the sun had gone hours earlier.

MV Aboshar anchored in the Katka channel

Next day I got up at 5:30 feeling the morning chill. In the dawn the world was shades of grey with smoky mist hanging over the water and wreathing the forest, with the sky brightening pink and then gold, and finally the sun broke through the trees. The day's programme had three activities: a silent boat ride to look at flora and fauna in a mangrove channel, a walk to a beach on the Bay, and a walk through mangrove forest to look for tiger tracks, etc. We were 45 people so we had to choose the order we'd do this in; half would do the silent boat ride from 6:30am while the other half did the mangrove forest walk, we'd all go to the beach together, and at 3 we'd swap the silent boat ride for the mangrove forest walk.


I thought doing the boat ride first would filter out the children (wrong) and the mangrove walk would be better later in the day, so that's what I did. Thirty of us jammed into a wooden country boat with the guide and a paddler who propelled the boat by sweeping a long oar back and forth off the stern, like a fish's tail.

sun-up on the silent paddle (photo by Robert)

We entered a channel that was just 10 or so meters wide and floated like a wraith through the mists. Swedes hushed their whining children. From far behind us the sound of a one-cylinder diesel increased in volume, bang-bang-bang-bang, and presently a boatload of Bangladeshi tourists hove around the bend and slid up beside us, stopping the motor. Silence returned. A middle-aged man stood up and addressed us magnanimously in booming tones: "Welcome to Bangladesh!" Several Swedes responded "SSSHHHH!!!"

Some of the people in the noisy Bangladeshi boat

Altogether we saw several kingfishers, a fish eagle, a small snake wreathed over a leafy branch soaking up the morning sun, the bird pictured below and ... that's it.

fish eagle, near Katka, in the park

Back at the mothership, the mangrove forest walk people had returned just before us and were caked up the shins with mud but they seemed cheerful so I looked forward to that. They'd seen all of the advertised creatures except of course a tiger. We were told that many park guides have never seen one.

So ... we lay about for a while and then shuttled back up the silent boat ride channel a hundred meters to a rickety landing pier, for the beach sojourn. The mob marshaled at a ten meter high observation tower until everyone was present. The tower looked like it would serve as a place to lay in wait at night, above a tethered kid bleating piteously (perhaps a Swedish kid) to lure a tiger into view. There would be some risk that the tiger might climb up the stairs though. Anyway, we straggled off in a procession southwards across a big meadow visible in the satellite picture above, through a dry forest and eventually after about 40 minutes broke out onto the promised beach. It sloped gently down for fifty meters to a sea that lightly lapped its shores and stretched east and west to headlands several kilometers away, pale in the distance.

beach near Katka (photo by Robert)

Forest guards armed with WWII Lee-Enfield .303 rifles accompanied us everywhere. Since tigers habitually attack solitary persons from behind, the guards must be present more to discourage the dacoits and river pirates that prey on fisherman, and who would do much better looting a party like ours. The national newspapers report frequent depredations of pirates in the Bay and on the rivers, in which they toss the fisherman overboard and make off with their boats and catch, and engage in gun battles with the authorities.

bodyguard, to protect us from tigers and bandits

Other ships' hordes had got there first. I walked a bit further down the beach to claim shade under a tree and then went for a paddle. Others waded a hundred meters out looking for water deep enough to swim in, giving up at waist depth. The water was cool with a strong current streaming parallel with the shore and not as salty as, say, Vancouver. I returned to my tree. I'd barely found my place in my book when our guide and another Bengali man with black hair down to his shoulders trudged up and settled cross-legged beside me. The long-haired guy fired up a fat joint which presently made its way to me. They became garrulous, swapping tales about one of our fellow passengers, a burly Bangladeshi often dressed in red named Kalidas. He is a celebrated painter presently exhibiting in the Bengal Gallery in Dhanmondi, and has had shows in New York and other cities in the US. In his youth he traveled to the US and lived there for seven years, initially making his living drawing portraits in the street. In another story, unable to pay for some essential thing in Indonesia, he convinced a woman to accept a sketch he whipped up in a minute. Everyone on the ship enjoyed his playfulness and charm. Our guide, who has a Kalidas painting, joked that he hoped that he would die soon so that its value would rise.

