Do you love off the beaten track adventures and discovering non-touristy places? If the answer is yes, then Saint Martin’s Island in Bangladesh should tick those boxes, especially in low season.
Saint Martin’s is the only coral island in Bangladesh. It’s in the North East of the Bay of Bengal about 9 km South of the tip of Cox’s Bazar in Southern Bangladesh.
No Ferries – No Worries
We were keen to visit Saint Martin’s Island during our recent week-long trip to Bangladesh in October, at the end of monsoon season. We’d read there was a ferry from Teknaf, the most southern state in Bangladesh. When we enquired at our hotel in Cox’s Bazar we found out that apparently, the ferries weren’t running. I’m not sure if this was due to the political situation still or because it was the off-season.
Either way, the only other mode of transport was by fishing trawler, which would be too dangerous (for tourists) due to the rough sea. Disappointed, we were also not convinced it was 100% accurate. The weather had been fine in Cox’s Bazar and conditions at sea didn’t appear to be too unsettled.
Undeterred I contacted an ecoresort on Saint Martin’s Island and asked if they were open and if so how we could get there. I soon received the reply we’d hoped for, they were always open. There was just one hitch, as per the hotels advise the ferries weren’t running. Fishing trawler really was our only option and many people don’t like doing it. Never ones to turn down an adventure and having never travelled by fishing trawler, we jumped at the opportunity. It sounded right up our street.
Guided or Independently
Satisfied we were happy with a trawler, the ecoresort advised that they’d send a guide to meet us at Teknaf. He’d help us find a trawler, escort us to the island and to the eco-resort. In hindsight, we wished we’d done this independently because when we got to the island the guide insisted on sticking with us for our whole stay. He even slept in the room next to us and was there every time we turned around. Whilst he was a lovely chap, we prefer not to have unnecessary guides, especially when we could have easily managed by ourselves if we’d been had the logistical information.
I’m not saying having a guide is the wrong thing to do, just that it’s not for everyone. It does, of course, have its benefits such as less hassle from locals, it’s easier to arrange meals and transport, and it’s cheaper to buy things from the stores and markets.
If you prefer to travel independently and would rather visit Saint Martin’s Island without a guide in the off-season it’s likely that like us you’ll struggle with the lack of readily available resources out there. Therefore I’ve pulled together some useful information on how to get there.
You can get a direct taxi from Dhaka to Teknaf for about 11,000 Bangladesh taka (BDT) (£110 GBP), taking about 6.5 hours. You could also take a direct bus for up to 1,700BDT (£17 GBP), depending on the class, taking up to 12 hours. I suspect however that the majority of people would choose to break the journey up with a stop off in Cox’s Bazar so the options below are based on that.
- Bus – From Mohakhali Bus Station (you can get a taxi there from the airport), catch a bus to Cox’s Bazar. Numerous buses from many different companies leave Dhaka towards Cox’s Bazar daily and some drive throughout the night. Prices range from about 700BDT (£7 GBP) for a non-airconditioned chair coach (not very comfortable) to 3,000BDT (£30 GBP) for an air-conditioned sleeper coach (the comfiest option). Beware the buses can take anywhere from 10 to 15 hours depending on the route, traffic and road conditions.
- Flight – A short one-hour domestic flight to Cox’s Bazar like we took costs from about 5,000BDT (£50 GBP) one way or 10,000BDT (£100 GBP) return. It’s difficult to buy flight tickets online in Bangladesh with a foreign credit or debit card, so we bought our tickets on the day from a ticket office located outside the front of the domestic airport, next door to the Shahjalal International Airport.
- Private car/ taxi – The most expensive option, a private car with the driver could cost up to double the flights as you’re charged for a return journey regardless of if you’re just going one way. Journey time is from about 5 hours depending on traffic and road conditions.
Cox’s Bazar to Teknaf
If you plan to travel to Saint Martin’s the same day you travel from Cox’s Bazar to Teknaf you’ll need to get an early start as the fishing trawlers aim to leave between 11 am and 12 pm. In reality, they probably won’t leave until much later as I’ll explain shortly; it’s not worth the risk missing it though, so aim to get to Teknaf in plenty of time.
There are three options for this leg of the journey:
- Bus – Take an auto-rickshaw or CNG to the bus stand and catch one of the hourly buses that run to Teknaf. The journey could take anywhere between 2.5 and 4 hours and should cost 200 to 400BDT (£2 to £4 GBP) per seat.
- Microbus – This can be booked by your hotel and is basically a minibus which may pick up other passengers en-route. However, if you’re doing this in low season it’s very likely you’ll get the whole bus to yourself. It should take around 2 hours and will cost around 3,000BDT (£30 GBP).
