When southeastern Bangladesh is in the news, it is usually in relation to ethnic conflict, insurgency, or, most recently, the Rohingya refugee crisis in nearby Myanmar.
But the region is also full of natural beauty and increasing economic prosperity.
In October 2014 I hiked through the Bandarban district and in this photo essay I document daily life in this remote corner of Southeast Asia.
The Bandarban district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts is a major tourist destination in Bangladesh. One of the most popular sights is the Boga Lake, pictured here, which was created by rainwater pooling in an extinct volcano near the Myanmar border.
Families and young people (mostly men), travel from all over Bangladesh by bus to relax by Boga Lake, hike through the surrounding jungle, and purchase local handcrafts such as hand-woven textiles. As the country’s economy continues to grow, more and more people enter the middle class and are able to afford such holidays.
The tourist buses stop at a township 18km from Boga Lake. From there it’s a bumpy ride in an over-crowded jeep, or a six-hour hike over the uphill, muddy track that connects tribal villages in the dense jungle.
Although the insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts effectively ended in the late 1990s, the area is still heavily militarised and checkpoints dot the Bandarban district. This picture was taken from a checkpoint along a river. With a limited number of reliable roads in this remote area, most transport occurs on the rivers. Everyone who passes must stop and register at the checkpoint. The visitors’ book reveals that very few foreign tourists come here.
Accommodation at Boga Lake is basic but comfortable. There are no hotels or guesthouses, but locals have taken to renting out their own homes to visitors. Toilet facilities are in pit latrines and rain water is collected by channelling it into barrels, as can be seen here.
The Bandarban district is poor and remote, but well connected with the telecommunications grid. Mobile phones facilitate business, keep families in touch with relatives who work in the cities, and even allow for money transfers.
In the absence of centralised municipal services such as electricity and sewerage systems, most households in the Bandarban district have turned to off-the-grid solutions such as solar-powered lights. Solar panels are increasingly affordable and readily available. They can be serviced or upgraded at numerous small shops that have sprung up in the district’s towns and larger village centres.
Solar energy also provides the electricity for public buildings such as schools and churches. The area around Boga Lake is populated mostly by the Baum people, an ethnic minority related to the Chin peoples in Myanmar. The Baum are predominantly Christian and use the Roman alphabet, rather than Bangla, the official language and alphabet of Bangladesh.
There is a requirement for tourist groups to be accompanied by at least one local guide from the Baum ethnic minority, thus creating some employment opportunities. Others are involved in growing cash crops, such as bananas.
Banana farmers bring their produce to a central collection point from where it is transported to market or sold to passing tourists.
Once the bananas of the Bandarban district are brought down from the hills they are packed onto long, low boats and rowed to nearby townships.
Most produce comes in and out of Bandarban district by boat. Some boats, like this one, are so heavily laden with goods that they begin to take on water.
Paula Hanasz is a PhD scholar at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. Her research examines international water politics in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin shared between Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and India.