From mangrove forests to exploding volcanoes – an expedition cruise around the Bay of Bengal yields a wealth of surprises. Phoebe Smith travels from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh, viewing towering stupas and Ganges river dolphins along the way
There are few men for whom I would gladly wake up at 1.30 in the morning, especially when lying in the comfort of a sumptuous bed, being swayed by the rocking motion of the Andaman Sea. Luckily Conrad Combrink, my expedition leader onboard the Silver Explorer ship, was one of them. We were passing Barren Island, one speck in the chain of 572 islands that make up the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, when it happened. Over the tannoy, in little more than a whisper, he urged us to wander up on deck because the island’s volcanic core was currently erupting.
I crept out in my dressing gown to watch the giant mountain – merely a silhouette in the darkness – suddenly explode into a crimson cloud. Incandescent liquid seeped down its sides, highlighting its cracks and creases in orange magma. It was not what I had come to see nor something I thought I’d ever be lucky enough to witness in my life. But these moments of surprise would soon come to define my trip across the Indian Ocean.
My journey had begun over 1,300km away in Sri Lanka. There, in Colombo, I’d boarded the expedition vessel with my 86 fellow passengers, dreaming of spying a leopard at Yala National Park – possibly the most famous destination on the island. We arrived via a Zodiac ride to Kirinda, where curious locals gathered to watch these strange tourists disembark at their local fishmarket (the usual arrival route being on a road several miles from their small port). Jumping into jeeps, we bounded along the dirt tracks, picking up our guide en route, and headed into the park.
Though monitor lizards, wild boar, buffalo, grey langur monkeys, spotted deer and mongooses had all put in an appearance, as well as countless birds – bee-eaters, cormorants, crested hawk-eagles – the park’s most famous spotted resident was conspicuous by its absence.
Crested hawk-eagle, Yala National Park (Dreamstime)
But the following day, a lion was promised. Well, a lion rock. I had no expectations when I headed for Sigiriya, the former fortress of King Kashyapa I, who stole the Sri Lankan throne from his brother after murdering their father in 477 AD. Yet as we navigated the winding roads, I learned how he constructed this former palace on top of a giant rock – fearing his sibling’s revenge – and erected a huge statue of a lion to guard the stairs to the summit. I couldn’t wait to see it.
As we headed uphill, the guide told us how the king finally met his demise. In a nutshell, when facing off against his brother’s rebellion, the elephant he was riding on turned by mistake, leaving his army to come to the incorrect assumption that he was retreating. Left alone and facing too many soldiers, he decided to throw himself onto his dagger. “And that,” explained the guide, “was that.”
After he died, the palace was used as a Buddhist monastery, and now all that remains of its once great facade are its paws. I stood next to one of them – the toe alone was larger than me – and I tried to imagine the fierce entryway that the complete feline would have made. Though the full lion statue had been lost to time, the views from the top were as breathtaking now as they would have been back then. I stood on the foundations of the palace, looking out to mountains and trees stretching off seemingly endlessly in all directions, a sea of green leaves. I may not have seen a real big cat, but the views from atop this man-made one certainly took some beating.
But Sri Lanka hadn’t finished with its surprises yet. On my final day there, we began by visiting the temples at Anuradhapura, exploring its stupas and Tree of Enlightenment (the Buddha’s fig tree, said to have been brought here in the 3rd century). Around us, little girls presented us with flowers to make as offerings and monks accepted alms, but it was on the drive back to the ship that I, finally – and unexpectedly, got my wildlife moment.
A couple of wild elephants casually strolled out of the bushes alongside the bus, then headed to where an entire eight-strong herd watched on. It may not have been the close encounter I expected, but these pachyderms gazing at me through the window made my heart leap. It was an apt parting gift as we left Sri Lanka for a far-flung region of India with plenty of surprises of its own.
Temple in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (Neil S Price)
In 1974, a group of anthropologists and filmmakers set sail for the Indian Ocean. Their destination? A remote scrap of land in the upper reaches of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, known as North Sentinel. Unlike much of the archipelago, which had been colonised as far back as the 17th century, it had remained apart, and its people – the Sentinelese – isolated and untouched by the modern world.
The team had already had success with a handful of such tribes, gathering photographs and information key for their research. But their efforts ended spectacularly when they reached North Sentinel. Having left gifts of plastic tupperwear, pots and pans, and even a live pig within a few feet of the beach, the Sentinelese emerged. They were not welcoming. Instead, the tribe launched a flurry of arrows at the crew – one of which struck the director in the leg – and so the team retreated, never to make contact with these mysterious people.
Fast-forward more than 40 years and not much has changed. The tribe has still never interacted with the modern world, and this writer, whose words you are reading now, was floating by that same island, hoping that she might somehow catch sight of the enigmatic and secretive Sentinelese. Sadly, my hopes were dashed almost immediately. “It’s very strictly regulated,” said the lady at the Cultural Museum of Port Blair – the administrative capital of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, and where I had to visit to pass Indian immigration. “You can’t go there without special permission.” Looking at my expression, she hastily added: “But we do have some artefacts that you can look at, and we have prepared a recreation of a Nicobar tribal dance.”
