Sometimes it’s the space between things that is most important. We sputter along Marine Drive in a pea-green tom-tom as the town with its car horns and dust gives way to spritely palm trees, paddy fields and lonely yellow fisherman shacks. Cows ruminate upon the patchy tropical undergrowth as a sea of red crabs up their pincers and rush for the river mouth.
Kalatoli Beach unravels alongside us, sometimes broad and golden, sometimes shrunken and brown – but always there. This is the world’s longest unbroken stretch of sandy beach and it’s where southern Bangladesh relinquishes herself to the Bay of Bengal.
Small waves peel toward the shallows, playfully hinting at the potential this coastline yields as a surf destination. Men with long white beards and women wearing black burqas betray glances as we pass by, surfboard strapped to the roof.
Inani is a tourist haven 30kms south of Cox’s Bazar, the regional tourist and transport hub. An ancient coral reef peppers the shoreline with shiny black stepping stones upon which men in jeans and women in saris play. The lack of infrastructure here is typified by rubbish scatterings and whatever lurks in the pungent lagoon. Nevertheless, it’s holiday-time for friendly Bangladeshi families and they smile as they take turns clasping at the setting sun for photographs.
The afternoon breeze has rendered the ocean a soup of shimmering white and grey-brown, so we head home to Cox’s Bazar. The pristine sands between towns and villages glisten and flowers erupt from emerald foliage. In these spaces paradise persists, timeless and serene. Intermittently, the terrain is shattered by half-built hotels with iron fingers clawing at the sun-baked sky. Development is escalating alongside the world’s longest beach and much of it is going unchecked. Palms are being cleared for what, judging by the development billboards, look much like city office blocks. I worry about the future of Cox’s Bazar as a tourist destination.
That is, until I meet the local surfer crew and my entire trip changes.
Surfing in Bangladesh began when, as in so many stories of surfing origins, an Australian drifted through a faraway land. He left his surfboard with an astonished young Bangladeshi named Jafar Alam. For almost ten years Jafar surfed alone, only discovering that you are supposed to stand up on the board when an American surf explorer arrived in 2001.
The tepid waters of Cox’s Bazar remained empty until Jafar began teaching the local beach boys and homeless kids how to surf. The Bangladesh Surf Club was born. As membership swelled a breakaway group formed the Surfing Tigers Club with a base on the main beach. Here they train life guards, offer surf lessons, board hire and a hours of animated surfer company. Enchanting day trips to uninhabited islands, barbeques on the beach and an instant crew of surf buddies are all waiting for visitors seeking an uncrowded, intrepid surf destination.
Jafar, with a smile that stretches as wide as his beloved beach, says, “My vision is to see a thousand surfers at Cox’s Bazar. We have 120 kilometres of sand – there’s more than enough space for everyone.”
Nasima Atkar is arguably Bangladesh’s best surfer and she has the competition credentials to prove it. At ten years old she we homeless, selling sea shells on the beach. Her life was a colourless struggle for survival, like many kids, until the dreamlike day when she met an Australian surfer girl.
“Her name was Megan. She was paddling out with the boys and catching waves! Oh and wearing a bikini!” giggles Nasima.
Seeing a girl gliding along a wave changed Nasima’s reality forever. She approached Jafar who provided lessons, shelter and guidance and, now, at nineteen she is a beautiful, fearless surfer. Still, life is not all sunshine and waves for the budding girl surfers of Bangladesh. Income opportunities are limited and there are many cultural challenges for a surfer girl, which is a new concept on many levels in Bangladesh.
With a shy grin she says, “I want to welcome foreign and Bangladeshi girls to come here. If they come I will teach them to surf. Surfing makes people happy.”
We’re out in the line-up, just myself, Nasima and a black fishing boat, which drifts pirate-like through the misty dawn. Nasima spots a promising ripple long before it becomes a wave. With the lightest of strokes she matches the wave’s speed and in a motion as fluid as the ocean itself she is on her feet, sweeping a graceful line toward the shore. I hear a tiny shriek of delight as she passes by.
As the shadows retract and the day heats up families dash for the string of deckchairs that mark the high-tide line. Women in burqas or sparkling saris and men in smart-casual attire stretch out beneath apricot umbrellas, ready for another day in paradise. A man gallops past on a horse. In the distance a jetski almost loses control as the driver overpowers a turn. It’s not the picture of beach life you may be used to and that’s precisely what makes Cox’s Bazar such a unique destination.
Kamrul from the Surfing Tigers Club tells me, “We have no sharks or reefs and there are small waves all winter so it’s perfect for learning to surf. In summer – the rainy season – the waves are up to ten foot and perfect so good surfers can get the ride of their lives.”
A tick-ticky (gecko) chirps in the background. According to Bangladeshi custom this means that the last person to speak tells the truth.
I wander for over two hours up towards what should be the north end of this never-ending beach and not another person is in sight. The sand is silky and the forest whispers sweet nothings to a crimson sunset. I realise that maybe it’s not the space between things that is most important after all. My new surf buddies Jafar, Nasima and Kamrul are testament to that.
What to bring?
A hybrid surfboard that is buoyant in small surf yet provides manoeuvrability in larger conditions. The Firewire Potatonator is durable and small enough to strap to the roof of a tom-tom yet thick enough to keep you afloat on tiny days.
Bring wax (tropical temperature), spare surfboard fins, a rash vest and anything you’d like to leave with the local dudes. Girls: remember bikinis are not in vogue in this part of the world – long boardshorts and rashvests are essential.
Best time of year
The dry winter season is from October through to March when forgiving waves are are perfect for learning. If you’re after big surf – and what many locals call the most beautiful time of year – brave the humid, rainy summer months from April to September.
Where to stay
Ocean Paradise is Cox’s Bazar’s premier resort. Discover immaculate rooms, a gourmet restaurant and sweeping views of the beach. Rooms from $100 SGD including buffet breakfast.
Phone: +88 0341 52379
Mermaid Eco Resort is hidden on a riverbank that leads out to an empty stretch of sand. Find respite in bungalows made from recycled materials and meandering wooden walkways over ponds. Bungalows start from $55 SGD per night.
Phone: +88 018 4141 6464
Hazera from Coconut Club can arrange a myriad of “reality tours” including visits to local houses, restaurants, meeting the surfer boys and excursions. Don’t miss Ramu – an ancient ramshackle Buddhist temple inhabited by a single, rather agitated Burmese monk (he throws candy at visitors). The local fish market is a must-see and guarantees sensory overload.
There’s no beer in Bangladesh (or other alcohol) so you won’t be sipping cocktails on the beach at sunset. You’ll also want to be sensible with your personal security and avoid beach walks after dark.