Bangladesh – Part 5 – Chittagong and Ship Breaking

Today we learn that the hotel manager is caring and full of good advice, not all companies are open and honest, the Uber driver is easily spooked, getting on a boat when you don’t know where it is going is thrilling and fun and Valentines Day is a big deal in Bangladesh.

We’re wanting to go to Sitakunda beach which is just north of Chittagong where shipping companies throughout the world send their tired old vessels to be put to death. It accounts for about half the world’s shipbreaking and was started by accident when a Greek ship MD Alpine was washed ashore in a cyclone and lay stranded on the beach for about five years then in 1965 The Chittagong Steel House bought it and scrapped it over several years creating the infant that was to grow into a confederation of companies that deal with half the world’s shipbreaking needs. It was a tourist attraction at one time but security was intensified when the reputation of the companies declined due to poor staff welfare and at its worst one man was killed every week.  Depending on what you read it is variously 4 to 16 miles of beach where the ships are hauled onto the sand then systematically cut up and the components and steel re-used. In fact, half the steel used in Bangladesh is recycled from these ships. Well at least the last bit is good, it all sounds quite eco-friendly and sustaining; however, the companies pay no regard to what was in the ship and less regard to the people who’re working on them. So, the environment suffers as the ‘stuff’ that was in the hull is washed out to sea and who knows what happens to the men who’re exposed to the toxic materials uncovered. There’s no record.

Anyway, the photographs of these beasties will be spectacular so that’s where we’re going and when we’ve had enough we’ll go to the Golf Club Clubhouse which is about four or five miles (6 to 8 kilometres) inland and recommended to us by the Hotel Manager.

We stop at reception to discuss with the receptionist how to get there. The first girl brushes us off with no knowledge of the place which seems strange but it could have been lost in translation so we move along to the senior lady who we know to have a good command of English from our registration yesterday.

She’s clearly uncomfortable but suggests we use Uber. As my Uber account is UK only we say no so she offers to book it for us and begins the process. A couple of minutes later we’re sorted. The Manager of the hotel whom we met last night happens to be passing and asks what we’re up to and on our reply also becomes somewhat uncomfortable especially at the plan to be dropped off in the slums near the facility.

“You must keep the Uber”, he says earnestly, “It is dangerous”

We explain that we don’t know when we’re coming back as we plan to walk along the beach to see these huge hulks and take lots of pictures.

“No matter”, says he, “I’ll speak to the driver and ensures he waits”, then he turns to us and repeats, “You MUST keep the Uber”.

The Uber taxi turns up within 5 minutes and the hotel staff speak to the driver, he’s not sure about the beach bit and needs a bit of work to get him tuned in to what we want as his intention is to take us directly to the Golf Club (who knows what the hotel people told him!) So we work on that as we pass along the crowded streets doing the Wacky Races thing that we’ve become used to back in Dhaka.

After about four miles we know that we’re near the beach and I’m plotting our every move on Google maps noting that there should be a turn left through the makeshift wooden shacks with corrugated or banana leaf roofed slums where the workers live. The road is little more than a lane and we miss it. “No worry”, says the Pilgrim, as she looks up from her map, “There’s another near a petrol station in a hundred metres or so”.

NOTE: sometimes, a petrol station is little more than a wooden shack with a few barrels of diesel or petrol and a hand pump. Occasionally they’re much more like the ones that we’re used to in the west and there are more of them being built all the time.

In this case, it’s a kind of intermediate-sized one with a Mobil sign outside and, only a hundred yards past, the road (lane) leading into the shantytown of corrugation and wood. As we approach we can see vehicles coming out of the jungle and the odd one going in but the really interesting thing is the three huge wagons on the other side of the street waiting to cross our carriageway to squeeze into the tiny lane. Fortunately, we get there first (this becomes unfortunately when we try to get back out but we don’t know that yet).

We turn in and we’re quite excited, Uberman is showing signs of some anxiety, “We go to Golf?”, he says.

“Yes, after the beach”, I explain whilst the Pilgrim follows the little dot that shows where we are on the map.

In to the Mangrove Swamps

We’re into the winding and uneven lane now and the mangrove vegetation, corrugated fences, wooden shacks and palm trees combine to ensure the only turn-offs are into dusty clearings usually with some kind of barrier consisting of a three-inch diameter bamboo rail with some rope fastening it to a post or tree. Inside these compounds/yards are occasional lines of washing, a bike or two in various stages of disrepair, the odd broken tuktuk or rickshaw and any number of handcarts. As we wind our way further in we come to a natural cul-de-sac that lends itself to Uberman being able to turn out of the way of a huge wagon fully laden with ‘stuff’ now visible through the trees and mangroves. The sight of a diesel belching, all wheel drive, site-vehicle appearing out of the trees feels artificial and even sinister. Uberman has stopped now and leans out of the window to ask a man who has materialised from a shack to see what all the fuss is about and whilst I can’t hear the reply, his arm movements indicate in no uncertain terms the requirement for Uberman to turn around and go back. We reverse so far but now we’re obstructed by three wagons approaching from behind. We reverse past a gap in the trees then pull forward to let the two mini convoys to sort it out for themselves.