I walked through the three levels of the old building, which, thanks to its odd collection of exposed concrete and parquet wood flooring, looked as though it hadn’t altered since the research crew left in the 70s either. Inside, its glass cabinets had yellowed with time, coated with the wisps of long-vacated cobwebs. Within these old cases lay a collection of cooking bowls made from tree bark, a reconstruction of a traditional house hewn from the palms that covered the islands, and a few shell-adorned headdresses and skirts. These last pieces were made from coconut tree leaves and labelled as ‘traditional clothing’; they sat alongside old photos of smiling villagers captured on film.
Not a single piece of the loot on show was any more recent that 1974. And with the news that contact with the Andaman’s four tribes was now strictly regulated – which is a good thing, given that controversial ‘human safari’ trips to see the South Andaman Island’s native Jarawa tribe ran as recently as 2015 – this isn’t likely to be changed any time soon.
Yet, despite my temporary disappointment at learning I would not be able to meet a ‘true’ Andamanese person, the islands had plenty more hidden corners in which to explore, beginning down the road at Cellular Jail. Established by the British as a penal colony in 1906, this building is perhaps most famous for housing the ‘Indian rebels’ of the late 1800s, who were jailed in the fight for independence.
“They called it Kala Pani,” explained my guide, as we strolled through one of the three corridors that remain standing. “It means Black Water – so-called because of all the disease, torture and horrendous treatment that the prisoners faced inside. Each was kept in solitary confinement (minus a toilet) and given impossible tasks to do each day that would break them physically and psychologically.”
A ferry ride took me from the prison over to Ross Island, where the ‘other half’ lived: namely the prison officers and their families, who left shortly before the Second World War. Locals would refer to it as ‘little Paris’, according to the ferry hand, as its gas lamps would be lit at night, illuminating the brick houses and the horse-drawn carriages that made their way down its streets. I couldn’t imagine what an odd sight that must have made, here amid the tropics.
But as I stepped off the boat and began to wander down what was formerly the main avenue, I discovered that I didn’t have to use my imagination much. Here, in front of me, were the ruins of several British buildings – from bakeries to water-treatment plants, to a hospital, church and even a printing press – each with grand window frames and opulent brickwork.
Roofs were missing, of course, – and, in some cases, walls – and each one was coated in layer upon layer of creeper vines in a scene reminiscent of Angkor Wat, albeit with Victorian rather than Khmer architecture. Adding a further surreal element were the huge herds of spotted deer, white rabbits and peacocks that mooched around the buildings, hoping to be fed by passers-by. I never knew that such a place existed.
From an unexpected world above the water to an equally stunning one below. The following day, we anchored at North and South Cinque, two islets joined by an isthmus creating an hourglass-shaped beach coated with trees. It was my jumping-off point for a snorkel. I spent hours floating around the bath-like warm water, weaving through the coral and its resident sea snakes, spying giant pastel-coloured parrotfish, black-and-white surgeonfish, and the blue lips of juvenile clams, as the sun sliced through the swell, illuminating this underwater world.
We left the captivating Andamans the next day, after hiking across an island – we didn’t even know its name – to watch the sun set. As we pulled away, I peered over at some of the rocky atolls and verdant landmasses that we sailed by, wondering if anyone had ever lived on them, and whether we’d ever truly know it if they did.
Cow grazing in Sundarbans, Bangladesh (Dreamstime)
We still had one more country left to visit, and it lay over 1,300km to the north: Bangladesh. Look at a photo, or even just a map, of the southern coast of Bangladesh and you’ll quickly notice the edge is a fringe-like splay of islets and channels, seemingly floating in the Bay of Bengal. And it’s those very islets and channels – coated in the world’s largest block of tidal mangroves – that make up the protected woodland of the Sundarbans (which translates as ‘beautiful forest’ in Bengali).
Having read up on these forests during the two days at sea it took to reach them, my head was already full of Bengalese tigers. But before we could even search for these elusive big cats, we first had to stop somewhere else, to enter immigration. We chose the tiny village community of Maheshkhali Island.
Having never seen tourists before, curious locals gathered as our cluster of Zodiacs arrived at the tiny wooden pier amid local fishing boats. A convoy of tuk-tuks waited to whisk us the couple of miles into Thakur Tala village, where a busy market street buzzed with the banter of vendors peddling their fruit, vegetables, goats and chickens. The smell of the livestock mixed with the dry dust, creating a cloud of earthy scent. I wandered down the narrow streets, stopping to wave at the children who called out to me. Passing open shopfronts, I glimpsed some women busily sewing pashminas, while the men who soldered jewellery next door smiled and invited me to watch.
After visiting a small temple, we were led to the local school where children, dressed in freshly pressed and immaculate uniforms, performed Buddhist and Hindu dances. They asked to take ‘selfies’ with me as I chatted to them, helping them to practise their English. Heading further around the headland, we arrived at another cluster of wooden huts. Women were washing their clothes in the lake while the men chatted and gambled below the trees in the shade.
