Last week, I caught the train from Dhaka, Bangladesh, to Kolkata, India, after an incredible 41 days in Bangladesh.
The Lads, Chittagong
Rare NZ deer, Sunderbans
A couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted to travel for a long length of time, and I started doing some research on various countries and destinations. One of my favourite things about travelling is the feeling of confusion that invariably surfaces when arriving in a new destination for the first time. What the hell is going on? Why is everybody shouting? I don’t know what I just ate. Which way is up? Did I just see an elephant on the motorway? And what is that smell???
…Welcome to Bangladesh!
When I was planning (very loosely) my travels, I decided that I’d look at all of the countries in Asia, do some research, and then decide where i wanted to go without prejudice, rather than making decisions based on my preconceptions and limited knowledge of the world. (Why would anybody want to go to Thailand? It only has two places, Phuket and Bangkok, and it’s full of sex tourists, drunk gap year kids, Ladyboys and Mike Tyson. I saw the Hangover 2…)
Did you know that apples are originally from Kazakhstan? Asia, and the rest of the world, is a pretty fascinating place! My main criteria was affordability (Bhutan is out for the moment), safety (I really really want to go to Pakistan, and cross the Karakoram highway, but now is probably not the time to do so) and ease of organisation, as I didn’t want to have to organise visas or flights too far in advance, because I’m so spontaneous (lazy).
Bangladesh caught my attention for a few reasons, the first one being that I didn’t know anything at all about it. I didn’t even really know where it was on the world map.
Here it is…
- Bangladesh is part of the Indian subcontinent, is surrounded by India, has a relatively small land border with Burma to the Southeast, and borders the Bay of Bengal in the South. A few more facts about Bangladesh…
- They love cricket! And Daniel Vettori too.
- Bangladesh has an approximate population of 160 million people, and a land area of 147,000 kilometres, making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
- Dhaka is the capital city of Bangladesh.
- The Bangladeshi currency is the Taka. 1 NZD = 66 Taka, 1 USD = 79 Taka
- It is home to the Sunderbans, which is the largest Mangrove forest in the world.
- When the British partitioned India in 1947, they decided to create an independent Islamic state. Pakistan and Bangladesh were one country, The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, despite being separated by over 1600 kms. Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan. A long and bloody war for independence followed. On December 16th, 1971 Bangladesh was born, when the Pakistani forces occupying Bangladesh surrendered to a joint Bangladeshi and Indian army. This day is known as victory day, and is a national holiday.
‘The real Bangladesh’
Lurker in the Tea
There isn’t really a whole lot of information available on travel in Bangladesh. When I booked my ticket, there was a 2009 Bradt guidebook, a lonely planet guide which was 5 years out of date (the new one was published a couple of days before I flew to Dhaka, and I managed to find a copy in Bangkok), as well as some pretty sparse wiki travel articles and a few random travel blogs. It doesn’t really register on the travel radar of most people.
Before I left New Zealand, I’d never even met anybody who’d been to Bangladesh, until I was chasing up money owed from guitar lessons. The mother of my student was normally prompt with her payments, but I hadn’t been able to get hold of her in months. Turns out that she hadn’t been getting my messages, as she was in Bangladesh! I thought that this was pretty much the most awesome excuse ever.
When I started on my travels through Burma and Thailand however, I met a few stray travellers who had somehow found themselves in Dhaka, normally on a stopover on the way to Kathmandu…
‘I saw dead bodies.’
‘Dhaka is scary at night.’
‘I caught dysentery.’
‘Their country is dirty’
‘I met a guy who went there once…’
Hardly inspiring stuff. Although nobody that I talked to had actually been there in recent history, e.g less than ten years ago, and all had been there on a stopover; that horrible purgatory between home and holiday. Nobody had been outside of Dhaka. And nobody had gone to Bangladesh with the intent of actually travelling and seeing the country.
Reports on the Internet however, from people who had actually travelled in Bangladesh, sounded amazing. Beautiful scenery, small villages untouched by time and technology, incredibly hospitable and friendly people, long slow river rides, and genuine adventure in a country relatively untouched by tourism… And there was also a Bangladeshi man, Mahmud Hasan Khan, who had tirelessly been answering questions on the thorntree forum (including mine) for the past 6 or so years. He was obviously very passionate about his country, and really wanted people to come to Bangladesh. His love for his country and his generosity with his time was really inspirational.