There’s a lot of shouting as a couple of battered cars, various bikes and a handcart are pulled or pushed into areas that shouldn’t actually be big enough to accommodate them. The water looks favourite as the recipient for a handcart but bamboo is wedged through its spokes with the ends pushed behind two maturing saplings. The wagon going out is rightly deemed more important and it inches past us with ‘helpers’ banging on the sides and shouting advice incessantly. We’re in a car with the windows up and it still seems loud. It looks like we may be hemmed into this little cul-de-sac for some time so we offer to walk the rest of the way. Uberman was anxious to begin with but any suggestion of leaving his vehicle makes him agitated in the extreme. The prospect of us getting out of the car and by definition, no longer under his protection is alien to him and he certainly lets us know. Bangladeshi people have a huge capacity for care and our man is no exception. He has visions of us wandering about in what he clearly sees as bandit country, it’s just too much.

He lowers the passenger side window and shouts to a man who’s been ‘helping’ with the manoeuvring of the wagon. The exchange seems to yield positive results and he tells us there is room to park a little bit further along the track. The monster-truck is well past now and the argument is between the wagon going out and the three coming in so we take our chance, reverse out of our little oasis and continue along the track to a point where there are four huge gates guarding two entrances.

The one on the right is manned by a gentleman whose sole purpose in life is to open and shut the gates. There are two other men one of whom drifts into a tiny wooden office type building about the size of an Australian dunny. It’s thatched with dry palms and the man disappears in the gloom, the other steps smartly behind the left-hand gate as it closes but the thing that really catches my eye is that they are both armed with what I thought was both a rifle and a side arm, I wasn’t quick enough to conclude on the latter; however, I was quick enough to see that they were both less than happy!

The big gates on our left had shut as we approached and were now firmly in place. Our driver gestures to both, “Please let us in and we’ll turn around immediately and go back out”. The gatekeeper to our right discusses this concept with the hidden gunmen (aka, Professional Security Officers) and gets an unambiguous negative reply, the gate to our left doesn’t move.

Our driver is seriously unhappy now and says, “Golf club, we go to Golf Club”, and without further ado begins the 100 yard reverse to a point where there may be the width to do a forty-five point turn and head back along the mangrove-track that we’d so recently traversed…

Well, that’s the theory. The turn is made as planned with only minor brushes with the mangrove vegetation and we’re heading back towards the three wagons that are utilising the complete width of the track (and a bit) so we’re looking for our ‘cul-de-sac’ within which to park as the giant four wheelers make their way towards us tearing the odd branch off the low hanging trees. The front one has a broken windscreen similar to a Dhaka bus and looks quite intimidating in that way that states, “You sort yourself out ‘cos I’m big and not stopping!”. You have to appreciate the size of these vehicles, I’m six foot two (1.88M) and cannot reach the top of the wheels so the diameter of the tyres is at least ten feet (3M) then there’s the huge skip like structure that makes the whole thing the height of a two story house – excuse the language but I need to emphasise their size – they’re fecking huge!

There’s a rough track off to the left that looks promising and Uberman shouts a question to a local who’s busy doing, well actually, like most of the locals here, he’s not doing anything but he calls something back. He’s gesturing towards small finger of land reinforced with some corrugated iron that juts into the swamp and nods to our driver with enthusiasm. Uberman makes a swift turn and we’re now out of harm’s way with regard to the wagons but in the lap of the gods regarding exiting this shantytown. As the diesel smoke clears from the third wagon we reverse out onto a new track and we’re on our way again.

I say to the Pilgrim that I think we’re running parallel to the beach and she confirms this, she’s exceptionally good at knowing the compass points from the angle of the sun and time of day so it’s reassuring to know we’re on the same page. We make a single right-angle turn to the left so now we’re heading towards the beach and now we’re approaching a water splash.

We’re both a bit concerned about this development as the drop to the water is about two metres and the water is running suspiciously slow which may mean it’s deep. As we approach, Uberman slows and peers around a blind corner immediately before the drop to the water splash and clearly estimates that with a bit of divine intervention (inshallah) and an element of skill we may be able to negotiate this turn. The car is automatic so he’s juggling with foot brake combined with throttle and using a mix of ESP and ‘feel’ for if the front wheels are still on solid ground or levitating.

The Pilgrim is watching her side of the car which is as close as you’re going to get to two surfaces short of the use of an electron microscope. The front offside wheel is feeling like it’s struggling for grip and makes a desperate sound as soil cascades down into the mangrove swamp not far below. It’s enough to make us think about an escape route and if the windows are electric or manual should it decide on the gravity-assisted route and for a brief moment, that moment when you know you’ve gone too far to reverse but not sure if you’ll make-it going forwards, we hold our breath. Then we’re round with only a few bits of soil and broken concrete falling in the mangrove. Uberman is confident now and accelerates along the next part of the track which is indeed running parallel to the beach that’s currently avoiding us.

