The bug to run for the hills might not bite often, but when it does, it gets us dancing on our toes, does it not? Nothing beats going to the remote incline somewhere behind the veil of clouds high up over the luscious green. What is the swiftest way to such a spot on the unexpected long weekend? Why of course, a hop skip away in Bandarban is the Munlai Para.
On a more practical note, the road to Munlai is through Chittagong, either a drive or flight, and the rest can be on a chartered jeep. Regardless of the mode, the winding ride through the lush green hills brings joy to the city-weary senses even before you reach the destination—a homestay specialty resort with a community tourism programme involving the Bawm.
"On our visits to various destinations abroad, we often saw a different sort of tourism model than the one we were used to in Bangladesh. This community tourism model was quite interesting in its richness and variety, and so, we thought to do something like this in Bangladesh," says Tamzid Siddiq Spondon, Munlai's Managing Director. Munlai Para resort tourism services are offered and operated by the same minds behind Basecamp in Gazipur, the country's first resort offering various treetop and other such activities.
The most interesting element however is that the resort can be a two-in-one opportunity, to have a relaxing few days to unwind, or seek some thrill into the pristine and untouched Bandarban valleys.
Munlai is a resort with a difference—not only does it promise to deliver a charmingly rustic experience of the simple lives of the Bawm community, so much in harmony with their surroundings, but also offers all necessary modern amenities as well as a system to benefit the locals for their hospitability.
The accommodations offered to visitors are all made of organic materials, perfect for creating the raw and rustic charm of living in proximity to open nature. The quaint interiors are beautifully done in a simple and clutter-free way, with warm lighting and minimalist décor. The services offered at Munlai lets you experience the natural and authentic elements of the indigenous Bawm culture without compromising on comfort, hygiene or modern amenities. The community members are also trained on housekeeping and etiquette and are hospitable.
"Over the years of visiting Bandarban, and especially this village of the Bawm, we grew a rapport with the local population. We saw that due to the seasonal nature of agriculture in the hills, and the difficulty of the terrain, many of the Bawn suffered considerable hardship during the off-season. That is when we thought that a responsible tourist facility here could be a good idea," Tamzid says.
Now the residents have, with monetary support and on a profit sharing basis, created the facilities for tourists to stay within the actual indigenous homes, and experience their lifestyle upfront, all the while benefiting the Bawm themselves.
Food is a very important and carefully curated element of the Munlai experience, with each item being infused with local traditions and rich flavours of the hill people's food. That's not to say that mainland cuisine is not available, after all, comfort is often found in the familiar fragrances of one's favourite food.
Local delicacies like the Chonmong cooked in bamboo, and the black or white binni rice items, are on offer, along with other interesting local cuisine.
But fear not if your adventurous streak does not extend to food-- mainland cuisine is also available, although it is quite a task to get the supplies to Munlai for its significant distance from the larger cites, Tamzid adds.
The taste of adventure
The best part of Munlai, as said before, is the plethora of options it offers to vacationers. No matter the number of days in the visit, or intention, there can never be a dull moment, unless that is exactly what you are looking for!
If it is a chilled out three days of doing nothing but perhaps read a book overlooking a valley, or some stargazing towards a clear midnight sky, Munlai Para is the place for you. But then again, if the sedentary lifestyle in our city and jobs have got you bogged down and feeling like an inanimate unmoving object, believe me when I say how awful that feels, Munlai offers a rich variety of activities to satisfy the need to soak up some nature and open wilderness.
The entire resort has been created to offer ample space for an authentic camping experience out in the hills of Bandarban overnight, but with provisions for essential facilities like washrooms and water supply.
Always dreamed of spending the night listening to the peaceful noises of nocturnal nature? Make it happen here!
Love a boat ride over the pristine waters of a hilly stream? The Sangu, one of Bandarban's major and longest rivers, offers just that, as it flows by only five minutes' walk away from the Munlai Para. The rugged unspoilt beauty of the hills on both the banks, upstream from Bandarban, is the perfect way to feed the soul some breaths of quiet peace.
If a little more physical exertion is on your mind, opt for the kayaking, either on the Sangu --for the brave of heart-- or the nearby smaller streams for novices. What's more, the gorgeously picturesque Boga Lake is just a short 40-minute bike ride away!
Trained guides can take you along for hikes, as the Para has been developed to have six different trails with varying levels of difficulty. Tree top activities, zip lining –the largest in Bangladesh as of now, and mountain biking options also await those with a thirst for adrenaline. And for those looking for a lower intensity vacation, learning to weave cloth, bird watching and star gazing will surely seal the deal!
The best element of Munlai Para tourism is that it practices responsible community travel. The team works hard to be mindful to preserve and conserve nature, as well as help make the lives of the Bawm better in all ways possible. “We planted 1,600 endangered local trees in this area so far,” Tamzid says, adding that they have also conducted a year-long research into the lives of the Bawm, their culture and lifestyle, rites and rituals, and are working to conserve many disappearing practices, perhaps a first in the country for this particular indigenous community.
“The locals are being given training to improve their weaving patterns, and we also got a machine from China to help the farmers make better profits from their cashew harvest,” Tamzid says. A school was also started for the local children, and a system was installed for organic and inorganic waste, with the organic one being used for making compost fertiliser.
The Munlai Para services are run on a system that allows all the Bawms to share benefits from each tourist, under the concept of community tourism. Can you think of a better way to have fun and contribute to the society than vacationing here?
Photo courtesy: Munlai Community Tourism