Bay of Bengal

India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar Field Report

Steve Fisher|March 27, 2019|Field Report

Tuesday, January 22, 2019
Chennai, India / Embark the Silver Discoverer

We gathered at the Taj Coromandel Hotel in Chennai on India’s southeast coast, arriving throughout the day and night on flights from all over the world. On Tuesday afternoon, after a filling lunch that felt like a late-night snack to those who were still in a different time zone, we began our expedition by exploring the lively capital of Tamil Nadu state.

Founded as Madras in the 17th century, Chennai began as a trading station for the British East India Company. Today it has grown to be the largest city in south India and the 36th most populated city in the world. Traveling through manic streets we visited some of the rich heritage it has to offer. At the Government Museum we saw a stunning selection of bronze depictions of Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu gods from various periods of the country’s history in the Bronze Gallery. We visited the bright white Saint Thome Basilica, the 19th-century Roman Catholic cathedral built by British architects on the site of a much older Portuguese church, itself built on what was believed to be the grave of Saint Thomas—one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Later we strolled down some bustling market streets to visit the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, site of a Hindu temple since the 7th century. Removing our shoes to pass under the magnificent gopuram entrance tower, intricately decorated with figures of people, gods, and animals, we explored the numerous individual shrines and watched as ritual prayers took place.

At dusk we headed into Chennai harbor and boarded our expedition vessel, the Silver Discoverer. After settling into our luxury cabins, we set sail into the Bay of Bengal.

Wednesday, January 23
At Sea

Our first day at sea allowed some of us to recover from the inevitable jet lag, before Expedition Leader Mike Messick and Cruise Director Lynne Greig welcomed us all and introduced the rest of the team. Anthropologist Shirley Campbell delivered the first talk of the day, explaining the early history of India in Conquering the Sub-Continent: A Complex Peopling of India. Later, historian Stephen Fisher continued India’s story by looking at the maritime explorers who opened trade to the country, along with the following period of British rule in Western India: The Story of Colonial Bengal. That evening we enjoyed cocktails followed by the captain’s welcome dinner, and prepared ourselves for the next day ashore. 

Thursday, January 24

Early in the morning the Silver Discoverer pulled alongside at Visakhapatnam docks, the first such cruise ship to do so. A red carpet, musicians, and traditional floral garlands awaited us as we disembarked, before we headed along the waterfront of this 6th-century city, the fourteenth largest in India. We turned inland and into the hills to explore the rich heritage of this area, going first to the Shri Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha temple where we received tilika, the red and white marks applied to the forehead as a traditional mark of welcome. The tilika is also used by followers of the Hindu deity Vishnu, to whom the temple is an important site of pilgrimage. Inside, we were privileged to witness one of the morning worship ceremonies and receive a blessing. Many of us embraced the Kappasthambam pillar, a ritual that is said to fulfill the wishes of devotees. Around the temple we saw devout Hindus of all ages having their heads tonsured (shaved), so that they can use their hair as a mannat offering. 

Next, we drove to the nearby Thotlakonda Buddhist Complex. Approximately 2,000 years old, the temple fell into decline in the 3rd century and was not rediscovered again until 1976, when aerial surveys conducted by the Indian Navy revealed the rich archaeological remains. Detailed excavations followed and the foundations of numerous structures were exposed and restored. Here we saw our first stupas, the dome-like structures typical of Buddhist sites.

Returning to Visakhapatnam, we enjoyed lunch at a nearby resort and in the afternoon visited two slightly more modern sites. The Visakha Museum displayed numerous treasures from the local area and explained the maritime history of Visakhapatnam, the only natural harbor on India’s east coast. Further down the beach, the preserved Indian Navy submarine INS Kursura offered insight into life aboard a Russian-built diesel submarine, and an opportunity to learn about the 1971 Bangladeshi War of Independence.

That evening the sun set off our stern as the Silver Discoverer slipped out of the harbor, and we continued our journey up India’s east coast.

Friday, January 25
At Sea

Our second day at sea began with a diversion close inshore to witness olive ridley turtles mating off Gahirmatha Beach, Odisha. As well as the turtles, some of us were lucky enough to see a sea snake writhing in the waters nearby.

The rest of the day was packed with talks and demonstrations. Jack Grove started with his talk on Sea Currents and Marine Biodiversity, explaining how oceans spread marine life around the world and into smaller bodies of water like the Bay of Bengal. Shortly after this, Shirley continued her tour of Indian culture, taking us Into the Folds of the Sari: Women’s Lives in India, and explained the complex customs of traditional Indian dress.

