Bandarban Hill District is the most remote and least populated district in Bangladesh. The lure of the tallest peaks of Bangladesh, treks through virgin forests and chance to meet more than 15 tribes of the region up close is growing both among Bangladeshis and tourists from other countries. Since the insurgency ceased in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (a cluster that includes all three hill districts of Bangladesh) it has opened up for tourists more than a decade back, though some of the western tourist guides may still describe the area as a major security risk.
It is governed by a Hill Council under the Bangladesh government, headed by the King of Mong Circle. The current monarch, His Highness King Aung Shue Prue Chowdhury, is the 15th to sit on the throne. The front hall (Raj Durbar) of the Royal Palace is open to visitors, provided that appropriate behavior is maintained. Interestingly the 13th Royal Family claims the current Family to be usurpers to the throne.
Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Chramma are major religions along with many pagan faiths.
The best place for information are the Press Club (phone: +880 (0) 361 62549), the Tribal Cultural Institute (phone: +880 (0) 361 62424), the office of Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation, the government owned tourism company and the office of Guide Tours, the largest privately owned tourism company, at Hill Side Resort.
Bandarban, a 4,479 km² wide area with a population of 292,900 (2003 est.) inside Bangladesh is bordered by Cox's Bazaar, Chittagong, Rangamati and Khagrachari. On the other side of the 129 kilometre international border lies Myanmar provinces of Chin and Arakan.
Bandarban has only one town that approaches anything near a city - the Bandarban town. The rest of the area is divided into 7 upazilas, which are in turn divided into varying numbers of unions. Each union is a cluster of paras and villages.
The three highest peak of Bangladesh - Tahjindong (1280 meters, also known as bijoy), Mowdok Mual (1052 meters), and Keokradong (883 metres) - are located in Bandarban district, as well as Raikhiang Lake, the highest lake in Bangladesh. Chimbuk peak and Boga Lake are two more highly noted features of the district. Though most Bangladesh sources cite Keokradong as the highest peak in the country, but Tazing Dong (sometimes spelled as Tahjingdong, and also known as Bijoy) lying further east is recognized both by government and expert sources as a taller peak. Measurements taken by English adventurer Ginge Fullen shows that an officially unnamed peak near the Myanmar border (locally known as Mowdok Mual) is the highest point in Bangladesh.Recently a team from Nature Adventure Club took part in an expedition in the mowdok range and agreed with the ginge fullens statement. They got the hight of this peak as 3488 feet with gps accuracy of 3 meter. The unnamed summit is known as 'Saka Haphong' to the local Tripura tribes.
The following is a list of mountain ranges in the area and the tallest peaks of each range:
The River Sangu (also known as Sangpo or Shankha), the only river born inside Bangladesh territory, runs through Bandarban. The other rivers in the district are Matamuhuri and Bakkhali. Parts of Kaptai Lake, the biggest lake in, Bangladesh fall under the area.
In the early days of 15th century, Arakanese kingdom expended its territories to the Chittagong area of Bengal. After the victory of Arakan on Burma's Pegu kingdom in 1599 AD, the Arakanese king Mong Raja Gree appointed a Prince of Pegu as the governor of newly established Bohmong Htaung (Circle) by giving the title of "Bohmong" Raja. That area was mostly populated by the Arakanese descendants and ruled by the Burmese (Myanmar) noble descendants who started to call themselves in Arakanese language as Marma. Marma is an archaic Arakanese pronunciation for Myanmar. As the population of the Bohmong Htaung were of Arakanese descandants, these Myanmar-desendants Bohmong chiefs (Rajas) of the ruling class took the titles in Arakanese and speak a dialect of the Arakanese language.
Bandarban Hill District was once called Bohmong Htaung since the Arakanese rule. Once Bohmong Htaung was ruled by Bohmong Rajas who were the subordinates to the Arakanese kings. Ancestors of the present Bohmong dynasty were the successor of the Pegu King of Burma under the Arakan's rule in Chittagong. In 1614, King Mong Kha Maung, the king of Arakan appointed Maung Saw Pru as Governor of Chittagong who in 1620 repulsed the Portuguese invasion with great valour. As a consequence, Arakanese king, Mong Kha Maung adorned Maung Saw Pru with a title of Bohmong meaning Great General. After the death of Maung Saw Pru two successors retained Bohmong title. During the time of Bohmong Hari Gneo in 1710, Arakanese King Canda Wizaya recaptured Chittagong from the Mughals. Bohmong Hari Gneo helped King Canda Wizaya in recapturing Chittagong and as a mark of gratitude the later conferred on Bohmong Hari Gneo the grand title of Bohmong Gree which means great Commander in Chief.
During the British Raj, it was declared as the Bohmong circle with limited autonomy. The Mizokaba or the Mizo uprise in the mid 19th century was major catalyst for re-settlemet of the tribes in the area. During World War II the area saw the presence of a formidable British military presence that came to stand against a Japanese invasion. The tribes of these hills held the reputation of unyielding rebellion throughout history. When India, Pakistan and Mynamar went independent from the Raj, the leaders of the tribes people decided unsuccessfully to become a part of Mynamar, then known as Burma. During the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 to gain independence from Pakistan, the leaders again sought unsuccessfully to remain a part of Pakistan.
