Panigram Apprenticeship Experience guest and Dhaka Tribune reporter Sheikh Mohammad Irfan observes the introduction of eco-friendly tourism in Bangladesh, exemplified by Panigram Resort.
When someone hears the word “Bangladesh,” the first thing that usually comes to mind is Dhaka city, notorious for its congestion, pollution, and impoverished population. But what if all that could change?
Excluding its capital city, Bangladesh is somewhat of an untapped treasure, hidden from global attention and enjoyed only by the locals. From the mystical forests of the Sunderbans to the breathtaking tea gardens of Sylhet to the beaches of Cox’s Bazaar, the natural beauty of the country is mostly admired by Bangladeshis escaping the noise and bustle of the city. Those tourists who do visit mostly stay in commercial hotels and rarely get a fully authentic experience of Bangladeshi culture.
But all that is about to change. With ecotourism making its mark in the region, tourists will now be able to experience the true colors of Bangladesh, unblemished by mass tourism. We began to see the positive effects of this nature-friendly tourism in areas like Cox’s Bazaar, where Mermaid Ecoresort offers tourists the opportunity to bask in the luxury of nature without harming the environment or destroying the locals’ homes. We are about to see it on a much larger scale in the far away land of Jessore.
Panigram Resort, the vision of founder Kristin Boekhoff, is a five-star, environmentally friendly, socially responsible resort under construction in southern Bangladesh. It is meant to offer guests an experience of the “real Bangladesh” and a taste of Bangladeshi village life. Surrounded by nature, from the lush rivers filled with jumping fish to the purple and yellow fields of pea and mustard flowers to the abundant banana and date trees, the resort is a natural haven for anyone and everyone seeking the perfect getaway.
The resort has been carefully planned out according to the doctrine of vastu shastra, an ancient guide of architecture based on the traditional view of how the laws of nature affect human dwellings. This doctrine maintains that a home is a shrine in itself, and must attain a balance between physical energies, such as light and sound, and the five basic elements of nature (earth, water, air, fire, space) in order for its dwellers to experience peace of mind and soul. Not one tree is cut unless completely necessary or if it’s already dying, and most of the structures are built to include nature within for a true connection with the environment.
In its quest to remain as environmentally friendly as possible, Panigram Resort plans to run on renewable energy sources, such as solar power and biofuel. With the rivers surrounding and flowing through Panigram currently suffocated by hordes of water hyacinth – an invasive, freshwater aquatic plant considered a noxious weed in many parts of the world – Panigram discovered a way not only to rid the water of these harmful weeds, but also to make full use of them.
Water hyacinth contains a very high nitrogen content, and in the form of a slurry mixed with cow dung, the hyacinth produces a substantial amount of biogas. Panigram Resort plans on building the third hyacinth biofuel plant in the world, using cows to mash the hyacinth into a sludge to produce bioethanol and biogas. Not only will this revolutionary bioplant use a renewable, natural resource to run the resort, it will also clear Panigram’s water bodies of their hyacinth infestations, allowing room for other species to flourish.
Since hyacinth grows very fast and depletes water bodies of oxygen and nutrients, it adversely affects flora and fauna. Getting rid of it will not only positively affect the environment, but will also relieve the villagers of hyacinth river blockages, which make fishing and irrigation very difficult. In many parts of the world, a substantial amount of money is spent on getting rid of hyacinth, which decreases biodiversity and makes ecosystems less fertile. As a long-term solution, Panigram Resort will use these plants as a source of alternative energy and alleviate the problems associated with their growth.
As you may well know, the agricultural industry faces many challenges in Bangladesh. With no control over the amount of fertilizer or pesticides used, fruits and vegetables have become filled with harmful toxins that result in mass poisoning of the population. Panigram plans to put a stop to these problems by promoting organic farming in the villages near the resort. Panigram is currently working with farmers throughout the area, teaching them the techniques involved in organic farming, and working with them to plan the crops that they can grow for consumption at the resort.
“Farming is a science,” Kristin explained as she dug up the compost to be used in the field. She had experts in organic farming demonstrate how to assemble the ingredients needed in producing the compost, which consists of cow dung, rice husk, and mustard oil cake mixed in a ratio of 4:2:1. The compost is placed in a dry area and covered for two weeks (turned over every three days), during which time fermentation takes place and its temperature rises to 160F, killing all bacteria within (and eliminating all odor).
Farmers are also taught to use natural pesticides, including turmeric, neem, ginger, and tulsi plants, rather than chemicals to protect their crops. These natural insect repellants are planted around the plot, which is separated from the plants by a trench and a pathway. Kristin had the first plot of organic crops planted within the resort as a model for villagers to follow. “They say the land is so fertile in Jessore that all you have to do is spit and something will grow. Unfortunately, with excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, the soil of the villages has become depleted over the years. I am teaching farmers, and they will see with time, that organic farming actually produces a higher yield and does not have the same negative effects on the environment as inorganic farming does.”
