The history and tradition of tea drinking seems as old as time itself. It is rumored that Shennong, the legendary Emperor of China was drinking a bowl of just boiled water around 2737 BC when a few leaves were blown from a nearby tree into his water, changing the color. The emperor took a sip of the brew and was entranced by its flavor and restorative properties.
However, it was some time (16th century) before the unique properties of tea were recognized in the West, although we have definitely made up for lost time by now drinking as much as possible. As an Englishman, I have been known to enjoy the occasional tea. I enjoy a frequent tea even more; something there is no shortage of in hospitable Bangladesh. However, I have always been very much on the downstream end of tea. The upstream was a great mystery; it was something of the East, belonging to the misty depths of Asia. So when I found myself working in Bangladesh, I decided to round up my colleagues and drive for five hours on a quest to find out more about tea in Bangladesh. I lured my colleagues in through promises of the chance to drink the delicious hot beverage by a pool in the peace and quiet of the Sylhet Division.
We opted to drive from Dhaka to Sylhet, mainly because we are exceptionally brave and well versed in the local cultures and customs that inform the rules of the road… That is to say, our best friend and driver knew the way and the plane tickets were all booked out. I must recommend that air travel is perhaps more comfortable and more efficient and next time, I will be booking to travel with Biman Airlines in advance.
I won’t dwell on the road trip itself, for it is but a small chapter in a much wider tale, of which I am yet to regale you. However I will say, when road tripping, I recommend procuring some snacks. As you may see below, you can find almost any fresh fruit or vegetable you can imagine in Bangladesh’s version of the drive thru.
Once you get out into the countryside, you really get a sense of just how far Bangladesh has come; a major focus of the government is to connect Bangladesh with better road networks and excellent communications infrastructure. This meant that the journey was quite a pleasant one and there was 3G mobile coverage for the majority of the trip.
Upon arriving in Sylhet you will find a whole range of great accommodation options, including resorts like the Grand Sultan and DuSai. We opted for something low key, a very nice eco lodge right on the Shari River, a fantastic clear blue body of water that runs through Bangladesh from India. We reached our destination and settled into the eco lodge. In the evening, after a quick walk around and seeing the sunset over the treetops, we had some delicious Paratha and the chef’s special beef curry.
The following day I was committed to set out to see the fabled tea gardens of Sylhet. After the very helpful and kind Bangladeshi service staff brewed me the healing elixir that I was to seek later in the day, we set out on a cruise of the Shari River. Bangladesh is truly the land of rivers; they are the lifeblood of Bangladesh and the Shari River is a river so blue and clear you can see for some meters through the water. We cruised right up to the Indian border (possibly even a few steps over at one point, although it was hard to be sure, as we couldn’t quite make out whether the Indian border guards were waving or waving).
The cruise continued in the afternoon at a leisurely and meandering pace, which was lovely for my companions, however, it was only increasing my anticipation to catch a glimpse of the tea gardens. When we finally made our way to the shore, we could see the beautiful colonial properties peeking through the trees on the river edge. I knew we were close and not even a chance meeting with an elephant distracted me for long.
The tea gardens did not disappoint. Surrounding the tea plantation house were valleys and hills planted with tea. As tea is an evergreen shrub, it is gathered year round and sold onto both domestic and international markets. Increasingly, tea plantations have diversified, taking advantage of domestic and international tourism opportunities.
I had a tea brewed at the plantation, it was considerably stronger than my regular, but it was delicious nonetheless. The plantation staff even let me try my hand at picking a few leaves, although my dexterity was not nearly up to scratch when compared with the efficient workers of the tea gardens. I would write more but the pictures describe it better; it was tranquility, it felt very peaceful, and at the same time very vibrant.
The rest of the trip was a happy daze after seeing the tea gardens, although I must mention that if you would like to see more sites, there are a number of other attractions in the Sylhet Division. I myself was quite content just relaxing at the tea gardens.
On returning to Dhaka I had mixed feelings. While I enjoy Dhaka’s vibrancy and the tremendous sense of opportunity, Sylhet offered the chance to slow down and relax. I thoroughly recommend the adventure to anyone making a trip to Bangladesh for business or leisure, and with visa on arrival and attractions for every taste (did I mention the longest sea beach in the world? The Sunderbans and the famed Bengal tiger?) Why not make a trip to Bangladesh?
Whilst the arcane arts of tea production may be no clearer to you now than they were before, what should be clear is that the Sylhet region and its tea gardens are a must see. The same can be said for a great many attractions in Bangladesh!