If you’ve ever met a Bangladeshi in England then there’s a good chance they’re from the Sylhet division. In fact, so common is the move to England that the city of Sylhet is often referred to as ‘Little London’!
It’s true, too. Almost everybody who stopped me in the street (that was a lot of people) had a brother, cousin, aunt or some other relative working in the UK. They largely worked in hospitality, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the excellent hospitality of Bangladeshi people.
Aside from this little knowledge bomb, the city itself didn’t really offer much. Well, aside from perhaps the most bizarrely named shop I have ever seen.
Perhaps that’s a little unfair, but a walk around the city on my first night there didn’t yield much in the way of sightseeing. After the relative serenity of Sreemangal, it was a bit of a shock to the system to be in what felt essentially like a mini-Dhaka.
I negotiated the hustle and bustle (translation: kept my head down and just went for it) until I reached the banks of the Surma River and the Keane Bridge.
Known in some quarters as ‘The Gateway to Sylhet’, the bridge is officially named after Sir Michael Keane, the Englishman who was Governor of Assam from 1932-1937. Cheers Wikipedia!
The bridge was damaged by dynamite by the Pakistani Army during the Bangladesh Liberation War and was repaired in 1977. Seriously, I should have just linked Wikipedia here. Nowadays despite being fully restored it could do with a good scrub, it was much less red than the pictures online suggest. The dust in these big cities seemed to just get everywhere.
Directly next to the bridge on the city-side is Ali Amjad’s Clock, a pretty cool clock tower which is worth a picture or two. You can do your own background reading on that one.
Truth be told I was underwhelmed by the city and was wondering how the hell I’d spend a full day here before leaving for the south. Thankfully, I’d booked into the excellent Nazal Budget Dormitory – a brand new hostel run by keen local travellers and explorers who essentially planned my next two days for me. In fact despite being the only guest in the hostel, I wound up staying an extra night!
You see, it turns out that the key to getting the most out of Sylhet is – ironically – to get out of the city. The surrounding areas are full of natural beauty and well worth a few days of exploration!
The first stop was to be Sada Pathor on the Bangladesh – India border. However the hostel owner Sami, after kindly driving me to the train station and helping me get a ticket to Chittagong for a few days later, took me on a quick tour of the local tea plantations before the very loose departure time. It was quite incredible to see such peaceful greenery just a 10 minute drive out of the chaotic city.
I was incredibly grateful for Sami’s help as I’d have no idea where to get the bus from, as the big red double-decker (Little London, indeed) departed from a rather nondescript stop on the side of the main road. The 35 kilometre, one hour (give or take) journey set me back a cool 60 taka (around 50p), and I was treated to the front seat on the top deck as I found out when I looked at the seating plan and saw the word ‘foreigner’ written on seat 1A.
Upon arrival I was a little confused. It was clear that I needed to hire a boat to reach Sada Pathor after being dropped in the car park, but one boat to myself would have probably set me back around 800 taka. Only about seven quid in reality but the boat was for around eight people so could be done for an eighth of the price!
Thankfully, a couple of guys by the names of Auvi and Niaz clearly sensed my confusion and tried to get a group of us together to share a boat. In the end I think there were around seven of us and it ended up costing 150 taka each (£1.35) for a return journey.
I have to admit I had no idea what there was to see at Sada Pathor. I was very much going with the flow but was pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the white pebbled border to India. It was busy yet quiet, with plenty of photo (and selfie) opportunities and a river running through it.
I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get right up to the border and take a picture. I wasn’t the only one with this idea though, and had to wait my turn! The waiting time was spent productively, as I managed to fulfil some selfie requests and answer the usual questions.
Time passed and it was time to get back on the boat, before boarding the bus back to the city. Unfortunately at this point I was collared by a couple of older men who took great exception to my refusal to give them some money.
I’m quite a generous person but when I’m giving out money countless times a day due to being a ‘foreigner’ (their words!) I do have to draw the line somewhere. Unfortunately these two didn’t see it like that and followed me to the bus and wouldn’t leave until I had given them 10 taka each. Despite the fact the bus was full, I was the only one ‘asked’ (to put it politely) for money. I get it, I’m in a position of privilege, but when it’s done in such a manner it does leave a sour taste. An unsavoury ending to an otherwise enjoyable day out.