During the planning stages of our trip to Bangladesh, the Sylhet division was the one we were most looking forward to. It made logical sense on our route for it to be left as the penultimate stop but we feel that it was definitely a case of ‘saving the best for last’. We started this part of the trip in the divisional capital of Sylhet.
Sylhet is, like most cities we visited in Bangladesh, a bustling, crowded place with noise, sights and smells that are an attack on the senses. The city is relatively big and not that easy to walk around. We did a bit of exploring and made it to the main sight in the city, the Shrine of Hazrat Shah Jalal. This is one of Bangladesh’s biggest pilgrimage sites. It took some walking and asking for directions but finally we found the street that lead to the main entrance.
The large complex houses the main tomb and a mosque, known as a mazar and a masjid respectively in the local Bengali language. It was, as was to be expected, very busy with lots of pilgrims and worshipers milling around; there were also many beggars. At one point we had a group of several beggar children surrounding us, who were swiftly chased away by the stick wielding security guards! The tomb can only be accessed through the mosque.
Unfortunately, according to Muslim protocol, women are forbidden from entering most active mosques, so I went in alone. I made my way through the main part of the mosque to an open area with a stone walkway. It wasn’t very well maintained and was rather overgrown. There are many other tombs in the area, set out almost like a graveyard; the main tomb lies in a locked caged enclosure and isn’t really visible. Overall the architecture of the different buildings is good to see.
The only other main sight worth seeing in the city is the Kean Bridge, which we made a special effort to go and see the morning of our departure. Hailing from the British era, it is an impressive structure. It spans the Surma River and, despite being damaged by Pakistani bombers during the Liberation War and subsequently repaired, it is very actively used as the city’s main transport link across the river.
Our main aim for staying in Sylhet was to use it as a base for day trips; we made two, the first being a trip to Ratargul. Ratargul is a bone chattering 35km autorickshaw ride northwest of Sylhet and is Bangladesh’s only freshwater swamp forest. We were driven there by a guy who, despite not speaking much English, was friendly and looked after us.
We were then taken for a short one-hour tour on a small wooden boat by two boys who were no more than 12 years old; they were, however, already experienced boatmen. Having been to the Sundarbans, it wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before yet it made a peaceful and scenic getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Our second day trip was to the town of Jaflong, a place that wasn’t initially on our itinerary but which we slotted in after the recommendation from some locals in Dhaka. The place is very popular with domestic tourists and is famed for Zero Point, the point in the river where India and Bangladesh meet. Although Jaflong lies on the border between the two countries, you cannot officially cross into either country here.
Getting to Jaflong involved yet another hair raising, two hour local bus ride; eventually we made it! The town itself is not very pleasant, overwhelmed by constant construction, people and noise. We wandered down to the river bank where we were set upon by boatmen, who insisted that the only way to see anything was to purchase a tour package that included a boat, jeep and ‘compulsory’ guide, all for an extortionate price. Our experience as independent travellers paid off as we declined the multiple and frankly very frustrating offers and walked away.
All we had come to see was the border point; we walked down to a much quieter part of the river, where a friendly and honest boatman offered to take us there for a much more reasonable price. Once we arrived at Zero Point, it was a very surreal experience to be invited by the Bangladeshi border guard to come and stand with him right on the line between Bangladesh and India, where we met another border guard from India!
The working relationship between the two was one of great camaraderie and friendship. Between us we had a great laugh as we ‘hopped’ between the two countries. I even got my photo with them; they were, however, insistent that it was not to be posted on social media. Despite the long journey and initial problems that we faced, we left feeling that the trip to Jaflong had been a success.
Accommodation and Food in Sylhet
The city of Sylhet is pretty good as far as big cities go; our hotel, Golden City, was comfortable with an average included breakfast. There were also many great eating options in the vicinity of the hotel, including some great places to enjoy North Indian cuisine.
If you’ve ever had an Indian curry in the UK, it is more than likely that the chef will hail from this part of Bangladesh; Sylhet is famous for its unique take on Indian flavours and is the only part of the country where such dishes are available!
Our next destination was sylvan Srimangal, our favourite stop on our month-long circuit of Bangladesh. Even though Sylhet is the capital of the division, Srimangal steals the show with its vast expanse of rolling hills, greenery and acres of tea plantations. As avid tea drinkers and lovers of greenery and wide open spaces, Srimangal was somewhere that we had looked forward to from the beginning.
The town itself is friendly and manageable with ample places to stay and eat. Thanks to having data and maps, we were able to get off the bus at the correct point, making it an easy walk to one of the best guesthouses that we had stayed in.
