That nice man Jonny Blair, of Don’t Stop Living blog has kindly included me in his series on World Travellers, where I have given some details of my travels and answered some of his questions. If you haven’t heard too much about me already please check out the piece on Dontstopliving . Jonny has been to more countries than most and is a mine of useful information, so by all means check out his blog as he is more successful than I will ever be – Homepage
$56 million is a lot of money, unless you are a Saudi prince or a US arms manufacturer but, in a country as poor as Bangladesh, it’s a shit load of cash which could be spent on no end of worthy projects to help those suffering from poverty. But rich film-maker Ahsanullah Moni had a better idea to help the poor, he would build them a replica of the Taj Mahal. No doubt the masses were dancing in the streets and praising his name when they received the great news of his impending project. When you have lost most of your family and entire livelihood to floods and forced to move half way across the country to live in a pile of rubbish masquerading as a home beside a lake of sewage, as you watch your neighbours die of cholera, what could brighten up your day more, knowing that if you had some money you could spend it on going to visit a copy of a building you haven’t heard of because you never went to school?
Undeterred by a complete absence of common sense, he enlisted a group of architects to take their tape measures to the real Taj Mahal in India and knock up some plans for a slightly less impressive version, more suited to his own, simple countrymen. Five years later and some fields an hour east of Dhaka were graced with one of the finest shrines to utter pointlessness the world has ever known.
I admit I wasn’t expecting great things from the site but greater doubts crept in as the CNG (as auto rickshaws are called in Bangladesh as they run on Compressed Natural Gas) lurched and bumped over the potholed access road, after all if you are going to spend millions on a major tourist project you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a few bucks for a lorry load of asphalt and some wages for a few hard up locals to fill in some holes.
With nearly thirty years experience in the construction industry my first thought on viewing the excuse of a monument was, “where in fuck’s name did the other $55.5 million go”? That kind of money in the UK would have bought you something a lot bigger and a lot more impressive but in Bangladesh, with $5 being a reasonable days wage, it could have bought a life-size version of the Death Star. Whilst I have not been to the actual Taj Mahal, I am reasonably confident that Shah Jahan didn’t pop down the local DIY store to get something looking suspiciously like modern bathroom tiles to cover the monument to his beloved Mumtaz, so the claim that the same marble as the original had been specially imported can probably be described as what’s known in the trade as, a complete load of bollocks.
We can conclude one of two things from this evidence: either he lied about the expense to give the impression it is something more impressive than the reality in order to get the punters in, or he’s a total half-wit and the builders must have been laughing all the way to an early retirement in the Bahamas.
All we are left with is a grand folly which provides a pleasant half hour of distraction for the middle classes of Dhaka to indulge in the national sport of taking umpteen photos of each other, a perfectly harmless past time but one that will remain forever elusive to the masses of Bangladesh.
The pair of young men gunned the throttles of their bright, scarlet motorbikes as they hurtled past me over the damp, beach sand. Cool kids in black and shades. Their girlfriends behind, clinging tightly, their black burqas streaming with a wild flutter in their wake. Back they raced to the throng of well to do families, having found the kind of seclusion at the far end of the beach that young couples seek everywhere, away from protective families.
Just north of Bangladesh’s second largest city’s muddy estuary, where enough of the silt is replaced by sand to earn the name Sea Beach, the wealthier families come to enjoy the kind of seaside afternoon most of us in the West would recognise: picnics, candy floss and boat rides. With one notable difference, the lack of sunbathers is shrouded in robes of all colours for the women: from the black of conservative Muslims to the multi-coloured sparkle of exuberant Hindus, while the men are equally ill inclined to bare the flesh. But, as elsewhere in the country the religious divide is not always drawn by appearances, men dress similarly, Hindu women may cover their hair and Muslim women may wear brightly coloured saris. Even the red, forehead dot of the bindi is not a guarantee of Hindu faith or its absence the opposite.
The intimacy of young couples away from the crowd is not the only taboo on offer here, a discrete word from the comfort of your plastic beach chair at one of the many impromptu beach cafes will get you an illegal beer, disguised in newspaper wrapping or a plastic bag. Though at the kind of prices even an Englishman would wince at, this is a treat strictly for the rich, $5 for a bottle is a good day’s wage for the majority of the population. The only poor you will find here are those serving food or enterprising kids, either collecting recyclables or begging with creative back stories. The rest of the city is too busy just trying to get by to entertain the idea of anything so frivolous as a day at the beach, eating ice cream or buying tasteless souvenirs made of sea shells.