- Private car/ taxi – Again this can be booked by your hotel. It’s the most expensive option and will cost around 4,000BDT (£40 GBP) for an air-conditioned vehicle and should take no longer than 2 hours.
Teknaf to Saint Martin’s Island
The trawlers depart from Teknaf Boat Ghat, so either ask someone to point you in the right direction or jump in an auto-rickshaw. Once you reach the ghat, the fun and possibly the confusion starts. You’ll need to do the following:
- Buy a ticket – Go into a small ramshackle tin hut posing as a ticket office and waiting room, where you’ll need to buy a ticket for a place on the trawler. This cost us 250BDT (£2.50 GBP) each. You’ll also need to give them your name and passport details, I.can only assume this is to enable them to keep track of who’s travelling to the island. The tin hut was stifling and crammed full of people waiting so you’ll probably find it more comfortable to wait outside.
- Board the trawler – Sometime between 11 am and 12 pm you’ll be ushered onboard the.trawler, along with many local men, women and children with their purchases from Teknaf market. This is likely to include sacks of rice, plastic chairs and waste paper bins, fruit and vegetables, fabrics and almost certainly a few live chickens either in baskets or just being held.
- Find a seat – There is absolutely no order to boarding the boat, it’s a complete free for all. Your best bet is to get on as soon as possible and try to secure yourself somewhere as comfortable as possible to sit. We managed to perch on a ledge up the back near the tiller, but I think this was only because we had a guide. You’re more likely to find yourself sitting on the floor or balanced around the edges of the hold with everyone else. We also noticed that the women all seemed to sit crammed together at the back of the boat, whilst the men were down the sides and at the front, they didn’t seem to mind Andy and I staying together though.
- Sit back and enjoy the ride – There may be quite a wait before the trawler leaves the ghat. The captain will more than likely wait until there are as many people as possible on board before setting off. We waited for nearly 2 hours to depart after boarding. Once full the trawler will set out for Saint Martin’s which will take about 3 hours. It stops off at the Bangladesh Border Guard, who sit in a tiny corrugated tin hut on the bank of the river where they check the trawlers’ paperwork. I’ve also heard bags are sometimes checked so don’t try to take any alcohol with you as it’s illegal and may be seized.
There is one more stop on the way at Shah Porir Dip Terminal, where some people may get off the trawler and others get on. This was actually the highlight of the trip for me.
As we waited for the new passengers to get on, a cow and a bull were led down the jetty. I turned to Andy and said ‘surely they’re not putting them on here…where on earth will they go’. We then watched in disbelief as the two beasts were manhandled onboard and down into the hold with the other goods. The two animals weren’t best pleased and people scattered to avoid their horns. Once in the hold, the animals settled down and we were on our way again. Don’t be at all surprised if your trawler ends up resembling Noah’s Ark.
After that, all there really is to do it to people watch, have a doze, or read a book, and of course, don’t forget to look out for Myanmar which you pass on the left hand side.
What to take
This is probably the time to mention this trip is not for the faint-hearted. You’ll probably be squashed and uncomfortable, and hot and sweaty, but it’s a real adventure and for us was worth the discomfort. Here are some suggestions of items to take with you to make the long, hot journey more enjoyable for you:
- Water and snacks – Take plenty of water with you, if you’re hungry and dehydrated you’ll end up feeling ill.
- Sun lotion and umbrella – Take sun lotion and an umbrella with you, there’s absolutely no shelter on the boat and arriving on the island burnt to a crisp isn’t going to bode well for a nice stay.
- Seasick pills – If you’re prone to getting seasick and especially if the seas a bit rough, be sure to take a couple of pills as soon as you board the boat. By the time it leaves Teknaf they’ll have had time to start working.
- Life jacket – Safety first is definitely not at the forefront of the captains’ mind. Although boats aren’t legally supposed to sail without lifejackets it’s very unlikely any will be provided for you. Therefore if you’re very safety conscious it may be an idea to bring your own. We didn’t know about this and travelled without and were fine, but you never know what may happen. I think if the weather had have been very bad we probably wouldn’t have taken the risk and stayed on dry land.
So that’s it, how to travel independently to Saint Martin’s Island without a guide in low season. If you decide you’d rather go with the simpler option of getting a guide, this can easily be arranged by contacting one of the accommodatio optionss on the island and asking them to arrange one for you.
I shall be writing another post soon about our time on Saint Martin’s Island itself in low season, so watch this space.
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Have you been to Saint Martin’s Island in low season, if so have I missed any important details? If you’re planning a trip there, I hope you’ve found this useful, but feel free to comment below with any questions.
P.S. You can read more about our time in India and Bangladesh via the following links.