Suitably refreshed, an early start allowed me to believe that I might still just manage to squeeze in the Ethnological Museum this morning, but with the rickshaw wallahs habitually not knowing their own city I got another mad runaround from which I had to improvise to extricate myself. Ending up at the boat terminal it was a bit of a trek out to the main trunk road but my golden touch blessed me again, the first bus along took me to the airport past warships, tankers and an incredible number of merchantmen clogging the river in many solid ranks. Check In was painless, happily seeing my name on the manifest despite preparidness for the contrary, and I got a bonus at immigration as I was fast-tracked past the locals and dealt with efficiently. In truth I had overstayed my visa by one day, the first time I had ever done so anywhere, and knowing the consequences I had held back a 500 Taka note to cover the surcharge. It had been pretty unavoidable due to the flight only operating twice a week but had also proved an excuse to surreptitiously bag an extra day. In the end I avoided the payment, one strategy in doing so was that left unchecked I had simply added an extra day onto my self-ascribed, notorious Change of Route Permit and it went passed uncontested. Whether the boy with the exit stamp even cared was beyond perception but suffice to say I exited Bangladesh unmolested. Safely ensconced aboard my nice shiny MD-82 of GMG, I pondered how this was a flight I had anticipated for a very long time. With the land border to Myanmar closed indefinitely, long a bugbear to overlanders, I had always had the intention of just skipping Burma, a view from the air would have to suffice. There were political arguments for and against going there due to the repressive nature of their military regime, but more to the point, interesting though I'm sure the place is, I simply didnt have time to do it justice. I had not always intended leaving Bangladesh from Chittagong however, and Chiang Mai in northern Thailand had long been the preferred Thai gateway, but nonetheless it was an important milestone in my trip. With West Asia and now the Indian Subcontinent behind me, I was entering stage 3 of the masterplan, South East Asia, the Far East. With Australasia still beckoning beyond that and only vague notions as to how I might get home from there, I was also crossing a symbolic half-way point en route to my immediate final destination, New Zealand. It had taken me 6 months to get there. As we taxied out to the runway I got one final peek into the mysteries of Bangladesh, there were some exotic Air Force assets scattered about the airfield in the shape of a couple of AN-26s, some L-39 jet trainers and a rare bird indeed, a Chinese built Fantan fighter bomber. Hadnt seen one of those before. Myanmar slipped by almost unseen through the pre-monsoon haze as I clicked my clock forward another hour, impending Bangkok was reportedly a commensurately cloudy 33 degrees. Coming in to land, what was apparent all around was what I had already heard from other travellers, that 21st century Thailand was a First World country complete with 8 lane highways, neat rows of red tiled houses and mechanised agriculture. There were still taxi and hotel touts aplenty but now they wore suits and gave standard customer service smiles. After breezing immigration despite long queues and hitting an ATM, onward transport proved more elusive than one might expect but I eventually bagged a city bus past the glitzy skyscraper punctured CBD and out to the famous backpacker ground zero, Khao San Road. In the absence of a guidebook there had been little choice in going anywhere else. And if you can suffer from reverse culture shock then this was certainly a test, having expected a slightly grungy but lively street scene akin perhaps to Sultanahmet in Istanbul, what confronted me? Las Vegas. It was incredible. A thousand and one white faces sat out in pavement diners downing beers and slurping noodles, local belles promoted untold offerings in slinky leopard suits and you never saw so much neon lighting in your life. I'd made a point of sitting beside Yankee old timer Steve on the bus into the city who'd been here before, so we elected to split the similarly spectacular price hike by sharing a room. Characterless but pristine, with starchy white sheets, the cleanliness was another something I had forgotten possible. An initial foray revealed everything a traveller needs and more close to hand, like a laundrette, eateries, net cafes, coffee and beer. With Steve wimping out after a quick fried rice, I promptly proceeded to give myself a long promised hangover.