Continue north, past the young couples and eventually the sand again gives way to a grey gloop, not so much mud as years of oil and nameless industrial fluids, for here you will find the world’s second largest marine scrapyard but with no sign of the docks or cranes you would expect. On the highest tides, boats, some as big as oil tankers, surf in at top speed to be beached as close to the shore as possible. From here teams of men with oxy-acetylene blow torches slice them into huge sections, then groups of barefoot labourers trudge through the polluted mud, heaving bulky metal cables, so that these segments can be winched ashore by huge groaning machines. This way even a large ship can be dismantled in around three months if needs be. Once on dry land the metal is cut down into manageable portions so that a fleet of ramshackle trucks can take them away to be reused or melted down, largely to provide steel for the construction industry. In fact half of the country’s demand for steel is satisfied by the operation here.
Criticism of dubious working practices have made firms more security conscious and led them to put up signs professing a commitment to the environment and a rejection of child labour, otherwise endemic in the country. Whether action has kept up with the signs is another matter. A look at a satellite image of the coast shows at least fifty large ships spread over about 18km, each yard occupying a few hundred metres of shoreline and typically has up to three ships being worked on or waiting. Needless to say it is a labour intensive process and there is no shortage of men willing to work here in such a poor country. If hacking up ships for a living sounds like your idea of fun you might like to consider the wages for a labourer are $0.35/hour and cutters $0.60/hour, with a fifteen hour day common practice. One worker dies every week or two, the toxic chemicals have left many with respiratory diseases and nearly 90% get injured at some point but employers know there are plenty more where they came from who are desperate enough for work to take the risk.
You might have more fun poking around the dozens of scrap yards along the adjacent highway, where every conceivable, reuseable part of the boats is on sale, although a diesel engine the size of an elephant might stretch your luggage allowance somewhat. Vast numbers of glaring, orange life boats litter the yards and have no doubt finished off the traditional, small boat manufacturing industry.
The grime and discordant din of the yards, which employ over 20 000 people echo the demented city streets of Chittagong, where its 4.5 million inhabitants fight for space and opportunity. The huge port and marine industry, of which the yards are an important part, are a key source of income for the country but even at the beach, where the privileged few come to escape the pandemonium, it’s hard not to notice the dishevelled edge to all the facilities. If you transposed it to Europe it would have the air of an out of season, once popular resort that the monied crowds had long since deserted, leaving it to the working classes to find a brief solace from the drudgery.
A shocking anomaly in the art world surely has to be the tragically overlooked form of the hay stack, where euro-centric critics have dismissed it as an agricultural craft discipline, devoid of true creative flair. If they only left their ivory towers long enough to travel to Bangladesh or eastern India they would surely realise the error in their ways and recognise that Bengali culture has devoted centuries to the perfection of hay stack construction as a higher art form.
The first defining feature to differentiate these creations from their western counterparts is that they use rice straw rather than hay, whose structural qualities are no doubt more conducive to imaginative designs such as this delightful “magic mushroom” model.
Here we see an artist at work refining the finer sculptural lines of this “fat booty” design.
This imposing masterpiece is, in all likelihood used to scare off evil spirits or small children lurking around the farm at night.
Being prone to possession by evil spirits themselves this young pair are protected by the sign of magic eyes on the left, as well as the vigilance of their faithful cow.
Ancient fertility rites play an important role for many as is clearly demonstrated by this penile design.
Sometimes an erect form is preferred.
The action isn’t all male, as the distinctly feminine bulge of this “tit” reveals.
Early evening light perfectly compliments this “native hut” model.
The pristine lines here are facilitated by the extra stability provided by constructing the stack around an existing tree.
Every good stack deserves a cuddle – the author shortly before being carried off by police.
This particular model demonstrates the confluence of cutting edge sculptural forms with the practicality of the penile design: a small profile exposed to rain which minimises water adsorption; sloped run off to carry rain away and the overhang of the bell-end drips water away from the central trunk.
