…the Sundarbans (“beautiful forest”)


The flight from Dhaka to Jessore was on Regent Air, complete with sari-ed flight attendants.

The boat creaks at night. Only the most subtle sense of movement and the creaking of wood remind you that you’re on a boat. The sense of movement, the creaking, and the quiet.

At the dock in Mongla, detritus from old ferries.

We slept for three nights in a tiny room with a sloped ceiling that would have been right at home in a black and white movie set in colonial Africa. A pendant lamp hung in one corner–its 10 watt bulb barely illuminating the futon bed. The shutter-like door opened directly onto the bed. To each side, in the teak paneled walls pegs for hanging clothes and towels. The mosquito net was hung each night, though the mosquitoes weren’t a problem. The window was a grate, which tilted out over the water and was covered by a wooden shutter at night.

The deck of our restored teak river boat, the "B613." Contic provided chess, Carom and Othello and a few local interest books. We brought Set, Unexploded Cow, MahJong, Bohnanza, Milles Bournes, Cards.... iPods, DS's, Kindles and Cameras.

Out in the hall, a rush matting kept nighttime steps quiet, as need called someone to the little bathrooms near the kitchen.

Raising the sail

Above, the springy roof of intersecting bamboo was a tempting place to experience the sunrise and moonrise, or bask in the breeze while the boat sailed.

Unfurling the sail.

Our days were spent mostly on the deck, eating, playing games and watching the world go by. The real world, capital-E Earth. On the river, we saw a few people, some fishing, some tourists, like ourselves, but not many, and not often. Only when we stopped at the designated “forest stations” were there many other people, but nothing like Dhaka, and nothing even like the famous national parks in the US.

Sunset at Tiger Point, low tide.

There was kind of a mysterious vagueness about time on our trip. When we first arrived, there was a fear that 4 days with nothing to see but trees and water would drive us to insanity, but we didn’t want to leave, and the days didn’t stretch on. Instead, there was the surprise that it was suddenly time for another meal, surprise that the sun was reaching the horizon, or that the mist of the morning had suddenly become the heat of the afternoon.

Our forest service guard, like many public officers in Bangladesh, carried an old, derelict-looking weapon. I hope he never plans to use it, as it hasn't been maintained in a long time.

In the Sundarbans, you come for the tigers, the crocodiles and the kingfishers. If you’re visiting from abroad, these things are worth seeking. If, however, you’re living in Dhaka, the best part of the trip is the solitude. Go on a small boat tour with a few people you know, people who whisper only loud enough to point out the monkey while the boat rows silently down a canal, people who are willing to play a couple rounds of dominos or mahjong. Go when the noise of Dhaka has made you crazy, go when the dust of Dhaka has coated your lungs and eyes until you can’t even stand to step outside. You’ll enjoy it.

Rowing through a canal in the early morning to catch kingfishers and monkeys as they wake up. There were also many storks and other water-birds, mudskippers, crabs...

Our tour was coordinated by Contic, and is the only tour of the Sundarbans given by sailboat. They offer the tour between November and February, on request. The rest of the year, our boat offers sunset cruises in Dhaka. Contic also arranges day cruises of the rivers around Dhaka on their smaller teak boat, the Fleche D’Or. Other tour operators use traditional river cruise ships, and have a less intimate experience.

Hiking through the jungle near Katka forest station, thankful to have appropriate footwear. Do not rely on flip-flops alone!

Travel from Dhaka is via air to Jessore (30 minutes), and mini-bus to Mongla (2.5 hours).

Interactive map of the Sundarban’s region, showing the clear division between the natural forest and the cultivated surrounds.

Dave‘s 2009 experience on a different boat.

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