Mohammad Jashimuddin, 35, used to dread the arduous trip from his house in Bandarban Town to his restaurant in Ruma upazila (subdistrict), a scenic but remote area across the Sangu River, nearly 50km from Bandarban.
"After being dropped by the bus at the Sangu shore, I had to cross the river by boat to reach Ruma. The entire trip was four hours long," he told Khabar South Asia via cell phone.
The situation was even worse for Khamlai Mro, a resident of Thanchi upazila, nearly 80km from Bandarban Town. "Even after crossing the Sangu, the lack of proper road communications was a serious tribulation for Thanchi residents and tourists coming to Thanchi," Mro said. The trip on foot or by boat from Thanchi to Bandarban Town used to take nearly two days.
But this has all changed after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on November 17th inaugurated two bridges in Chittagong Hill Tracts's (CHT) Bandarban District, one on the Chimbuk-Ruma road and the other on the Chimbuk-Thanchi road.
The bridges have eased travel by connecting Ruma and Thanchi upazilas with Bandarban Town. Jashimuddin's trip is slightly over an hour now; Mro's, three to four hours.
Residents of the area are upbeat the bridges will bring more tourism and trade to the region.
"Ginger, turmeric, corn, cotton and fruits like pineapple, oranges, bananas, mango and papaya grow in abundance in Ruma and Thanchi," Jashimuddin said.
"Earlier, we hardly received the right prices for these items due to low demand dogged by the woeful communication system. But this will all change now," he added.
The tribal CHT region, the only hilly area in Bangladesh, has unrealised tourism potential.
Asadur Rahman, a public relations officer of Asa University in Dhaka, has lost count of the places he's enjoyed after visiting Ruma for the 10th time.
"Some of the attractions in the 30,000-strong Ruma upazila include Boga Lake, a natural water body above sea level, and Keokradong, one of the highest peaks in Bangladesh," he said.
"Thanchi is no less than Ruma, as it also has spots like Tajin dong peak, Barapathar, Remakri Falls and others. The bridges would be a welcome change for tourists," added Rahman.
Paths to peace
The two bridges, built under the supervision of Bangladesh Army Engineering Corps, cost the government Tk 260 million ($3.18m).
The 217m Ruma bridge was built within 20 months, while construction of the 216m Thanchi bridge and an approach road took almost four years due to funding constraints and difficulty piling at the site, bridge project officers said.
Addressing a meeting at Bandarban shortly after the inauguration of bridges, Hasina said that besides increasing economic activities, the two bridges would also help education, health and other services reach the hill people.
The bridges will also boost the peace that has prevailed in the CHT since her government signed a 1997 accord with insurgents in the region. "The two bridges would be a great boost to this end," she said.
Dhaka University History Professor and Secretary-General of the National Coalition for Indigenous People Mesbah Kamal commended government and local administration efforts for completing the two bridges "necessary for these communities."
"However, only through the full implementation of the peace accord can the government gain confidence of the ethnic people of the CHT," he said, referring to the government promise of giving full autonomy to the hill districts to be run by elected tribal representatives.