Travel in Bangladesh

To say I was scared would be a great understatement. Perhaps paralyzed with fear is a more descriptive phrase. I stood on the edge of the infamous fishing troller, both feet side by side on the last bit of open space that was left on the overcrowded single mode of transport to and from Saint Martin’s Island. I was momentarily frozen, I felt the blood rush from my face down to my feet, I even felt light headed. There’s not a lot that bothers me but I was petrified.

The busy pier in Teknaf, Bangladesh

The trip didn’t start there at that trash filled port, however, it began 4 hours earlier in Cox’s Bazar. We checked out of our two bedroom, $18/night hotel room (breakfast included), and ventured out to get the bus to Teknaf, one of the easternmost towns along the coast in Bangladesh, 5 miles from the Myanmar border. Humaira, my host, told me we would take a bus, but on the busy streets of Cox’s Bazar, filled with the whizzing buzz of vehicles and the bells of rickshaws, she motioned for me to get into the back of a covered truck. It had two bench seats on the inside and a row between the main cab and those of us in the back.

Ready to go.

There were 14 people in that small space, the attendant hung on to the ladder on the outside of the vehicle, and another young boy sat on the top. Three plus hours in that cramped space.

Our truck/bus attendant from Cox’s Bazar to Teknaf.

The thick air barely filtered through the open windows and when it did, it brought along dirt and dust that filled the nostrils and the corners of my eyes. As we traveled, some people got off and on, freeing up some space, but it was still cramped nonetheless. Humaira spent some time standing on the back, and I eventually did the same for a few minutes, needing a breath of fresh air and to stretch my legs. The portion of the trip we spent along Marina Drive was amazing, with the endless beach and seemingly calm sea in the background.

The sea from Marina Drive.

As we traveled, people were inquisitive. Why was there a foreigner in the area during low season, and furthermore, why was there a foreigner in the area given the Rohinga refugee situation? People kept repeating, “Be careful, it’s not safe.” But our minds were clearly made up and we were making the journey to Saint Martin’s Island, a speck of land in the Bay of Bengal, just a few kilometers from the Burmese shore.

Just a visual of the area.

The Rohinga are considered a stateless people. When the British drew up the Burmese borders, they fell within that country, but they’ve always been denied a nationality. Within Myanmar, they are not allowed movement, state education, nor civil service jobs. The group, predominantly Muslim, has long been persecuted in Myanmar, a predominately Buddhist country, and violations against them have been termed “crimes against humanity.” In the recent past, the situation has escalated and more than 900,000 refugees have fled from Myanmar to escape the current genocide the group is facing. It’s a complex issue that doesn’t get a lot of press in the West, but the situation is likened to apartheid.
During one of the bus stops, a young woman with red, bettle nut stained lips and worn teeth sat opposite me. She had two young children, a small rice sack of belongings, and wore a black hijab. She had an empty look in her brown eyes and that face with her fine features and small nose will forever be ingrained in my mind. Her husband was killed in Myanmar and she’d recently crossed the border. Although there are various checkpoints along the roads to prevent the Rohinga from totally infiltrating Bangladesh, the woman and her two children were allowed on the bus. They were traveling from one refugee camp to another, closer to the border to meet other family members. She got of the truck and we drove away. She was clearly not Bangladeshi and I’m clearly not Rohinga.

Fresh bettlenut at a market we passed.

When we finally arrived in Teknaf, the port town where we’d take the fishing troller to the island, we were running out of time. The boat was about to depart so we hopped in a rickshaw and headed to the pier. There was a buzz of commotion. A dock so narrow you couldn’t tell if the crowd was going left or right, there was trash everywhere, and the midday sun was beating down. Humaira bought our tickets and that’s when the fear set in. As I stood paralyzed, I was told to sit down, but there was no place to sit. The hull of the boat was filled with various items. Chicken cages stacked one atop another, supplies for the island, peoples’ personal belongings. My bag was tossed to the side somewhere and I found a spot about as wide as my butt on top of a grain bag. The boat was packed. Every square inch of the deck and sides was covered with people. There was no shade from the sun, umbrellas of all colors served as a roof for the troller with hijab clad women beneath them, children patiently waiting for departure, men chattering amongst themselves.

