Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2



After just a short time here, I am about to leave. So, as usual I am doing a newsletter before going to the next country.
Before coming here I met a couple of people who had just recently visited Bangladesh. When I asked them what they could recommend they burst out laughing, not a good sign. They did mention a couple of interesting things, but the gist was that they thought Bangladesh more of an experience type of place and less of a sightseeing one. With this in mind I made way to East Bengal. Getting here was quite easy, involving just a short, but uncomfortable train journey from Calcutta to the Bangladeshi border. After passing through Indian and Bangladeshi immigration formalities I caught a couple of buses to get to Khulna in the south west of the country. Khulna is at the top of the Sundarbans, the largest littoral mangrove forest in the world. Apparently quite interesting to visit, unfortunately though too expensive as there was no other with which to split the cost of boat hire, so that got skipped. I did visit Bagerhat though, an area with the greatest concentration of historical buildings in Bangladesh, all mosques or tombs. A couple of them were quite nice, most were not very impressive and I didn’t think it boded well for the historical sites of the country. The crocodiles that live in the area were nowhere to be seen either.

From Khulna I got a couple of buses, much more comfortable than any in India, to Dhaka and then straight away from Dhaka to Chittagong in the South East of the country. One advantage of Bangladesh being that it is not very big at all, so getting from one place to another doesn't take very long.

From Chittagong, which is not a very attractive place itself, I went to Rangamati a town set on a lake man made with a number of islands, inhabited by some of the hill tribes. It was in this area that a Briton and two Danes were abducted and held for a month in February/March 2001. As a result there is heightened military and political sensitivity, with checkpoints on the way in and out of the area, where tourists must register as they enter and leave the Chittagong hill tracts. It was on this bus that I had the most unexpected experience in Bangladesh, namely meeting another tourist, not only this but coincidentally having the seat next to him on the bus. There are very few people who visit Bangladesh for tourism, as an example the previous occidentals registered with the checkpoints on the way in to the Hill Tracts had come through two weeks prior to us. So, Craig the Australian bushman I had met and I wandered around Rangamati and found a boatman who would take us around the lake for a reasonable price. He took us to a number of islands where the hill tribes live in his incredibly noisy little diesel craft. It was interesting to see not only the villages where these people lived etc. and seeing them pick fruit, fishing etc. but most interesting to see the ethnic difference here. This was the end of the Indian sub-continent and the beginning of South East Asia. The tribal people being of Tibeto-Burmese ethnicity, as opposed to the Dravido-Aryan ethnicity of the sub-continent. It is unusual to be able to see such stark contrast I such a small distance. The lake was pleasantly scenic and the people nice enough as well, but after a few hours it was enough. We went back to Rangamati, had a look around town a bit more and then got the bus back to Chittagong.
The next day we went for what was quite possibly one of the more bizarre outings I have done, but also probably the high point of my experiences of Bangladesh. We visited the ship-breaking yards. This is a long stretch of beach with super-tankers and container ships run aground, being stripped by the minions of Bangladeshi breakers. The only other places I am aware of where this is also done is Karachi (Pakistan) and Gujurat (India) as it is only practicable in places where the labour cost is extremely low and the health and safety considerations are almost non-existent. It is a difficult scene to try and describe. Huge hulks of ships in various states of dismemberment, some that only just arrived merely have numerous ant-like people scurrying over the carcasses scavenging anything left on board as well as all the fixtures and fittings, which are then put into huge piles of urinals / doors / windows / etc. The beach is littered with ships funnels, sheets of steel, etc. and filthy workers with Oxy-acetylene torches cutting up the last bits. The boats are in various stages of being stripped, some with only a few sheets of steel so far removed by the men with the torches others where the only parts that remain are the massive aft sections that are slowly being pulled towards the beach by massive winches, for the final sejunction. There are skeletons of ships, that for some reason seem to have been stripped of everything, but the central structure and a bit of the hull, so they look like massive steel racks.

