Srimangal’s Secret Charms

With its lush tea gardens and stands of protected forest, this hilly corner of northeastern Bangladesh may not be the most likely holiday destination in South Asia (and that’s kind of the point), but it has scenery and hospitality to spare.

The tea plantations of Srimangal, Bangladesh. (Photo: Johirul Islam Sujon/Unsplash)

Outside the window of our tatty rail carriage, rice paddies drift past in emerald blazes and the sky appears vast over the alluvial lowlands of central Bangladesh. Inside, the train’s trundle is pierced by the cries of chai wallahs, whose persistence fails to disturb the gentleman sharing the compartment with us. He continues to read his newspaper peacefully and offers me some homemade chitoi pithas, a type of Bengali pancake filled with grated coconut and date-palm jaggery. On and on we roll across the seemingly infinite floodplains. And then, some five hours after our departure from Dhaka, hills begin to spring up, their gentle slopes mantled with verdant tea plantations.

Bangladesh is rightly known as one of the flattest nations on the planet. Three mighty Himalayan rivers — the Ganges (known here as Padma), Brahmaputra (Jamuna), and Meghna — converge on these plains, offloading their silty luggage as they fan out across most of the country and into the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal to form the world’s biggest delta. But there’s some topography, too: in the Chittagong Hills of the southeast, whose mountainous terrain contains at least three peaks over 1,000 meters high; and in the rural northeastern region of Sylhet, where the tea-growing area of Srimangal, our destination, is situated.

What Bangladesh isn’t known for is tourism, at least as far as overseas visitors are concerned. Floods, cyclones, and political strife tend to be all one hears about this Muslim-majority nation, whose official tourism slogan used to be “Visit Bangladesh Before Tourists Come.” They never did. And that’s a shame, because there is plenty to admire here, not least of which is the friendliness of the Bangladeshis themselves. I observed this on my first visit back in 2007, when, after spending several days researching a story in Dhaka’s Korail slum, a poor lady gifted me a sparkly pink salwar kameez. I treasure it still.

So when it came time to plan a post-lockdown family holiday, I was able to convince my husband and two young sons to spend a month in Bangladesh. Our itinerary would include visits to the terra-cotta Hindu temples of Puthia and the ruins of the ancient Buddhist monastery of Somapura Mahavihara at Paharpur; hikes through the mountains and tribal settlements of Chittagong; and walks along one of the world’s longest beaches at Cox’s Bazaar, with nothing for miles except fishing boats with hulls shaped like crescent moons. We’d explore Dhaka and the backwaters of Barisal. And right in the middle of it all we’d spend a week in the Moulvibazar District of southern Sylhet, dividing our time between the tea gardens of Srimangal (also spelled Sreemangal) and some of the country’s last remaining patches of subtropical rain forest.

Our guide for this leg of the trip is Russel Alam, a young naturalist with rugged good looks and an infectious enthusiasm for the local wildlife. We’ll get to that soon enough, but first up is a day of biking through the tea plantations. We whizz down rolling hills under the outstretched branches of Ceylon rosewood shade trees, while women with red bindis and brightly colored headscarves pluck leaves and buds amid a rippling sea of green. Not for nothing is Srimangal known as the tea capital of Bangladesh: the original Camellia sinensis bushes were introduced here by British planters well over a century ago, and tea estates now carpet the countryside.

The next morning we set off for a hike through Lawachara National Park, a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride from town. Named for one of the many streams that lace its undulating terrain, this 1,250-hectare swath of semi-evergreen woodlands brims with birdlife, primates, and an astounding variety of flora. Longhorned orb-weaver spiders hang in huge webs strung across the sandy paths, and the ground is stamped with the footprints of barking deer and wild boar.

After about an hour of walking, we hear shrill calls: a fortissimo of boisterous barking so loud we half expect enormous beasts to emerge from the forest canopy. “Our country’s only apes,” Russel says, pointing upward. “Western hoolock gibbons. They stay in the trees their whole lives, never coming to the ground.” I watch as a troop of seven of the long-armed primates swing like trapeze artists from branch to branch. They’re utterly captivating. They’re also endangered. Russel estimates there are less than 200 left in the wilds of Bangladesh, mostly confined to this park.

Left to right: A capped langur at Lawachara National Park near Srimangal; guide Russel Alam. (Photos: Michelangelo Pignani; Kate Eshelby)

Lawachara is also home to two settlements of Khasi people, who count themselves among the country’s indigenous ethnic minorities. Having migrated to this region centuries ago, they are a matrilineal society and speak a language related to Khmer. As we enter the village of Lawachara Punji, a hamlet of perhaps two dozen households, one of the first things I notice is how clean it is compared to the rubbish-strewn communities prevalent elsewhere in Bangladesh. “We are an indigenous people so we care for nature,” a Khasi woman named Ruzy explains.