Looks comfortable, right??

We were packed in like sardines, except sardines are meant to swim in water. If that overloaded boat sank in the sea, I don’t know who would have made it to safety. It looked like we were refugees fleeing some war torn country, but refugees were actually fleeing to Bangladesh. I sat quiet for a long time, thinking about my life and all the things I still wanted to do. I had a vision of myself sitting in a cool, clean, small apartment somewhere in San Antonio, calm and peaceful. I assured myself I could swim to safety no matter what, but I became paranoid about my passport. If that ship sank, I could be stuck in Bangladesh without it. I was thinking about things that seriously. I even emptied a ziplock bag of peanuts in case the situation turned for the worse. Hey, it was all I could think of. The waterway to the sea was a narrow river, so the boat was protected for 14 miles from whatever conditions may be out in the great wide open. We met two other Indian travelers and eventually chatted amongst ourselves. When the river opened up to the Bay of Bengal, there were swells off in the distance. The troller began rocking back and fourth, waves splashed over us and within minutes, I was soaked. We had about an hour to go in those choppy waters and it was intense to say the least. The Indian lady was near hysterics, my frustration and nervousness were released in the form of tears rolling down my cheeks as the sun burned my face. The stench of the poultry below wafted up through all of the items in the hull. Khushe, the other girl traveling with Humaira and I, began crying. Because I was stuck, wedged in between bags and on top of the grain sack, the Indian man gave us updates on our arrival. I couldn’t see anything. 50% left, 30%, and so on. I eventually calmed myself and tried to comfort Khushe and the Indian lady. Finally, we made it. Our troller hit the pier, cracking the cement railing above. People began jumping of the boat. It was pure chaos. Stuff and people everywhere. When the one white girl was seen on the troller, news spread like wildfire. The first officer of the Coast Guard was alerted and only later did we learn the Second officer appointed himself as our guardian to keep us safe on the small, 3 mile long island. We attracted a crowd, people looking at us, at me, as if no other white person had ever been there. But there had, we were just visiting in the low season, that’s why the proper ferry was unavailable. We searched and settled on a hotel room. The sun was setting. We went to that island to go to the beach and that’s what I wanted to do. I put on some leggings and a sports style t-shirt and we took off. No swimming in a bikini in a Muslim nation.

Sunset in the Bay of Bengal

The sky was incredible. Colors you only see in professional photos, all shades of red, orange, and yellow, and as the sun sank lower into the sea, we saw pinks and purples and a blend of nature’s beauty that was out of this world. The death defying troller ride was worth it.

Sunset in the Bay of Bengal

A few minutes later, the hotel manager and the Second Class Coast Guard officer showed up at the beach. Humaira was scolded for us females being out there alone and from that point on, it was determined we’d have our own personal body guards and protectors while there. We were reminded of the Rohinga again and told that there had been cases of bodies turning up on shore. There were some navy and coast guard boats patrolling the waters as well. I was hoping we could hitch a ride to shore with one of them!
We had dinner, showered, and got an invite to the Officer’s Club but we only sat outside. The officer had given Humaira his number in case of emergency, but he called her constantly. He knew of our fears leaving the island the next day and taking that same boat ride back. What if the weather were worse? What if there were more people. He promised we’d be safe. He said he himself would be the one to say when the boat was cleared to go and if necessary, we could even be the only ones on board.
It was late. We went to our room and crashed for the night, praying the sea would be calm the next day.

Sampon Boats on the beach by the officer’s club.