Father and daughter proudly guarding their stubby column.
Such is the prodigious fertility of some that a condom is required to suppress the excitement.
Just what are the fickle demands of tourists that relegate Bangladesh to the bottom of the tourist league in South Asia? People tend to respond to negative news but the country’s media profile has sunk into such a quiet backwater, that even the bad news, so demanded of media outlets, has been left on the international news margins, unlike India, Myanmar and Thailand, with the inherent risk to tourist numbers. In fact it’s never had enough of a profile to have ruined by the bad news that does creep out about its dysfunctional political system. Annual tourist arrival figures in the two hundred thousands pale into insignificance with the millions for its neighbours, particularly when some of those are family connections with the diaspora than more typical tourists – I met many British Bangladeshi tourists visiting relations while I was there. To put it into perspective we had that number in just one day in my home town of Brighton for DJ Fatboy Slim’s free gig on the beach 2002.
As much as many in the backpacking world would like to think otherwise, it is a scene largely driven by the same herd mentality of mass tourism, as the example of Bangladesh amply demonstrates: despite its proximity to popular destinations, rock bottom prices and visa on arrival (at Dhaka airport) for ease of entry it languishes well off most people’s radar.
So, why should you go? Forget about the scenery, history and wildlife, normal travel blogs can deal with that. You need to go because of the people. I am going to go out on a limb and risk traveler heresy by saying that it beats even the legendary friendliness of Iran (no surprise that both countries are Muslim where the religious culture of welcoming strangers is overlaid on a similar existing culture) but whilst it is a destination that gives so much, it is equally one which demands much of its visitors.
Other countries in the region, like Myanmar and Indonesia can also boast a welcome that goes beyond a general idea of friendliness but what sets Bangladesh apart is how often this translates into such a sincere level of hospitality. Time and time again, brief encounters led to invites into people’s homes to stay, to eat and of course drink tea. Others would insist on showing me around their neighbourhood or places of interest, simply motivated by Bangladeshi etiquette towards guests. From muddy, tin roofed shacks to mansions I was eagerly welcomed and where to offer anything in return is a slur on their generosity.
One anecdote amongst the many, goes to the heart of the culture of hospitality. A young man opposite myself and friend Jalal on the train to Chittagong invited us to a gig in a couple of days as he was the drummer in a band. On the night in question we were told to meet at a community centre where we duly hung around while a wedding celebration went on inside. Within a couple of minutes we were dragged inside and sat at a table of wedding guests and ordered to tuck into a glorious banquet. Happily stuffed we received a phone call to discover we were at entirely the wrong community centre and we had no connection whatsoever with the people who had just welcomed us so warmly. Arriving at the correct venue, the “gig” was actually a pre-wedding celebration and despite the only link being with the drummer in the band I became the guest of honour, with utmost care for my welfare being taken all night. Naturally dancing is obligatory at such events, a skill at which I am undaunted by my own, abundantly evident inability. Where at home I am just an uncoordinated, rhythmically challenged sweaty old man, it turns out that on the Bengali wedding scene I happen to be King of the Dance Floor. Consequently, me busting some moves was the cue for every male from five to fifty to go absolutely fucking mental. Despite being a conservative Muslim country and not a drop of alcohol to be had, the energy exerted on the dance floor put efforts back home to shame and later on the girls and boys were dancing together, albeit without the indecorous close contact we are used to after fourteen gin and tonics. At 3am I wussed out and dragged my sweaty but happy self home for a shower and a good lie down.
Dealing with public transport when the alphabet is indecipherable can be problematic in many countries but here someone would always help out, translate if necessary, take me in hand to the right bus stop or train platform and make sure someone would tell me when we got to my stop. A white face is also a magical key to open otherwise locked doors or a hasty ushering to the front of a queue for any official business. It seemed that at almost any institution it only required whoever I was with to say in Bengali, “look a foreigner, can we see the boss right away”, to give us instant access. I even got to interview the director of the country’s huge and only mental hospital which we stumbled upon. (For the politically correct observers, mental hospital is still the current term used in the country for such an institution and not my own usage). You can also use your foreigness to give legitimacy to a local you are with when dealing with an official and sometimes your presence can deter demands for bribes, although of course it does cause rickshaw and taxi prices to inflate.