In the afternoon, Silver Discoverer’s head sommelier Ishmael hosted a cocktail-making session in the main lounge. Later, Stephen continued his colonial history in Tea, Teak, and Trenches: Trade from Bengal, explaining the surprising stories of commodities originating from the region.

Saturday, January 26

As the sun rose, we entered the port of Paradeep and came alongside, the first ship to do so in over a decade. Not to be outdone by Visakhapatnam, musicians and dancers awaited us on the dock and the first to disembark were mobbed by crowds of journalists and reporters, eager to report the arrival of the ship.

Once we finally made it to our coaches, we headed inland towards Ratnagiri Monastery. On the way, some of us stopped at a local convention center, where local officials and schoolchildren welcomed us to their area and celebrated Republic Day, the anniversary of the Constitution of India coming into effect in 1950, replacing the older British Government of India Act.

At Ratnagiri we disembarked on the outskirts of the village and strolled along the winding road leading to the monastery entrance, taking in the features of life in a small hamlet. Once inside, we explored this phenomenal Buddhist site that was excavated 50 years ago. First established as early as the 6th century, the site was a major religious center in use for perhaps 1,000 years. When excavated, two monastery buildings and a large stupa were exposed, as were numerous standing statues in amazing levels of preservation. Numerous small sections of stone show where further buried remains lay, and a small segment of a Buddha’s head provides a tantalising glimpse of what still waits to be excavated.

After enjoying lunch beneath beautiful fabric sun shades in a former hotel, we made our way back to Paradeep, passing villagers drying dung cakes on the roadside and an incredible six miles of trucks, patiently waiting to enter the port to load up freight. After re-embarking we waved our goodbyes to the onlookers on the dock and sailed back into the bay.

Sunday , January 27
At Sea / Sundarbans Forest Reserve, Bangladesh

Another day on the ship—but not entirely at sea. The morning began with a talk to prepare us for the next few days, as Brad Climpson explained The Sundarbans, an Extraordinary Example of one of Nature’s Most Important Creations: Mangrove Eco-Systems. Shortly afterwards, Shirley continued her exploration of local culture and the roots of Bangladesh in A Question of Identity—Bengali or Bangladeshi.

After picking up the pilot at Hiron Point at the southern end of the Sundarbans, we enjoyed the view from deck as we arrived in Bangladesh and entered the Pasur River and sailed north through the mangrove forest. As the channel narrowed we got our first views of dense tropical vegetation growing on the riverbanks. Alongside us, freighters, ferries, and small wooden boats made their way up and down the river, while close to the shore, fishing vessels moored their nets in shallow water.

Five hours and 60 miles later, we arrived at Mongla Port, where we were joined by our agents and Tanjilur Rahman, who would be our guide for the next few days. As darkness fell, we anchored in the river and watched as the twinkling lights of small boats passed us on their never-ending journeys. 

Monday, January 28
Sundarbans Forest Reserve

Up before dawn, we piled into Zodiacs for the first time and, just as the sky started to lighten, made our way up north to a river inlet at Daingmari. As the tide swirled where it met the flow of the river, we watched Ganges river dolphins breaking the water around us. Critically endangered, the northern part of the Bay of Bengal is the only place in the world where this species can be found. Further into the inlet, mudskippers scurried along the bank while ospreys and brahminy kites flew overhead.

After returning to the ship to enjoy breakfast, it wasn’t long before we were heading back out for our next excursion, walking along a boardwalk through the forest at the Harbaria Eco Tourism Center. Here we were joined by our guards for the next few days—wildlife rangers who live and work in the forest. On the walk we found evidence of tigers—their footprints clearly visible in the mud alongside the raised walkway—while overhead, Rhesus macaques played in the trees.

After lunch, we returned to the Zodiacs to begin our 18-mile jaunt down the winding tributaries of the main river. Turning into ever-narrower streams and inlets, our eight Zodiacs explored the mangrove forest in much closer focus than the main river allowed. On the shores we saw estuarine crocodiles and spotted deer, while great and little egrets plodded through the muddy banks and kingfishers perched on branches above. We also encountered fishing boats. Hugging the riverbanks, the fishermen used trained otters that swam alongside the boat in simple rope harnesses, and herded fish into the nets.

Exhilarated by the journey, we eventually emerged into the main river channel at Charaputia just as the sun was setting.

Tuesday, January 29
Sundarbans Forest Reserve

Every winter, up to 10,000 Bangladeshi fishermen gather in small settlements on the southern coast of the Sundarbans to fish in the Bay of Bengal. Our day began with a trip to Alorkol fishing village on the island of Dublar Char, a temporary settlement that only exists for between three and five months of each year. During the summer monsoon season the island is almost completely submerged, but the following winter the village is built again.

