Saturday, January 23, 2010


A mission by ICE, Tiger Tours ltd, and Tim Steel

‘Where is Bangladesh?’ At one time or another, the question has come from friends and family, good, well educated, open minded, liberals all, puzzled frowns on face.

It’s a question that must be familiar to anyone travelling to, or from, Bangladesh. Sometimes, with an attempt to show some awareness, ‘It’s that place where they have lots of floods and things, isn’t it?’

To my surprise I have often heard Bangladeshis, whilst struggling with, ‘It’s next to Myanmar’ (Where’s that?), agree with the latter. I cant say whether its an act of resignation, or an appeal for sympathy. What, of course, it is not, is a meaningful contribution to the changing of international perceptions of their homeland.

Personally, I have found that the most effective orientation is to respond, 'Well, Bangladesh, translated, means literally the land of Bengal’. In most eyes then appears a light of recognition. Whether they share my own romantic recollections of East India Company and Raj, that of course originated in Bengal, with its associations of Nawabs , fine fabrics and colourful Lancers, or more prosaically, their own familiarity with The Star of Bengal favourite restaurant in town, at least they have found some point of reference!

But then, the readiness of Bangladeshis to diminish the splendour and realities of their hard won nation is all too evident in Dhaka too. The admiration and envy with which they greet the average expats’ decision to head to ThailandMalaysia, or even India to ‘get out of Dhaka for a break’ always seems to me at odds with the regularly professed pride in country.

Not, ‘how about Kuakata?’, or ‘why not a sail on Jamuna?’, or ‘Teknaf is an incredible experience, and a much shorter flight’, or even ‘the tea gardens are an absolute haven at this time of year’.

It took me along time to discover that even the educated middle class of Bangladesh were generally familiar only with Dhaka, Chittigong, and their ancestral village. So why not the country their fathers and grandfathers were ready to fight for and liberate?

‘When you come to a country like Bangladesh, try to follow the instincts of your heart, not your head’ It was a Japanese aide who gave me the advice for approaching his own, so foreign culture on my first visit to his country thirty years ago. It is advice I would readily give any visitor to Bangladesh.

Travelling across Bangladesh, as I have done so many times over the past 12 years, as a lover of the beauty and tranquillity I have found in my own home area of Highlands of Scotland, I have been gratified to experience the many similar appeals to the senses that this country has to offer. Home, they say, is where your heart is, and part of mine was captured in Bangladesh many years ago!

Above all, perhaps, the sense of freedom that only wide open spaces can give. And I know of few such green and fertile expanses in the world as the world’s largest delta system of its three great rivers and their near 700 branches and tributaries that is, essentially, Bangladesh.

Anyone who, like myself, have followed the world’s longest continuous natural sea beach (how ready so many Bangladeshis are to believe the websites of places in Australia and US who have artificially linked beaches to make their claims!), from fascinating Teknaf to over sold Cox’s Bazar, has experienced solitude, extraordinary wildlife, hundreds of colourful fishing craft and breathtaking beach scenery with myriad gems of experience in passing. There are palaces, mansions and forts; there are mosques, shrines, temples and ancient Buddhist vihara; there are intriguing and colourful indigenous peoples, tea gardens and hills, forests and lakes. For anyone who can tell me what appeals most to them about the countryside of UK I can guarantee some similar sight or experience, and more. What is there not to love about travel in Bangladesh?

So it is hard to comprehend the damning with faint praise, even the hostility of so many Bangladeshis discussing their own land. By the same token, I have little hesitation in recommending to friends around the world that Bangladesh may be one of the last, uncut gems of international travel. Sadly, the conventional wisdom of the world is against me, with the coals heaped by so many Bangladeshis themselves.

Which is why, when Abdul- Muyeed Chowdhury, most recently Executive Director of BRAC, and one of the great administrators of his time, proposed that he planned to attempt to make his last contribution to the country he has served so well, even through most difficult times, by getting down on the ground and opening Bangladesh to the more discerning and innovative of international travellers it was not hard to agree to share my own experience In the international Travel and Leisure business with his venture.

‘ICE and Tiger Tours are on a mission’ the Editor of ICE said to me. ‘We should unlock Bangladesh, not only to the travellers of the world, but to our own people as well’.

Over the next eleven months, at least, I shall endeavour not to be the next ‘first writer’ to share with you those culinary experiences near Lalbag Fort, or my discovery of what purports to be a new world class 5 star resort in Srimangal after the owner has given me a free weekend. Rather, we would like to bring you the little gems that string together to create an experience of this diverse and extraordinary country, with over 4000 years of history, and such world leading innovations, endlessly fascinating to a wide world, as micro credit programmes and human empowerment works. And its simply stunning beauty, quiet corners, and riveting tales. The King of England’s Hole, for example. But that’s for next time!

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