After wandering over the beach for while, we managed to find someone who was willing to take us out in his row-boat so we could get up close to the boats and see them from the sea. The boatman was not very pleasant and did not really show us what we wanted to see, so when another guy with a motor-boat came alongside we jumped into his boat to get a proper tour. He took us around the ships and a out to sea far enough that we could see how far the boats stretched away for. From this vantage it was also possible to see where the boats were from Lemasol (Cyprus), Monrovia (Liberia), Detroit and New Orleans (USA), Nassau (Bahamas) amongst others. One of the unfortunate side effects of this industry is the amount of pollution that goes into the sea, with oil slicks lapping the beaches. One of the more disturbing images of the excursion was to see young children wading and swimming through the oil slick, trying to catch some fish, with oil on their faces and clothes. Even if they did catch any fish there, it would no doubt be extremely unhealthy to eat, but they don’t have the luxury of being fussy.

We then wandered through the various emporia that lined the highway, selling various things from the ships including but not limited to: Life jackets, Fire-proof asbestos suits, winches, helmets, lifeboats, sonar, radar, metal-working lathes, standing drills, compasses, foghorns, telephones, lifeboat radio bags, instruction manuals, life rings, paddles, oars, rope, chains, toilets, urinals, video recorders, tape recorders, televisions, radios, basins, washing machines, posters, safety signs, bottles, lifeboat food rations, water rations, toilet paper, corn flakes, paintings, cutlery, windows, crockery, safety manuals, video cassettes (including “recording marine incidents” and various Greek films), overalls, braces, harnesses, belts, assorted fastenings, refrigerators, crates, chess sets, backgammon boards, hydrostatic release valves, clocks, gauges, dustbins, gas masks, buckets, nets, tarpaulins, scuba equipment, oxygen bottles, lanterns, lights, torches, search lights, mooring posts, pulleys, gears, batteries, magazines, engines, exercise equipment, metal stairways, glass, hoses, doors, gloves and a lot of scrap metal. It was as interesting walking around this paraphernalia as the boats themselves. It did however beg the question ?who did they expect to sell this stuff to, as we were the only people looking around it and we had almost no interest in buying anything. So after spending some time perusing the wares we hitch-hiked back to Chittagong, where we had a bite to eat before getting a bus to Dhaka.

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh has managed to attain the unenviable position of the worlds most polluted city. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that the rest of the country has almost zero pollution being lush and verdant. I have only been here a couple of days, but already have a sore throat from the noxious air.

Craig and I went around the city looking at various bits, we tried to find the Liberation museum, but were unsuccessful, but we did however find huge piles of rubbish and a number of abandoned cars, as well as flooded streets. Although there had been only moderate rain over the previous day, some roads were more submerged, it makes one empathise with how the country suffers during the monsoon season which will be coming soon. Many of those roads that weren't submerged had a thick putrid slime of mud and waste on, making it particularly unpleasant to walk through.

