Mowdok Mual (Saka Haphong) in the remote border region of Bangladesh and Myanmar is one of my most challenging country high points so far. Just the simple fact that I most likely would be the second foreigner on top, describes the nature of this adventure.
Mowdok Mual (locally known as Saka Haphong) was measured in 2006 by Ginge Fullen to be the unofficially highest peak in Bangladesh (1052m). After Ginge Fullen there have been a couple of local teams bringing GPS, both confirming his measurements from 2006, most recently in January 2011. Thus there is no longer any doubts that Mowdok Mual is higher than Keokradong. The only question remaining, is whether the border with Myanmar is exactly along the summit ridge or, as some maps indicate, further down the slopes towards Bangladesh. Because of this, Mowdok Mual will still be regarded as the unconfirmed highest mountain in Bangladesh, while significantly lower Keokradong officially is the highest. So to be on the safe side I decided to climb both peaks when I first were in Bangladesh.
These mountains are located in Chittagong Hilltracts, an area that has had ethnic conflicts a long time, primarily as a result of Bengali settlers penetrating further and further into areas of indigenous and local tribes. Lonely Planet and several embassies still warn against travel to the area. Until 2009, foreigners could not embark on hikes taking more than one day. Even for a short day hike, it was required by law that a foreigner must be escorted by policemen. The situation has calmed down the last couple of years, but still the police provides escort of tourists for free in the mountains. One thing that has not changed, is all the checkpoints in the area where foreigners are required to present passports and permits and register into books. Mowdok Mual is located so deep into the hills towards Myanmar that it's probably smart to tell them that one will not go any further east than to Tajingdong.
Planning and preparation in Dhaka
I arrive Dhaka January 28 and have very limited information about Mowdok Mual, so I find it best to head over to Guide Tours Ltd office in Gulshan. This is the operator in Bangladesh with the best reputation and highest volumes of organized tours. Guide Tours Ltd tell me that they have never heard of the mountain Mowdok Mual (Saka Haphong), really no big surprise to me. But I get them at least to apply for a permit to Bandarban and surrounding areas. I'm told to come back after 2-3 days to collect the permit. Guide Tours Ltd only charge 300 Taka (4 USD) for the permit, but they require that you book the first night in their Hillside Resort near Bandarban. I'm not sure if I want to stay there, but since mandatory I reserve a bed for 400 Taka (6 USD) in a dorm instead of a more expensive room. Guide Tours Ltd also mention that I commit myself to use their local guides if I go on any longer hikes in the area, so they will have full control of my movements and thus can guarantee both the permit and my safety. Guide Tours Ltd charge 1000 Taka (14 USD) per day for their local guides, which is substantial more than the local guide rate of 300 Taka (4 USD) per day. But I've already made my thoughts on an alternative plan, and the role of Guide Tours Ltd will only be to obtain a permit for me, nothing else. Permission can apparently also be obtained directly in a public office, but it's more hassle, it takes longer time and the price is about the same.
Waiting for the permit from Guide Tours Ltd, I use my time in Dhaka efficiently on my alternative arrangements. I get in touch with the people behind the non-commercial project www.banglatrek.org, and then everything start to happen very quickly. This is an initiative started by a group of adventurous people most of them students and connected to Dhaka University. I meet Ronnie on my second day in Dhaka, and shortly after I meet the rest of the guys during an evening at the university. They tell me that they recently sent a couple of teams to Mowdok Mual and made GPS measurements. They also tell me that fewer than 50 people have been on the summit, and that only one foreigner (Ginge Fullen) has been there before me. Eventually we recruit more volunteers to another "expedition" to this mountain, a team of 4 persons including me. A couple of them have extensive experience from trekking in the area, meaning we don't need any guides. The students don't want any guide money, this is holiday for them as well. But I insist to pay some of their travel expenses at least. Anyway it's going to be cheap, because in the mountains we will only pay an average of 300 Taka (6 USD) per day for food and lodging for all four people. The bulk of the expenditure would be to get down from Boga Lake to Bandarban with a combination of jeep, boat and bus. Not very much that either, totaling about 1600 Taka (23 USD) for 4 people.
