The Sundarbans National Park
The Sundarbans National Park is considered a quintessential part of any visit to Bangladesh. It is the largest mangrove forest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The mangroves stretch inland from the Bay of Bengal for 80 kilometres and are home to a large number of different animals including deer, birds and crocodiles, not forgetting of course the very famous yet equally elusive Bengal Tiger. Being a lover of animals and of seeing wildlife in its natural habitat, this was an opportunity that I certainly didn’t want to miss.
Exploring the Sundarbans
After a lot of research on my part, given the huge number of companies that offer tours to the area, I finally found and arranged a three day two night tour with a company called The Royal Tour. With everything prearranged by phone and email, the morning arrived to begin our Sundarbans adventure!
We were met at 7am at our hotel in Khulna and taken to the vessel that would be our home for the next three days, The Royal Magpie, which was anchored just offshore. On the way we picked up our two national park rangers who would be with us for the duration of the trip; they proved to be both very friendly and knowledgeable.
We boarded the vessel at around 8am and were shown to our cabin. It was very basic with very low single beds and only shared toilet and shower facilities but it was very clean and turned out to be surprisingly comfortable. We decided early on that we would spend the majority of our time up on deck and use it simply as a place to store our luggage and sleep. The real action was upstairs anyway!
It turned out that we would be sharing the experience with roughly 40 other people, all of whom were domestic tourists; we were the only foreigners! Everybody was extremely polite and friendly and we made some wonderful friends over the three days we spent together in close proximity; this enriched the experience all the more. We were made even more famous for being the only vegetarians on board and the only two not to take sugar in our tea!
Everything on board was included in the price, which included copious amounts of food! I was surprised that the ship was able to carry so many ingredients to feed so many people, filling them with seemingly endless refills that only added to the already very large portions sizes! We were provided with three meals a day plus snacks and as much tea and water as we could manage!
Lunch seemed to be the main meal of the day, an elaborate affair of rice, dal, vegetables and other dishes. Lynette and I were always the last to finish but we impressed everyone on the boat by using our hands to eat ‘the local way’, which, when we first did it, raised eyebrows along with equal smiles of approval from our fellow passengers.
Our time on the boat was extremely peaceful and quiet, which was a nice break from the craziness of the Bangladeshi streets and cities. We sailed along the river, taking in the beautiful scenery and warm weather; it made for a very mellow and relaxing time. Alas, we didn’t actually see that much in terms of wildlife but the overall experience was fantastic nonetheless.
Each day we were given opportunities to get off the main ship and take trips in small wooden motorboats into the narrow waterways, allowing us to get a closer look at the mangroves and, potentially, see some more wildlife. We also had the chance to do a bit of trekking within the jungle to some different viewpoints.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned, we didn’t see much wildlife, definitely not any stripy cats, but we did spot some fresh paw prints in the mud that were clearly those of an elusive tiger. It had obviously been on an early morning hunt in its territory but, by the time we arrived, the big cat was long gone. It would have scarpered anyway given the noise everyone was making when walking through the forest!
Although it had been relaxing and was, overall, a wonderful experience of food, scenery and some lovely sunsets, after nearly three whole days on the boat we were ready to get back to dry land. After lunch on the final day, we disembarked and bid farewell to all of our new friends that we had spent the last few days with.
All the people we met, including the staff on board, had been really nice and friendly; the professional way in which we had been looked after and the service that we received all contributed to make it a worthwhile trip.
We based ourselves in Khulna for a further two nights after the Sundarbans tour to see a little more of the city and squeeze in a day trip. Khulna itself was just as crazy and busy as every other city that we had been to in Bangladesh. It was full of people, rickshaws and shops selling everything from shoes to the latest smartphones.
It was a buzzing and lively place, even more so when darkness fell; in the evening multiple local eateries began making fresh nan bread, roti and paratha on the street. We soon learnt that Khulna was famous for its delicious breads and places quickly filled with locals, eager to get their fill. We followed suit, finding a decent enough looking place and enjoying piping hot nan bread with dal and vegetable sabji, all for a ridiculously low price.
On the one whole day we had in Khulna we embarked on a day trip to Bagerhat, home to another UNESCO protected site. A short bus ride brought us to this tranquil and quiet town, which was built in the 15th century by Khan Jahan Ali.
A scenic town with a busy junction at its centre, Bagerhat is surrounded by small rural villages, lush green paddies and some stunning feats of architecture; crumbling old mosques and mausoleums dot the bucolic landscape.
The main attraction is the UNESCO protected Shait Gumbad Mosque, which means ‘Temple with 60 Domes’. There are in fact 81… but who’s counting?! It was constructed in 1459 and is a beautiful structure within some very nice grounds; the outside is more impressive than the interior.
Close by is the Bagerhat Museum, housing some old pottery and a 3D model of the surrounding area; the model shows where some of the other mosques are. Naturally, we sought out these lesser known sights whilst we were there. They were nice to see but nothing much to write about.
Another of the listed sights is the Nine Dome Mosque, another impressive structure with eight small domes encircling one larger dome on its roof. The architecture and detail were very beautiful. There was, however, an old man seated inside who asked us for bakshee (money) to look around; we therefore made a swift exit.
We also visited the Tomb of Khan Jahan Ali, which is a place of active worship and a popular pilgrimage site. Within the complex is a pond called Thakur Dighi which, until their deaths in 2011 and 2014 respectively, was home to two gigantic crocodiles. It is now home to a small family of crocodiles who have reportedly snapped at humans, so we weren’t inclined to paddle or take a dip!
Another point of interest is Ronvijoypur Mosque, which has the largest dome in Bangladesh spanning 11 metres. Although we couldn’t see it fully, it still had an imposing feel to it. Other mosques in town include Bibi Begni Mosque, Chunakhola Mosque and Singara Mosque; you can also see the Tomb of Khan Jahan Ali.
The town of Bagerhat makes for a very peaceful and scenic stroll amid quaint countryside and is much less crowded and intimidating than other places in Bangladesh. After one of our few more successful milk teas, we caught a passing bus back to Khulna, satisfied that our trip had been worthwhile and that we had seen all of what the historic town had to offer.
For more history and architecture in Bangladesh, don’t miss Rajshahi! There is plenty to see in and around this university town.
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