Green Leaf Guesthouse is run by the friendly Tapas Dash, who made our whole stay very easy and a great experience. Along with him we also made some lifelong friends – Becca from the US and Esha from Dhaka. We became quite a foursome during our stay, which made our time in Srimangal all the better.
As with every other town we journeyed to in Bangladesh, Srimangal is modernising fast with phone, footwear and clothe shops, yet it still holds onto its originality. As we made our way out of town and down the main road, we realised just how spread out the town is.
Zareen Tea Estate
After a short and bumpy cycle rickshaw ride, we made it to the tea plantation that is furthest way – Zareen Tea Estate, home to the Ispahani brand of tea which is consumed by almost everyone in Bangladesh. It was the best tea we had tasted in Bangladesh, so we bought a box to enjoy once we returned to Thailand. As is customary, we sought and gained permission from the estate manager before taking a walk through the lush green bushes of tea. The emerald carpets are a far cry from the craziness of town and a welcome respite.
As the light was fading, we made our way back along the main road towards Srimangal. On route we were stopped by the local tourist police, who asked us who we were, where we were staying and so on. Thankfully, our guesthouse and Tapas are well known and respected so once we mentioned him they were very quick to offer us a ride in their pickup back to town… having a free ride with the local police was certainly an unexpected end to the day!
Lowachara National Park
The next day we teamed up with our new friends and Tapas, who is also a trekking guide, for a trek into Lowachara National Park. A tropical semi-evergreen forest, the park is home to the endangered hoolock gibbon, macaques, Himalayan red bellied squirrel and barking deer. Given the fact that it is a dense forest, seeing much wildlife wasn’t very likely and, unsurprisingly, we didn’t see much at all. One thing that we didn’t fail to spot, however, were the frankly jaw droppingly huge orb spiders, which hung in massive webs in every available spot. For an arachnophobic like me, it was a very pleasant encounter…not!
After a hot, sweaty, leech infested scramble through the forest, we made it through to the other side and the visitor centre, where we stopped for tea and to see the live railway track that runs right through the park. Apparently it is a famous spot where a scene in a Bengali movie was once filmed.
Back in Srimangal, we spent some more time looking around town and seeing the market in full swing, full of colour and smells. We didn’t expect Bangladesh to have such a night culture but it was an interesting and different side of South Asia to witness.
The following day we made a trip to pretty Madhabpur Lake with Becca and Esha, a tranquil spot about two-hours-drive from Srimangal. The still lake is dotted with lotus leaves and pale pink flowers and is surrounded on all sides by rolling countryside and the Madhabpur Tea Estate.
We took some time to wander amid the tea bushes, which cover the hillsides in picture postcard fashion, and spoke to some of the tea pickers busy at work. Esha conversed with them in easy Bangla, enabling us to learn much more about the women and their hard lives as tea workers.
As they sat down to their midday meal, we were invited to join them; they offered us a little of their lunch to try and, as has so often happened when we’ve been on the road, we felt privileged to be given a snapshot into a different culture and lives that are so different to our own.
On our final day in Srimangal we were back to our own devices. After a frantic rush to book a bus back to Dhaka for that night, we wandered to a beautifully green and lush village just outside town called Ramnagar.
The route to the village makes for a very pleasant walk in open countryside and you’re able to see the simplicity with which the local people live their lives; it’s refreshing to see, given how much of the world now succumbs to the pressures of consumerism and wastefulness.
We also stopped by the famous Finlays Tea Estate, a sprawling affair that runs alongside the road. Stepping into the bushes, we got a few good photos!
Seven Layered Tea
I had heard and read about something famous in Srimangal that I was intrigued to try – Seven Layered Tea. Created by the deceased Romesh Ram Gour at his now very famous Nilkantha Tea Cabin (of which there are now two), it is, as the Lonely Planet describes, a ‘Willy-Wonka-esque’ concoction. The recipe was handed down to his family before he passed away and is now a must-try for anyone visiting the area. You can order anything from two layers up to the now possible eight!
I stuck to trying the original seven; it is a very difficult thing to describe but it literally does have seven different colours and seven different flavours of tea… and you can taste the difference in every sip! I can’t remember the order exactly but from memory there is white, black, green, honey, lemon, ginger and milk tea tea in the mix. The taste is most certainly unique but I won’t be exchanging my usual cup of simple one layered, one flavoured milk tea for it any time soon!
We feel that we definitely saved the best until last when it came to visiting the fantastic area of Srimangal. It is alive with culture, friendliness, colour, delicious food and, of course, tea! The rolling hills and fragrant tea plantations of Sylhet division should be on any Bangladesh itinerary; it is a part of the country that we would return to in a heartbeat.
From Sylhet or Srimangal you’ll likely head back to Dhaka, the frenetic capital of Bangladesh. Find out how to see the best of the city in our DHAKA post!