The community is vast and almost entirely self-sufficient, with small shops, workshops, and temporary toilets to support the fishermen. We watched as men sorted their catch, prepared the fish, and strung them along miles of bamboo racks lining the paths and boundaries of each hut in the village. On the shore and alongside the creeks that snaked through the settlement, men serviced the boats left high on the sand by the receding tide, fixing the wooden decks and tarring the hulls.

As we enjoyed our lunch, the Silver Discoverer crossed the channel to Hiron Point and we cruised by Zodiac between the shifting sandbanks into the Nilkamal River. Continuing upriver in the boats and then walking along the boardwalk that led deeper in the dense forest, we found all manner of wildlife, including wild boar snuffling the muddy banks and deer in the clearings. Kingfishers and egrets watched us from the shore and Rhesus macaques played in the trees.

Our final explorations of the mangrove forests complete, we enjoyed luxurious refreshments cooked on the shore, and watched the sun set behind us as we steered the Zodiacs back to open water and our ship.

Wednesday, January 30
At Sea

Today was a day at sea—but not just any old bit of sea. At dawn we began to make transects over Bangladesh’s first marine protected area, the Swatch of No Ground—so called because early marine surveyors were unable to determine the depth of this huge underwater trench. We were awoken early by dolphins dancing off the ship’s bow and throughout the day we watched spinner and bottlenose dolphins splashing around the ship and in our wake, while overhead gulls flew past. In the distance, large and small fishing vessels made transects of their own across this rich seascape.

Inside, Tanjilur treated us to a talk and tasting session of Sundarbans honey, something he had previously harvested from the wild bees that live in the mangrove delta. In the afternoon, Rich Pagen gave his first talk of the trip and detailed the mating habits of a wide range of marine life in Sex on and off the Beach: Reproduction and Raising Young in the Aquatic Realm.

In the evening, Tanjilur introduced us to the 2002 film Matir Moina (The Clay Bird), a Bangladeshi film on which he worked as a still photographer. Set in the late 1960s, the film deals with the personal experiences of its director, Tareque Masud, who, as a small boy, experienced the tumultuous and often tragic events surrounding Bangladesh’s quest for independence.

Thursday, January 31
Cox’s Bazar / Maheshkhali Island

For our final day in Bangladesh, Silver Discoverer anchored off Cox’s Bazar, the southernmost district of Bangladesh, close to the border with Myanmar. Departing the ship, we set off on a 10-mile journey through a maze of sandbars and into Maheshkhali Estuary, before making our way upriver. Reaching Maheshkhali Terminal, we landed and crowded into an assortment of tuk-tuks and e-rickshaws that drove us along the pier to the small village around Adinath Temple.

Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, Adinath Temple is said to be the spot where the god Ravana set down a sacred Shiva Linga stone that he had promised Lord Shiva he would carry from Mount Kailash in Tibet to Sri Lanka, in return for being granted immortality. The temple has been a focal point for pilgrims for centuries, many coming from as far away as Nepal.

Leaving the temple we walked along the outskirts of a Rakhine village, passing agricultural fields and small ponds. Here, women washed themselves and cleaned rugs and throws that they dried in the bright sunlight. Some of us even joined a game at the local cricket pitch.

Visiting local homes, some of us shopped for blankets, shawls, and a selection of traditional clothes. Returning to the fleet of small vehicles, we drove into the main town, passing timber merchants and woodworkers preparing furniture to sell in Cox’s Bazar. At the local school, children clustered around to see us as we watched a succession of performances to welcome us to Maheshkhali Island. After exploring a local monastery and some nearby shops, we piled back into our fleet of tuk-tuks and e-rickshaws for a wild ride through the rest of the town and to the local ferry terminal. After saying a sad goodbye to Tanjilur, we set out on the 10-mile return journey to the Silver Discoverer. Some of us were lucky enough to encounter a small pod of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins that played under and around our Zodiacs as we left the river channel.

Back on board, we enjoyed lunch as the ship began its journey south along the coast. In the afternoon, Brent Stephenson let us into some of his Photography Tips and Tricks in the main lounge, while Stephen explained a little of the British obsession with Indian tea with a tasting session of some of the more popular blends.

Friday, February 1
Ngapali Beach, Myanmar / Thandwe

With a short morning at sea, Shirley gave us some background to Myanmar’s history with a talk on The Kingdom of Pagan. At noon we dropped anchor off Ngapali Beach in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and set out on the Zodiacs once more. Making landfall on a small stretch of beach paradise at Amata Resort, drummers greeted us as we disembarked.