Trekking Day 1
We arrive Bandarban at dawn, after a pretty wild ride with a night bus from Dhaka. It's best to just close your eyes to what is happening on the roads of Bangladesh, including all the hairy overtaking. The seats on the bus invite to a fairly comfortable night. Interestingly we sit behind bars, this is to prevent highway bandits from robbing the passengers. Just before Bandarban, we pass a checkpoint where I have to show my permit and passport, and register myself into a couple of books. We arrive Bandarban at 07:00 and take time for a tasty and inexpensive Bengali breakfast, only 120 Taka (2 USD) for 4 people. Then at 8:00 we take the bus towards Thanchi Bazar. This bus is an old and ugly monster, and the 80 km of bad road, takes a whole 4-5 hours. We pay 600 Taka (9 USD) for all 4 tickets.
Along the road to Thanchi there are a couple of checkpoints, where I have to go through the same procedure as before Bandarban. We tell them a lie, saying we are not going beyond Tajingdong. Unfortunately it also turns out that the head of law in Thanchi is sitting on the same bus as us. Sam must go through a half-hour long "interview" on the bus, because he is in company with a foreigner like me. Thanchi rarely has any visitors from abroad. But Sam easily solves this problem too. The time is 12:20 when we arrive the end of the road, cross the river and arrive Thanchi Bazar. Here we just focus on one thing, moving as quickly as possible through the village to avoid police and the local army unit. We are speeding the uphill right after Thanchi so fast, that it starts to burn vigorously in my muscles. But it's an outrageously wonderful feeling to have passed all sorts of obstacles, for now we have full access to the entire area. No public officials can stop us anymore.
It takes us about 3 hours including many ups and downs to reach Boarding Para. Here we are set at least 200 years back in time, as we are looking on the daily life of the Murongs, the indigenous people of Boarding Para. The women go around topless, while the men have a thong-like garment. The slopes upward to Sherkor Para is both long and steep and we don't reach the village before nightfall. Sam gets in touch with the village head man, and we obtain accommodation in his home. We have brought onions, dal (lentils) and some spices from Dhaka, but we will buy rice in the villages. Sam and Salehin show their cooking skills to the fullest, serving us an excellent meal of Dal Bhat.
Trekking Day 2
Next morning we actually have to persuade the village head man of Sherkor Para to receive some money from us for the hospitality with food and accommodation. Even if he don't want any money from us, we are eventually able to hand over 250 Taka (3 USD), which is the going-rate for a team of 4 people. The uphills to Tajingdong is pretty easy in the cool hours of morning. A dog puppy, his name Tiger, has followed us from Sherkor Para, and this starts to cause some worries. It's impossible to get him to turn around, so he continues to follow us. We take a short detour to the south summit of Tajingdong, which is few meters lower than the highest summit further north. The main peak of Tajingdong is so overgrown that we do not see the purpose of moving up there. According to many sources and maps, Tajingdong is in fact the highest peak of Bangladesh, but it's height on the map (1280m) is almost mistaken by 400 meters. So in reality Tajingdong gets far down the list, being only 870 meters.
We continue on to the village Simplampi, which according to Sam, is not a very hospitable village, so we quickly rush through there. After a short uphill to the pass, we start the steep descent to Thandui Para. This is a very nice village and friendly people, with affinities to Sherkor Para. Hopefully we can get puppy Tiger to stay with the sister of the owner. Most people in the village are working out in the fields, so we have more or less the entire village to ourselves, with the exception of some kids playing around. After about one hour of rest, we carry on down to Singhu river. We have to cross it five times, but the wet wade is a cool refreshment in the hot sun. After the fourth crossing we take a longed wash in the river. Sam also makes a bonfire so we can boil some noodles for lunch.
After a long break for lunch, we continue on the fifth and last river crossing before we arrive Hangrai Para. Living here, according to Sam, is an indigenous tribe that is notorious as thieves and robbers. So when Sam sees that I'm about to get in touch with a couple of them, Sam shouts after me that I must leave as quickly as possible. Shortly after Hangrai Para we leave the main trail and continue on a steep trail uphill to the village of Nefue Para. The long uphills becomes an ordeal so late in the day, but we arrive well before sunset. The people of Nefue Para are of the friendly type. The women go around topless and the children are quite shy, at least to begin with. The village head man invites us into his home. Not long after he shows up with two live chickens tied to each other. We say yes to some chicken meat, after being vegetarians for a few days. The food takes ages to cook, but eventually we can enjoy the excellent meal.
