Prior to my journey to Bangladesh I read almost everything I could find on the Internet about the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), but when we got off the train in Chittagong – my starting point for this region – I was still unsure quite what to expect. Even with the extra information given by my guide I was unprepared for the magnificent adventure and experience that greeted me. My sense of curiosity and impatience to start documenting everything was sky-high.
We had met an American girl on the train who was traveling alone in South East Asia, and we found we shared a common goal – to visit the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The girl had already contacted the local authorities by phone and had been told what formal procedures were required to obtain the necessary permits to visit the area. On arrival we found the home of the officer responsible for issuing permits, and he kindly signed the papers, despite it being a Saturday.
The permits are required because of earlier political problems in the region. There had been political conflict and armed struggle between the Government and the United People’s Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts over issues of autonomy and rights of the indigenous peoples and tribes. A devastating period that destroyed many lives and crippled families.
Thus it was that this region of natural abundance, home to eleven indigenous groups who collectively number approximately 700,000 people (1% of the total population) and occupy 9% of the total territory of the country, became an arena of conflict and unrest for about 20 years.
Since the signing of a the 1997 peace treaty known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord, between the PCJSS and the Government of Bangladesh, the political situation has improved to the point where tourists are now being permitted to visit.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts occupies a physical area of 13,295 sq.km and lies in the south eastern area of Bangladesh adjoining international boundaries with Myanmar in the southeast, Mizoram on the east and the Indian states of Tripura in the north.
The area is hilly, with a network of paths and dusty roads leading to small settlements. The panoramic views from the hilltops are really stunning and I personally spent many hours admiring the beautiful landscapes. The forests are rich in Timber, Bamboo, Cane and Shans (a type of grass). The wildlife includes monkey, fox, jungle cat, fishing cat, wild boar, hedgehogs, rabbits, land turtle, king cobra, reticulated python, rattle snake and other non-poisonous snakes, along with many species of lizards, birds and amphibians such as frogs and toads.
As mentioned above, the Chittagong Hill Tracts are home to eleven different tribes: – The Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Lushai, Pankhua, Bawm, Mro, Kheyang, Khumi and Chak.
The Chakmas are the predominant ethnic group, residing mostly in the district’s centre, followed by the Marmas, who inhabit the southern and northern areas of the CHT. Both groups have undergone greater acculturation of the dominant South Asian traditions than other ethnic groups in the area. The Marmas are predominantly Buddhists whilst the Chakma, who speak their own adapted dialect of Bengali, are commonly described as Buddhists, however in reality they have adopted much of the Hindu ceremonial practices and beliefs.
One of the most exciting places I visited in the CHT area was Bandarban, the remotest district of the country and also the least populated – 292,900. Mount Tahjindongis sometimes referred to, as Bijoy is located there with its peak at 1,310 metres. Another beautiful place to visit is the picturesque Lake Boga.
We joined up with a single French traveller at our hotel in Bandarban and travelled together to Lake Boga. The journey took us about 6 hours using bus, rickshaw, river cruiser, a 4×4 Chandigarh jeep and finally a 30 minute trek to the lake itself. We found a beautiful house on stilts to rent with a lake view, I must say, the sunset over the lake was one of the most stunning I have ever seen.
Around Lake Boga live the Bawm people, most of who have been converted to Christianity.
Not far from the Bawm tribal settlement, we found a small village inhabited by Marma people. There are approximately 210,000 of them in Chittagong Hill Tracts. We also visited a beautiful Buddhist temple and had the chance to talk to the monks and boys who were decorating it with paintings – a wonderfully quiet and peaceful place.
I had read on the Internet about a monk from this tribe who was injured by the Bangladesh Army during the massacres on April 30th to May 1st, 1986. At that time the Bangladeshi Army in the region were destroying temples, images of Buddha and Buddhist texts. I wanted to find out more about these events, but unfortunately a conversation on the subject never happened. Regardless of the past, the current situation looked calm and normal. People were very friendly; some even invited us into their bamboo stilt homes, which sit about 2 meters above the ground as protection against flooding and wild animals.
The Mru, also known as Murong, is the most authentic tribe in the region; they are assumed to be the original inhabitants of Bandarban. They are famous for their music and dance, which unfortunately we did not have the chance to see.
Their settlements are located about half a day’s walk from Lake Boga. People were shy and easily frightened, hiding in their bamboo stilt houses and peeking through the windows.
The Mru people have managed to maintain much of their traditional lifestyle, still using primitive practices in almost every aspect of the household. Modern clothes are scarcely seen. Traditionally both men and women go semi naked; women wear colourful skirts and men a type of lungi.
From the research I did before my trip, I knew something about the Khumi people who live in the remotest parts of the district, and also of other groups who live almost completely isolated in the jungles and rarely visit the “civilized world”. We met a student at Lake Boga who told us that we would need at least 2 weeks trekking deep into the jungle for any chance of seeing these tribes. He also told us that the only reason for the men from these tribes to go outside their communities was to trade their crafts or goods collected from the jungle, they traded for salt and a special kind of dry fish from which they extract oil. They don’t take anything else from civilization. Having listened to this story I am already making plans to visit them next time.
Unfortunately, as in many places in South East Asia, the Chittagong Hill Tracts are undergoing deforestation and land degradation caused by environmentally unsuitable activities, such as tobacco cultivation on slopping land, shifting cultivation and logging. Shifting cultivation, also known as slash and burn agriculture, has accelerated soil erosion, land degradation and deforestation, which subsequently impoverishes the tribal people.
This, together with the unstable political situation in the region, presents a real and major problem for future generations, who will face more and more difficulties in their struggle to eke out livelihoods from the degraded land.
Slash and burn cultivation usually starts with cutting trees and burning vegetation to clear space for crop production, Chittagong Hill Tracts
One of the most memorable parts of my trip through the Chittagong Hill tracts was the Sangu River boat journey. It was an absolutely magnificent experience. This mighty river originates in the Arakan Hills of Myanmar; it flows through the Bandarban district of Bangladesh and then meets the Bay of Bengal near Chittagong – Khankhanabad.
The Sangu River is widely used for the transportation of agricultural and other necessary products by local tribal communities. What is especially remarkable is the way in which bamboo is transported; it is cut and lashed together into huge rafts, which are then floated downstream from the mountains to the towns, the raftmen live on board during the journey. I would certainly have loved to experience such a journey had I more time.
During my time in CHT, I was fortunate to visit the District of Rangamati and to call into the town of the same name. The District is the largest in Bangladesh with a landscape of hills, jungle, rivers, lakes and plains.
We rented a boat to explore the artificial lake of Kaptai – created when the Kaptai Dam on the Karnaphuli River was built as part of the Karnaphuli Hydro-electric project. The boat trip was good value and the area around the lake very scenic. Especially picturesque were the floating markets we visited – a real mecca for photographers. Photo opportunities vied for our attention everywhere: diverse people, colourful clothes, huge crowds, a profusion of boats, piles of timber, heaps of jackfruit and pineapple and all manner of forest goods calling out to be photographed.
We also visited small shipyards along the banks of the lake where old boat and shipbuilding techniques were observed.
A Buddhist Temple called Rajban Bihar Pagoda was an exciting place to visit and of particular interest to me; as we were able to sit and chat with the local monks.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh is one of the most interesting places in Bangladesh and one I shall visit again one day. There is so much more to see and learn.