We’re approaching a ‘T’ junction of tracks, one towards the beach and the other towards the main road and out. The Pilgrim spots it first and says, “Left, let’s go left” but Uberman has other intentions and with only one word, “Golf”, turns right. Bit disappointing really but I think he’s got our best interests at heart and with the exception of a minor brush with another beast of a wagon, we’re out and heading from whence we came along the N1 towards the Golf Club Clubhouse, we’re both a bit deflated and take the opportunity to look at where the beach is accessible and if it might be possible to gain access via an innocent walk along the beach to the south and just ‘happen’ upon  the breaking empire!

See below for a National Geographic view of the Shipbreaking Beach

The link will open in a new tab, just click on the previous tab and you’ll come back to this text. (Or you could finish reading and come back to this later!)


The restaurant is beautifully located adjacent to the course and towards the top of one of the few hills here in Bangladesh. It overlooks some tranquil lakes and we sit at a table near a window. The room is festooned with Valentine’s balloons and we order an Americano apiece and discuss our next move.

Uberman is waiting in the car park so we have wheels. The beach to the south of the ‘breakers beach’ is accessible but it’ll be a canny walk to get to it and there’s every possibility that they’ll have ‘guards’ to keep it secure. We look at various options then decide on hiring a boat and checking out the harbour area.

Uberman is clearly happy to see us and we’re soon scooting along through the traffic on the N1 back into town.

About two miles along the road and the traffic coming towards us mysteriously dries up. It does, of course, mean that all the traffic on our side can then become an eight-lane one-way street and for a brief moment that’s what happens. Then it goes quiet. If it had been a cheap western from the 1940’s and ’50’s John Wayne would have drawled, “I don’t like it. It’s too darn, quiet!”

Then I spot a crowd of men on the road. It looks chaotic. The front ones are carrying something shoulder high. It turns out to be a funeral procession and the unfortunate corpse is on a shiny chrome frame and wrapped in blankets. The men are shouting and look more angry than grief-stricken but who knows? It’s interesting, I don’t see any women!

Uberman takes us back to the hotel and we’re welcomed by the staff who’s interested in our day and after a quick debrief and a wee off we go again this time tuktuk to the port area.

The port is busy and we walk from our drop-off point towards the river. There are buildings that obstruct direct access to the river bank but we eventually find an alley and jump on the first boat that shows signs of leaving.

There are about ten men on board sitting on the planks that are the simple seating arrangement. I don’t see any negativity with regards to having a woman on board and, in fairness, the Bangladeshi people are and have been completely welcoming wherever we’ve gone sometimes to an embarrassing extent where we’re randomly asked to be in their ‘selfies’ especially with the younger ones. There are very few Europeans so we’re a bit of a novelty and they are trying beyond measure to re-establish their tourist trade. It’s an honour for us to be here and we try to show our gratitude whenever we can.

We’re not sure where the boat is going so it’ll be a nice surprise at the other side and the crossing of a working port is fascinating anyway as we bob into and out of the shadow of some huge hulls then, in contrast, we pass other tiny open ferries like this one all with a dozen or so (usually) smiling faces and all with a ready wave.

On the other bank there’s a dilapidated cafe and then a long straight alley with a concrete wall on either side. It stretches for what looks like a half mile so we decide against walking it and explore some of the river-bank instead.

There’s a couple of young boys who’re trying to speak a little English and they accompany us for 50 yards or so. There’s a disappointing amount to see so we make our way back to the jetty, we’ve only been over here for about 20 minutes but the excursion across the port is well worthwhile so we’re happy.

At the other bank, we walk in parallel to the river for a while then down a couple of semi-derelict alleys which lead to an area of riverbank that is strewn with rubbish. There are derricks lifting what looks like building materials out of the holds of ships and we take a few photos. There’s a small crowd of folks gathering around us interested in what we’re interested in. They’re not intimidating though and we don’t feel threatened. Some of them want a selfie and we oblige with a smile and an arm around their back. Their response is with handshakes, smiles and thank you’s always ultra-polite.

We walk back towards where we were dropped off and make a detour into an area that’s better than a shanty town but quite poor. We soon find ourselves with a dozen or so children laughing and by the sounds of things being cheeky as a man who appears to be an elder of the community steps in to calm them. His authority appears to be absolute and the cheekiness subsides but they continue to follow.

It’s a lovely walk and enjoy the waves and smiles from the locals then we round a right-hand corner and decide on a rickshaw back to the Railway Station. We ask the cost and the boy offers 400 taka, we’re shocked and slightly annoyed that he thinks we’re such a soft-touch but before negotiations can start another elder steps in (he looks like a clergyman) and bollocks the young rickshaw rider for trying to rip us off. The bollocking goes on for a while and we move on then a few minutes later we’re caught up by him and he offers to take us – we refuse and he seems disappointed but we’ve checked google maps by now and it’s not a long walk so we opt for that.

At the station we manage to restock with tonic water, there seems to be a world shortage of this important addition to the gin we acquired at the airport; anyway, we spotted it and bought it so we’re guaranteed an aperitif before we go out for what could be a dry meal (as it turns out it isn’t but one must be prepared).

The tuktuk ride back to the hotel is the usual mix of Wacky Race, formula one, statues and bumper cars but we survive and smile our thanks as we’re ushered through security at the hotel.

Enjoy the snaps…G..x

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