I started the day with the usual brekkie routine where inexplicably one intelligent looking soul was shocked somehow to learn that I was not Korean. Maybe it was the only foreign place he had ever heard of? It was a bit of a trek out in blistering heat to track down the Zia Memorial Museum, housed inside what the colonials had dubbed Circuit House. I originally mistook the building next door for it which was suitably grand and whitewashed and full of uniforms milling about, but it must have been some gathering for the impending ceremonies related to Independence Day. Not for the first time I knew that there had to be a parade of sorts going on but there was no information on it to be had it seemed. Circuit House had been Zia's presidential residence and was the spot at which he was subsequently assassinated in 1981, with bullet holes and blood spatters on a stairwell still left as a reminder. Displays showed the radio set with which he had declared Bangladesh's independence to the nation on 16th December 1971, with an effigy of him holding the transcript, notably written in English. Many photos showed him with other world leaders and also on a visit to the Bangladeshi community of Manchester. Eternally porting dark aviator raybans he looked a right bastard, he was almost akin to an African dictator in his perceived image of brutality. His native home at Bogra resembled a tiny Portugese church, which is perhaps what it had once been. As a founding father, it struck me that he was a poor excuse for a national hero and left me with the impression that he was symptomatic of the petty thuggery which had blighted this country from the start.
Another long sweaty trail out to the Chittagong Imperial War Cemetery was my first ever visit to a site of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, proving to be small but well tended as is their universal repute. It is one of 9 war cemeteries located around Burma, Assam and Bangladesh associated with the Burma campaign of World war II, having been fought against the invading Japanese from December 1941 until the Allied victory here, only realised just in time to see the armistice. My coming here was in part also a compensation since I had long hoped but failed to reach the more notorious battlegrounds of Kohima and Imphal in Assam, but the security and permit situation had not been conducive to a visit. This cemetery had originally been assigned for hospital deaths, Chittagong having served as a major Allied supply and support centre. The presence of many flight crews revealed how this had later been widened to encompass other isolated losses. To start with, a book at the entry gate holds the names of 6500 Allied seamen lost at sea, that being their only grave. Set out in neat rows with small squarish headstones, the majority of the graves were of Indian servicemen (pre independence and partition of course), though there were notably many Africans too. Among the unfortunates was a 16 year old of the Bhopal Own Infantry and "Fred" of the Rhodesian African Rifles, others only bore single names such as Paul, Samuel and Youngboy. Amongst more unusual ones was one bearing the crest of the Kingdom of the Netherlands but perhaps an Asian name, and the grave of a jewish boy of the RAF bore the Star of David, lost at the age of 19. One read Ali-Alam, Iceman, Merchant Navy, 12/2/1946, and there were token victims from various Scottish regiments including a Lt. Colonel MacLaren of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. Even a guy of the Army Pay Corps copped it here. Of the aircrews, it was tragic to see whole groups of boys who had obviously been lost in the same action, with several Royal Canadian Air Force crews of 5 and an RAF crew of 9 lost like so many others after VE day, the stories of their demise left untold. Of the individuals, there was an Australian Wing Commander seconded to the RAF, also a couple of New Zealanders. What was most notable was the youth of the pilots, the guys were regularly aged only in their early 20s. All in all there are around 700 of the total Allied campaign losses of 45,000 here, many with names unknown.
