The journey from Barisal to Chittagong is a full day endeavour. Firstly, I caught a launch from the ghat to Moju Chowdhury Hat, which takes about 5 hours. I personally love boat trips, and the launches in Bangladesh are a real highlight of travelling there. They are comfortable, you can buy tea and food, there's always something interesting going on, and the scenery is beautiful. As usual, I took lots of pictures of boats.
Leaving the launch is an experience. Moju Chowdhury Hat is a major transit hub, so it's really busy and you kind of have to fight your way from the launch up the gangplank and onto dry land. Luckily, I was adopted for the day by Prince, a super friendly Bangladeshi guy who is in the army in Dhaka. It is inconceivable for most Bangladeshis that a foreigner can travel alone in Bangladesh and survive. He made me promise to call him when I got to Chittagong safely, and made sure to call and message me every few days to make sure I was fine.
'Any problems, massage me.' Excerpt from a text message from Prince.
From Moju Chowdhury Hat, I caught this bus to Chittagong, which I think took another 5 or so hours. I just said 'Chittagong' and was pointed in the right direction.
I checked in at Hotel Golden Inn. There were three English language movie channels available on the tv in my room, and the reception was great. I hadn't watched a movie in ages, and I love film, so for me evenings in Chittagong were movie bliss. The films I watched included Friday the 13th, that Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen film where she's a con woman, and I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry. It was pretty hilarious seeing what the Bangladeshi censors censored, and what was allowed. Apparently you can't smoke marijuana, but it's perfectly acceptable to watch a young couple have premarital sex and then be chased naked through the woods by a masked physcopath wielding a machete. Some swear words are out, and some are ok. 'But'' is censored, but 'arse' is no problem.
'I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry' is a dumb Adam Sandler comedy, about two male friends who get married for insurance perks, and have to pretend to be gay. Pretty risqué material for 10pm on a school night in Chittagong. It was particularly hilarious when Larry was trying to convince Chuck to marry him, in order to ensure that his children would be financially secure in the event of his death.
'You're at my funeral and you're looking for my kids, but they're not there. 'Cause they're in some factory in Bangladesh making sneakers for six cents an hour.'
Chittagong harbour and the ship building yards.
The next morning I took a walk through Chittagong, went down to the harbour, and caught a small public motorboat across the Karnaphuli river.
The harbour is fascinating. There's a massive assortment of ships of various sizes, and in various states of repair, and weaving between them on a small wooden motorboat is a pretty surreal experience.
On the opposite bank there is a ship making yard where they build and repair ships. The workers and guards were really friendly, and were more than happy to let me walk around and look.
The Shipbreaking yards
Just like auto-mobiles and aeroplanes, oil tankers, cargo ships, aircraft carriers and other huge ships eventually reach the end of their working life. Where do they go to die? Pakistan, India, Turkey, and Bangladesh.
Chittagong is home to the world's second largest Shipbreaking yard. The Shipbreaking industry has been the focus of a lot of negative media attention over the last few years. Many older ships are built with potentially dangerous materials and substances such as asbestos and lead based paint, and dismantling them is an involved and extremely dangerous process.
The cost of dismantling a ship in a developed country is prohibitively high, so it's easier and far more cost effective to ship them off to Bangladesh, where labour is cheap and plentiful, human rights are negligible, there's no such thing as a minimum wage, and health and safety is effectively non-existent. The ships, some as large as 80,000 tonnes (!), are dismantled by hand by an army of Bangladeshi workers, with no safety equipment, wearing flip flops or sometimes bare feet.. Unsurprisingly, accidents and deaths amongst the workers are common place. Still, in a country as poor as Bangladesh, there is no shortage of willing workers.
Many have tried to shut down the Shipbreaking yards, but all have failed. In such a poor country many workers have no other option. Foreigners and are generally regarded with suspicion and normally not allowed in, as a few years ago some foreign journalists published an article about the working conditions at the yards which was published internationally. In the resulting backlash many workers lost their jobs.
I asked my hotel (Hotel Golden Inn) about the possibility of visiting.
'Foreigners can't go to the Shipbreaking yards. But if you talk to this man he can bribe the guards.'
Third world solutions.
Rahmat is an ex employee of Hotel Golden Inn who now works at a 5 star hotel, and runs a business on the side taking foreigners to the yards. When he was 18 he worked at the yards for a month, during which time a group of workers died as a result of someone welding through a gas tank.
He met me at my hotel, we agreed on a price, rented a CNG and off we went. Before we even got to the main beach, we stopped at a river, which was full of old lifeboats from Hong Kong.
When we arrived, Rahmat left me in the CNG while he went to talk to the guards. The CNG was mobbed by a bunch of super cute kids.
As you can see, we didn't get particularly close, but to be honest i was kind of relieved, as I'm not sure that I want to see a bunch of people working in such appalling conditions. Seeing these huge ships sitting on the beach in various stages of deconstruction is pretty awe inspiring though. It was like something out of The Road.
Outside the yards, there are a bunch of shops selling fixtures and curios salvaged from the ships.
The next day, I caught the bus to Bandarban…
A note on logistics, prices etc
I stayed at hotel Golden Inn, which was 660 taka. The second time I stayed in Chittagong on the way from Cox's Bazar to Srimangol, I stayed in Super Sylhet, which was better and half the price. Both are on station rd and are opposite each other.
Rahmat's details are as follows:
- 01818110953 or 01830555715
- You'll need to negotiate a fee with him and rent a CNG for the return trip
- You're not guaranteed entry.
- We tried three places but only got into one. If I did it again I'd take some USD 5 bills, and try an extra bribe if the guards say no the first time.
- Try not to dress like a foreigner, e.g wear trousers and a collared shirt rather than shorts and a t shirt, and take a small camera.