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The Bandarbans is a green hilly area in the South of Bangladesh and sparsely populated. Before 1970, the area was inhabited by tribal people, who lived in small villages, consisting of bamboo huts on poles. They were Buddhist, Christian (some “converted” by missionaries) or animalist. Their villages could only be reached by boat or on foot. As is often the case with the original population of a country, their relationship with the rest of Bangladesh was not optimal. Therefore, during the Liberation War of 1971, they chose the side of the not-winning party and were severely punished for that afterwards. Their spirit was not broken, however, and guerilla wars went on for more than 16 years. The area was ideal for guerilla war, with its hills and tropical woods.
As can be seen from the map at the bottom of the page, the Bandarbans are almost a separate area, only attached to the mainland of Bangladesh buy a small piece of land, like a peninsula. The Bandarbans look completely different from the rest of the country: the area is hilly, almost mountainous, and covered by lush tropical forest. Most of the inhabitants belong to tribal groups, they dress differently and speak a different language.

We spent two nights in the ecolodge, where we could enjoy this beautiful view from our balcony, attached to our bamboo hut-on-poles. As it is very high, the air was crisp and clean, the nights almost cold. Every morning, staff members would bring us a bucket full of steaming hot water, to shower ourselves and each other.
Bandarbans in Bengali language means monkey forest. Many monkeys have unfortunately moved, as a result of ongoing deforestations, and so have the elephants, which used to live there in the wild. The woods are rapidly vanishing: it is teak wood and there is a huge international demand for that. The local population cuts the trees and sells them for a small fee. When the local police and government officials have received their considerable share, the wood is shipped. Government posts are very popular in the Hill Tracts, and woods are disappearing at a rapid pace.

Currently, there is no war going on, but still you see grim policemen and army everywhere. At every entrance of the area, a brusque policeman in a registration hut forces you to fill in name, passport number, visa number, age, purpose of visit and so on in threefold. A lengthy task for a family of eight.
As there are not many roads spoiling the landscape, we visited the tribal villages together with our tour guide and friend, in a small boat quietly paddling through the rivers, undisturbed by the usual sound of engines, horns and bells. The tribal people are totally self-reliant, they have their animals and grow their own vegetables, and the teacher arrives per same boat to take care of educating their children.

The Bandarbans, independent as they are, have a king of their own. Not that this ruler is accepted by the Bangladeshi government, however. But the tribes honor him and seek his advice. The king always comes from one tribe, currently the Marma, but the other tribes also see them as their king. Once a year there is a big regional holiday: tax collection day.
The tax to be paid is only 1 Taka per person. That may seem little, but as the king has 400,000 subjects, altogether it amounts to a considerable extra income for an unofficial king (400,000 Taka is about 7,000 dollar) in a country where people with a good salary will earn 30,000 Taka a month.
The king of the Bandarbans is not a king by heritage, but a chosen king. The wisest still healthy man will be chosen, or at least so we were told. It seems to help, when you are family of the former king though, and the current king is a cousin of the former one, but it is not a rule.
Our tour guide arranged a meeting for us with the king. He lives in an apartment, not very royal at all, but in the middle of the room there is a throne, and pictures are on the wall, ensuring us that this is really the king’s house, even though it may not be a palace. We did not get to see the king himself after all, as he is 92 and needed his afternoon sleep. While we were served tea by some of his offspring, we went through some yellowish dusty picture books, showing decorated men carrying out ceremonies. So it seems most probable that he is the oldest man, but if he is the wisest, we could not confirm from our own experience.