We woke up early and walked the beach. The hotel manager eventually met us and we ventured down, yet again, to the area outside of the Officer’s Club. The second officer had the hotel manager fetch us some breakfast. Paratha, lentils, and an omelette “burrito” on the beach, not a bad way to start the day. While the sea was calm, there were dark clouds in the sky. The officer ensured us we would get off the island and he would be at the pier when we left. He said to be there at 10:00 so we went to get ready. Then there was a torrential down pour. We waited longer but made our way to the pier. The officer was waiting. It was half as crowded as the day prior and they split up all the people into two boats. We puttered away under dark, drizzling skies, not having paid a single taka for the ride.

The boat was less crowded on the second day.

The fun wasn’t over however! Thankfully the sea stayed calm. We did get a bit wet from the rain, but all things considered, that was the least of what could have gone wrong. When we arrived back to the mainland, I was so relieved. We were all grateful and starving. After we ate, we tried to find a similar bus like we’d taken the day prior, but there was nothing in sight. Apparently, some Rohinga had died in one of the camps and available vehicles were being used to transport the bodies. It’s like that trip couldn’t get any more complex. We’d saved money on the boat but had to shell out a bit for a personal tuk tuk back to Cox’s Bazar. But we made it and we were safe. Humaira got yet another call from the officer and he wanted to provide dinner for us. His friend had a restaurant on the beach so we filled up before our overnight bus ride back to Dhaka.

Another sunset view.

Of all the places I’ve been and all the experiences I’ve had, this little trip was exceptional on so many levels. The fear, the beauty, the conflict, the people, the food. At the end of it, the officer called Humaira and asked her to tell me he hoped, and they, the Bangladeshis hoped, that I had a good time. They wanted me to know Bangladesh can be a place to visit where people can be friendly and caring. All of the tourist police and soldiers manning the check points along the way were equally friendly and concerned about our safety as well. Humaira was concerned about the danger we’d faced getting to Saint Martin’s Island and she wanted desperately to be able to get off. Once we were in the clear, however, she confided she couldn’t wait to go back, but in the season! No more traveling by fishing troller.

No thanks.

I left Bangladesh with so many experiences. I wanted to write them all down, but more than anything, I wanted to share my story of our crazy trip to Saint Martin Island. Bangladesh is a country that ultimately does not see a lot of tourists and I’m sure even fewer make it to the easternmost point to the island. Furthermore, the Rakhine State along the border of Myanmar is closed to travelers as well for obvious reasons.
If you made it this far (I know this was a long post), thank you for reading. I hope you at least enjoy the photos of a place that you may otherwise have not known existed. I’m glad I have a unique story to tell, but no more overcrowded fishing troller trips for me. And mom and dad, if you read this, sorry!! I won’t put myself in danger again!

Why I paid $210 for a hotel room and how I got a free plane ticket home.

A free ticket home?!

I received an email from United MileagePlus. It was about a partnership with an app called RocketMiles. Earn miles every time you book a hotel room through the app. As a budget traveler, I figured the available hotels wouldn’t be in my budget, but I downloaded it anyway.

Rocket Miles View- Mobile Version

When I got the email, I had 20,800 frequent flier miles with United. I know some are not United fans, but I’ve flown them quite a bit over the years. I’ve amassed and used my miles over and over for different award tickets. I even went round trip to Peru (for two) using those miles.

Machu Picchu, Peru. 2013

Every dollar I spend on my United credit card I get a mile. I looked at hotels via the RocketMiles app in all the cities I’ve yet to visit: Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Ho Chi Minh, and more. Of all those places, there was one hotel in Siem Reap that would give me 6,000 miles. But, it costs $210 per night. Yikes, that’s not within my budget.

I researched, did math, thought, researched some more, thought harder… Then I got yet another email. “Book by Friday and you’ll get an additional 3,000 miles.” So wait. I’ll pay $210 for the room and get 210 miles = about 21,000 miles. 6,000 for booking at this one hotel that’s offering more miles for the per night stay price than seemingly any other in SE Asia = 27,000 miles. 3,000 bonus miles = 30,000 miles.