I had had to hang around just killing time over cold drinks and suspiciously milky black coffee due to the cemeteries lunchtime closure, which left me purportedly too late to catch the Ethnological Museum open, but I hoofed maybe 3Ks in search of it anyway. A neighbouring hotel housed the GMG Airlines office where I wanted to reconfirm my flight due to the dubious nature of a seat suddenly becoming available after being told it was booked out. It also had the added incentive of a bar, and with the exception of another marathon trek to secure 3 tins of pricey grog in Dhaka, I had singularly failed to trace a beer in Bangladesh despite rumours to the contrary. The guidebook said that the stuff was freely available in Cox's Bazar for example but the only thing it had plenty of was aggressive rickshaw touts. Crap map syndrome put paid to that though, where the museum and hotel should have been turned out to be a filthy warren of metal workshops and shanty dwellings, I could not have imagined them being within a mile of this place. In compensation I finally managed to trace an elusive net cafe where important work was to check out the impending Bangkok airport and a city map. Believing there to be 2 airports at Bangkok, I learned that actually Suvarnabhumi was brand new and had only opened 6 months earlier to replace its overstretched predecessor. Accordingly, it had been designed with a foresight required to accommodate Asia's booming aviation sector, now sporting the worlds largest terminal, the longest runway and tallest control tower no less. I also thankfully managed individual emails to neglected friends at long last. It had been a really hot one that day, 36 degrees the paper had forecast, and so dark now with little else to do, I dodged the filth and destitution lined main drag in search of a beer once again. The guidebook told of a seedy haunt known as the Railwayman's Store, perhaps a widely known local euphemism, but all I found was a plain doorway with Restaurant and Bar written overhead. The suspiciously doubled layer of security seemed happy enough for me to supplement their wages so in I went to find a respectable looking restaurant with black and white decked waiters almost imperceptible in the darkness. I presumed instinctively that it was just "load shedding", local terminology for a power cut, but no, the reception was vaguely lit, the fans were turning, there was TV. It was just symptomatic of the hypocrisy and doubtless corruption which governed alcohol consumption hereabouts that it had to be done illicitly as it were. You literally couldnt be seen to be doing it in public, and so you did it in the dark. Of course the powers that be knew about it, they were probably partakers, it just had to be suitably smothered and inflated in price to cover their bribe. The onus certainly proved to be on the bar and not the restaurant aspect when they couldnt even muster so much as rice. I plumped for a few token offerings of beef with cucumber, washed down with the star attraction, a slightly warm tin of genuine bona fide Heineken. I got a shock upon receiving the bill though when it transpired they were asking a whopping 300 Taka a pop, the guidebook had suggested 170 and its similar quote for beer in Dhaka had been spot on. Suspecting a special foreigner price rip off, I queried 2 similarly imbibing boys through the gloom at the next table, but sure enough, it was 300 smackers, around 2 pounds 30 for a tin of Heiny. Nothing but nothing in Bangladesh ever cost that much. Having reckoned I was pretty spot on budgetwise, I had not wanted to be lumbered with a wad of doubtless difficult to change Taka after all, I now found myself short. In truth I could have covered it with my set aside airport fare and/or brekkie fund, but that would have necessitated drawing overmuch from an ATM to replace it, just to hand some of it to the Mafia. In a fit of daring, fuelled by distaste for the whole sad charade, I thereupon decided to take the only other option open to me. In Bangladesh of all places, I pleaded poverty. The incumbents I had first queried were obviously well heeled and offered to help out but that would have been a step too far, I just stuck to the guidebook line and offered them every last Taka I had. Obviously the godfather behind the desk wasnt impressed and wasnt having it, but asking what else I could do amid a series of excuses, I miraculously got off with it in the end. It had been a risky course to take but it was clear these guys werent short of a bob or two, unlike so many others just outside. I walked away making sure I wasnt about to get bounced, I would have almost fancied having a crack however at guys who epitomised what had forever buggered this country up. My conscience was clear and my tolerance level commensurately low enough so that that one tin of Heiny bagged me my first decent nights sleep in a week or more. On the way back to the hotel I tackled one more obstacle course around haggard individuals, contrasted by the odd tragic beauty asleep on the pavement like a fallen angel. Together with the unrivalled stench of strewn rotting garbage and random toileting, it made Chittagong's main drag Station Road a model of all that was wrong with the subcontinent, and though the people had proved endearing I now had my eyes firmly fixed only on Thailand.