Yet another way in which Panigram Resort is working to preserve the environment is through its bungalows. “The word ‘bungalow’ was first used by the British during their colonial rule of India, and is derived from the Bengali ‘bangla ghor’ which refers to a traditional Bangladeshi single-room house with a veranda in front,” Kristin explained. Panigram Resort’s bungalows are being built with mud bricks and traditional Bengal roofs, in an effort to uphold the heritage of Bangladesh and revive some of the architectural traditions that are being lost. Mud is one of the best building mediums for Bangladesh’s climate: the rooms stay cooler in summer (combined with a fan, the thin layer of moisture on the surface of the walls cools the room by evaporation) and warmer in the winter (the mass of the walls retains and releases the heat absorbed in the day).
This type of architecture, Kristin explained, is ideal for tropical weather, and provides much more comfort than the concrete walls and aluminium roofs springing up like mushrooms throughout the country. Such “modern” homes provide as much comfort as sitting in an oven would, and so Kristin encourages the locals to follow her example and return to the traditional practices of Bangladesh, which were sustained for good reason. Guests of the resort are even offered hands-on lessons in how to make mud brick, thus learning about local practices first-hand.
In case the outsides of these quaint, conspicuous bungalows aren’t impressive enough, the insides seal the deal. Decorated in hand-painted, gorgeous murals and furnished with bamboo screens, pottery lamps and figurines, and other local products, the rooms give off a magical, exotic aura that will make its guests reluctant to go outside. In case they do take a step outside, they’ll have both relaxing bamboo chairs and jute hammocks to lie in and indulge in the heavenly view of nature surrounding the resort.
No getaway is perfect without a little pampering, which is why Panigram Resort is building a 20,000 SF spa with unique treatments never applied before. Massages will be based on those provided within the subcontinent, and treatments will incorporate both ayurvedic medicine, a traditional form of medicine practiced in India and the subcontinent, and traditional Bengali remedies. Guests will be able to go outside the spa and pick fresh leaves from the spa’s ayurvedic garden to be used in their treatment. For example, they can pick turmeric and neem leaves, and watch as the leaves are mashed and prepared for application. The spa will be the perfect place to relieve stress and regenerate peace of mind, as well as reconnect with nature.
In an effort to preserve the cultural heritage of Bangladesh, Panigram Resort is building a cultural and heritage center filled with traditional handicrafts, breathtaking artwork, profound literature and surreal poetry of Bangladesh. Guests will be able to immerse themselves in authentic Bangladeshi culture and admire the legacy passed on through generations. There will also be an amphitheater close by, where guests can watch customary performances and musicals, as well as listen to the mesmerizing music, songs and poetry recitals of collected Bangladeshi works.
Probably the best part about the resort is the amount of positive change it is bringing to the nearby villages. Over 85% of Panigram employees are from Jessore, most of them from the villages near the resort. In addition, Panigram is working with local entrepreneurs and artisans to develop small businesses that will cater to the resort. Examples of micro enterprises that Panigram is supporting include: a mud brick factory, organic farms, and handicraft workshops (including pottery, embroidery, paper-making, etc.). In addition to learning ways to preserve their environment and appreciate their culture, the villagers are also being offered a free English and hospitality training curriculum that includes teaching the International Phonetic Alphabet to improve their pronunciation of words. Through education and financial benefits, these people have become empowered and are enthusiastic about the future of their homeland.
Experiencing rural Bangladesh
Guests visiting Panigram will begin their adventure with a boat ride to the resort, where locals will greet them with coconut water and shining smiles. They will have every opportunity to interact with the locals and learn traditional Bangladeshi practices through them, such as pottery and chik making, rice harvesting, honey collecting, mehendi designing, and much more. They will be taken on a cow cart ride around the village, where locals will teach them how to make pots in the pottery village and pita on mud stoves, help them milk cows, and offer them traditional meals on banana leaves. They will also have the opportunity to take a boat ride through the river after sunset, which gives way to the magical trees lit by hundreds of fireflies, the spectacular starry sky, and flying fish of the river.
Panigram Resort offers a truly unique experience in which both guests and hosts can join in harmony to celebrate the authentic culture of Bangladesh and its natural beauty, unaltered by commercialism and modernization. This conservation project is working to build environmental and cultural awareness and respect, not only in the villages near Panigram, but throughout the entire subcontinent. Hopefully, the resort will inspire others to build similarly eco-friendly stations throughout Bangladesh and its neighboring countries.