In the late 1970s, a policy of forced settlement of Bengalis into hills was pursued, which later gave rise to much violence against the hill people and the insurgency led by Shanti Bahini, the military wing of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti. There have been an attempt to create divide among tribal cultural lines between the Chakmas, who led Shantibanhini, and the Mrus, by creating an anti-Shantibanhini militia out of them. Now, after the peace treaty, Bandarban stands as a locally governed ethnic region together with the two other hill districts. Representation of numerous tribes of the district in the Hill Council now stands as a thorn of dispute here.
There are more than fifteen ethnic minorities living in the district besides the Bengalis, including: the Marma, the Arakanese descendants and Arakanese (Rakhine), who are also know as Magh, Mru (also known as Mro or Murong), Bawm, Khyang, Tripuri (also known as Tipra or Tipperah), Mizo (also known as Lushei), Khumi, Chak, Kuki, Chakma and Tenchungya, who are closely related, Reang (also known as Riyang), Uchoi (also known as Usui) and Pankho.
The Mru, also known as Murong, who are famous for their music and dance. The Mru in major numbers have converted to Khrama (or Crama), the youngest religion in Bangladesh that prohibits much of their old ways. They are assumed to be the original inhabitants of Bandarban. The Bawm are another major tribe here. Now converted almost totally to Christianity they have taken full advantage of the church to become the most educated people in the district. The Marma are Arakanese descendants of Myanmar by origin and Buddhists by religion, and are the second largest tribe in the hill districts of Bangladesh. The Khumi live in the remotest parts of the district, and the group is thought to include yet unexplored/ unclassified tribes.
These ethnic groups are again divided in hundreds of clans and sects, principally dominated by four religious threads - Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and a number of pagan faiths. All these clans and groups are clustered into two major ethnic families, namely the hill people and the valley people. Since the Kaptai dam flooded the valley creating to Kaptai lake, the valley people have started to live on hill tops along the hill people.
Bengali settlers, coming in with the forced settlements in 1979, and Rohingya settlers, coming in across the Myanmar border since the junta came to power in Yangon in 1992, now has become two major ethnic groups outside minorities. But, there are a number of Bengali families who claim to have settled earlier than some of the tribes.in there live many Barua also.
Bangla (official); Marma, Bawm and Mru (local)
There are three ways to get to Bandarban. The easiest is a direct bus ride from Dhaka which takes 6 hours. The few services available are Dolphin at Kalabagan, Unique service, Shyamoli Paribahan at Gabtali, Asad gate, Fakirerpul, Kamlapur, Saydabad and S Alam at Kamalapur. On the high tourist season it is advisable to buy tickets in advance.
There are a few services available that offer a bus ride from Chittagong which takes 2 hours (the most available is Purbani at Bahaddarhaat). To reach Chittagong from Dhaka there are three options - taking a flight (Bangladesh Biman or GMG airline), a bus ride (Sohag is undoubtedly the best service, available at Kalabagan and Mahakhali) or a train ride from Kamalapur (Turna Nishitha, Mahanagar Godhuli and Subarna).
From Cox's Bazar, it is a 3-hour busride (the most available is Purbani at Laaldighi). To reach Cox's Bazaar from Dhaka it is possible take either a 10-hour bus ride (Sohag is the best) or a flight (Bangladesh Biman or GMG airlines). From Chittagong it is 4-hour bus ride (apart from Dolphin, Purbani is the most available).
Purbani Bus Srvice, Phone:01820412800 (Chittagong), 0361-62508 (Bandarban)
It is possible to get to Bandarban directly from Rangamati by way of Chandraghona, but the perilous route is not advisable at all.
Car rented from Chittagong, readily available from Bangladesh Enterprise (phone: +880 (0) 31 670512) at Chandgao, Al-Amin Enterprise (phone: +880 (0) 31 720600) or Alam Enterprise (phone: +880 (0) 31 714566) at Hazi Para in Agrabad, Bismilla Fashion (phone: +880 (0) 31 612749) at Reazuddin Bazar or Samara Fashions (phone: +880 (0) 31 615925) at Azimir Super Market at Monim Road, would take anyone to Bandarban. Though it is possible to rent a car at Dhaka to go all the way to Bandarban, it is not advisable in any way. Plainland drivers are generally lousy in the hills and they don't know the locality at all. It would be prudent to hire a driver who comes from Bandarban.
Inside the town, which can be easily covered on feet, the most available mode of transport in the rickshaw. For places out of town there are three-wheeler taxis near the Traffic Mor (circle or intersection), four-wheel drive vehicles for hire near Hotel Green Hill, and a rent-a-car station near Hotel Hill Bird. There also are the regular public transit system of ancient four-wheel-drive vehicles, known locally as Chander Gari (meaning the Moon Car) available Ruma and Rowangchhari Bus Stations, as well as near the Sonali Bank. Major road routes are Chimbuk-Ruma, Bandarban-Rowangchhari-Ruma, Aziznagar-Gojalia-Lama, Khanhat-Dhopachhari-Bandarban, Bandarban-Chimbuk-Thanchi-Alikadam-Baishari-Dhundhum, and Chimbuk-Tangkabati-Baro Aoulia. It is also possible to travel by native boats by the river Sangu, from either the Bazaar Ghat or the Kyaw Ching Ghat.