Everyone knew Cox's Bazar as Bangladesh's dedicated tourist resort town, and after frenetic Dhaka I certainly fancied the chance to chill out and savour the allegedly freely available beer. The shock of unusually aggressive touts and rickshaw wallahs upon arrival just re-affirmed my determination to go my own way, but it was a bit of a runaround before I managed to secure a bed. The eternally overzealous room attendant boy would not let me be until he had changed my clean looking bed sheet for a noticeably dirtier one, swept the spotless floor and emptied the empty bin. It may have just been motivated by a quest for baksheesh, but like many incalcitrants I had dealt with they seemed to have a slave mentality almost symptomatic of the Caste system, and I was always referred to as "boss". Unfortunately fatigue then got the better of me, I paid for not even having the resolve to rig my mosquito net effectively and so managed little more that day besides an hour on the remarkably available net either side of its non connection. A very good restaurant was still cheap though, and in wandering the gloomy streets that night just to check things out I surprisingly ran into Luis, the Catalan nationalist I had met the week before. He was singularly determined to tell all-comers that he was from Barcelona and not Spain, a thorougly inappropriate point which I'm quite sure was lost on the locals. He had just received the same zealous welcoming committee as I and so after finding him a very good value bed he promptly resolved to leave immediately the next morning. I took his point that it was a shame some of the locals had adopted the money grabbing mentality so symptomatic of India. It had unfortunately broken the spell of the Bangla peoples' charm to a degree, but I still didnt understand why you wouldnt at least spare an hour or 2 for the joint. For better or worse, Cox's Bazar still had its place, and at 300 metres wide and a whopping 120Ks long, it was ground zero for the worlds longest and widest beach no less. Surely that deserved at least a peek? I toyed with the idea of accompanying him to revered St. Martin's Island the next day, a coral paradise and Bangladesh's most southerly reach, but my shortly expiring visa would have meant going there just to immediately come back. Next time, I promised myself, there was Rangamati and the Hill Tribes to investigate too. Issuing only a 15 day visa for this country really took the piss, and they certainly could do with the extra cash.
I had to keep the window open that night which was normally precluded by mosquitos, but the eye watering repellant coils perversely proved the greater enemy. I lay listening to the incessant chinking of construction work throughout the night and as ever left it to the last moment to stuff an excellent brekkie down my neck and grab a rickshaw for the station. I could see that it had rained in the night for good measure. I ran across the tracks to the waiting Paharika Express whose platform I'd fortunately had the foresight to pre-ascertain and true to form, the train pulled away as soon as my bum hit the seat. My first experience of Bangladeshi Railways, that had been reason enough for the trip, but unusually the train was also reputedly a tad quicker than the buses for the 2 hour trundle to Shrimangal. This was allegedly one of Bangladesh's most scenic areas, dominated by low undulating hills covered by great tracts of tea plantations. The train, though standard rickety subcontinental stock, was fortuanately not the cattle market I had feared and the open carriages with comfy armchairs were certainly a pleasant change from plasticky compartmentalised ones. The usual procession of hawkers was supplemented it seemed by official food porters balancing trays of paper clad snacks, it was rustic but a good service. Curiously, just short of Shrimangal at a spot known as Shamshernagar I spied a brightly painted red and yellow Fouga Magister trainer aircraft by the adjacent road, I had no idea why it should be way out here. Launched straight into cheeky faced mites proferring outstretched hands, I was sad to see that compounding the overcast skies were muddy streets. My intended cycle tour out to the tea plantations, tribal villages and nearby gibbon populated forest reserve was quickly scuppered in any case when I discovered the local tour agency reputedly hiring bikes had closed down. It perhaps proved a blessing in disguise however as the black cloud steadily builded, let out a distant peel of thunder and then the heavens let loose. Having settled for a short jaunt out of town by foot instead I was very lucky to chance upon a sizeable bus shelter in the middle of nowhere, whereupon immediately rain proceeded to hammer down so hard that it bounced back up off the road. It could only mean one thing, the monsoon. I hadnt even considered that it might be a factor in Bangladesh but in checking out the weekly forecast for soon to be Bangkok, I learned that it was predicted to be persistently cloudy and wet. This short taster was enough to convince me I might have to radically alter my plans. Whilst the downpour lasted only 20 minutes, the day in general was no good for photography or staying clean. Roads would turn to mud, rivers would rage and locals would shut up shop. Despite not being able to reach beyond Shrimangal and there being no attractions in town as such, there was always something of interest along the way. I stumbled upon an old Morris 1000 now completely gutted inside and out except for the nose badge and speedometer. I managed to make the boys in the repair yard understand that it had quite possibly come to be there off one of my dads Merchant Navy ships. It was a younger model with the side indicator recesses skinned over. I also spied in the passing a trailer marked Finlay's, one of the major tea producers in the area, and indeed I snapped more happy faces unloading humungous sacks of the stuff in town. Soon after I also got accosted by a large ape faced man who introduced himself as the local represenative of the Borak tribe. His tempting invitation out to one of the villages was tempered by his eye glazing desire to secure a visa sponsorship letter out of me.
