Vacationing on the Saint Martinís Island

By Javed Ahmad

 

Last month (i.e., November, 2004), during the Eid holidays my wife and I went for a short visit to Saint Martinís island in Chittagong. This was our fist visit.

 

We started from Chittagong city on the 18th for Coxís Bazar and stayed there for the day at one of the cottages of Prasadís Ocean Resort Paradise. We stayed there for a night, next day we started for Teknaf at 6:30 in the morning buy bus (from the Burmese market area) and reached there within 2 hours at the Saint Martin ferry spot 5 kilometers before the Teknaf city (Near Teknaf Parjatan Motel). The fare was Taka 50.00 per person.

 

We boarded on the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC)ís passenger ferry boat (which is run and funded by the government) around 9:30 am that started for the destination at 10. Again it took us about 2 hours to reach the island. When we reached there, it was noon. We checked in into our hotel room at Prasadís Paradise hotel on the 2nd floor from where we could see the ocean. It was a lovely view. Unfortunately, the day we reached the island, the jetty was still under construction. As a result, we had to get on a boat to get to the jetty and climb on it risking a fall. Although it was sort of fun, but was a matter of fear and panic for our lady passengers. But it was a piece of cake for my wife who was used to climbing mountains and trees when she was growing up at Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development (BARD) in Comilla. A childhood training that paid off there quite well.

 

The ferry boat journey was an interesting one. All the passengers were in pretty good mood, cheering, singing, gossiping on the boat roof while enjoying the breeze. Suddenly, a group of young chap began singing the following parody,

 

ďAmar Allah nobijir nam

Bhai bon amarae paach taha dan

Amar Allah nobijir nam

Shai teha dia ami jamu Pakistan

Amar Allah nobijir nam

Pakistan giya ami khaimu murgir ran

Amar Allah nobijir nam

Murgir ran khaia ami homu paloan

Amar Allah nobijir nam

Paloan hoiya jamu Afghanistan

Amar Allah nobijir nam

Shaikhanae giya homu Taliban

Amar Allah nobijir nam

Tarpor kormu America khan khan

Amar Allah nobijir namĒ

 

As well as some other parodies; this broke in laughter among the crowd enjoying their performances. During our travel there, we came across with some wonderful people who instantly became friends. In some cases, we teamed up together in our island exploration endeavors. That way we could save up a little too by renting faster transports like speed boats, etc. at a later time.

 

The ferry journey was quite safe and the sea was also very quiet. The fare was Tk.300.00 per person for round trip for the 1st class passengers. Although it was called first class, basically all the seating were same except for that the first class seats were in limited number on a higher platform. But the truth of the matter is, few people actually remained on their seats during the travel. Instead, they wondered around the boat enjoying the sea view and the breeze.

 

At the island hotel, there was a restaurant, but it operated on order basis. We had to tell them that we are interested in dining there and had to tell them what to prepare for us from their menu. In turn, they told us approximately when to expect the meal service. Since it was already lunch time and we are new, we decided to dine at the hotel. So we placed our order and went for a swim at the beach very near to the hotel.

 

We were in the water for about 3 hours! My wife is so crazy about being in the water that I had to remind her constantly that we have stayed in the waters long enough and we should go back to the hotel. Around 3:30 pm we went back to our hotel room to take a shower and freshen up.

 

It was a small room good enough for two with an attached full bath and a veranda or balcony from where one could see the front entrance of the hotel and of course the open sea.

 

Surprisingly, we found the climate on the island to be warm while it was pretty cold at Coxís Bazaar. Even after sunset it was warm and comfortable. Therefore, it was safe and enjoyable to lie on the beach till around 9:00 pm until the breeze felt little cooler. At Coxís Bazaar we rented the beach easy chairs for Tk.15.00 per hour, but on this island the rates were much higher! We had to pay Tk.30.00 per hour during day time while Tk.20.00 per hour in the evening. On the second day however, when they got to know us a little gave us a concession rate, which was Tk.20.00 flat for the whole night. We ended up staying there till 9 anyway. Yes, there is room for bargains.

 

Bargains also take place at most of the activities on the island. For instance, you could bargain on hiring a guide on the island, renting a boat to go to other connected small islands, renting a rickshaw or a rickshaw van, making purchases on the island, etc.