A hike to either Keokaradong (883 m) or Tahjindong (967 m), the two tallest peak is an exhilarating experience. On the side of both the peaks reside the remotest tribes-people of Bangladesh - the Khumi and the Kuki. Boga Lake, one of the two highest lakes in Bangladesh lie directly on the trek, while the other one, the Raikhiang Lake lies only a little off the way.
There is an abundance of Brumese, Thai and Chinese trinkets, textile and other stuff in the town. But, the best buy is definitely the products of local handloom - cloth fabric, shawls, blankets and more - as well as products of bamboo, cane and wood - buskets, flutes, hats, mask and more. Prices are amazingly low, and textile qualities are amazingly high. The designs are refreshingly exotic and extremely geometric. Only the textile from Myanmar (called Burma here) have floral or fire patterns, and are made by machine looms.
Both the Bandarban Bazaar and the Marma Bazaar sell, hawk and peddle an incredible number of floral-patterned Burmese cloths that are used to make dresses in Marma style. A thicket of tailoring shops line the streets of both markets to cater to buyers of these cloths. It is a fun activity for women to buy cloth and take it to a tailoring shop. Custom fit Thami (sarong) and Angi (Blouse) are tailored in a day.
There are good restaurants in Bandarban Bazaar where local cuisine can be sampled, which is mostly too hot for unaccustomed palates.
The best places to eat are Khaoa Daoa (a Muslim restaurant, meaning they serve beef) and Adarsha Bhaatghar (a Hindu restaurant, meaning they don't serve beef).
Chinese or Continental food, though available and expensive by local standards, is of poor quality here. Check with Ree Song Song in the town or Kyank Ching at Parzatan Motel Megla.
The local tribespeople consider almost everything that walks, flies or swims as food, so with a little luck it is possible to sample dog meat, and even dried snakes or deer meat (both are protected species in Bangladesh). Nappi, a semi-dried fish-paste with powerful flavor, is one of the top delicacies. Most of the hotels in Bandarban do not have any restaurant attached.
Though there are no designated bars or pubs, alcoholic drinks are widely available due to the culture of the tribes-people. A local rice wine called Arraa is a potent drink. It is often flavored with stone-apples, pineapples and elachi. It is best drunk with coconut juice. Ching Rey is a beer made from the first brew of Arraa. Tea is a fairly common drink in the daytime, and available at plentiful hot tea shops. Tea here is well-cooked and served with thin milk and salt instead of sugar.
There is no formal nightlife here. But, if you stay outside the town, it may be possible to sit at a gathering of tribal village fold for a little music and lot of drinking.
With a little luck, it is possible to stay at one of the numerous government rest houses, especially in quiet seasons. The most notable is the District Circuit House, followed by Hill Top Rest House, maintained by the District Administration, and the Forest Department rest House. Department of Roads and Highways have two rest houses of fair standards - one near Chimbuk, the other near the circuit house. But, these can not be booked in advance, unless the traveler is on government business or a government guest or employee.
In Bandarban Town itself there are numerous inexpensive hotels, all of which are at Bandarban Bazaar, the market district of the town. The most prominent are:
The telecom watchdog, Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission (BTRC), has permitted Rankstel and QC Telecom, two privately owned phone companies, to provide telular (Fixed Wireless Transceiver based phones) services in Bandarban, which is about the equal to connections provided by Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board (BTTB), the government owned monopoly on fixed-line telephone service, and are far more available.
There are a couple of cybercafes that offer internet services. But, since they are not connected to the information superhighway via submarine cables, the connections are pretty slow, often dipping below 0.4kb. These usually remain open from 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM.
Postal codes for Bandarban are - 4600 (Bandarban Sadar), 4630 (Thanchi), 4641 (Lama), 4660 (Nikhongchhari), 4650 (Alikadam), 4610 (Rowangchhari), and 4620 (Ruma). The surface mail is notoriously slow and undependable. There also is a possibility of mail from foreign nationals getting opened and checked by civil or military authorities.
As malaria is a major health threat in the region, malaria prophylaxis is highly advisable. Avloquin and Malacide are two popular local brands of the drug, purchasable from major Dhaka, Chittagong or Bandarban drugstores that are known as a "pharmacy" in Bangladesh. Incidentally, Bandaraban District Hospital has arguably the best treatment and research facilities for malarial treatment in Bangladesh.
Drinking water often comes from hillside streams. Therefore, insist upon water from tube wells, or carry your own supply of water bottles or water purification tablets. Halotab is the popular local brand of purification tablets. Bandarban pharmacies may not have any in stock, so it is advisable to purchase some in Dhaka or Chittagong beforehand.
There are a few laundries (local name for washing shops) in the town, but no dry cleaner. These would wash your clothes by the river. Photoprocessing is easy, as there are quite a few shops at Marmabazaar. The photoprocessing experience can become an exciting experience if you try a shop that has photo studio attached.