Attractive for many reasons, I’d put it on my list of must-sees, second only after spotting stripes in the Sundarbans.
When I first arrived in Bangladesh, I made mention of a guy named ‘K’ who helped put me on the right bus to my non-existent hotel. Fluent in English, he’d studied in the UK before returning to his hometown in Sylhet. A goodbye hug with his brother had brought him to Dhaka’s airport at the same time as my arrival in the country, and his generosity brought him to my aide that same night. Before he assured I was on the correct bus that first night, he shared with me his full name and said if I made it to Sylhet, I could contact him. When I told him it was one of my main goals for the trip, he didn’t believe me, and rightfully so. I was just a random tourist he’d met and his city was a long haul from Dhaka, let alone from my first destination in the Sundarbans.
Still, we exchanged contact information, and waited a week to talk.

Click on an image to view Rural Bangladesh up-close:

I’d taken the bus from Mongla and landed smack dab in the heart of Sylhet. As it is less common to see a tourist walking down the street than it is to see a cow or horse doing the same, I was quickly noticed around town and accepted by many.

At first, this was not the case. Initially, I was denied a room. Then another room. Then another. I finally began speaking Arabic (where did that come from?!) and expressed my dissatisfaction with the men who told me they had no room while simultaneously welcoming in local male guests and their families. It was a bout of racism and sexism, opposite of that I’m used to but as incomprehensible as the first.

Eventually, I found a hotel and after explaining my budget and the responses of other hotels in the area, they allowed me to stay for one-third of their listed price.
I quickly settled in, and ran to the hotel’s restaurant for some nourishment. While guzzling down a bowl of dal and some steaming rotti, I was befriended by a group of men having a business meeting in Chinese and Bengali. During a pause in conversation, two of the men took notice of me sitting alone and introduced themselves as co-owners of the hotel. The three of us spoke for a few quick minutes, and they asked my purpose for visiting their city.
I had two answers : to visit my new friend, K, and to hike through the tea gardens.

Click on an image to view Rural Bangladesh up-close:

One of the owners, a gentleman in his sixties whom I’ll call R, having been born the area but moved to London at the age of eight, confessed he’d not yet been to the city’s most famous tea gardens. He asked that if I go, I let him know and he would do his best to join.

“I need the push,” he insisted. “When I come to Bangladesh, I take advantage of the free hotel room, the aircon, and the free food.” He then confessed that in the past two weeks he’d left the hotel only a handful of times to buy his favorite snack : fresh coconuts from a nearby market.

The next morning as I readied for my big day out, I wondered whether to let R know when and where I was headed. Perhaps he’d been speaking out of kindness. Maybe he didn’t truly want to visit the green hills of his homeland. And honestly, maybe I’d prefer being alone in nature for the first time in a long time. I decided there was no harm in asking, and no harm in company. At the hotel’s front desk, I told the hosts of our plans and asked that they ring him to see if he’d still like to come. They declined my request several times. As their boss, it was obvious he’d demanded they not interrupt his beauty sleep, and at seven in the morning he was most likely still head to pillow. After trying to persuade them to call for several minutes, I gave up, thanking them for their time and proceeding downstairs alone to flag down a tuktuk to the Lakkatura Tea Estate a few kilometers from town. On my way down, a whirl of color swept toward me. The hotel’s owner, dressed in a floral patterned button up and neatly pressed khakis, had been running in hopes to catch me before I left for the day. He was a bundle of energy, more excited than a school boy gearing up for a much-anticipated field trip. As he flagged a tuktuk, he shamelessly shared that he’d gone to bed early the night before and had packed his bag with plenty of water in preparation for the big day.

Click on an image to view Lakkatura Tea Estate in Sylhet Bangladesh up-close:

When we arrived, a line of women had formed outside the estate, each with a cloth bag full of tea leaves placed upon their heads. Weighing the bags on large metal scale, each proceeded to an awaiting truck to deposit her load and return to the fields for another afternoon of work.

