Bangladesh is a crash of crowds and the
deafening roar of millions of individual pursuits churning together into a
frenzy of collective activity. It is a human melting pot bubbling over in
energy, and travelling in Bangladesh often means sights and experiences come at
you so thick and fast that you sometimes have to sit down and take a deep
breath. Long ignored by most of the world, this is a land of mile-wide rivers, bell-tingling
cycle rickshaws and untamed swamps filled with man-eating tigers. It is also
home to something even more unexpected: surfing.
Sitting in the southeast corner of this
much maligned but ever-surprising nation, the bustling beach town of Cox’s Bazar
may not have the surf of Hawaii or the beach culture of Australia, but it has a
near endless stretch of sand and all the charm of a happy go-lucky seaside
resort that draws in huge flocks of holidaying Bangladeshis. It also has waves,
and today it is the biggest -- and perhaps only -- surf town in the Indian
sub-continent. How Cox’s Bazar went from being a mere seaside holiday
destination to burgeoning surf town in the space of a few years is all thanks
to one man: Jafar Alam.
Back in the 1990s, when Alam was just a
boy, he was walking along the sands of Cox’s Bazar and became transfixed by the
sight a man who appeared to be walking on water. When the man, a travelling
Australian surfer, came to shore, Alam asked to buy his board. The Australian
agreed, but did not stay around long enough to teach Alam how to surf. So for
the next seven years, Alam rode his surfboard lying down.
But then Alam saw a surfer on television
who was standing on a board just like his own, and with renewed enthusiasm he took
to the waves, becoming quite proficient despite the lack of a leash or any wax .
Then came the fateful day when Bangladeshi-style
beach life would change forever. Alam met a group of American surfers riding his
previously unknown waves, and they quickly took him under their wing. Showing
him not only how to wax a board and stand on it, they also left him a stack of
surfboards on the promise that he would teach other Bangladeshis how to surf.
Fast-forward several years, and Cox’s Bazar now has about 70 local surfers and its
own surf club and school, both
of which were established by Alam with help from his American friends. Although
the club and school are primarily aimed at teaching Bangladeshis how to surf, they
will happily loan gear and give lessons to any traveller passing through.
As small as the local scene is, it is
highly unusual. Unlike almost any other of the world’s surf regions, where male
surfers vastly outnumber the girls, almost half the surfers in Bangladesh are
female. In addition, the country is a traditional Islamic society and women are
expected to conform to a set of ideals that will not bring “shame” on their
family. This includes not mixing with unrelated members of the opposite sex and
not revealing too much skin or hair. Needless to say, the teenage girls taking
to the waves of Bangladesh are often going against the norms of their society
and the wishes of their family. In some cases they even have to surf in secret.
Although the standard of surfing in
Bangladesh is still low, that does not make the highlight of the Bangladeshi
surf calendar any less exciting. The Aloha Surf Classic competition, held each
October in Cox’s Bazar, is open only to Bangladeshi surfers. But more than a
mere surf contest, the beach festival also features skimboarding, skateboarding
and bodyboarding alongside the men’s and women’s surf events.
So, while Bangladesh will never overtake
Indonesia as a surf fantasy trip, there are enough waves here between April and
November, as well as an utterly unique surf scene, to make Bangladesh an
intriguingly offbeat proposition for the truly adventurous surfer.
The article 'Bangladesh’s surfing surprise' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.