Surrounded by the hills of Mizoram on the east and Tripura on the north, Sajek Valley that once witnessed insurgencies now showcases Bangladesh's cultural diversity engaging people of different ethnicities in developing tourism in the area for their economic benefit and social uplifting.
The river Sajek demarcates the boundary between Bangladesh and India while the area named after it is the biggest union of the country and falls under Baghaichori upazila in Rangamati hill district.
Located 95 km north of Rangamati, Sajek is only 67 km north-east of the headquarters of Khagrachhari hill district. Driving through the high peaks and falls of the road one can reach from Khagrachhari to Sajek Valley in about two to three hours. Bangladesh Army provides security escort service in the route from Baghathar to Sajek each day morning and evening.
Sajek Valley comprises Ruilui Para, Hamari Para, and Konglak Para, where the Konglak Hill is the one of the main tourist attractions. The last village on the Bangladesh side is located on the Konglak Hill, which is predominantly inhabited by the Lusai people. Apart from the Lusais, Tripura, Pangkhoa, and Chakma people also live there.
People started visiting Sajek in 2014, soon after the road network connected the valley with the rest of the country. The Bangladesh Army took about 10 years to complete the road that passed through steep terrains and valleys of the Kasalong range of mountains.
Earlier it was one of the remotest areas of the country for its difficult steep terrains and had no mentionable economic activity, remembered Supriyo Chakma, a photojournalist who has been visiting the area for over two decades.
Sajek was neither known to people nor connected with Rangamati or its neighbouring Khagrachhari by road infrastructure, Supriyo said narrating stories of his experience while working with Dhaka-based national dailies since then.
Residents of Rangamati town used to spend about two days to reach Ruilui, where most of the resorts have now been established in Sajek, he added.
"One could reach up to Old Lankar, the bordering village of Sajek after a 16-hour journey on foot and by shallow boat. Eight more hours was required from Old Lankar to reach Ruilui," Supriya narrated while describing how tourism helped change Sajek's socio-economic condition in front of his eyes in less than a decade.
How flourishing is the tourism business in Sajek can be understood from the fact that the number of resorts in the area enlisted with the Cottage Owners Association of Sajek (COAS) rose to 83 last year from its initial tally of six in 2016.
Sajek developed into a tourist spot because 'enterprising people from across the country came here with a dream to make their business a success', said Suparno Dev Burman, the founder president of the COAS.
"They came from across the country, particularly from Dhaka, Chattogram, Khagrachhari, and Rangamati and utilised the business opportunities offered by Sajek," said Suporno adding that the economic activities were contributing to change the socio-economic condition of the people there.
"But Sajek's opportunities need to be explored with caution," he felt, mainly because of its 'geographical location' as well as for 'ethnic, cultural and religious sensitivities of people who cohabit in the area, and turned it into a hub of economic activities'.
"Sajek is now one of the most sought after tourist spots in the country," said the Headman of Ruilui Mouza, where most of the resorts in Sajek were set up in the last couple of years. He, however, feels that the area is developing without much planning.
Essential infrastructural facilities like water storage and distribution systems need to be developed in Sajek at the earliest to ensure growth in investment and for more employment opportunities, he noted.
Business in the area could not have flourished if the parties involved in the process could not ensure ethnic and religious harmony, he said, adding that local people were benefitting from the economic activities.
"Those who came here for business either entered into partnership with the locals or set up their own enterprises paying rent to the land owners", he said. There has been no report of interethnic tension between or among different groups of people engaged in business here, he said.
M Faisal Mahmud, a young entrepreneur from the plain district who was already in business, opened a restaurant and a resort in Sajek four years ago. Faisal works in partnership with people of different ethnicities in Sajek, and feels 'very encouraged about its future prospects'.
One of his partners, John, a Chakma resident from Khagrachhari, felt that they needed to 'introduce facilities for yoga, meditation, swimming etc for their guests matching the environment of Sajek to further explore its business potentials'.
"With a very small sum of money, many people including myself started business in Sajek", said Khoka, another entrepreneur from Dhaka, adding that the demand for more resorts in the area exists.
COAS officials said cottages in Sajek can accommodate about 3,000 people, but cannot really meet peak time demand. They said that entrepreneurs are keen to start resort business in Sajek, but did not mention the number of applications lying with them for approval. A guideline for guests and the cottage owners needs to be formulated before more resorts are allowed to open considering the sensitivities of the area, and safety of the visitors, officials pointed out.
The peak season to visit Sajek Valley is between the months of September and March every year when accommodation becomes limited. Long weekends also create demand for tourists.
Kallol Raoza, a Tripura, who runs a cottage for the last four years pointed out that some adventurous people sometimes ask for tents for camping out at night. He said, his resort provides camping facilities for such guests.
Located about 2,000 feet above sea level surrounded by hills and mountains with its reserved forests and birds, Sajek offers scenic beauty round the year, and gives you the taste and feel of seasonal changes, said photojournalist Supriya Chakma, with a smile of pride.
The experience of touching cloud or losing visibility of the next person in closest proximity due to cloud or getting covered under cloud while taking a walk on a hill top in Sajek is unique and unforgettable, Supriya pointed out.
Since the visitors like the clouds, the hills, and the scenic beauty of Sajek, they turned it into the country's one of the most sought after tourist destinations, Supriyo said adding what they read in travelogues or heard from friends are now being personally experienced and explored in their own environment.
"Their love for such treasures, and joyous moments are changing the fates of thousands of unemployed youths belonging to different ethnicities in the area," he said.
Khagrachhari-Sajek round trip journey by a remodeled four wheel drive jeep known as 'chandergari' or some other four wheel drive vehicle with an overnight stay will cost about Tk 8,000 to 10,000 for a group of about 12 people, while the same journey in a three wheeler CNG for two persons will cost about Tk 4,000 to 5,000 and in a motor bike for one person it will cost about Tk 1,500. Accommodation in a cottage and food per person will be around Tk 4,000 to 5,000 each day, some travel operators said adding that if cottage owners charged undue rent from a tourist in Sajek they are penalised soon after investigation.
Cutting across ethnic boundaries, Sajek is now open to help benefit people either by engaging them in tourism business or by facilitating them through it, which is probably unique in Bangladesh's perspective. Journalists, sociologists, economists, and policymakers while exploring the prospects and potentials of tourism in Sajek may also study the role of tourism in creating inter-ethnic and religious harmony in Sajek and suggest whether it can be replicated in other areas, too.