Once inside the estate, R repeatedly remarked how the fresh air was good for our lungs and the steep hills were good for our muscles.
“This is the kick I needed. I’ll go for walks every day now,” he told me putting out his cigarette.
“I’ll come back here every time I visit Sylhet,” R boasted, lighting up a new one.
“This is so good for us. I’ll sleep well tonight,” he spoke while finishing fag number six.
Despite his huffing and puffing, sweating and panting, he managed to take in an entire pack during our half day excursion.
“Baby steps,” we agreed.

Our guide, a gentleman dressed in a paisley shirt and contrasting plaid longyi, happily led us through the tea gardens and rubber tree forest. He explained the process of collecting rubber from rubber trees and showed us the estate’s top spots where ‘visitors can never go.’ These were settings of Bollywood films and up-close meetings with some of the women who worked day after day in the green fields of the tea garden. It was lucky to have R by my side (if not lagging slightly behind) for his attempt at rejuvenating a youthful state, and also for his ability to serve as translator between the guide and myself.
After seeing much of the grounds, stopping for freshly cut, dried, and brewed tea and purchasing a bag to bring home, we returned to town so R could ‘freshen up’ (sleep, sleep, sleep!)

Click on an image to view Lakkatura Tea Estate in Sylhet Bangladesh up-close:

Meanwhile, I was able to reunite with the helpful pal K whom I’d met a week earlier while looking for the bus outside of Dhaka’s busy airport. K and his famous politician friend (Second one in a few days! I wonder how many famous politicians there are in Bangladesh?) took me on their motorbike throughout town. We zoomed through the streets and ignored calls from others letting us know that no lady should be sitting with legs on either side of the bike as I was doing. Despite sitting as modestly as possible, and despite that fact that the night was pitch black and lit only by a stunning full moon, we were called out time and time again. The boys were my guardians and as is typical in Bangali traffic, zig zagged their way past any congestion and negativity, right to the city’s late-night hotspot : Kazir Bazar Bridge. There we enjoyed a cup of tea from a vendor repeatedly walking the bridge’s length, and ate dinner from one of several stands selling fuchka : small balls of fry bread filled with chickpeas and served with chili. Afterward, we sped through the streets and ended up at the home of K’s Auntie. Her family graciously welcome us in, serving tea and biscuits and proudly telling me in their best English about the rest of their family’s whereabouts.

That night, I returned to the hotel on two wheels but felt as though I was flying. One final rest and one final day in the country allowed for a stopover in Srimangal for eight (count them : eight) more cups of cha (tea), including the world-famous seven-layer tea at Nilkonthi Tea Cabin.

From it’s rough-patch beginnings of cockroaches on the plane and too-friendly locals following me around Dhaka, the trip ended on a note so high it pierced through the sky.

Click on an image to view Sylhet Bangladesh up-close:

Quick note : Despite making marvelous memories and having irreplaceable experiences, I will have a hard time recommending this country to other solo female travelers. Though it’s possible, many moments put me on edge and I was always aware of my noticeability and its accompanied vulnerability. I was lucky to meet several welcoming locals, some who I consider great friends even today. Yet at the same time, I nearly canceled my trip the day before because of reactions I’d garnered from others at mention of the trip. During my time in Bangladesh, I  was warned by locals a few times each day that I should not be in the country. Most who I met told me that while the majority of citizens are fine, it’s those who are not sane who will cause harm. I will never deter someone from going, but if you do – Stay smart and stay safe. And let me know! We can chat more about what you can do to prepare and I’ll happily get you in touch with some of this story’s top characters!

Make sure you’re caught up with Miss Maps’s stories from Bangladesh!
CLICK HERE to read Roaches on a Plane – About my creepy crawly welcome to Bangladesh;
CLICK HERE to read Help Past Help – To find out what happens when a stranger in Dhaka went a little too far out of his way.
CLICK HERE to read about Life Aboard Bangladesh’s Rocket Steamer – The overnight boat journey to the Sundarbans.
CLICK HERE to read about Stripes in the Sundarbans – My search for Bengali Tigers through the mangroves of Western Bangladesh.

xoxAnika

1 Comment

  1. Interesting perspective indeed there is issues for travellers, everyone trying to make money. I also have problems getting a room as a solo traveller ! Hope this experience toughens u for hostile environment.

    Like

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