We decided to visit Lalbagh fort, apparently Dhaka's premier tourist attraction. This is not a very big or impressive fort, but is an island of calm amongst the tumult and noise of Dhaka. Some of the Bangladeshi tourists were more interested in us than the fort, and we were photographed and filmed as we wandered around. The main clientele of the place seemed to be courting couples walking around the grounds. From there we walked down through the side streets to the bazaar area. As we were walking through the bazaar, a man walked past with a massive bulbous elephant shaped foot, something I had previously not seen. The bazaar was as hectic as any other in the third world, but the people more curious about Craig and I than most other places I had been, walking up and staring at us or shouting Bondur (we thought it meant foreigner, actually I later found out it means friend), to retaliate, we would go up to them and stare at them and shout Bangladeshi at them, some took this in good humour, others freaked out and ran away. We visited the Armenian church, the oldest church in Bangladesh, built in 1624 for the small but influential Armenian community. The custodian of the place told us all about its history and about the community. We then went to see the artisans making conch shell jewellery in Hindu street, where they cut and carve the shells into rings and bracelets and file patterns on them. We then went to the Pink Palace which was closed for some undisclosed holiday, but where we met some Bangladeshi women who spoke English and invited us to join them for a boat trip. We all boarded the small boat and the boatman propelled us through the water at some surprising speed, considering he only had one paddle and used it in similar vein to a Venetian gondolier. The trip was only for about ten minutes, so we decided to hire him for a proper tour, the Bangladeshis disembarked and we went up river.
Further up river one could see ridiculously overloaded boats. Many of the boats were so overloaded that the water was actually lapping over the deck and the boatmen had actually moved the controls on top of the wheel houses. These boats were so precariously low in the water that I’m sure all it would take is one reasonable sized wave to go over the deck to sink them, but we didn’t see that happen, although I’m sure if we waited around long enough we would have. We also saw something neither of us had ever previously seen, people breaking up the bottom of the new, soon to be opened, concrete bridge that spans the river and stealing the rock. Bangladesh has almost no rock anywhere, so rocks are valuable here for use in aggregate. There was a cow bobbing along upside down with an exploded stomach next to the ship repair yards, where it seemed the steel from the ship-breaking yards was being used to keep aged vessels afloat. After seeing them working on these boats we paid closer attention to all the others and realised they were all patchworks of steel, there didn’t appear to be one boat on the river that hadn’t been extensively rebuilt. After each having an unsuccessful attempt at trying to row the boat we went back to Sadarghat, where we had started from and tried to head back towards our hotel. The traffic on the way back was so horrendous (the main reason for the horrific pollution) that after a short while we decided it would be quicker to walk. This also gave us the opportunity to stop and chat with the hundred or so riot police waiting to get violent with the people gathered for some political rally. We considered taking the stage ourselves, but decided against it as we would probably insight a riot.
Craig has now left back to India and I am off to Myanmar in a couple of days. I plan to try and see a couple more things here, including the national museum and Pink Palace, but they were closed again today.

Bangladesh has been a peculiar but enjoyable experience. It is somewhere that has so few tourists, that there is almost no tourist infrastructure as a result. The locals, even in the big cities find seeing white people so novel that they will stop and stare and shout Bondur at the top of their voices, to make sure everyone else notices there are aliens afoot. This can be a bit annoying, but at the same time it has a certain charm. The people don’t realise they are sometimes being rude, but are so overcome with this new experience that they just gather in packs around one, just to see and here the Bondur. It does however get one better service in places, when I went to the barber I didn’t have to queue, on the bus the locals will give up their seat for the white man, and when the bus stopped for a snack stop en route to Chittagong, Jerry the Bangladeshi who had been sat next to me would not allow me to pay for what I had had, as I was a guest. When the light in my hotel room started flickering madly, I called the room boy to sort it out, he said it was too late in the evening to do anything, so I called down to reception to see if they could sort it out. They didn’t understand what I was talking about so they brought a businessman who spoke English up with them to help with the translation, they saw the problem but also said it was too late to do anything, whereupon the businessman unleashed a tirade of abuse at them, telling them ¡°He is a guest in our country, fix it now!¡± which they then managed to do. So, this aspect of being something unusual here has had its benefits and drawbacks, but ultimately it has been that, that has made the experience more special. This is one of the more unusual countries I have been to, but I have enjoyed it. Although I would have only been here for ten days, I don’t actually feel I have too much more to see here and to be honest I could quite easily see the place becoming wearisome after much more time, but I am pleased I came here, if only to satisfy my curiosity about the place.


In Myanmar there is no internet access, as far as I am aware, so you will probably not hear from me until I get to the other side.

Seeing as I am unlikely to have internet access in Myanmar, and have more bits to add to my Bangladeshi newsletter, I have decided to do so this evening, for my peace of kind, if not yours.

So, what could have happened that required me to go to the effort of writing about it, nothing revolutionary, but a couple of interesting bits, or at least I thought so.

