The launch trip to Sunamganj is one of those trips you want to take again and again to experience the different vibes from the different seasons
When you struggle to find a hotel room in Cox's Bazar and come by the information that none of the cottages at Sajek are available for this week; and finding no other alternative, tourists are sleeping at the veranda of some resort at Saint Martin's Island, what do you do?
The solution to this overcrowding problem at tourist spots is simple: find some new place.
So we boarded a train to Bhairab one evening, reached the river port town in one and half an hours and went straight to the launch quay at Bhairab Bazar.
Our mission, as we voluntarily chose to accept it, was to travel by a launch to Sachna Bazar in Sunamganj District through the centuries-old waterway through the haor.
People familiar with the gigantic launches plying the Dhaka to Barisal and Patuakhali route will find these commuter ships tiny, and this was going to be our ride for the next 16 hours - taking us to the land of water.
Visiting Sachna Bazar was actually not our goal. We wanted to enjoy the beauty of the rivers, take a glimpse of the haors and get oriented with the lives of the locals along the route. In simpler words, it was the river cruise we were after, not a specific tourist spot.
Once a very popular route for both passengers and cargo, these launches now carry mainly goods and a small number of passengers.
Our journey started right on time at 11pm. We were surprised to learn that timeliness is the norm here.
A part of our 16-hour-long journey would be at night, which is why we timed it considering the moon's position. Otherwise, a river cruise at night would be without reason.
Except for the sodium lights adjacent to the Meghna Bridge, Ashuganj and Bhairab town, the river was engulfed in darkness.
Soon enough, the waning moon reflected on the starboard side of the vessel, just as we had hoped - allowing us to glance at the mysterious river.
As the launch left the port and towns far behind, the moonlight grew brighter - providing an even clearer view.
The regular passengers settled in their cabins and seats in the upper and lower decks. But sleep was not something on their minds. The distinct but bearable hum of the engine, water splashing on the side of the hull and the periodic ringing of the bell by the Master to signal the engineman to rev the engine up and down carried us into another world.
As the night grew older, a blanket of dense fog suddenly enveloped the river. The Master's bell rang and the engine died a bit, slowing down the launch. With this, we went inside the cabin to take some rest.
The "Bilash Sreni" (luxury class) cabin on the upper deck is not quite luxurious. The nine to ten feet long cabin houses two narrow seats where four people can lie down with their legs folded.
However, the launch crew provided a separate cabin as a show of special hospitality for the two passengers they could easily identify as tourists; so it felt cosy enough.
In fact, the first bands of adventure seekers are familiar with this favour. As more and more tourists flock the launch, this gesture of hospitality gets replaced with a surge of profiteering.
Within minutes, the bell rang again and the engine revved up. Coming out of the cabin, we noticed that the blanket of fog was gone.
This continued for hours. The launch stopped at Nikli, Mithamain and Itna upazila in Kishoreganj district at the dead of night. The launch was scheduled to stop at Khaliajuri in Netrokona later in the morning and at some other places in Sunamganj district along the way.
All these years, I had heard of these haor upazilas and I finally got the opportunity to be there, although momentarily, and that too at a time when the Astagram-Itna-Mithamain all season road has become a tourist attraction - all set to cause the demise of these traditional waterways.
Then again, what better time than now to experience and tell the story of a fantastic journey by launch through the land of water!
The night grew thinner and at one point, as the moon approached the port side of the vessel, the yolk-like sun appeared on the starboard. The river traffic saw a rise.
Nearby fishing boats and coal-carrying cargo vessels from the northeast border announced the arrival of a new day. Even the kites and eagles started diving for their prey.
With dawn, life resumed in the vast swathe of the haor land on both sides of the Dhanu River - now drained off of the monsoon water that makes it look like a sea during the rainy season.
Fishermen setting up nets, cattle swimming across the river, and farmers working in the fields were traditional scenes, contrasted by the long queue of electric three-wheelers on the tip of the roads that appeared from nowhere - waiting for passengers coming from the other side of the river. These must be the new age submersible and all-season roads, that are bringing the land - where time ran slow - up to speed.
Our launch made a few more quick stops and boarded more passengers.
This was a golden opportunity for us to mingle with new people - traders from the northeast, a sales agent hailing from the haor, who aspired to become an elected representative soon, and a 10-year-old would-be Hafiz-e-Quran, who took a detour on his way to his grandfather's home in Kishoreganj before he reaches his home in Sachna.
As the sun followed the same trajectory as the moon last night, the river and its banks started to become busier. By three o'clock in the afternoon, we reached the Sachna Ghat. What attracted us in Sachna bazar is the gigantic sacred fig tree, said to be 100-years-old.
From there we moved to Sunamganj border - a place steeped in history with blue rivers, and green hills on the other side, but that is a story for another day.
Every time we find our favourite holiday spot swarmed by tourists and plagued by pollutants of various kinds, we regret showing off our visit on social media. We tend to forget that we are the same as the rest of the flock of tourists. The cycle continues.
But when you take this particular trip to the north, at least you know your holidaymaking is not leading to a vulnerable community's forced relocation or taking away their scarce resources.
In fact, the launch trip to Sunamganj is one of those trips you want to take again and again to experience the different vibes from the different seasons. And this time around, your actions may help revitalise the dying waterway and bring riverine tourism to life.