I've been based in Dubai for over 3 years now and do much of my travel solo, aside from a few trips with my travel buddy Nick. Following a recent discovery, I could now add group travel to my schedule... a local travel group in the city called Trekkup, who specialise in group travel to 'off the beaten track' locations. My first experience with this newfound group is a trip to Chittagong in Bangladesh.
Two reasons really... I like exploring 'off the beaten track' destinations, and Bangladesh certainly ticks the box in that respect. Tourism numbers have been increasing, especially over the last couple of years, but it's still regarded as one of the least visited countries in Asia. Second reason is that the Trekkup advertisement mentioned behind the scenes access to the Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard. This is an area that is completely restricted for both tourists and photography. Obviously this instantly increased the appeal of the trip.
Inside Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard
The history of the ship breaking yards is very interesting. A cyclone in 1960 meant a greek ship was stranded on the shore and couldn't be re-floated. It sat there for five years, until a local steel house purchased it and had it scrapped. It was this move that gave birth to the industry in Bangladesh. Once we stepped inside the yard, we had a quick briefing with the site manager to go over a few ground rules and then we were free to explore the yard at our leisure. I was fascinated by the yard as a whole, how teams of men were taking apart these huge vessels piece by piece.
There was a severe lack of safety equipment for the workers, although this didn't shock me, as I knew in advance what to expect. I spoke to a couple of the workers and generally, they were quite happy. Their pay was around $10 a day, they work 7 days a week, and really do put in a hard working shift. I have nothing but respect for these guys.
Anything else to see?
Boat trip along Karnaphuli River - The largest river in Chittagong and it flows a monstrous 170 miles, all the way into the Bay of Bengal. You actually get a great view of the ship breaking yards are you're sailing down the river. The water is heavily poluted, so there isn't a great amount of marine life, but there's still plenty of local fishermen close to the shore.
Salt Production - An important industry to the Bangladesh economy is salt harvesting. If you head down to the port, you can get a glimpse of the locals hard at work. Lugging large baskets of salt from the port into the warehouse, and vice versa. You can take a sneaky look inside and watch the salt process unravel.
Garment Factory - Chittagong is the birth place of fancy garments and has multiple factories in the city. I have the opportunity to take a sneak peek inside within the factory walls. It was fascinating to see rows and rows of workers pumping the pedals of their sewing machines. I was surprised how organised the whole system seemed to be. Sewing, off-cuts, packaging, hems, faults, buttons and zips, there was literally a department for every minor detail. The workers must surely be immune to the never ending noise of the factory when they finish for the day. I had the chance to speak to a couple of the machinists and they kept repeating that they were extremely grateful for the opportunity to work inside a warm factory where the job wasn't too physical and there was minimal safety risks, albeit long hours.
How do I get there?
Bangladesh is within easy reach from Dubai with low-cost airlines operating direct flights to Chittagong from both Dubai and Sharjah. Most nationalities can also obtain a visa on arrival, providing you have the correct supporting documents.
I think the key difference based on the above recommendations is gaining access into the ship breaking yard and the garment factory, as it's not your average tourist attraction, that's for sure.
Here's the link to the Trekkup calendar on meetup.com so you can see the upcoming schedule. The Chittagong trip seems to be one that's regularly repeated due to the high demand of travellers looking to explore further off-the-beaten-track.