Mahmud and Ruma
So with such reliable advice (that of complete strangers on the Internet), I took a leap of faith and booked my ticket with Biman air…
In Bangkok, a few days before my flight, I got sick, the worst that I’ve ever been. I was really struggling to rehydrate, even with the help of sachets, and basically just took lots of pills and tried unsuccessfully to sleep. A bad omen? Between frequent runs to the shared bathroom, I was taking advantage of the free wifi and reading as much about Bangladesh as I could, including the news. At that time, there had been a series of violent hortals (strikes) in Dhaka, and a few people had been killed. At one point I was seriously considering cancelling my ticket, even though it cost 350 NZD and was non refundable, and my Thai visa was about to expire (Thailand is NOT a good place to overstay your visa). Maybe Bangladesh wasn’t such a good idea after all…
I emailed Mahmud (again), with all of my concerns. Mahmud patiently answered all of my questions, and invited me to come to with him to his home district of Barisal for a couple of days and meet his family. This act of kindness from a stranger was enough to convince me that I still wanted to go to Bangladesh. So, armed with the new guide book, a slowly improving case of the shits, my guitar, backpack and my new pants (which were taken up way too high by the taylor on my street in Bangkok), I went. The flight was hilarious. There was one other non-talkative westerner, who I think was an NGO worker, myself, and a bunch of Bengalis. Bangladeshis are a loud and boisterous bunch, and know how to party, even in an airport. They were all carrying about three large carry-on bags each. They’d throw them from the mezzanine floor down to their friends in the boarding lounge, and then walk through the first gate into the lounge with no carry on baggage. When the next gate opened they all crowded around the desk for no apparent reason, made a bunch of noise, and shouted at the Thai staff. Thai people are generally pretty quiet and gentle, and they didn’t know what to do with themselves. They then picked up their carry on bags, at least 3 each, and boarded the plane. It was great! When we boarded the plane the passengers all tried to sit in the wrong seats, normally up the front, or in the emergency exits. The steward would then shout at them, they’d argue, try and sit in another seat, argue more, and then eventually go to their designated seat. While the steward was arguing with the first person, another three people would try the same thing. It was really entertaining. By the time the ‘you can now turn on your cellphone’ message came on, everybody was already talking on their phones, (and i’m pretty sure some of them had been for practically the whole flight), everyone was pushing towards the exit with their oversized luggage in tow, and they were yelling and whooping and generally having a party. Best flight ever.
We arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh…
Gulistan Crossing, Old Dhaka
I’d heard that Dhaka Zia airport was a bit of a madhouse. Huge queues, giant Mosquitos, long delays and organised gangs of baggage thieves, but in reality it was surprisingly organised, clean and efficient. The visa on arrival process was easy, everybody was really friendly, my bags came straight away, nobody tried to steal my passport, I didn’t catch malaria, and 20 minutes later I was out the door.
Mahmud’s brother, Mahfuz, met me at the airport, and we took a taxi to Sadarghat, which is the launch (ferry) terminal, to meet Mahmud and his family. Mahfuz is an interior designer and a journalist, and just like his brother Mahmud, he is a great guy.
Mahfuz had to go back to the office, and Mahmud and I went up onto the back deck of the launch, to look out over the Bariganga river.
The people on board were super friendly. One guy gave me his card, welcomed me to Bangladesh, and thanked me for coming to his country. Typical Bangladeshi hospitality!
As we were pulling out of the harbour, another launch came towards us at a right angle, and we had a bit of a scrape, sparks and all. There are always stories in the news about ferries sinking, and i was crapping myself, but nobody seemed too worried. The crew just stuck their heads over the side for a look, and it obviously seemed ok, so we kept going. Needless to say, I slept in my clothes, put my passport and papers in a waterproof bag, and bolted out of bed every time I felt a bump. It was a bit of a rough nights sleep…
…But we made it to Barisal.
Barisal is a really pleasant city to walk around in, and the Sadarghat (ferry terminal) Barisal is really foggy and atmospheric early in the morning.
Launch, similar to ours
Over the next couple of days we visited various members of Mahmud and his wife Ruma’s family in Barisal, Bamrail, and the surrounding area. We also visited a local orphanage that Mahmud is involved with. It must be mentioned that the food that we had was delicious. I could hardly move afterwards. Bamrail is a small village north of Barisal, where Mahmud has some family. This was my first taste of what Mahmud calls ‘the real Bangladesh’. It is stunning.