Earthen steps cut into a hill twist up and around the village, reminding me of an Escher print. The houses have stilted bamboo verandas hung with painted flowerpots. Women sit on their porches tying piles of heart-shaped betel leaves — their main source of income — into bundles. There’s also a fuchsia-pink church with intricate, hand-carved wooden shutters; like most Khasi, the people here are Christians. Inside the church, a lady in a faded Disney T-shirt shows me a bible written in Khasi. I ask about her mother tongue and she bursts into song, belting out one of their hymns from beginning to end. Her voice is electrifying.

Another afternoon brings us to the wetlands of Baikka Beel, an important habitat for migratory waterfowl. We’re visiting in December, when the monsoon-fed waters have begun to subside and wintering birdlife is abundant. We sit in the sunshine as purple swamphens and fulvous whistling ducks paddle among lotus flowers. “These wetlands are great carbon capturers,” Russel says, “but they are disappearing as we dig fish farms and plant rice on them.” Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated places on earth — almost 170 million people in a country half the size of Italy — and so its demand for new farmland is huge.

The Rema-Kalenga Wildlife Sanctuary is also nearby. Butterflies dazzle; we hear the electronic-sounding chirps of greater flameback woodpeckers and the whistles of blossom-headed parakeets. Greater racket-tailed drongos lift from the trees, their tail feathers streaming out behind them like rocket fire. We also spot Phayre’s leaf monkeys, whose white eye patches have earned them the Bangla name chosmapora hanuman, or “bespectacled monkey.”

Nature aside, it’s the hospitality of the people that sets this trip apart, not just in Srimangal but throughout our stay in Bangladesh. We join cricket matches in village maidans, and our boys learn to play carrom, a tabletop shuffleboard game, with local children. We are asked into people’s homes for meals, and invited to pose for countless group selfies.

And nowhere are we far from a beguiling array of food prepared tirelessly over flickering fires. We eat spicy dhal bhuna and biryani; vegetable bhaji and crispy puchka filled with tamarind syrup and chickpeas; fragrant khichuri (rice-and-lentil stews) and tandoori dishes. In the mornings we pick up homemade chapatis and hot, fat rounds of paratha. Some evenings we visit sandesh sellers to purchase fudge-like squares made from jaggery and milk, which melt in our mouths. And the tea is delicious, brewed on every street corner in Srimangal from battered kettles. The most famous preparation here is called seven-layer tea. Served in a tall glass, it’s made using different tea leaves and spices to create a rainbow of colors, each layer imparting a distinct flavor.

The mist still hangs over the rice paddies when we leave our guesthouse early one morning for an excursion to Hum Hum Falls, which lies deep in the Rajkandi Reserve Forest on the border with the Indian state of Tripura. It’s a one-hour drive to Koloban village, where the road ends and we are met by entrepreneurial children selling bamboo poles for walking sticks. The ensuing trek (four hours there and back) takes us through sun-dappled bamboo groves and across numerous streams bridged by logs. Our sons love the adventure of step-stoning over river rocks and clambering up the banks using tree roots.

The hike is a bit challenging in parts, though when a Bangladeshi family passes us on the trail, I can’t help but notice that the ladies in the group, all beautifully dressed in glittery salwar kameezes and sandals, seem to be managing just fine. Bangladesh, I think to myself, is not for everyone, but for those who make their way to this alluring, under-appreciated corner of Asia, the rewards are abundant. And we haven’t even seen the waterfall yet.

 

The Deets

Getting There

The tea town of Srimangal is 231 kilometers from Dhaka via train, a journey of about six hours. Alternatively, take a domestic flight to Sylhet’s Osmani Airport and hire a car for the two-hour drive south to Srimangal.

Where to Stay

Top lodgings in the Srimangal area range from the Grand Sultan Tea Resort & Golf (doubles from US$280), a sprawling 135-room property that lays claim to being the only five-star hotel in the Sylhet region; to the more boutique-scale DuSai Resort & Spa (rooms from US$160). For the budget-minded, the Hermitage (doubles from US$65) provides a charming alternative.

Who to Call

All travel needs in Bangladesh can be arranged by Dhaka-based Royal Bengal Tours, a small outfit run by the ever-reliable Mostafizur Rahaman Jewel.

 

This article originally appeared in the June/August 2022 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Sojourn in Srimangal”).

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