 

Our guide was a young kid (about 8 or 9 years old) whose name was Alsaber; a nice kid full of enthusiasm knowing a lot about the island. We really enjoyed his company. He managed to answer pretty much all our inquisitions and showed us around the island. We paid him approximately Tk.20.00 per day and had meals together whenever we ate. He also helped us carry our bags to and from the hotel (thatís how we met), for that we paid extra Tk.10.00 each time he carried them. Many of these island kids are very interesting guides. Whatever they earn, they contribute them to their family. And their parents, who are also the inhabitants of the island, are usually coconut sellers or fishermen keep an eye on their kidsí activities. In general, the young generation of the island are very friendly and interested in tourists, but the older population appeared to be a little reserved and conservative. They seem to like to keep little distance from the tourists while interacting only if they have to. We have had few chances to interact with few adults on the island, and we found them very polite and helpful. For instance, we wanted to visit the Marine Park which was an hour walk from the main area, an owner of the bicycle rental stand helped us find a rickshaw van (there are only a few rickshaws on the island) that we hired for Tk.150.00 to and from the park. The van puller was also a nice man, he took us from the bazaar area to the west side of the island and took us to the park and came back to the bazaar from the eastern side, circling the island.

 

It was not an easy trip though, as it is really hard to pull the van on the sand. At times we had to get off the van and walk or push the van till we crossed the soft sand areas. The trip took us about a couple of hours altogether.

 

The so called Marine Park is basically a Governmental Forest Department Office (Bono Montronaloy). The office was still under construction when we visited the island. However, there is a project going on at that place where they are trying to conserve the sea turtles. We were told that usually in the evenings some turtles come to the shore in that area to lay eggs. But one has to be lucky to see them as that doesnít happen every evening. Apart from that, the office is equipped with solar panels and wind power facilities to get the needed power to run the office. Itís an interesting project and the government has spent a lot of money there. We were told that each wind power fan costs about Tk.45 lac! And they have planted about 8 of them! Wow!

 

This is to note however that there is now power supply on the island. Usually the bazaar uses shared generators to light up the stores, shops and restaurants. They usually stay open till 11 pm. The hotels however have their own generators. Our hotel had power till 10 pm, after that we were given a hurricane lamp for each room. Water supply is there, which is pumped up using a water pump (powered by the generator) to the roof top tank for supply of running water in the bath rooms. In most of the places on the island, people use tube wells. Since the island is standing on the dead corals, the water level can be found only after digging about six feet. The water is sweet and safe to drink.

 

Usually in the evenings, since the island is dark, tourists stay at the hotel, some playing cards in their room balcony, some sitting on the roof top watching the moon, stars and thesea waves, while some are singing outdoors with listeners surrounding them sometimes singing along.

 

We have noticed that most people visit the island only for few hours and leave the island the same day. That doesnít give them enough time to explore the island. If all the facilities are known, then I think the island can be explored completely in one day. For that one need to stay one night on the island. But two days would be more than sufficient to explore the island with ease. Now let me list the main places of interest on the island:

 

