Bangladesh’s surfing surprise

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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 .

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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.