At the end of the Bandarban hills in southeast Bangladesh, just nearly 90km apart from the heart of the district, lies a tranquil realm of beauty. Strands of small hills decorate a nearly deserted piece of land. Birds, wildlife and tribal inhabitants thrive, and in early summer’s cooler temperatures, you’d be crazy not to launch a kayak, even if it’s your first time.
It was the month of March, during our Independence Day vacation. Instead of heading to the typical tourist haunts, we discovered a river under the banner of lush green hills of Bandarban: the River Shangu (also known as Shankha).
Setting out from the capital, you can easily reach the most thinly populated place of the delta by bus or any other private transport. At the end of the road, nothing but Thanchi awaits you, a tiny inhabited hill town that offers a smorgasbord of river, drinks, green vegetables, fruits and the colorful tribal life. Paddling across this landscape is unforgettable: the empty space, the fragrance of fresh earth, the chiming birds and the chilling sight of green pit vipers; this is the place to embrace a quintessential tropical forest along with a beautiful river.
The point of kayaking in Shangu isn’t to paddle over it, but to paddle into the region itself. We chose to head upstream towards the river’s source in Burma, a decision that required more energy and time, especially with our soft shell inflatable kayaks. Many times the river gave out on us, and we had to walk our boats over the terrain. Rocky river beds, twist and turns, dead trees and every element of nature made our journey more challenging and adventurous.
We started our journey from Thanchi, which borders Burma and India. Because of that, security is a nuisance all year long, though the region is so pleasant and calm. Moreover, the 4WD drive from Bandarban town to Chimbuk gives some extra highs to the journey–literally. This is the highest motorable pass of this plain and it takes almost 5 hours.
After staying at our friend’s home at Head Man Para of Thanchi, we inflated our kayaks and hired another country boat to support us in kicking off this new adventure in Bangladesh.
It was a huge attraction among the locals and tons of questions ensued: “How does it work? Don’t you think it will sink?” the locals asked, even though it was very early in the morning. We launched near Head Man Para, several kilometers away from Thanchi and kept on going against the Shangu’s meager flow.
After a few hours of paddling, our first pit stop was at Thindo, a place full of rocks. We prepared our lunch under a banyan tree with our self-contained food though Thindo Bazar was there just to cross the river.
We hadn’t anticipated the beauty we found at Thindo. Full of rock boulders, tall trees and birds, it was so enjoyable we couldn’t resist making a stop-over to swim. Here, the Shangu was not so vigorous in the dry season, having gentle depth all through. Between cliff jumps into the cool water, we ate some red watery watermelon under a sizzling sun.
After a few more hours journey, we reached the ground of Remakri in the later afternoon, the place we wanted to be. After pitching our tent on a hill top under a majestic blue evening sky, we spied the greenery of the forest and darkening river water in the low light. The rising fumes from distant huts made the whole scenario more dramatic. Baked beans, green peas, soup, brown potato and pasta were in the menu for the moonlit feast, supplemented with brewed local drinks.
The next morning, we left the tent early in order to enjoy the first light of misty morning. After sunrise, we fixed our kayaks and started our journey back to Thanchi again. After we started, we were confused, for the river’s direction had reversed during the night and we were mysteriously paddling against the flow, doubling our hurdle. Additionally, a hill storm caught us just in the middle of nowhere while we were boarded our tiny kayaks. It becames furious within a very short time. And it was too hard to float our kayak in Shangu. So we decided to deflate it and pack to our support boat, despite our furious paddling, progress was slow.
Soon, night fell on us and it was 8pm before we reached Thanchi. Exhausted, we felt like we had travelled the whole world within a tiny time span, as we were too tired to paddle anymore. After completing the trip, we found ourselves recalling the essential travel mantra: whatever awaits, don’t fret. It’s a matter of taking the first steps and then taking them to the absolute limit.