  1. The Bazaar: This is the main locality of the island. It is a small bazaar area where one would find a market place and restaurants. Some cheap living accommodations are also there, but we didnít get a chance to see them. Inside the market, the roads are mostly cemented and not sandy. Therefore, rickshaws can bee seen there as well as some three wheeler vans. But outside the local area, there are no more roads, it is all sand. Most rickshaw vans move on the beaches near the water where the sands are wet and harder. It is also easier to walk on the wet sand rather than the dry sands. No, there are no cars, jeep or pajeroís on the island. Probably thatís why the island is still pollution free. Our guide told us that it could be possible to the walk around the island in one day.
  2. Chera Dip (Island): There are couples of small coral islands on the south side of the island after the marine park area. There were no inhabitants there when we visited, but we have heard that those parts were already bought out by the hotel owners there. So Iím assuming, within a short time there will be some sort of activities that will develop soon. Although it is possible to walk to that part, but it is unsafe to walk over the corals as there are risks of cutting ones feet (if not wearing the right shoes). Besides, it is long walk. So, people hire wooden boats, speed boats to get there. And the fare varies.
  3. The Marine Park: Iíve already discussed about it above. However, if you are staying over night, then you might want to go there to see the large sea turtles crawling on the shores. Then of course, you will have to be lucky to see them! So go ahead take a chance! In the future however, the forest department might add some new things there to attract tourists.
  4. The Zoo: Oíyes, there is a zoo on the island too! But unfortunately, it was closed when we attempted to see it. Therefore, we cannot say much about it. It is located near the main jetty of the island right next to a major hotel.
  5. Humayun Ahmedís Residence:Our well known author Humayun Ahmed once bought a piece of land on the island and build a bungalow type house there many years ago which is now abandoned. Is has now become a tourist attraction of the island.
  6. Scuba Diving: If you ever wanted to see what it looks like underwater now is your chance to dive and see! My wife became so interested in it that she didnít mind spending Tk.500.00 for a couple of hours of snorkel! She had to wear those black rubber suit and duckling fins on her feet, as well as a mask with a pipe sticking out through which she would breathe. She was looking funny with all that on her. For the first timers, an instructor accompanies the diver and teaches all the basics. They also have deep sea diving options for the experienced divers. So, check it out when you are there!
  7. The Prayer Images of the Islandís Legendary Saints: The legend of the island says that the island was discovered by few Muslim saints (Dorbesh or Bujurks) about three hundred years ago. They were the first humans on the island. Initially, the island was inhabited by the Jinns (the beings made of fire and smokes), thus it was called the ďIsland of the JinnsĒ or simply the ďJinn DipĒ (Dip means island). Later when the human population increased, the Jinns left the island was called ďJingira IslandĒ. But it was President Ziaur Rahman who renamed the island Saint Martin. And no one have a clue why. Why Saint Martin? Does anyone know?

 

No one told us about the prayer images of the saints on the Chera Island until we came back from there. We just didnít have the time to go back there again to see it. Our van puller told us there is another prayer image on the stone on the west side of the island dam wall (there is long straight coral wall which the locals call a dam). The legend says, the day that dam goes under water, the whole island will sink.

 

We met a gentleman at the scuba diving place who is an island environmental activist. He stays on the island sometime during the year and takes part in different social activities helping the local people to understand the importance of their children education and their safety through protecting the island from environmental pollution. He seemed to be very worried about the well being of the island because of the coming of the commercial minded business people who are building new high rise hotels with modern facilities. He told us by answering his own question, ďWhere do all the chemicals that are used to clean the toilets (Harpic for example) go? Into the ocean, isnít it?!Ē

 

He argued that the corals are very sensitive under water plants which are the foundation of the island. This coral protects the ocean life in many ways, therefore, we need to be careful in preserving them. Otherwise, the whole island would be at risk. His arguments seem very logical, so I agreed with him. Go and see him if you would like to enlighten yourself; very interesting stuff.

 

Now you could pretty much guess how we have spent our two days on the island. Yes, we were busy running around trying to see as much as possible, but still we missed some. Eventually, on the 2nd day, we had to prepare to leave the island as our boat arrived to pick us up. Every day this BIWTC boat as well as a private one arrive on the island with passengers from Teknaf and then leave the island for Teknaf again at 3:00 pm. A lot of visitors come and leave the island daily.

 

On the 21st of November, 2004 we started back for Chittagong from the beautiful island. Before heading back to the boat, we went to the bazaar to get some dry fish (Shutki) as souvenir for friends and family at home to enjoy. The dry fishes there are naturally processed without any preservatives. Therefore, they are fresh, and the cost is much lower compared to the markets in the mainland. However, one needs to find out from reliable local people about the normal prices before shopping. Otherwise, the merchants will rip you off.

 

The inhabitants of the island are basically poor, although they own their own lands, homes, boats, etc. Their normal way of life is fishing all year round. Only during the winter season, they get to see the tourists. Tourists like us go there and spend some money which vibrates the island economy for few months. Thatís why they welcome the tourists and tries to earn some extra cash by selling coconuts as a source of natural drink (they are huge in size and normally sells for Tk.6.00, but when we were there, we had to buy them for Tk.10.00 each!), dry fishes, and by providing services like transporting them in and around the island using their rickshaws, vans and boats.

 


Someone told me that the total inhabitant of the island is around 5,000 only. And pretty much they all belong to the same family and know each other. Only few outsiders are living permanently on the island. As a result, the island is free of crime and criminals. It is safe to move around the island anytime. They say, if they detect any criminal or a bad person on the island, they all work together to chase him out of the island for good. That indeed shows a sense of unity among them.

