Picture of man in pink shirt seeing from his back, holding a pole with pink cotton candy in plastic wrap on display.

Cox’s Bazar is known as a refugee camp—but it’s also a popular vacation site

Before Cox’s Bazar became home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, it was Bangladesh’s favorite vacation spot and still provides a classic day at the beach for tourists.

A cotton candy vendor plies his fluffy wares at Cox’s Bazar, a roughly 60-mile stretch of beach on the southernmost tip of Bangladesh.

To those outside Bangladesh, Cox’s Bazar is the world’s largest refugee camp, home to nearly a million exiled Rohingya who fled what the United States has declared a genocide in neighboring Myanmar. But many Bangladeshis know Cox’s Bazar as a favorite tourist destination—and as one of the world’s longest natural sand beaches, hemming about 60 miles of shoreline along the Bay of Bengal.

These disparate Cox’s Bazars are separated by a ridge of hills and checkpoints that place the beach and the refugee camp in “two different worlds,” says Ismail Ferdous. He knows both well. One of Ferdous’s earliest memories is of riding a train to Cox’s Bazar for a family beach vacation. More recently, as a photographer, he has documented the Rohingya crisis.

On a winter’s day early in 2020, Ferdous took a break from working at the camp to walk along the beach, 18 miles away. The temperature topped 100°F, and the shore was packed. Sprawled or strolling along the beach were garment workers, telecom executives, street vendors, and madrassa students. Some had ridden 10 to 15 hours on an overnight bus just to spend the afternoon in the water.

Countless selfies and photos of beach games and other activities are snapped at Cox’s Bazar every day, but photographer Ismail Ferdous knew his simple portraits with the sea and sand as settings would stand out. “The things people overlook, I paid attention to,” says Ferdous, noting the tremendous variety of beachgoers at work and at play. Here, “you’ll meet people from 64 districts with 64 accents.”
Countless selfies and photos of beach games and other activities are snapped at Cox’s Bazar every day, but photographer Ismail Ferdous knew his simple portraits with the sea and sand as settings would stand out. “The things people overlook, I paid attention to,” says Ferdous, noting the tremendous variety of beachgoers at work and at play. Here, “you’ll meet people from 64 districts with 64 accents.”

Ferdous grew up in the capital city of Dhaka but lived abroad for a decade. When he returned to the shore of Cox’s Bazar, he felt a surprising jolt of culture shock—the scene was so different from beaches in Europe and the U.S. He embraced this perspective, training his lens on rent-per-ride horses and modestly dressed swimmers under the blinding midday sun. With the ocean as a backdrop, the crowded beach looks deceptively serene, even empty.

He returned twice more. On his last visit, in February, Ferdous brought his parents, sisters, brother, and two nieces along for a vacation. It had been more than 20 years since the family had been there together. “My mom still writes me about it, saying, ‘Thanks for doing this,’ ” he says.

Ferdous wasn't able to visit Bangladesh for two years during the Covid-19 pandemic. When he returned, he was drawn back to Cox's Bazar. The time he spent away, he says, "made me more curious and also made me a stranger to my own heritage." The shoreline he discovered was filled with teens molding statues in the wet sand, young women flying kites, and fathers guarding their families' possessions as they swam.
Ferdous wasn't able to visit Bangladesh for two years during the Covid-19 pandemic. When he returned, he was drawn back to Cox's Bazar. The time he spent away, he says, "made me more curious and also made me a stranger to my own heritage." The shoreline he discovered was filled with teens molding statues in the wet sand, young women flying kites, and fathers guarding their families' possessions as they swam.
Staff writer Nina Strochlic last wrote about the Appian WayIsmail Ferdous documents social and humanitarian issues.

This story appears in the September 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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