Sid and Kalidas (photo by Emile)

Back on the ship we had lunch and lay about until three, the time of the next excitement. For me it was the "mangrove forest walk". Discouraged by reports from the morning, the Swedes mostly stayed on the ship, which was wise because the walk would have tried the patience of their children. We shuttled again to another perilously dilapidated pier, this time on the west side of the channel, the site of a somulent forest station with many buildings and few people.

Katka Forest Station buildings are on high piers to resist the tidal surges.

tiger-proof house

Straightaway we plunged into the forest, a-slippin' and a-slidin' in the greasy grey mud and gingerly stepping between the sharp mangrove roots like a vast bed of nails threatening to puncture our feet. Deer could be made out grazing in the dry sloughs, distantly.

mangrove forest

Monkeys accompanied the deer, perhaps for the benefit of the deers' watchfulness. I wonder what was in it for the deer ... amusing monkey-business? We found a tiger print!

tiger print (photo by Magali)

mangrove forest walk (photo by Magali)

Katka had an interesting assortment of ships and boats on the shore, ranging from mere ribs poking out of the mud, and a couple of relatively entire wrecks, to a large passenger ship nosed into the river bank. I counted nine tourist ships in the Katka channel.

Katka channel, from the silent paddle slough

evening on the beach at Katka

mangrove beach

That evening I felt a mild melancholy that the trip was nearly over. The guide informed us that we would weigh anchor at 4am to start toward Khulna. I had a minor dilemma because I wanted to track tomorrow's course with the GPS receiver but I worried that the batteries didn't have enough poop left to leave the device on until then, idle. So I went to bed early setting my watch for 4am, to get up to turn it on. The more fun thing to do would have been to stay up all night with Robert, Kalidas, Mageli and others on a crawl around the fleet smoking Bangladeshi pot until their eyes were slits.

The voyage to Mongla Port was glorious. I did get up at 4 then went back to bed right away with the clanking and buzzing of the telegraph and the roaring of diesels, and was up again at 6 or so. The channel was perhaps a kilometer wide when I came on deck, then we nipped into a narrower meandering side channel to reach the next big channel to the west. This one led us north for most of the morning. We passed an ox-bow lake, only apparent on my GPS map and then darted into a tiny channel to the right (west) that the guides called "the tourist channel" because of its charm and opportunities for excitement.

the tourist channel

Encountering another vessel of our size would have been a big problem because we took up almost half of the channel width so one of the ships would have had to reverse back a long distance. Of course there'd be disagreement about who should retreat. But happily we didn't meet such a ship. The ship owner and the guide anxiously micro-managed the helmsman. The ship's speed and the helmsman's skill were impressive in that tiny space; I'm sure I would have run into a bank immediately.

tourist channel (photo by Magali)

(photo by Emile)

typical Sundarban river bank

Regretfully I left the ship in Mongla Port, Bangladesh's second deep-sea port after Chittagong. In the trip planning I'd been put off by the prospect of an all-nighter bus trip from Khulna to Dhaka and elected to fly, but now I was sorry to leave my friends when the fun wasn't finished. With lots of time until their bus departed from Khulna at 9pm, they went on a side-trip to Bagerhat, a town to the east with a famously ancient multi-domed mosque, and were looking forward to stopping the ship en route to Khula to swim.

looks like brochure material (photo by Emile)

This was definitely the best tourist thing I've done in Bangladesh. I wouldn't come from the other side of the earth for it alone, but I'm so glad I went. I hear good things about the Chittangong Hill Tracts and Bandarban, which are hilly areas with lakes in the south-east corner of the country, so they will be next. Stay tuned.

Thanks Emile, Magali and Robert for your pictures.