Heading inland to Thandwe, we visited the center of this small town, exploring Dwar Yar Waddy Market where the local residents could obtain everything they needed, from household goods to exotic spices and fruits. Moving on, we headed up Mount Rohakuhta, where a giant image of a reclining Buddha overlooks the Thandwe River. Above it, the golden dome of the Shwe Nan Daw Pagoda is said to enshrine relics of Buddha and is a beautiful example of the architecture of Myanmar’s Buddhist shrines.

Returning to the beach, some of us took the opportunity to relax on the golden sand or take a swim in the clear, warm sea. As the last Zodiacs skimmed back to the Silver Discoverer, the bright orange setting sun produced a brief green flash to finish off the day.

Saturday, February 2
At Sea

Our final day at sea was spent learning more about the country of Myanmar. Jack gave the first talk of the day with the second part of Sea Currents and Marine Biodiversity, explaining more about the impact of global currents on waters like the Bay of Bengal. After Ishmael had delivered a second cocktail mixology masterclass, Stephen spoke about the Battle for Burma: Myanmar in the Second World War, as well as his family connection to the events of 1942 to 1945.

After we had enjoyed lunch and a gala afternoon tea, Shirley told us more about the diverse range of Ethnic Groups of Burma and the long history of conflict that has dogged the country since it gained independence in 1948.

Sunday, February 3

The day dawned bright and early with a magnificent sunrise as we made our way east, past the Mouths of the Irrawaddy and into the Gulf of Martaban. Even though land wasn’t yet visible, the river delta had already made the seawater murky brown, and as we passed mudbanks, sediment swirled up alongside. Brown-headed gulls, later joined by terns, swooped behind the ship, plucking fish from our wake.

Rich talked a little more about the habitats we had seen over the previous two weeks in his morning talk, The Tropical Marine Ecological Fringe: A Transect for the Coast to the Blue Water. Not long after, we picked up our pilot from the isolated pilot base ship moored south of the main estuary and, as we enjoyed lunch, we slowly worked our way past Elephant Point, site of the amphibious landings that helped liberate Yangon in 1945. As we headed upriver, golden stupas glittered in the bright sunshine, and as the sea breeze died away, the temperature began to rise. The assortment of boats navigating the river increased as we headed further north and soon we could see the city of Yangon ahead of us.

Once alongside in Myanmar’s largest city, we disembarked and headed to the Shwedagon Pagoda. Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist site, the 344-foot-high gilded stupa is visible from miles around. Even encased in bamboo scaffolding on this occasion it was an impressive sight and, as dusk fell, we wandered around the numerous shrines surrounding the stupa, paying careful attention to those marking the days of our birth.

To finish the day we headed to Le Planteur Restaurant, a French Indo-Chinese restaurant that has played host to a number of celebrities and dignitaries in the past. As we enjoyed our dinner next to the restaurant’s lake, we were treated to performances of traditional dance and music from the region. 

Monday, February 4

For the last full day of the expedition, some of us were up and off the ship at dawn, heading to the Moe Yun Gyi wetlands 60 miles north of the city. Here, a small boat provided the perfect platform to observe local wildlife. While water buffalo waded through the still water, Asian openbill storks, gray-headed swamphens, and egrets could be seen on the grassy banks.

The rest of us took a morning tour of the city. Starting with a walk through the colonial district to admire the old and imposing buildings dating from British rule, we witnessed the everyday hustle and bustle of the city that was once the capital of the country. Next, we headed for the district of Thaketa, where many houses are also home to the family business. Jade polishers, wood carvers, lacquer makers, potters, artists, and seamstresses all worked in the gardens and front rooms of the small, densely-packed houses in this residential suburb, and many of us picked up souvenirs that had only just been made.

In the afternoon, we all gathered at Kalaywa Monastery. The monastery is home to several hundred monks and nuns of all ages, and they regularly receive donations of food and other supplies. We were privileged to be able to distribute these goods amongst the monks as they filed past, graciously receiving rice, vegetables, noodles, and medicines in their metal alms bowls.

Adjoining the monastery is the Chauk Htat Gyi Buddha Temple, home to a giant reclining image of Buddha—one of the most revered and, at 216 feet long, one of the largest in the country. Originally built over 100 years ago, work began to replace the original image with a new one in the 1950s. It wasn’t until the giant glass eyes were added in 1973 that it was finally completed.

Upon our return to the ship, there was just enough time to spend a few hours packing before farewell drinks and dinner, followed by a slideshow of Brent’s impressive photographic work on the expedition.

Tuesday, February 5
Yangon / Disembark

Finally—but reluctantly—at the end of our journey around the Bay of Bengal, it was time to leave our home for the last two weeks. At dawn we started to disembark, saying our goodbyes to old and new friends. Driving past now familiar landmarks in Yangon, we made our way to the airport and onto the multitude of aircraft that would take us home, or on to the next adventure.

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