Heading South, to the land of the Bengal Tiger on a Sundarbans Trip.
Punting down narrow, muddy creeks, as the sun rose in the background, our eyes were peeled. Watching for any sign of movement or a noise that was different from the muted splosh of water around the boat, or the tweeting kingfishers. As we watched the dense jungle, we wondered.. do we actually want to see a tiger? Could it jump onto our tiny boat from shore or from the water?
Taking the Rocket Paddle Steamer from Dhaka to Hularhat.
The journey south began in Dhaka, on the banks of the (very black) Buriganga river. Waiting for the Rocket Paddlesteamer to dock, I walked up and down the crowded and bustling ferry terminal (Sadarghat), soaking up the competitive cries of Launch (long distance ferry) operators vying for business on popular routes.
The Rocket (there are actually six of them) was built in Calcutta in 1929 with parts from Scotland. Once the fastest ship to ply Bangladesh’s famous waterways, now they are one of the slowest ways to travel. But for many tourists, that’s part of the charm. Taking the opportunity to slow down and enjoy a spot of slow travel on the Rocket was one of the highlights of my Bangladesh trip. The Rockets also have a better safety record than regular Launches (ferries) – as we pulled out of Sadarghat against a blushing sunset sky, we saw the Launches racing each other, cutting one another up in the water in a jostle for poll position, while we chugged steadily along behind.
Together with my group for my Sundarbans boat tour, I was on the MS Ostrich (considered the best Rocket, apparently) and in a first class cabin. It wasn’t quite a luxurious experience (there are no attached bathrooms and cabins are basic, but clean,) but the journey was very comfortable. Cabins lead off the communal first class dining area and there’s a tangible air of nostalgia and old world glamour. A butler in a white coat is available for G&T orders, while dinner is prepared (we were recommended to stay with the Bangladeshi food vs the overpriced western efforts). Tipping your butler and the guys who kindly escort you to the washrooms is a nice thing to do.
I slept soundly in my twin cabin (I had had to buy two berths to avoid being paired up with an unknown (possibly male) traveller), lulled to sleep by the slow rhythm of the boat’s engine. I woke up and lazily debated the effort of getting up in time to watch the sunrise. I was glad I did. As we pulled out of Barisal, the sky turned orange, and never-ending riverscapes dotted with small jetties and villages floated past.
Although the Rocket goes directly to Mongla – our starting point for our Sundarbans boat tour – we disembarked at Hularhat. This saves nearly a whole day on the Rocket, which has to meander along with the river, and transferred to travel by road by Mongla. This is the route most take as it allows time to stop at the 60 Dome Mosque of Bagerhat on the way. Mongla and Hularhat are well connected by bus, if you don’t have pre-arranged transport.
Planning a trip to Bangladesh? Read these 30 things to know before you go!
Exploring the Sundarbans by Boat.
To visit the sundarbans on a live-aboard boat, you have to take a Sundarbans package tour – independent travel is not allowed. This is what the vast majority of travellers coming to the Sundarbans do, and there are a huge range of operators and choices when it comes to choosing a travel agent. Quality of boat and tour varies a lot. Always ask for photos of the boat you’ll be going on and check for life jackets while boarding.
For your best chances of seeing a tiger (which are very low) then you need to spend weeks on a boat going to remote parts of the Sundarbans – a trip of 3 days is unlikely to cut it. After all, stretching over 10,000 square kilometres the Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world.
I travelled with Bangladesh Expeditions (I was impressed by the rural, responsible tourism projects they were running in the Meghna River Delta outside of Dhaka) and would recommend them. Mamun (the owner) is friendly and responded quickly to my array of questions! My Sundarbans tour package was for three days and two nights on the boat. Our boat left from Mongla, which is the closest jumping off point for the Sundarbans.
Unfortunately, the weather didn’t play ball for my trip. The Sundarbans is always extremely humid (after all it’s a tropical mangrove forest), but it usually rains much less during winter. During monsoon (June – October) Sundarbans trips are not advisable or usually available. However during my 3 days in December on the boat, it rained for about 80% of the time. Which put a literal dampner on the experience.
Soggy and wet we rambled around the boat, and stopped for short forays on to shore via small boat (where permissible). Each time, we emerged without having seen much – the wildlife, like us, seemed to be sheltering from the rain. Although over our three days we saw beautiful kingfishers, monkeys, spotted deer, wild pigs and (in the distance) a crocodile lazing on the grey river banks.
The boat trip was a chance to relax and enjoy the naturally quiet and serene surroundings, step away from the phone (there’s no mobile signal away from the towns), read a book, snooze, and share travel stories. I was fortunate enough to travel with not one but two well travelled companions, and I listened to them trade stories about the diciest border crossings they’d been through.
Getting Off-Beat: Exploring the Sundarbans in a Different way.
