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Publication Date : 01-08-2013
Take proper hiking shoes, mosquito repellents and hand sanitiser if you want to come out alive
Everything is idle about the bazaar in Thanchi. The men sit solemnly on benches and groups of women lazily walk around in groups. The only time the bazaar is taken in a flurry of activity is when a battered yellow jeep arrives — loaded with people from nearby villages. Then the ghat resounds with bargaining voices, boatmen calling out fares, goods being hurled into narrow wooden boats and the chug chug of engines starting up. Soon we are off on a canoe-shaped boat, on an unforgettable four-day trip along the Sangu River.
Within ten minutes, the scenery changes from precarious villages propped on the sides of hills to deep forest all around. All signs of civilisation are lost, and our boat flows smoothly upstream for a short time. Then something scrapes the bottom of the boat, making everyone jump — the treacherous rocks of the Sangu, half hidden underwater, ready to offset inexperienced boatmen. Though it’s the end of winter and the river is only a stream, the current is strong, whirling in terrifying eddies around sunken rocks. The rocks rise around the river in strange formations — human faces, turtle shells, whales and soup bowls. Before we can finish naming them all, we arrive at our first port of call, Thindu.
When we pull over at Thindu it is already dark. Cold fogs descend from the surrounding hills, making us increasingly eager to move into the little mud huts and settle around the friendly bonfires crackling in the courtyard. We board a room for a night and pitch our sleeping bags on the hard wooden floor. Our landlady, a Tripura didi, prepares dinner in the kitchen — boiled eggs in nappi (a very strong local shutki paste) soup, boiled aubergine and steamed sticky rice.
All around us lies the alien landscape of Thindu; thousands of white rocks, chunks of the mountain that have been rolled around by the river for millions of years until they have become pebbles that we step on. The moon is high, and if you dip your feet into a tide pool you can see tiny black fish pecking at your dead skins, translucent tadpoles swimming in one place and water beetles gliding swiftly like ballerinas.
Next morning we take off for Boro Modok. The last village along the Sangu, Boro Modok is more cut-off than all the other villages we stopped at on our way. Months go by without tourists, and to come here, you need to register your name at the army checkpoint in Bandarban. Right beyond the forests of Boro Modok is the border to Myanmar. During the Second World War, a fighter plane had crashed into the forests, and the ruins of the plane remain, with the pilot’s skeleton still seated in the cockpit. This has been closed to the public as the forest is now off-limits to outsiders.
A day later, we move on to Remakri, from where you need to trek for four gruelling hours through hills, past humid undergrowths and wade through deep streams to get to Nafakhum. It is the largest waterfall in Bangladesh, with high velocity water cascading over slippery rocks from 30 feet high.
At night, we witness a Buddhist ritual, where the village is placed under a bandh and rid of evil spirits. Monks in orange garbs tie strings around the village to close it off from outsiders. Prayers are held from sunset till midnight, during which no one can move around or talk. So we sit around the kitchen of our inn, eating nappi-boiled cabbages, wishing our days away from civilisation wouldn’t draw to an end.
There are some places which leave indelible imprints, and a long time after we leave Sangu behind, we can still hear the currents of the river on quiet nights. The place changes you, so distant that when you recall the journey it almost feels like a dream.
How to get there: Bus to Bandarban (a district in southeastern Bangladesh), local bus from Bandarban to Thanchi bazaar. Hire a boat from Thanchi bazaar for the duration of your stay, with each day costing around 2,000 taka (US$26).
Where to stay: Villagers offer lodgings on the upper floor of their houses for around 200 taka per night, food included. Just remember to look around before settling for a house, and lodging does not include bedding. I recommend staying at Thindu over Remakri, as the latter has become crowded. It’s best if you carry your own sleeping bags and mosquito nets.
What to see: Other than the indigenous villages, there are the waterfalls of Nafakhum, Amayakhum and Satbhaikhum, all of which fall on the Thanchi – Thindu – Remakri – Modok route. Take proper hiking shoes, mosquito repellents and hand sanitiser if you want to come out alive.