Cox's Bazaar and St. Martin's Island

February 27, 2004 - Cox's Bazaar and St. Martin's Island

Pepa and I had an action-packed weekend. On Thursday I didn't go to work; instead at noon we took a plane to a beach town in the very south east of the country called Cox's Bazaar, after some East India Company robber-baron who beat up the pirates there and took over, in the late 18th century. We had reservations in a self-proclaimed 5 star hotel a kilometer or so down the beach from the main town action, which turned out to be such a shadow of its advertised many-splendored self that we felt deceived. The beach was a disappointment as well, thronged with promenading middle-class Bangladeshis in their saris and suits, talking on their cell phones and photgraphing each other ruining their good shoes in the wet sand. Almost no one was in the water. Young men approached us one after another asking "what country?", wanting to photograph themselves with us. Pepa always refused, unrepentant when I reminded her about how often she photographs people here herself.

Right away we saw that chilling on the beach wasn't an option so for next day we bought tickets to St. Martin's Island, a Paisly-sized bump of coral about 40 kilometers off the coast, the very southernmost point in Bangladesh, acually closer to Myanmar. A mini-van picked us up at the hotel tardily at 6:30 am and took us to a big dining room in another hotel for breakfast (fried vegetable curry, chapatis, leathery omlette and super-sweet chai), then with a few dozen other people we boarded a bus to the ferry terminal.

We sat right behind the driver which was good for leg-room but tiresomely dramatic. The road was about a bus-width and a half, making encounters with other buses tricky, especially while overtaking. We plunged through villages with little reduction in speed, just blasts on the horn, dodging livestock and narrowly missing rickshaws. After three nail-biting hours at last we arrived at the terminal, called Teknaf, a dirt expanse scraped in the river-bank with a single rickety pier that led out to a respectably big launch that could have crushed it with a nudge. A procession of head-loaded coolees pushed by us on the narrow way, unloading sacks of fish-meal (by the smell) from lighters.

The launch filled with passengers, but reasonably, not like the floating disasters you read about here. Presently it pulled away from the pier, setting off down the river. Mayanmar passed by distantly on the left and Bangladesh on the right. We stayed inside mostly because I didn't have any sun-block and the view was uninteresting, and we both had books we were enjoying. Three hours later we gently pulled up against an even frailer pier on St. Martin's Island.

A sweet little boy attached himself to us immediatley we set foot on the sand and led us up a squalid lane to a funky eatery, part of the package deal. Lunch was the usual rice, dahl, fried vegetable curry and sliced cucumbers, with grilled boney fish. Pepa grandly ordered a lobster which was expensive but really good. Then we set off in search of a beach to chill on.

A raised concrete path apparently proof against cyclones bore rickshaws and rickshaw vans and lots of people past wattle hovels roofed with coconut fronds, winding through the centre of the island. The tourists in their saris and lounge-suits contrasted with the local people even more harshly than we did. After fifteen minutes or so we'd had enough of the interior and broke out to the beach. Just like Cox's Bazaar, it was filled with people. We were determined to swim so I swapped trousers for bathing-suit under cover of my lungi and then held a towel around Pepa while she changed from salwar camiz to bikini. Of course everyone within a hundred meters watched this with deep interest. I waded out into the sea and Pepa followed, ineffectually wrapped in her orna. The sand was treacherously studded with sharp coral boulders so after a brief dunking we returned to the shore. I flung myself down on the sand on my lungi, eyes shut, preparing to soak up a few rays but soon became aware that we were surrounded by a growing crowd of oggling idiots. Pepa was furious and ordered them away. A silly fellow with camera poised urged us to enjoy our sunbathing. There was nothing more to do than just go away, so we did.

Nicer beaches with fewer people awaited us as we walked back toward the launch along the shore. The quaint, prettily painted boats anchored out from the beach begged to be photographed.

A balmy breeze rippled the sea and whispered in the coconut palms. I swam again, this time without risk of treading on sharp rocks. The deadline to embark was approaching so we headed back to the launch, paying off our small guide handsomely.

I wished that we could have hung out there for several days, to explore the island and snorkel and get the feel of the place without a zillion tourists, but besides having no time for that it was funky for Pepa's taste and we'd have had to rough it, relatively. She's getting picky in her advancing years. I expect that Cecilia and Chad will not want to lounge about in fancy hotels when we're together in Thailand so I wonder how that will go.

The trip back was just the morning's journey in reverse, without event. Altogether we had travelled twelve hours for three hours on the island. Next day we should have explored Cox's Bazaar environs for Bhuddist temples and a Burmese market, but the hotel wanted an absurd amount to drive us around and Pepa wasn't keen on venturing out in taxis, so we watched HBO in bed most of the morning and then flew back to Dhaka. Although there was a hartal (general strike) on we found a taxi easily enough and were back in the comfort of our apartment by 2pm.

Except for a pair of Chinese in the hotel and a young Australian couple at the Cox's Bazaar airport we had seen no other foreigners all weekend. Being in Bangladesh is to be a stranger in a strange land.

We haven't decided on our next adventure yet, but it will be soon. Getting our of the city is a huge relief, if only for fresh air. Of course there's lots more attraction than that ... we're thinking of taking the train (6 hours) to the hill country in the north east to stay in a guest house on a tea plantation, or maybe take "The Rocket", a river ship, to Khulna (30 hours one way) in the south west, perhaps this weekend because there's a full moon.