1/4/2009 to 1/7/2009 | Bangladesh

Bandarban & the Journey to Bogra Lake

I began my stay in Bandarban cursing the place.  After being deposited at the bus stand I began looking around for a place to stay with each hotel telling me “no room, booking.”  Could Bandarban really be this popular?  The only place that “had” a room was the fancy hotel where the cheapest room cost 500 taka (a little over $7, I know not a lot but more than twice what I had paid anywhere else in Bangaladesh).  Refusing to pay this out of principle, I continued my search.  The cheaper hotels all told me “no room” despite walls of keys indicating empty rooms behind the reception counters.  I even briefly managed to check into a room for 200 taka but that only lasted until the manager returned and kicked me back out on the streets.  I was irate; clearly the police had instructed that foreigners were only allowed to stay in the high priced hotels deemed “acceptable.”  I went to the local police station determined to either get the officer in charge to let me stay in a hotel in my price range, or sleep on the doorstep of his office.  The officer was extremely hospitable and my temper was immediately diffused, he got me a room in the nice hotel for 300 taka (still more than I typically paid but also a nicer room than I typically stay in).  He also told me I should not go outside of Bandarban citing that it was “dangerous.”  Despite his helpfulness this was advice I promptly ignored, and the following day I walked out randomly into the countryside to see what I could discover.  After a meandering through a few tribal villages, rice patties, and forested hills I returned to Bandarban perfectly safe.  In the late afternoon I walked out to a golden Burmese style pagoda at the edge of town and it was there were I met a couple of brothers who were refugees from Burma and were showing a foreign couple around the stupa.  The female half of the couple had been in Bangladesh as part of the EU’s election monitoring team while the male half was currently working for an NGO in Tajikistan.  The Burmese brothers both going by the name of Khaing, along with a friend of theirs, Alex, who was the blind son of high ranking local politician, were helping to arrange for the couple a trip out to Bogra Lake a remote region near the Burmese border.  I was invited to go along.  Despite not having the technically correct permissions for this excursion armed with Alex’s fathers name and phone number and his cousin as a guide I along with the couple set out for Bogra Lake.  Bogra Lake is a place where the adventure of getting there is more than half the fun.  First a shared jeep packed to the roof with people, then a boat down the river to the wild east town of Ruma in accessible by road.  I was told in Ruma I should not carry too much cash with me as armed robbery is not unheard of in this neglected corner of the country.  It was in Ruma that we finally attracted the attention of the authorities who insisted that we take a police escort up to Bogra Lake.  We tried our best to avoid this but they absurdly insisted that they send five guards to protect the three of us.  We did win on transport, accustom to rich foreign tourists who hired there own jeep to take them and their police entourage up the dirt track to Bogra Lake, by declaring lack of money we managed to allow them to let us ride in the back of a shared pickup.  The officers were less than happy with the far from luxurious transportation, but little did they know that this was just the beginning of the hell we would put them through.  The absurdity of our police escort became more apparent when reached Bogra Lake to find an army camp next to the lake.  So we had five armed policemen to protect us from the army?  We visited a nearby village, though waltzing into town with five armed men doesn’t really help cross cultural communication.  After a night at the lake we were ready to head back as our permits would be expiring soon.  The only problem was that there was no vehicle heading to Ruma so our only way back would be to book a vehicle from Ruma to come pick us up at great expense,  at least that’s what the police thought.  It was about 15 km back to Ruma a bit over an hour by jeep or truck on the very rough road or about what I figured would be a 4 hour hike.  Our police entourage looked like they could go doughnut for doughnut with any American cop and were vehemently opposed to us walking back when we floated the idea.  The walking idea gained strength, with me as its chief proponent as it became clear that there would be no vehicle today.  The police told us flatly you do not have permission.  To which I responded “what are they going to do shoot us to protect us.”  We grabbed our bags and started walking to the shouts of the officers.  They did not shoot us, and reluctantly walked with us the 4 hours back to Ruma.  I do have to hand it the police after they were resigned to walking back they were in good spirits, polite, and managed to keep up with up with us, though suspect they upon returning they were busy telling there buddies about the tourists from hell.  Maybe in the future it will get them to drop this silly requirement if all tourists make it has hard on them as we did.  Back in Ruma we met up with a very nice Bangladeshi man who we had met on the way up to Bogra Lake.  It was his hired truck we caught a ride in, and he was planning to build a resort at Bogra Lake.  He invited us for dinner at the Hotel where he was staying where we dined on the roof overlooking the town.  The following day it was back to Bandarban via boat and the roof of a jeep.  Sitting on the roof of the jeep watching the country side fly by, I remember thinking, “Yeah, this is not a bad life.”

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