Six girls of the Bawm tribe, adorned in black and white checkered wraps and gold-lined shirts, dance before us. Their small feet skip effortlessly to the clacking of large bamboo sticks being rhythmically banged against the floor by villag
e boys. The girls are all in their late teens, their delicate eyes invoking Burmese peoples. One of them is singing quietly in her native language; they glance nervously at us as they move.
It has been a long journey to get to this small room, nestled in the corner of Bethel, a small village of the Bawm tribe. We have been invited here as guests, and my photographer and I are now perched awkwardly at a table in the front of the room, feeling out of place to judge this simple and beautiful act of traditional expression.
These girls are members of the Young Bawm Association of Bethel. The Bawm are one of 11 indigenous tribes that inhabit the southerly Chittagong Hill Tracts, a region of Bangladesh that has remained largely insular. Wrapped in a soft green blanket of thick jungle hillsides, it is a place that makes the outside world seem unreal, even unnecessary.
The village of Bethel consists of a small collection of bamboo huts nestled on a hilltop, interspersed with the fiery red toza flower. It is accessed from the main town of Ruma by a wander through paddy fields, where farmers with cloths tied around their heads hoe the fields in the fading light.
It took a bumpy six-hour journey by jeep and boat to reach Ruma from Bangladesh’s second-largest city, Chittagong. As we trundled up muddy jungle tracks knit with fat banana leaves, tribal people watched our jeep pass by, their haunting eyes gleaming at the sight of the alien vehicle.
From the village of Koikonjiri, we take a long wooden boat painted in faded pale blues and reds along the Sangu River, where women in bright orange saris wash their babies. Around one bend, a white and red TV mast hovers over a collection of small bamboo huts – this is Ruma.
Higher into the hills, the faces shift in appearance from the Indian-like features of the lowlands of Chittagong to a more East Asian look. The locals’ Asiatic eyes are testament in part to their proximity to Myanmar, but also perhaps to an ancient ancestry from China; the hill tribes are referred to as the indigenous peoples, noting their thousand-year residence in these hills. The traits of the region’s major tribes – the Marma, Mru, Chakma, Tripura and the Bawm – are described on faded boards scattered along the roadside.
The bamboo has stopped clacking and our host, the president of the Young Bawm Association, Vankhum Bawm, is reading a speech, thanking us for visiting their village. The dancers watch on solemnly, unaware of what is being said in the English language. Van Tlir, Vankhum’s deputy who will later be our host for a traditional meal of rice and vegetables, offers us a document explaining the association’s activities. These include encouraging education, creating health clinics and helping young Bawm people to advance into the greater world.
The tribe faces a dilemma, Vankhum later explains; they want social advancement, he says, but not at the cost of culture. This is something the Bawm fear they will have to sacrifice if they accept government assistance.
EMERGING FROM CONFLICT
The Chittagong Hill Tracts have previously been an area of conflict for Bangladesh. The tribes here, with their unique cultures, traditions, religions and ways of life, have mostly sought to remain in isolation. But the Bengali people, ever keen for more opportunity and perhaps realizing the bountiful resources in this remote corner, began encroaching on the tribal areas.
Illegal logging and issues from the Myanmar border have also caused the area problems, and in the late 1970s it became law that the Bengalis be allowed to live in the area. Initially this caused friction, but mutual trading needs have softened the impact.
Today it is difficult to imagine anything disturbing the thick, misty jungles. Now, the region’s pristine environment is providing a unique platform for a fledgling tourism industry. The line here is thin: While tourism would bring with it much needed funding for education and health care, too much development would risk unsettling this area’s priceless ecosystem.
One organization looking to preserve the unique nature of the Chittagong Hilltracts is a small tourism company called Bangladesh Ecotours. Operating like an NGO, charity and tour company rolled into one, this unique company was established five years ago by a First Nation Canadian who had spent most of his life in Africa and Asia and found a powerful identification with the gentle people of Bangladesh’s hills. He founded the company with his partner, Didar Absar Didar, but sadly did not live long enough to see it flourish.
Bangladesh Ecotours strives to cause minimal disturbance to both the dense jungles of the Chittagong Hills and the precious indigenous tribes that live there. While Bangladesh Ecotours covers most areas of the country, including the well knkown Sundarban jungles, the heart of their interests buy cialis lie in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Some employees are tribal while others are Bengali, although they often have close ties to the tribes: Our guide Mostafa, while a lowlands native, has a wide circle of friends here.
In an area where tourism remains a mostly foreign concept, the idea of introducing ecotourism might seem a premature, but it is precisely these sorts of regions that can most benefit from a tourism model that attempts not to disturb the natural order.
Bangladesh suffers an abysmal environmental record; if tourism is to develop, its ecological focus is absolutely crucial. Even more crucial is the need to not disturb traditional tribal lifestyles.