Guess what 30,000 miles can get? An award ticket from Santiago, Chile (where I plan on finish up my travels next year) to Boston. Well, it costs 30,000 miles and $53. My “research” was checking regular ticket costs from Santiago to Boston. The cheapest ones are currently $540. So I based my decision on the following:
Hotel Room: $210
Award ticket: $53
Total: $263

Reg ticket: $540
$540-263=$277 savings AND, I get a fancy place to spend the night. Not that I need it, BUT it will help later when I need a ticket to go home. Furthermore, I spent the last ten days house and dog sitting via workaway, so I didn’t spend money on a place. I allocate myself about $30/d, but if I break up this expense over 2 months, it doesn’t reduce my daily budget by too much. Lastly, I’m still hoping to do a workaway volunteer opportunity for three weeks in Laos. If that works out, it will greatly help my budget!

My dog for 10 days.

While house sitting, I didn’t use the AC much as it turned out to be quite expensive. I was often over heated and woke up drenched in sweat most nights. I developed a heat rash, and had no relief from the high temperatures. In just a short time in AC, my heat rash miraculously improved in record time.

Not going to lie, I love breakfast buffets!

Fitness center. Breakfast buffet. Swimming pool. Lounging in bed. The epitome of laziness and I somehow managed to save nearly $300 on a plane ticket home.

Just my big bed in an air conditioned room at the Royal Empire Hotel!

I don’t think I’ve ever paid this much to stay somewhere for one night. Well, there was that one time I had surgery at Bumrungrad International Hospital. I’m sure that was the most expensive stay of my life, but my 23 hours at the Royal Empire Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, was by far the most I’ve ever paid for a hotel. I took full advantage, enjoyed it, and barely even left the place while there. All in all, it was worth the stay because of the frequent flier miles I earned. Was it worth $200? For what you can get in Cambodia, definitely not. The staff was nice, but people are nice even at the cheap hostels. It was good totally have my own space, cool off, and relax, but unless I can get another free plane ticket out of the deal, I won’t be spending any more nights in fancy hotels!

Whats your biggest travel splurge?

 

The Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam

What is a Sultanate? And where is Brunei? Has anyone heard of it? I feel like every now and then I want to visit a country just because I don’t know anything about it and it may not really be a tourist destination. Timor Leste is on my list for that reason and Brunei was as well. I have to say, I knew very little about it and had only seen a few snapshots of the main mosque prior to my arrival, but I wanted to pay a visit to this tiny nation nonetheless.

Our water taxi driver.

The word sultan comes from Arabic and means strength or authority. It is used for rulers in Islamic nations and can also refer to the leader of an area. A sultanate is the dynasty and lands that a sultan rules. Brunei is short for the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam, or Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace. I didn’t know what to expect when entering this tiny country that takes up less than 2% of the land on the island of Borneo, but I knew it had a lot of money and was predominantly Muslim.
We arrived by boat from Jesselton Pier in Kota Kinabalu via Victoria Island, still part of Malaysia, so that’s where we got stamped out. Thankfully, there was a money exchange office right at the pier upon arrival and taking the bus into the city was a breeze. You could see the difference between Malaysia and Brunei immediately. Brunei is clean, and because of the nation’s wealth, buildings, housing, and other structures looked more grand and new. They recently did become a country in 1984, after all. In that time, they have gone through major change and progress. They are one of the richest countries in the world and derive their wealth from oil, and unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, their oil is not from palms, but from deep under the ocean. There are more ties to the Middle East and often signs are in the local language (Malay) and in Arabic.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque

With only 24 hours on our hands, we had to act fast! We checked into our two-bed room at the Joy Guest House, centrally located and just across from the “Water Village.” The woman working there was nice enough to give us free towels and coffee and she helped us make a rough plan for the day. We immediately set out to grab a water taxi down the river to see the mangroves, macaques, and proboscis monkeys. We tried to negotiate a cheaper deal with the driver, but he held firm at $30 BND (about $24 USD). He pointed out crocodiles, monkeys, and some other structures along the riverside. He gave us a tour around the water village, the largest in Asia. It’s home to nearly 20,000 inhabitants who all live in buildings and homes built on stilts above the Brunei River.