Allah must have been looking after me that day though since I had only just got back into the shelter of the town when the downpour started again, this time complimented by full on thunder and lightning and the normally crowded streets miraculously emptied bar a few unfortunate drenched rickshaw wallahs. As the rain rescinded the air became filled with large strange 4 winged insects instead, and I thought I could discern due to their ungainly flight that these were a species which had lain dormant in wait of the rain in order to breed fleetingly on the wing then die. Trying to salvage something from the day I took advantage of the reprieve by bagging an overdue haircut, my first since Iraq, and burning photos to CD with guidance from a local primary school teacher, one of the few Bengalis I'd met with good English. That was soon matched though by one of the whizzkids at the photo lab who upon enquiry explained that due to a new dictatorial government directive, the net cafes werent allowed to stay open after 7pm. That surely explained why they always seemed to be closed then, in losing their prime time Big Brother had quite succinctly managed to put them out of business.
Its as well to note now that today in diminutive Shrimangal of all places I chanced upon a second English language newspaper, Bangladesh Today. The headlines apart from predictably featuring the Tigers farings against Sri Lanka in the cricket, were a dig in the ribs from Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon who urged that "the suppression of political party activities should be lifted without unnecessary delay". The "Emergency Committee", the de facto government were allegedly playing "a delay game". He balanced the criticism by "castigating the political parties for their narrow, partisan and winner-take-all politics which has dogged Bangladesh for a long time.....the welfare of the whole nation must come before party or self". Another article explained how a Bangladesh National Party cadre aged 32, listed as a terrorist and extortionist "fell sick during interrogation" and died in hospital. It mirrored what many Bengalis had been keen to instruct me, that there was no game of good guys v bad guys here, only bad guys ever managed to attain any power. With hours to kill before the night train to Chittagong I chanced upon the interesting covered market a tad too late to see it in full vigour, where I was also approached by a guy pushing tours. It turned out it was the boy I had hoped to hire a bike from upon arrival but sure enough, as another friendly tout had dubiously assured me, he had moved to Dhaka and was only back in Shrimangal incidentaly. A strange quirk though. I also chanced upon the Shrimangal Foreigners Liquor Store which I would not have noticed had it not taken pride of place in what had once been the grand hallway of a very fine Roman collonaded building, it proferred a few antique cabinets with a meagre collection of whisky, rum and gin at foreigner prices, though there could never normally be any foreigners around. Amazing to find it here, and it smacked of hypocrisy in that it could not even be admitted as serving local patronage.
At the station, the company transmorphed from croaking frogs, prolific mosquitos and fireflies to a surge of fellow incumbants hell bent on boarding the train despite half the Bangladeshi Border Security Force in their garish DPM combats trying to get off. There was a frantic yet somewhat organised egress as they threw countless bedding rolls and kit bags out of the windows and piled rifles in a neat rank. Another friendly approach here came from a local banker with good English, most fortuitously he was travelling in the same indecipherable carriage as me and so I got held back until the apppropriate moment for the lunge onboard and chaperoned to my seat. With 1st Class having been booked out, Pleb Class turned out to be respectable enough but on hardish upright benches not very conducive to sleep. One of my fellow sufferers was Malik, a guy of similar age who was a migrant worker doing the family rounds after returning home from Dubai. Malik epitomised 2 of Bangladesh's occasionally endearing traits. If they spoke any degree of English then you frequently received answers which were wholly inappropriate to the question you had asked, and also the determined desire to be helpful which bordered on the overbearing. With the vague notion of continuing promptly to Cox's Bazar, Malik forced a spicy breakfast on me and had me on a rickshaw to the bus stand before I could consider any plan to the contrary. So that was it then, Cox's Bazar it was!