Mahmud’s cousins son
Lunch at Ruma’s Parents
Lunch at the Orphanage
Kids at the Orphanage
The first two days I that spent with Mahmud and his family were a great introduction to Bangladesh. I’m really fascinated with the local transport in Asia for some reason, and by the end of these 2 days we’d caught a taxi, a launch, cycle rickshaw, a battery rickshaw, a cycle van, a moto-van, a motorbike, the local bus, and a small wooden motorboat across the river in Barisal! We ate a lot of great food, and saw some incredibly beautiful scenery. We went to a small village, where we met people who had never even seen a foreigner before, but still spoke some english, which was incredibly humbling. Hopefully I made a good impression. When Bangladesh makes it into the news and into world consciousness, it’s generally for all the wrong reasons. Most of the information in the media generally deals with floods, poverty, ferry crashes, factory fires, political unrest and corruption. But Bangladesh has so much more to offer. Some of the friendliest people that I have ever met, great food, culture shock, beautiful scenery, extensive and frequent public transport, incredible value for money, a sometimes overwhelming mass of humanity, and a genuine adventure. At times it felt like I had the whole place to myself. I saw maybe 20 other westerners in 41 days, 5 of whom were on the Sunderbans tour. Despite this, I never really felt lonely. Bangladeshis are so welcoming and friendly, and there was normally somebody around who spoke enough English to have a conversation. Just before new years in Bandarban, I did meet two awesome girls, Cousin Elina and Cousin Sari from Finland and Sweden, and we travelled together for the next couple of weeks. In Bangladesh, a man wouldn’t normally travel with two women whom he’d just met, so when people asked, we were cousins.
Cousin Joel, Cousin Elina, Cousin Sari
I had no problems finding accommodation or food, and it was really easy to travel around. There’s not really any tourist infrastructure geared towards westerners, but there are heaps of Bengali domestic tourists, and people travelling for business, so there are plenty of hotels in most places. I never booked in advance, and I was only ever turned away from one hotel, in Cox’s Bazar, that was full. They found us another hotel so it was no problem.
The transport was frequent and cheap, if sometimes uncomfortable. I’d just say where I wanted to go, and I’d soon have a team of people making sure that I was going to the right place, that I was safe, that I’d had cha (tea in Bangladesh is ‘cha’, not ‘chai’ like India) and that I was happy. Invariably, somebody would give me their number and make me promise to call them when i arrived safely at my hotel. One guy, Tajul, that I met on the train from Sylhet to Dhaka, even came with me to make sure that I found my hotel ok, and refused to let me pay for the CNG. Typical Bangladesh! Bangladeshis have to be the friendliest bunch of people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.
Men in Bolerhat
Boat Building, Dhaka
Long steel rods
Bangladesh is a young country, and considering the problems that they have had to face, they are doing their best, and doing really well. It’s pretty inspiring. Bangladesh has the fastest growing economy in South Asia. They are working to get rid of plastic bags; when you buy food and fruit it often comes in bags made of newspaper. They often have newspaper napkins at restaurants, and sometimes food is served on pieces of old english textbooks.
Fruit and Veg, Sylhet
I found the Bangladeshis to be an extremely happy, inquisitive and friendly people. They are passionate about their country and they have a real lust for life. I was constantly asked ‘have you been to Cox’s Bazar?’. Cox’s Bazar is the longest natural sea beach in the world. It’s not particularly idyllic, although the beach itself is nice, but it’s lauded throughout the land as some sort of utopian paradise, and they love it and get amongst it with great enthusiasm. Every evening thousands of Bangladeshis go down to the beach to party and generally have a great time.
Boat to Bhola
Meanwhile, in the Sunderbans…
Communist party march, Barisal
Here there be tigers…
Houseboats near Bhola
In search of the Royal Bengal Tiger
‘Tame’ Crocodiles, Bagerhat
Bandarban, Chittagong hill tracts
Pink Palace, Dhaka
Shipbreaking yards, Chittagong
View from the Bangabandhu Bridge, Dhaka – Kolkata train
The 60 domed Mosque, Bagerhat
My souvenir. It attaches to your rickshaw. Tata!