Cruising through the water village.

In all, there are 29 small villages connected by walkways. When we arrived to one of the main piers, we met a family outside of their home. We initiated conversation with them and they invited us inside. They told us how they were able to get the lot and purchase the home. They have prime real estate right up front and said they’ve shown their home to many VIPs from all over the world. We didn’t want to keep them for too long so one of the girls led us to another home where they make a local style soup for $1.50 BND, just over $1 USD for dinner.

The family we met at the water village.

A family enjoying dinner was kind enough to share their fresh banana fritters with us, so free dessert. In one of the richest countries in the world, I’d say we did pretty well on our low budget meal!

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque

We spent the rest of the evening strolling around the downtown area, taking photos of the mosque and some other sites at night. Brunei is mostly a dry country and the night life is quiet. We went back to the hostel at a decent hour and got some rest. In the morning, we ventured out to “Empire Hotel,” a 5+ star resort over looking the South China Sea. We didn’t know it at the time, but the only bus back to the city was at 3:00 pm (and costs $2.00 BND). Our flight was at 4 pm, so that would be too late. Luckily, the city bus driver agreed to pick us up at 12:30, saving us a $25 taxi cab ride! We strolled through the enormous, shiny marble encrusted lobby. The large pillars and long staircases had golden accents and as we made our way to the back doors, we could see the neatly manicured lawns, large crystal clear swimming pools, and flowing fountains with the calm sea behind it all.

The pool is so big, you can kayak in it!

We stopped into the cafe before heading back into town and I ordered the most unusual combo of flavors all whipped into one frozen beverage: butternut toffee, espresso, milk, and peach syrup. If it doesn’t sound too appealing, don’t worry, you didn’t miss much! Once we returned to the downtown area, we finished up the last of our 24 hours with a stroll through the mosque in the daylight, but only once I paid a visit to the local post office. In keeping with my plan on sending my 9 year old niece and nephew something from every country I visit, I had to make sure they got at least a post card.
I was quite satisfied with our visit to Brunei. I only wish I’d had more time. There are some more interesting things to see there like parks, hiking trails, and an oil and gas museum that I really wanted to visit (yeah, I’m a total nerd in case you didn’t know ?). I also did not have time to visit a gym, so I definitely need to go back for that! If you ever get a chance to visit, I would say these are the top four things you must do if you’re short on time:
Pay the $30 water taxi charge and have a boat driver bring you down river and around the water village. You will see wildlife, mosques, a view of the palace, and the water village from the river level.
Stop off at the Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery. We did not have time to see this as it had already closed by the time we arrived, but there’s also a glass-enclosed viewing tower that may be worth a visit.
Stroll through the walkways of Kampong Ayer (Water Village) and observe local life. Make your way to the little family owned restaurant and have some “Soto” (soup) and fresh banana fritters.
Visit the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and if possible, check it out both during the day and when it’s lit up in the evening. It’s quite stunning with it’s golden dome and bright white walls.

A few spots of interest. The lower red star but the bus sign is the Joy Guest Ho and the one just above it is the bus station.

One thing to skip: taking the local but to the sultan’s palace, Istana Nurul Iman. You can’t get a glimpse of it from the main gate. It is apparently the most expensive “home” of a leader of a nation, and it’s set back and well protected. The sultan opens it up once a year for three days after Ramadan and locals can pay a visit. They even leave with parting gifts. If you’re interested, plan accordingly as Ramadan ends on a different date every year. We thought we’d get a view of this massive structure, but no such luck, just well maintained lawns and roads that lead up to it.
Like so many places I’ve visited and traveled to, I really enjoyed Brunei. It’s predominantly Muslim (and I’m not a follower), but I appreciate the quiet and calm found within the small capital city. I’m sure with more time, one would find their favorite things to do, neat hang outs, and of course, the best gym! I hope to make it back some day.
What “less-traveled” locales have you visited? Where would you like to visit?