Yesterday after spending some time e-mailing you my first "Bangladeshi Breakdown" I wandered through Gulshan, which is the wealthier bit of town. What I was looking for in particular was some shops that sell the end of the garment lines being produced here. Bangladesh's biggest export is apparel, being one of the biggest producers of clothing in the world. This includes many of the brand names you are familiar with (Calvin Klein, Polo, Lee, Wrangler, Mizuno, Burtons, Wilson, Marks & Spencer’s, etc.) and there are a few shops that have the privileged position of selling the overflow of production runs to the public. Mostly the stuff goes with the seconds and rejects to the markets, where it is more difficult to see whether it is decent quality although cheaper. So, I went to Westecs, the best known of these shops and browsed through all their stock (men's wear at least) and came out with a pair of convertible utilitarian trousers and a couple of t-shirts for about six and a half quid, not bad. If I had been in the market to get some more respectable clothes, I could have bought a fair amount more as there is quite some range.

I then headed along through Gulshan and stumbled across the National Shooting Range, with police and sportsmen doing their target practice. I asked if I could have a go and was told that I could but not then, I would have to go back the next day. This I did, just as they stopped for their lunch-break, bad timing again. There were some of the Bangladeshi Olympic shooting team, who told me I could come back and shoot on the ten-metre range at four o'clock. I thought that would be fun, but then found out it would only be with air guns, a bit too tame for me, I wanted something with more destructive capability, so I stood them up.

After having a fruitless search for the Liberation War museum a few days ago, I decided to have another go at finding it this morning. I had seen a picture of it on a notice board and thought that might be useful in identifying the building. After wandering up and down the street it is in, just a couple of times I eventually stumbled across it, it had a big sign in front as well as military guards and colourful railings in the street, how I hadn't noticed it previously is an enigma. The museum is very good; it briefly charts the history of Bengal and the independence movement and partition of India, but really gets going from partition onwards. It describes how the war and independence movement came about and the atrocities that took place during it. There are numerous newspaper clippings from the international (particularly British) media as well as photos of all aspects of the war (fighters, emaciated refugees, the politicians, carnage, women who have just been raped and killed, children who have been torn apart - the being fed to the dogs, mass graves, etc.) and artefacts and documentary evidence. One room has a pile of skulls and skeletons atop ammunition boxes, all of which was excavated from a mass grave. Needless to say, the whole exhibition is an education. Without a doubt it is biased, but it is difficult to see what justification the Pakistanis could give for any of what occurred.

For those who don’t know anything about the history of Bangladesh (David, that's you), and therefore what I am talking about, here is a brief summary of Bangladesh's history that may help.

India underwent partition in 1947, as Jinnah wanted a separate Muslim state, so it was divided into India and Pakistan. Pakistan consisting of an eastern and western part on opposite sides of the sub-continent. The only thing in common between these two halves was religion, they spoke different languages, ate different food, wore different clothes, had totally different sources of income - basically very little in common. West Pakistan (or the Pakistan as known today) was the dominant half of the country with the political power resting there, which in turn steered funding and aid towards the West Pakistanis and their infrastructure and almost no money went towards the impoverished East Pakistanis who despite being the agricultural producers did not reap the benefits in anyway, the tax revenues and incomes going to West Pakistan. This understandably built up more than a little resentment with the Bengalis (East Pakistanis) but there wasn't any major outcry, yet. Then they were told that the only language for all of Pakistan would be Urdu, a totally alien language to them, the equivalent of telling the English we would all have to speak in Swahili. This provoked a big reaction from the Bengalis who were unsurprisingly unimpressed with this new mandate. So in 1970, when the next prime ministerial election came, there was almost total support in the east for the Bengali candidate, Sheikh Rahman. He won one hundred and sixty-seven of the one hundred and sixty nine seats available to East Pakistan and this meant that he actually had a majority in the Pakistani government, which has a total of three hundred and twenty-four seats. This was an unacceptable development for the West Pakistanis who did not want to lose their political might and so the Pakistani president declared the vote null and void and sent troops to East Pakistan to sort out the problem. The general in charge of this action Gen. Tikka Khan was more commonly known by his nom de guerre "The Butcher of Baluchistan" which later was changed to the “Butcher of Bengal”. By his own admission, at least thirty-five thousand intellectuals alone were killed, although the number is thought to be much higher. By the end of what was a comparatively short war; millions of guerrillas, politicians, intelligentsia, freedom fighters and civilians were killed. This was reported in the international media, but the Vietnam War that was also going on at the time took most of the attention away from the genocide taking place in Bangla Desh (as it was originally known). There were some big fund raisers - George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and others held a concert for Bangla Desh; Alan Ginsberg (the Beat poet) wrote a poem and a few artists released records and the like for the cause. The Bangladeshis are understandably a little peeved that several prominent Pakistanis have never been indicted for war crimes despite the evidence against them (Gen. Khan went on to become a provincial governor in Pakistan and then retired honourably).

