Right between the tourist hub of South East Asia and the crowded India, Bangladesh hides a joy of natural wonders and wild life. It’s the biggest mangrove forest in the world and one of the largest reserves for the Royal Bengal Tiger. Of course tigers are the main attraction of the place, but there’s plenty of other wildlife, botanic beauties and stunning landscapes of warm color waters under sunset lights.
Lying in the vast delta of the Bay of Bengal, in the confluence of the rivers Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna, it consists in a flat wide net of meandering streams, creeks and estuaries. There are two ecoregions: the “Sundarbans freshwater swamp forests”, seasonally flooded, and the “Sundarbans mangroves”, flooded everyday at high tide. The mangrove system serves also as a natural barrier against the floods inland in the cyclone season.
Annexed to the UNESCO World Heritage list of Earth’s Wonders in 1997, the Sundarbans – literally meaning beautiful forest – cover an area of 10000 sq. km. halfway between Bangladesh and India, but most part of it is in Banglasehi land. Indian side is more crowded with tourists, littler and less beautiful, so we will concentrate on the right side of the Sundarban mangroves.
The main town of the zone is Khulna, which is easily reachable by bus from Dhaka. Once in Khulna, you can get to Mongla and choose to get a guided tour or take the adventure for yourself. The first will be a little more expensive, but will save you hassle, time and money. The second will be cheaper and funnier, but few times slower (you’ll have to look for boats and places to sleep/eat by yourself in the little towns of the jungle, and this takes a lot of time). The other point is that it will be more difficult –but well possible- to go by yourself to some places like Hiron Point, Tin Kona Island, Dublar Char Island or Katka, typical places for wildlife spotting or sightseeing, but you will not be taken to see any decrepit zoo like most trips do. You didn’t go to Sundarban to see starving animals under captivity, so even if you take a guided tour, make sure they will not make waste your time in things like this. Also, note that you need a permit to get to the area, it can be taken in Divisional Forest Office in Khulna without many hassle.
But I recommend making the plan by yourself, because you should know clearly which are your preferences. The main reason to go to Sundarban is to spot tigers. And they are not always there waiting for you as lions do in the African Sabana, it’s a dense jungle and it’s difficult to see things. If you go on a guided tour and the tiger don’t feel like coming there on the day and hour you will be in the tiger spotting points, you will not see them. But if you plan to stay some days by yourself and go everyday to places until you see what you want, you’ll sure get it. And if the time is not enough, simply think in another place to go instead of Sundarbans, Bangladesh have many other wonderful sites to go.
And this said, let’s see what to do and where to go in Sundarban:
Khulna or Mongla are the main cities near the Sundarbans. From Mongla, a boat to Katka will take 6 to 10 hours
Hiron Point and Katka are maybe the most beautiful places in Sundarban. There you’ll be able to see tigers, deers, monkeys, crocodiles, different spices of birds as well as other varieties of life. Tin Kona Island and Kachikhali are also good spots for wild life sightseeing. Even if you take a planned tour or you hire a boat and guide by yourself, one of the things you may look at is the tide level. In high tide, the mangroves get covered by water and the animals don’t come to the place, so make sure you’ll arrive there in the right time. Also, birds are usually more visible in the early morning and evening, and tigers are more active around the sunset.
In Dublar Char Island you can see the fish market of this fisherman’s village. It’s a typical destination for many tours, and some of them also give you the possibility to fish by yourself. It’s also famous for the Hindu festival of Rashmela, in the end of November, when people come there to take a holy bath.
Another attraction of the Sundarban is to spot dolphins while sailing, when you’ll also see the nomad fishermen who live in boats all around the area, the honeymakers and woodcutters.
When to go
The climate in Sundarbans is moderate and humid. Full monsoon is from June to September, so it’s better to avoid these months. March to May is considered to be the summer, hot with moderate rains. “Winter” is from October to February, moderately hot, drier, and clearly the best time for going to the zone.
During ebb-tide the forest becomes bare by 6-7 feet and at high tide (30 miles and hour) the entire territory of the forest floats on water.
Like other wild life reserves, you may take care with some risks when visiting the Sundarbans. Even more here, because it’s the only place where tigers still see humans as a prey –many reasons have been argued to explain this-, with the casualties rounding 100 deaths per year. Salt water crocodiles are big and hungry, and cobras and other snakes should not be forgotten.
For all these reasons, the main security precaution is never going alone to the jungle. Humans are rarely attacked by tigers when they are not alone (not the same with crocodiles), and for any other you will always have some help. Some tours also hire an armed guard to go with them.
Another risk can be the boat –the only mean of transport in the area-, as it’s unlikely to have periodical revisions. Simply look a little bit at the boat before jumping in and trust your luck. And think that boat sinks happens in less than 0.01% of the times.
The guide can be tricky. If you want to hire a guide by yourself, be sure he is native from the place, as the quantity of rivers and the similarity between them make it extremely easy to get lost for somebody not familiarized with the place. To get lost is the easiest and the most dangerous thing in every jungle.
Apart of this, tropical diseases are something to care, so look for information in your health center.
Only 15% of the Sundarban has the status of Protected Area, and as Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on earth, the pressure it’s bearing makes it a very fragile environment. The deforestation increases as people use wood like combustibles or construction material, among others.
Many of the animal species we come to see here are endangered: Royal Bengal Tigers, Estuarine Crocodiles, Olive Ridley Turtles, Gangetic Dolphins, King Crabs and many more fit in this list.
Lately, the climate change has revealed as a main threat for the region, affected by a general subsidence and the increasing sea level. Already, Lohachara Island and New Moore Island/South Talpatti Island have disappeared under the sea, and Ghoramara Island is half-submerged.
After, or before, going to the Sundarbans, I would recommend you to go to Bagerhat, a complex of 15th century mosques included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, located approximately halfway between Dhaka and the Sundarbans.