An intense curiosity of those few strangers who crop up underpins this hospitality but is also the basis of the demanding nature of a visit. A stop for a chat on a city street is something you never have to go far to find, in fact you have to actively avoid them at times if you want to get anywhere. But, two minutes in you will notice the hovering presence of others, men and boys will gawp in slack-jawed incredulity at the novelty of a tourist. Very quickly a dozen or more onlookers can accumulate into a silent communal stare. Although undoubtedly free of malice some would surely find it strange and intimidating. I was happy to laugh it off but to ask the same of a single female traveller for example seems an unreasonable demand – not that women need to exercise any more caution than elsewhere as long as they are conservatively dressed.
Most visitors to South-East Asia will have got used to locals wanting to take photos of us but in Bangladesh it moves up to a whole new level. At times I became like a film star mobbed by paparazzi and adoring fans with crowds of young people insisting on a selfie, which usually meant several photos with each of their friends in turn. It does provide a source of entertainment though: instead of irritating people by photobombing, the presence of an idiotic, grinning foreigner in the picture will add kudos to the proud picture taker and will rapidly be uploaded to Facebook, along with the several million pictures of myself that are already there.
If you think that swanning around Thailand and lounging on Bali means you have “done” South Asia, then Bangladesh is going to come as an awful shock, if not just for the virtual impossibility of buying beer. On chaotic city streets the grim reality of urban poverty is impossible to ignore and begging is common. You are confronted by disabilities and disfigurements you had never imagined existed, however serious pestering is limited and others soon shoo away any annoying beggars for you, as if it is a stain on their culture of hospitality. In Chittagong I passed one of the many ragged homeless men asleep on the dusty pavement, as nearby crows pecked out the entrails from a dead puppy. Not a typical image I grant you but an indication of how far down the ladder some lives have slipped.
But walking these same streets you are constantly greeted by friendly faces and people anxious to know how you are and where you are from. My only liability in these exchanges was that I suffer from an aversion to the sport of cricket, which I find as exciting as a slow motion replay of sedimentary rock formation. Cricket somehow invokes the fervour that the combination of football and alcohol struggle to achieve in England, so you will always be inundated with questions about your opinion on some incomprehensible aspect of the game. Thankfully Bangladesh beat England while I was there which averted a national tragedy and days of mourning.
If you feel overwhelmed by the chaos and contrasts of the cities, village life may be a calmer option but instead you are overwhelmed by even greater curiosity and onlookers will appear from nowhere if you stand around for a few minutes. My week’s stay in a village was an incessant round of invitations for tea, meaning that any attempt to go for a walk was a series of polite refusals and tea and biscuit stops. When I went to offer my support to the village football team at a nearby match the entire population of children, having never seen a foreigner before, spent far more time being interested in me than the game. After more tea and a chat in the cafe I even received a round of applause when it was time to leave, such was my superstar status by then.
So, if you think you can handle the challenges of Bangladesh and I will be detailing more of those in a future post, forget any conventional itinerary. Don’t have a schedule, just go with the flow and take up the inevitable invites from those that speak enough English and you are assured of true Bangladeshi hospitality.
I woke to the sound of roar, a roar without end. What was it? A protest? A soccer match? Having arrived in the early hours, when all was quiet in central Dhaka at the edge of the old city, I had only one option: to get out and explore. Besides, not being a botanist the lure of staying in and studying the abundant insect life crawling around my room didn’t seem quite so appealing.
I soon located the source of the roar, it was simply life itself, in an intense cacophony and confusion of its own particular blend. Like most noisy cities traffic is the most obvious culprit and here it is driven entirely by selfishness and the pointless rebuke of horns from vehicles wedged in and immobilized with thousands of equally inconsiderate drivers. A novel form of traffic management produces the thump of wood on metal as men with large sticks try to beat buses into submission. What this achieves beyond aggravating bus drivers is beyond anyone’s guess. The miracle is how rarely you do actually hear the crunch of automotive metal, so skilled are drivers at judging the narrowest of gaps.
Even the lowliest of transport forms, the rickshaw, contributes to the clamour, usually from the hard pedalling rider with shouts of abuse directed at similarly intransigent road users, though only a foolish pedestrian ignores the tinkle of their bells to avoid a collision – given the sheer muscle taxing work to regain momentum on these gearless contraptions they are reluctant to slow down once the opportunity of speed is achieved.