 

Their forefathers took over the island for about 250 years ago. Since then, many have sold their land and properties and moved to Teknaf and settled in the mainland area. Many are thinking of leaving and selling off their share of the land. This has caused the real estate price to go up, especially after the arrival of the hotel owners. Now one kani (which is about 10 kathas) of land sells for about Tk.4 lac; which is pretty high for Saint Martinís islands standards.

 

Iíve met an outsider who lived on the island for about a year. He came on the island as a teacher at one of the Madrasaís. He said only during winter time the island is calm and quiet, but in the remaining of the year the island is a fearful place. During the rainy season it rains a lot and the whole island becomes a mess, and during the summer season, the island is always windy and gets hit by high strong ocean waves. Sometimes the waves are so huge and strong that they lift a boat as high as few stories high building and slams it on the shore breaking the boats into pieces! Itís a fearful scene, he said. He is not interested to stay there for another year. No wonder why Human Ahmed abandoned his dream residence of the island.

 

Life could be very dull on the island if the tourists do not visit the island. To tell you the truth, we began to get little board on the third day and were actually happy that we were leaving!

 

No matter what, the island is still very clean and the water there is really blue. You could easily see the under water floor few feet deep with your plain eyes. Comparatively, the water at Coxís Bazaar is extremely dirty. On the third day however, we have noticed that the water was not as clean as it was on the first day. It could be the sign of too many tourists jumping and dirtying the water. Perhaps, due to dumping of all the waste waters from the hotels in the ocean? Whatever it is, the sign was not a good one. It could just be the beginning of the environmental pollution of the island!

 

The mainland border of Myanmar (formerly Burma) can be seen on the east side of the island. A Bangladesh Navy frigate is stationed in between the island and Myanmar as a sign of protection of our waters. If anyone wished to visit Myanmar from the island, they could do so provided they bring with them their passports and collect the visa from Teknaf. If a visa is granted, then one could rent a boat from the island and visit Myanmar in an hour. Although this part of Myanmar is nothing but forests and trees, but from Teknaf one could reach to some markets and bazaars in Myanmar where tourists and Bangladeshi business people frequents. A note of caution though; due to the military rule there and the civil war that is going on for years, it is NOT safe to visit Myanmar. Often times, the guerilla fighters abduct tourists and foreigners for ransom.

 

Overall, our trip was a pleasant one. At the end we realized that it would have been better if we went straight to Teknaf instead of staying at Coxís Bazaar. If we did that, then we could have had the chance to see Teknaf a bit as well. Teknaf seemed to be a nice place to visit too, although we could not explore the place. We just had about an hour to visit the Burmese market few gifts on our way back, thatís all.

 

It would be a good idea if a visitor rents a bicycle from a local rental shop on the island and rides on the island in groups or pairs to go places on the island. That way, you would be able to maintain your own time and go to some of the unknown spots. Plus it is easier to ride a bike on the sand than walking. But the problem is, as we have noticed, that the numbers of bikes available on the island are few, and mostly the local islanders rent them. As such, they are not always available. Normally, they go for Tk.20.00 an hour. Once we attempted to get two bikes for both of us, but only one was available at that time.

 

The way things are progressing there, in future the island will become more urbanized. We have already seen BDR and Coast Guard camps there, a building of T & T office, and a Post Office next to it. Inside the island, a new hospital is coming up and the construction is under way. Few more hotels are also under construction there. And I am sure more will appear soon on the south side of the island at Chera Dip within next year. Although development is good for the island inhabitants, but for us it means the island would lose its charms that took us there.

 

Iím pretty sure that going to and from the island would be easier than it is today. Hopefully, the cost of travel would come down too. We couldnít help but to notice that at the gate of ferry terminal Tk.18.00 was collected from each person as taxes. So, keep that in mind if you plan to travel there.

 

Your cell phones (aka mobile phones) will probably end up with you on the island, but suddenly you will notice that they are not working! It is because none of the cell phone service providers have any transmitters or receivers in and around that area. Only Aktel would work on the island and in Teknaf with the help of an antenna raised high on top of a long bamboo. The phones work until Coxís Bazaar, but as you move south it loses connection. I donít know what that BTTB office is doing on the island, because I didnít see any T & T phone service there. Probably they are only providing service to the government and defense departments only. But do not forget to bring your camera though, because they work fine! Have a safe and an enjoyable trip!