In the small village of Bethel Para, Van Tlir’s wife and her female relatives are quietly weaving geometrically patterned traditional blankets and bags. The materials for these projects have been purchased with donations from Bangladesh Ecotours, and this small boost will help greatly in the women’s efforts to bring in some income.
Ruma’s Mong Guesthouse, where we spend the night, is one of two buildings in town not made of bamboo. It’s simple but clean, and looks out over the marketplace that forms the region’s hub, where in the mornings the tribes gather to trade their produce and handicrafts. Tripura women with their heavy layers of beaded necklaces mingle with Buddhist Marma and Christian Bawm in harmony, as children, dogs and goats run underfoot in a scene that could have taken place a thousand years ago.
At dinner, Van Tlir’s family explains their customs as we eat long beans, spinach and spiced chicken with rice with our hands, sitting on the bamboo floor. “You don’t eat much rice,” our host comments; in Ruma, rice is a meal three times a day.
TO A LUMINOUS VALLEY
Ghostly mists shroud the jungles surrounding the village the next morning as we prepare for the 17-km hike up to the town of Boga Lake, inhabited by the Bawm tribe. Bangladesh Ecotours’ closest relationship is with the Bawm tribe, partly because of their high level of education. There are roughly 16,000 Bawm in existence, and they are the only tribe that has converted to Christianity; the religions of the other tribes range from Hindu to Buddhist to animist.
We are a motley crew: our guide Mostafa; our Bawm guide, Lal Shuak; our porter, carrying impossibly heavy bags dangling off either side a bamboo stick slung across his shoulders; and two soldiers, Mr Alum and Mostafa, en route to visit the army camp at the lake. The first part of the hike leads us along the Sangu River as it winds through a river valley scattered with small tribal Marma farms, where old men plow, coaxing their oxen along the furrows.
The sun beats down as people with baskets on their backs pass by, wading through the river and glancing curiously at us. We pause to rest in a small Marma village, munching on bananas while elderly tribal people stare at us as if in a trance.
It is a long slog through riverbeds and hot country, which soon gives way to the upward trajectory of the hills, leading us up a rocky, slippery waterfall in the dense, bamboo-strewn jungle. The climb through the greenery is entertaining – we pass mammoth spiders, skittering lizards, ward off leeches and stop to admire luxuriant white blossoms.
Finally, we break through the foliage to be rewarded with a view over a luminous valley, bathed in emerald and woven with mist. Mostafa and Mr Alum stand around the next bend, flowers in hand – “Welcome to Boga Lake!” they announce in unison amidst giggles.
But the sight before us is truly stupendous – a glassy, pure lake, framed with lush greenery and a picture postcard cluster of bamboo houses. Sixteen families live here, existing in the simplest way possible – off the land, completely self-sufficient. They farm rice, grow coffee beans and weave their own bright wraps by hand loom. It’s a way of life the outside world has completely forgotten.
The people of Boga Lake have a legend about these waters: They believe there was once a small village where the lake now is. One day, the villagers found a snake, which was cut up and distributed amongst the villagers, all of whom ate it but an old couple, who were given its head. The couple had a dream that they must leave the village, and told the other villagers about it, but no one heeded their warnings. The old couple left, and the village was flooded and turned into a lake. This is their explanation of Boga Lake’s unusual trait: It has no river flowing in or out of it.
Our guesthouse is a simple bamboo affair. The village is overrun by goats, grunting black pigs and local children – some of whom follow us to a swim in the lake. We dip our feet in for a “pedicure”; Mostafa explains that the small fish in the water will therapeutically nibble off dead skin on feet. He’s right – as soon as our toes touch the surface, the fish begin nibbling away feverishly. This goes peacefully until a group of young Bawm boys race into the water, splashing us. A friendly young Bawm woman who was washing her baby flees from the chaos, laughing.
In the morning, the lake is shrouded in mist and green palm trees shake lazily in the sun. All the men have already gone to work in the fields higher up in the hills, where they, and the women without children, will labor until sunset. In one hut a young woman is weaving with a traditional hand loom, sitting on the floor and moving the wooden shuttle swiftly across the bright black and red cloth.
At another house, raised on stilts and framed with bushy guava trees and coffee plants, we happen upon a woman holding her baby. She laughs and smiles while the little one stares at us with her hand in her mouth, not quite sure what we are.
When we walk away from Boga Lake, our hearts are heavy – we only wished we had more time to spend here. It’s a long, difficult hike back down a muddy road. Along the way, we pass processions of Marma monks en route to discover Boga Lake – a place they had heard so much about.
One day, Bangladesh Ecotours hopes to build small eco lodges in Ruma and Boga Lake – in hopes, Didar says, to further the dreams of their Canadian founder, who had so much passion for these often forgotten, unique and proud tribes.
This article was originally published in Etihad Inflight in November 2009.
Jessica Gliddon’s work on travel, art, cuisine and culture can be found at Endless Distractions.