Trekking Day 3
From Nefue Para, it is only a couple of hours to the top of Saka Haphong (Mowdok Mual). We are ready to leave at 06:30. There are a lot of trails being used by the locals here, and at one occasion we choose the wrong trail, a dead end. Since we carry a GPS, we easily get back on the proper trail again. Higher up we emerge into a dense bamboo forest, on a trail which is not cut wide or high enough for a tall guy like me. Thus I have to move half-bent to get through, sometimes even crawling on all four. Not very pleasant, right. But those guys who have cut bamboo, grass and shrubs after the last rainy season, have done a fairly good job. We easily get to the summit without any tools, and it's a great moment to reach such a secluded and rarely visited place. Before I arrived Bangladesh, I had almost written off this mountain as a bureaucratic impossibility, located in a very remote corner of Bangladesh bordering Myanmar. But thanks to my new friends behind the project www.banglatrek.org, everything have went smoother than planned. We spend a long time on the summit, almost 1.5 hours. Apu even writes a long report to leave in an empty bottle on the summit, so that others can read the story about our adventure.
We are back in Nefue Para at 11:15am. We pack and says goodbye to the hospitable tribe. We end up paying about 500 Taka (7 USD), since we got some extra luxury here including chicken and papaya. However, we have a very long day ahead. We first descend back to the river, then we repeat the five river crossings, before we begin to move into unknown territory on our long way north towards Keokradong. Fortunately Sam has a GPS, and a couple of waypoints (villages) recorded on his unit. We continue along the same river with a couple of crossings before we arrive the village Dulachan Para on the east side of the river. After a steep short downhill to the river again, we cross it, before we leave the river behind for good and start on the long uphills to Tamlo Para. After messing around on the wrong trail for a while, we eventually arrive Tamlo Para at 17:00. Here we are told that the next village, Thaikhiang Para, is about 3-4 hours north. That means we must hike in the dark, still we decide to go for it. It takes like forever to walk this long trail, and the many steep downhills and uphills doesn't make it easier. We do not arrive Thaikhiang Para before 21:30, dead tired after a long day with no other meals than some snacks and fruits. At this time, most of the villagers have already went asleep, so we fear that no one will accommodate us. But luckily Sam knows a friendly guy here, he is still awake and invites us into his home. We don't go to bed before midnight, after eating a very late dinner.
Trekking Day 4
We are tired and weary in the morning, so both Salehin and Apu decide to cancel the planned climb of Capitol Hill in the morning. But Sam and myself both agree that it's worthwhile to reach this peak as well. We hire the host as a local guide (300 Taka), for he knows the route through the bamboo forest. He also brings the necessary cutting tools in case it is overgrown. First we walk on the road, then we continue into the forest on a steep and very exposed trail. It takes us less than one hour to get to the false summit (the view point). Then we move over to the highest point, through dense grass and bamboo. Sam makes a GPS measurements here, so the exact location and elevation can be published on www.banglatrek.org. After Capitol Hill we say goodbye to our local guide, and continue along a jeep road, first to the village Paasing Pukur and then to the very top of Keokradang. Here we meet up with Salehin and Apu again, who have been waiting a while for us. There is even a teahouse on top of Keokradang, so we get a meal of rice, dal and chicken curry.
After a few hours rest on top of Keokradang, we continue on to the beautiful and mysterious Boga Lake. On the fairly crowded trail/road we meet quite a few tourists from Bangladesh, but no western as such. Arrival at Boga Lake marks the end of our 81 km long hike, for here it is possible to continue with jeep. After darkness a French family arrive Boga Lake, the first western tourists I've seen in about one week.
Return to Bandarban and Dhaka
We wake up pretty early at Boga Lake, so we can get down with the first shared jeep. But we have to wait for some hours, before the jeep finally departs. The bad road makes for a painful experience. We pay 1100 Taka (16 USD) for 4 people. Shortly before Ruma Bazar the jeep stops at a check point where I have to show permit and passport again. They make a big deal that I haven't got any photocopies and that I don't bring any police escort. Back in Ruma Bazar we continue on a wonderful boat cruise up the river for 200 Taka (3 USD). After one hour on the river we reach the road where buses depart for Bandarban. The bus cost 320 Taka (5 USD) for all 4 people. The bus and the road back to Bandarban is probably high on the list "most risky road in the world", still we get out in one piece.
Back in Bandarban we make a short visit to the Golden Temple where we enjoy the sunset. In the evening Apu buys a good dinner for us. Very satisfied, we embark on the night bus back to Dhaka.
Banglatrek just recently published information about Mowdok Mual. In that link you will also find the Thanchi route including a map and a GPX track for downloading.
Finally I just want to thank Sam, Salehin and Apu for sharing this adventure with me, and also Ronnie, Pusan, Rahat and the other friendly guys back in Dhaka who contributed with a lot of information. Thank you all people of Bangladesh! What a wonderful country and a warm people....