It *is*possible to travel independently in the Sundarbans, only not on a stay-aboard boat. One way is to find a homestay within the Sundarbans.
So, to find a different perspective of the Sundarbans, I booked a stay in a Sundarbans Eco Lodge, Gol Kanon. Run by an NGO, the eco lodge is rustic and offers the chance to experience simple, village life in the middle of the Sundarbans.
During my two days at Gol Kanon, not only did the sun come out, by my appreciation for the Sundarbans landscapes began to grow. I was taken in a small canoe along small creeks and canals of the sundarbans to spot wildlife (although the tigers remained as illusive as ever). We passed small houses and fishing boats, greeting neighbours with a friendly wave. There were no other tourists or tourist boats in sight, and tranquility reigned supreme. The host family were incredibly friendly, taught me how to make cakes (pitta), and went out of their way to make me feel at home.
The eco lodge is located in the small, largely Hindu village of Karam Mura, accessible from Mongla only by boat. A visit here is as likely to stretch your comfort zone as it is to be memorable – after days of rain I jumped off boats (complete with backpack) into mud, only to be stared at by groups of locals who had gathered, wondering what on earth a lone British girl was doing in their village. I rode village carts and took off my shoes to wade through mud for about a mile, given that the “road” had completely given way to sludge. On the way back, no fewer than 3 different boats, several buses and a rickshaw were required for the 12 hour trek back to Dhaka.
Travel in Bangladesh is not easy, but in this case it was worth it to support the cause. The Eco Lodge was set up to provide a small scale and sustainable way for the village to earn an income from tourism, and few make it here, even fewer of whom are foreigners. Many of the villagers I met struggled to understand what tourism was, and one local even asked me (translated from Bengali by the eco lodge owner) why I would want to come to Bangladesh? I answered that so far, Bangladeshis are some of the friendliest people I’ve been lucky enough to meet.
Responsible Travel in the Bangladesh Sundarbans.
Bangladesh should be famous for its Bengal tigers. It’s not, though. More or less obscured from international attention, the Bangladeshi Sundarbans remain a highlight known mostly to domestic tourists in Bangladesh and a few more intrepid travellers.
Nobody knows how many tigers there are left in the Sundarbans today. Tourists hardly ever see the tigers, but villagers on the other hand see a little too much of them. Tiger attacks (and crocodile attacks) have been increasing steadily in the sundarbans – as many tigers in the region have turned into man-eaters. As the human population in the Sundarbans explodes, the tigers’ habitat is being encroached upon.
Tourism, in some ways, is also not helping. There is no management of tourism in the Sundarbans. One of the challenges of boat trips in the Sundarbans is also their impact. 95% of those visiting the Sundarbans do so on a stay-aboard boat. Most of these boats go to the same places, have the same itinerary, and even visit the same places at the same time. Although the Bangladeshi Sundarbans may not be famous internationally, there is a very significant level of tourism here from domestic Bangladeshi tourists.
At some landing points, so-called “eco tourism” projects were covered in litter thrown by visitors. Plastic bags and bottled covered the mangrove floor. At other points where we could go ashore and walkways had been built, we were told that animals don’t go there anymore: they used to, but noise from groups of tourists scared them away. It all begs the question: what are we doing to these precious and rich natural places in the world?
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If visiting the Sundarbans (or any other natural place) we can all do our bit by:
- Not littering. If you have any trash, make sure to take it back with you
- Avoid use of plastic – for water, take a refillable bottle with you, and if no filtered water is available, drink boiled water to cut down on plastic consumption.
- Be Quiet. Respect wildlife by respecting their habitat. Noisy shouting, heavy walking, singing etc scares the animals away, meaning – not least – you’ll have nothing to see.
- Try to support local companies and operators who employ locals, so that the local communities can benefit from the tourism to their area, even better, use travel agencies who have a Responsible Tourism policy.
- Do not touch or interfere with wildlife.. if you see your guide doing so, tell them to stop (and explain why).
For a country with the number of challenges that Bangladesh has (rapid population growth being one of them), unfortunately conservation hardly makes it to number one priority spot. Corruption is also rife. That means that the duty to protect beautiful areas such as the Sundarbans falls to us as travellers, to ensure that it – and its tigers – are saved for the next generations.
And as for my search for tigers? I didn’t see one. But one may just have seen me…
Have you been to Bangladesh? Have you visited the Sundarbans? What do you think we can do more of to protect delicate ecosystems such as the Sundarbans? Let me know in the comments below!
A Londoner by birth Ellie has lived in the UK, Netherlands, India and now Canada. Prior to blogging, she worked for 12 years in hospitality and online travel. Ellie started this blog during a sabbatical trip in 2015 around South Asia, to help conscious travellers find the best inspiration for their next sustainable trip. When not travelling, she is happiest with wine, pasta and a good (travel) book. Ellie is also Founder of Soul Travel Consulting which helps travel brands communicate their sustainability initiatives.