The museum seems as much to be about generating a feeling of national identity and solidarity as remembering what took place in the war. Several of the Bangladeshis I have spoken with have said that there is no sense of national identity here (being part of a divided Bengal, divided India, a divided Pakistan, then finally it's own nation), which means there is very little patriotism or even sense of belonging for many. A simple example of this was when Craig (the Australian I spent a few days with here) was going around the market trying to find a cap or hat with something Bangladeshi on it. We found Pakistani cricket caps, American baseball caps, etc. but amongst all the hundreds of different hats on offer there was nothing Bangladeshi. This lack of national identity has mean that many of the more educated, or those that simply have them opportunity, leave for India and other countries where they see a greater chance of survival and prosperity.

After the Liberation War Museum, I went to the National Museum, which is exceptionally good, perhaps even surpassing the Indian museum in Calcutta. The exhibits cover: The environment; agriculture (the largest proportion of the population are involved in agriculture) and farming; geology; fauna (with displays of stuffed wildlife and the skeleton of a humpback whale); an ivory collection - including some beautifully intricately carved netsukes, a throne, chess set, tusks, etc. The most unusual piece is a mat made of ivory, with fine threads delicately woven to make a rather unique floor covering; armaments; a woodwork collection which included some impressive pre-Islamic carvings as well as the largest beds I have ever seen, the mattress of the larger one was at least four feet from the ground and had more than twice the area of a king-size bed, as well as being impressively carved and with a huge canopy hanging from its four posts; porcelain; metalwork; embroidery; stone carvings from Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic homes and holy sites; a Liberation War exhibit; and finally an impressive art gallery. The art gallery was probably the biggest surprise as it contained some quite interesting and impressive pieces and even had several nudes (something one does not expect to see in a conservative, Muslim country).

From the museum, I went to the firing range as mentioned above and then tried to use the diplomats duty free shops, but to no avail. That was the biggest shame as they had a litre of Napoleon Brandy for five dollars. I then headed down to the Pink Palace, home of the Nawab of Dhaka, a powerful politician and magnate who died in 1915. His home was left in disrepair until recently, but thanks to some photographs that were taken in 1902, they have been able to not only restore the palace, but also to have it appear as it did in it's heyday. It is an impressive time-warp back to the time of the Raj and the few with unbelievable wealth, most of the stuff would look entirely at home in an English stately home and that was the effect the Nawab apparently desired, as he used to entertain viceroys and generals as well as more lowly politicians and businessmen. Once again there were impressive items on show, the strangest and most memorable being crystal chairs, that look to fragile to sit on, and an octagonal table the feet of which are stuffed tortoises.
Otherwise I have just been pottering around through the insufferable traffic and pollution sorting various bits out and tomorrow morning if all goes to plan should be heading to Myanmar, finally leaving the sub-continent.



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