“Try one, try one,” some boys asked when I looked at their cart of fermented plums. I bit into it and immediately felt the liquid burn the back of my throat. We all erupted into fits of laughter as I winced. On the way back to the ship, we picked up the Zodiacs and cruised to the fishing town of Cox’s Bazar, to watch the fishermen casting their nets and repairing their boats with blow torches and bitumen. Each wore nothing but shorts and sandals for protection. Meanwhile, a crowd had emerged from the mosque back on the land, and every single one of its congregation stopped to wave at us as we passed by.
Ross Island, Andaman Islands (Neil S Price)
“You probably won’t see a tiger,” said Tanjil Rahman that evening, as we set a course for the Sundarbans. He was our guest lecturer, but also a wildlife filmmaker who had devoted more than 30 years of his life to living in, and documenting, this 10,000 sq km of mangrove forests. In all that time he had only seen tigers on five occasions. Given that we would have just two days to find them in an area roughly the size of Jamaica, and that the official number is only 400 (though even this is heavily disputed among conservationists for being too high), the chances were looking slim. “But,” he promised, “they are there.”
Our first exploration came with a short nature walk at Hiron Point. Here, at low tide and courtesy of a rickety boardwalk, we crossed a mud trail pitted with deer prints, eagerly anticipating a sighting. But after a couple of hours spent reacting to every rustle and twig snap – each one revealing birds rather than stalking tigers – we headed back to the ship.
Picking up our Zodiacs, we tried again, this time nearer dusk at Charaputia. While we saw kingfishers, wild boar and even a spotted deer fawn sat carelessly in the open – almost a meal I waiting – there were no tigers.
The following day, we headed for Harbaria Forest Station, where Tanjil demonstrated by using a photograph just how camouflaged a tiger would be – thanks to its stripes – amid the shadow and shade of the thick treeline. As well as spotting plenty of macaques, we scanned the forest floor and saw paw prints belonging to fishing cats, a muscular, stocky feline twice the size of a domestic cat that looks like a cross between a tabby and a leopard, but with webbed feet. Yet it was the sight of an unexpected crawling fish that had me captivated.
Boys on river boat in Bangladesh (Neil S Price)
“It’s a mudskipper. They’re stuck mid-evolutionary process,” said Tanjil. I watched in awe as it heaved its betailed, blue-spotted body out of a hole in the thick clay-like bank and peered up at me. Though it initially looks like a fish, it stands on its pectoral fins and walks around on land, even climbing trees. It was so odd-looking that I was instantly endeared and stayed watching it for nearly half an hour.
Later that day, while the sun turned the water purple in anticipation of dusk, we drifted up the channel on what would be our final voyage for the trip. We spotted some fishermen accompanied by a raft of otters, which, Tanjil informed us, had been trained since birth to help the men catch fish. They would send them out onto the banks, drop their nets, then whistle to call them back into the water, which scared the fish into the waiting trap. It was a unique sight to behold, and almost made up for the fact that we’d been unsuccessful in our tiger hunt.
As we turned to head back, I was blissfully unaware that my final – and most incredible – wildlife encounter was about to happen. Alongside the Zodiac, a Ganges river dolphin (a rare and endangered species often called the ‘blind dolphin’ on account that it has evolved to live without eyesight) leapt from the water and splashed back down alongside us.
About 30 seconds later, it did it again, and I watched, holding my breath, as its thin snout whizzed past me in a split second. I was still buzzing from this encounter a few minutes later when we were treated to another remarkable display: a pair of round-headed Irrawaddy river dolphins breaching in our wake.
We stopped to watch, and as we did, Tanjil excitedly gestured back to the mud bank. There, in the thick mud, the clearly distinguishable shape of a tiger print glistened. “I told you they were here,” he smiled.
As I sat and looked from the print to the thick mangroves that lined the banks on every side, I realised something. Though leopards, untouched tribes and Bengal tigers had all alluded me this trip, it had not been a failure, as it was for that research team in the Andamans back in the 1970s. For I had seen lands beyond my wildest dreams, witnessed sights I never thought I’d experience, and been constantly surprised by both the wildlife and people I’d encountered. Sometimes seeing isn’t everything; in fact, just knowing something is out there is enough. And next time someone tries to wake me up at 1.30am – whether or not it’s Conrad – I know one thing: I won’t hesitate to rise.
The author travelled with Silversea Expeditions on their 14-day Colombo to Kolkata (Calcutta) trip on the Silver Discoverer. The next Bay of Bengal expedition is a 12-day voyage in December 2017, from Phuket to Colombo, and includes Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Andaman Islands and Sri Lanka. The next itinerary including Bangladesh is yet to be announced, so check silversea.com for the latest. All cabins are classed as suites and include in-room butler service; all meals, drinks (including alcohol and minibar), activities and excursions are also included.
Main image: Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka (Neil S Price)