The Sundarbans National Park was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997 and is one of the most talked about tourist attractions in Bangladesh, yet in practice it is visited by only a fraction of the country’s visitors. This is of concern to the tourism authorities, but to me the reason is obvious. Combine a lack of information with a difficult-to-reach destination, mangrove forest, bandits, mosquitoes, and the slight possibility of seeing a famous Royal Bengal tiger and you have something that appeals to only a limited number of people.
I was given much conflicting information in Dhaka, so I was confused about what to do. This coupled with the fact that I was trying to visit in the off-season proved to be almost enough to put me off. I was told that I had to take an organized tour but that the official government agency only operated from November to March. I was told that there was no accommodation in the national park and that I would have to stay on a boat. I was told that a prior approval through a written application had to be organized with the Divisional Forest Officer in Khulna for permission to visit. Most of this was wrong. Then someone suggested that I visit Khulna and try from there.
You can reach Khulna from Dhaka by air to Jessore, road, or Rocket steamer. The Rocket is said to be a pleasant trip, but I went by rent-a-car. I stayed at the Hotel Royal International and found that this was a recognized place to organize a trip. The problem was that there were no other people going in the next few days. I decided to wait. After several days I was getting edgy. A small group who were supposed to be coming from Dhaka to do a 3-day trip had cancelled. I could see myself caught here for another week, so I took a bus to Mongla about 50km to the park.
I’m not sure if this was the right thing to do. On arriving in Mongla, I asked around for trips. Because this was the height of the wet season, it seemed no other tourists were in the area and again there seemed to be no prospect of a proper trip. The only alternative was to rent a fast boat for the day and go by myself. This proved to be an interesting exercise. I was quoted prices from US$20 to nearly US$75. No one seemed to be specific as to where we would go or how long we would spend in the forest. I finally decided on one operator who seemed slightly more reliable than the others and arranged to visit for one day.
There is no need to detail the trip. One day is clearly almost a waste of time if you are really interested in this environment. For me, one day proved that this was not really my thing. We saw no tigers and very little other wildlife. We saw quite a few mangroves and felt many mosquitoes. It is not difficult to understand why cholera injections and anti-malarial tablets are necessary and why you have to carry anti-diarrhea tablets, insect repellent cream, drinking water, a medical kit, and thick rubber-soled shoes if you want to go ashore.
There are two accommodations within the park, but they only operate for part of the year. There is a comfortable three-storied rest house operated by the Mongla Port Authority at Hiron Point and a Forest Department rest house at Katka. Both require you to make a prior booking. I didn’t make it this far because it takes 6 to 10 hours journey from Mongla, depending on the tides.