Loudspeakers, making up for what they lacked in fidelity with raw volume, blared with political or religious speeches, adverts and announcements. This was no network of speakers, as different streets blasted out different sets of competing emissions, a vocal soundclash for the public’s attention. Above this the call to prayer struggled to convey its beauty against the onslaught.
Among the seething masses it is men’s voices that compete for attention, for this is evidently a conservative Islamic society. The imbalance is exacerbated by the vast garment industry, which employs huge numbers of women away from the city centre. It is no exaggeration to say that 99% of the people on the street are men. Amongst the aural clutter of Bengali voices you hear its snippets of Persian, testimony to ancient migrations and empires; Arabic, not just from their shared religion but workers returned from job opportunities in the Middle East; also English, where colonial roots have grown family branches in Britain and the notion that the language denotes civilisation and education, such that English words crop up almost randomly in Bengali sentences to convey to the recipient that the speaker is educated and cultured.
Countering the rawness of shouts for attention are the birdsong calls by pairs of street salesmen. In repetitive, polyphonic harmony the men extol the virtues of their wares and keenness of their prices but the majority resort to the traditional bellowing to attract customers fighting their way through the morass of humanity.
As one of the rare foreigners you will be assailed with welcomes at every step and calls of, “what country”? It is this kindness that shields you from the mayhem long enough to let you appreciate what the city has to offer without screaming in frustration at the pulsating chaos around you.
Just as you would imagine, your typical Myanmar Buddhist temple is a haven of serenity. Even the occasional clang of a sacred bell that adherents make only adds to the atmosphere of calm reverence as the chime’s reverberations pulse gradually into silence. The waft of incense is a gentle call to respect the site’s tranquility under the watchful eye of a golden Buddha. This is the kind of face of Buddha that most of us would think of in imagining the religion. Among the seemingly countless temples many have four statues of Buddha at the centre points of each side of the walls of a square layout but each of the four physical representations of the face echoes an opposing character trait of the religion as it exits in the country.
The first subtle hint that all is not quite so serene are the flashing halos of disco lights often found behind the statues’ or images’ heads, an incongruous, modern addition if ever there was one. Some chambers with several such illuminations lack only the beat of a kick drum to get the party started.
If you thought that pilgrimage sites would serve to exemplify the serenity of the faith you will be sorely disappointed. Take Kyaiktiyo, where the object of veneration is the glorious absurdity of a huge rock smothered in gold leaf, balanced so finely it can be tilted with a firm shove. The holy route leading to this article of faith firstly requires a vomit inducing roller-coaster of a ride, wedged into the back of a truck, whose ticket price worryingly includes life insurance. Its second stage is that wonderous confluence, when deep abiding religious faith meets cheap plastic tat. Secular joys of Chinese made toys sit beside gaudy religious iconography probably churned out of the same factory, happy to do likewise for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Naturally no one told the kids to be quiet or stop running around.
What the two thousand four hundred years of wisdom has failed to teach the people however, is to clean up after them. The hillside under the site is strewn with discarded packages, cans and wrappers, hardly unique example among the places of worship.
Where serenity truly succumbs utterly unto chaos is during festivals. Whilst the occasions are certainly religious and the temples themselves strive to remain calm, the goings on at their doorsteps are anything but. It was difficult to imagine that the Baw Gyo festival in Shan state had anything to do with religion at all. Around the temple a fairground roared with pop music and screams of delight; blazing neon of every colour electrified the night’s sky. You could drink whisky, get a tattoo or, with a stick, torment a sad, bedraggled lion crammed into a miniscule cage. Although the latter being an improvised entertainment rather than an official one. Even gambling is allowed for the festival’s duration. Singers wailed and actors bellowed as the discordant, erratic, metallic crashing of traditional music competed with the human hubbub of excitement. And trash fell in heaps from careless hands.
Is it perhaps at these times that the people are simply returning to the hard-wired, underlying culture of nat spirit worship that a thousand years of Buddhism have failed to quench? See The nat shrines of Myanmar if you missed my post on the subject.
