One of the highlights of my trip to Bangladesh would have to be the Bangladeshi people.
There are a lot of them!
And they certainly are a friendly bunch.
The Bangladeshis are great. Super friendly, warm hearted, hospitable, honest, really pleased (if a little surprised) to see you, and stoked that you’ve come to their (glorious) country. They also know how to party. Here’s our Sundarbans group partying on this platform, 5 minutes after our guide Money said ‘six people maximum’.
Bangladeshis don’t like silence. Bangladesh has an extensive cellphone network, and everybody has a phone, which is loaded with music and doubles as a portable stereo. If you walk out onto the street in any city, and you can’t hear at least 3 seperate sources of amplified noise and the horn from at least 5 different vehicles, you’re probably not in Bangladesh.
Check out this shop.
My roommate on the Sudarbans tour, Arifur, loves the theme song from Titanic, Celine Dion’s ‘My heart will go on’. Whether A Capella, or with accompaniment from his cell phone, he loves to sing it.
If you’re not a funny t-shirt and skirt kind of a bloke, smart casual is key, even when on a boat trip to Bhola island, hiking through the Sunderbans in search if the Royal Bengal Tiger, or living it up at Cox’s Bazar. Collared shirts, dress shoes and trousers are the norm. Bangladeshis are are also great with colour and pattern coordination, generally match their leathers, and match their pants to their socks.
But never in a threatening way. The Bengalis are just really curious, and want to figure out what this foreigner is doing here. Why is he taking pictures of mundane things such as markets and rickshaws? Why doesn’t he speak Bengali? Why is he so strange, and why does he look so funny? Has he been to Cox’s Bazar???
There would normally be one person in the staring circle who spoke enough english to ask me lots of questions, and to translate for the others. Generally the Bengalis were really surprised (and pleased) to hear that I was a tourist, and not an NGO worker. There aren’t really that many westerners that go to Bangladesh, and those that do are normally working for NGOs. They were interested in my age, my family, my profession, my marital status, my religion, my academic qualifications and my income. They kind of assume that all westerners are rich and powerful too. Some people asked about work visas to New Zealand, and one guy wanted to start a business selling Bangladeshi goods in NZ with my help. It was hard to explain to them that I’m not an important person, and that I can’t pull any strings in my country. I told one guy that I was a musician. He paused for a moment, and then asked if I’d ever met Michael Jackson.
Every time I caught a bus, boat, train, or was just walking around, there was always somebody wanting to help, and make sure that I was ok. Generally someone would give me their phone number, and make me promise to call them when I got to my hotel safely. When I was travelling with the Cousins it became a running joke, as I’d receive multiple phone calls every day from my new friends, who wanted to make sure that I was safe and ask how my trip was going. There aren’t really that many english signs, and only a small percentage of the population speak more than a few words of english, but there were maybe only two times in the whole 40 days that I couldn’t make myself understood. I called Mahmud, who translated for me. I also had a bunch of numbers from friendly English speaking Bangladeshis who had made me promise to call if I had any problems, so I never really felt out of my depth. I met this guy, Mehedi, on the launch from Dhaka to Barisal. He spoke fluent English, despite the fact that I was only the second foreigner that he had ever met. It was an incredibly humbling moment.
Bangladeshis LOVE having their picture taken, and will often ask you if you have a camera. They also love taking diagonal pictures. Here’s a traditional Bengali portrait shot…
Here are some of my favourite pictures of the people that I met…
So why are there no tourists? And why hasn’t Bangladesh captured the imagination of the millions of people that travel the world every year? Even the ‘off the beaten track’ travellers? It doesn’t have the mystique of Central Asia, the traveller kudos of North Korea or Kurdistan in Iraq, Angelina Jolie doesn’t have a Bangladeshi baby, and Bono doesn’t sing about it. In my opinion, it’s probably a combination of negative media coverage, a lack of available information, and a lack of well known sights. You can visit the world’s longest sea beach, but are you really going to walk the whole length of it? The Sunderbans are incredible, but you can also go on the Indian side from Kolkata. There are some impressive ruins, but nothing is really that impressive after seeing Angkor Wat and Bagan. Srimangal has some beautiful tea plantations, but you could just go to Darjeeling. Why bother?
Its because it’s magic. The whole is double the sum of the parts. Bangladesh is authentic, extremely scenic, charming, safe, and home to some of the most beautiful people that I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. They are genuine, warm, extremely hospitable and have a real lust for life. And there’s always a party happening in Bangladesh.