Buddha said, “love the whole world as a mother loves her only child”. As a traveler in Myanmar it is easy to see that the people have embraced these words, apart from taxi drivers of course – whilst not the parasitic vermin found in neighbouring Thailand, most are only too eager to overcharge a foreigner like the world over. I found a true kindness in the country that was only rarely tainted by the flashing dollar signs of tourist wallets. Whether that continues as greater numbers of us profit from the increasing openness of Myanmar remains to be seen. Certainly other forms of transport operatives have begun to embrace overcharging but that is no reflection on the bulk of the population.
A simple expression of this kindness can be found throughout the country: small structures holding containers of water and cups to slake the thirst of any passer-by and are maintained by charitable locals. You are rarely far from one whether in a big city or a quiet country lane.
A little question mark in this aura of love pops up on stalls at pilgrimage sites and festivals: a profusion of weaponry, from serrated wooden swords to plastic machine guns, it seems that boys games have little regard to our notions of Buddhist peace and love. To see such things in a toy shop wold come as little surprise in almost any culture but at the holiest of sites of a faith centred on love and peace?
If only such worries ended there. Unfortunately influential figures in the priesthood expound a virulent, anti-Muslim bigotry which finds fertile ground among the majority, Burmese population. As is so often the case many of the seeds of religious rivalry were sown by British, colonial, divide and rule policies and have only festered since then. A telling example of how this mentality has seeped down throughout Burmese culture was talking to the director of an exhibition in Thailand, as part of the refugee community there, on the regime’s human rights abuses. This was a man who had endured six years imprisonment and torture by the state for his political activities but was incapable of understanding that the same motivations that fed his own persecution feed that against the Rohingya. He trotted out the same old lies you hear elsewhere: that they don’t belong in Myanmar and that a British, colonial survey in the south-west of the country found few Rohingya there. Firstly this denies their documented 800 years of history in the country and the only reason the British found so few of them at the time was due to their ethnic cleansing by the Burmese only a few decades before. By bringing them back to work on colonial projects the British were only righting an injustice, albeit not one particularly motivated by charity.
The monk leading the anti Muslim incitement, Wirathu, is supported by religious groups such as Mabatha, have the deranged idea that there is a master plan to bring about an Islamic state. Quite how a totally disenfranchised minority of less than 5% of the population is going to overthrow a brutal military dictatorship, which has been in power for over thirty years, remains a mystery.
Perhaps the guiltiest party in this affair is the one Buddhist in the position to genuinely affect public opinion: Aung San Suu Kyi. Her avowed Buddhist faith and Nobel Peace Prize for her fight for democracy seems to have engendered no sympathy for the Rohingya Muslim’s democratic rights. She continues to churn out the excuse that there was violence on both sides, as if there is any kind of equivalence between a small persecuted minority and rampaging mobs backed by security forces burning, looting and killing in Muslim districts. The assertion that a Muslim has committed some violent crime has been sufficient excuse, regardless of evidence, for the wholesale, violent removal of entire communities, with survivors held in concentration camps for “their own protection” and no suggestion of release. Aung San Suu Kyi has embraced political expediency, fearful of losing ethnic Burmese votes. The reality is that the generals will never let her run for president anyway as they know full well it would jeopardise their position of power.
On other issues, such as the destructive, Chinese owned, Letpadaung copper mine she has sided with the authorities rather than with ethnic minorities kicked off their land without compensation and beaten or killed by the police for having the audacity to protest about it. Her faith that the government and security forces might act peacefully, with honour, can only be described as idiotic, given their track record. Indeed, she has little support among the many ethnic minorities who see her as yet another face of Burmese nationalism.
Many Burmese Buddhists have remained true to their faith and spoken out about injustice but many more have simply stood by and allowed the rulers to stoke religious tensions, playing on the lies of ethnic fear preached by a minority. This only serves the military’s goal of justifying continued repression in the run up to elections.
Buddhist culture and wisdom have achieved greatness in Myanmar’s history and many live up to that by standing up to state terror, for others it offers a beacon, guiding one through the trials of everyday life amongst undoubted poverty. Even with its profound lessons on love and peace it has failed to curb the dark excesses that blight societies of all religions or none. Maybe then the four faces of Buddha are simply four faces of mankind.