The people of Bangladesh

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’.

The Sunderbans

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.

‘Mike’ shop.

Mikes

And check out the car audio.

It’s also pretty common for people working or just walking in the street to sing while they go about their day, and a few times I was lucky enough to catch a rickshaw with a singing driver. On the boat trip to Bhola island, a young Bangladeshi guy stood on the rear deck, looked out over the water, and sung the whole of Green Day’s ‘Boulevard of broken dreams’.

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.

Arifur.

Bangladesh is predicted to overtake China as the world’s biggest producer of clothing sometime in the next couple of years, and there are huge piles of clothes for sale in every town.
Some of these huge piles are donated second hand clothes from the west, for sale (go figure), which leads to some hilarious combinations of traditional clothing and western t-shirts. One guy was wearing the ‘it’s time for a sexy party’ Family Guy shirt, another was wearing ‘will I be your girlfriend?’, and I saw an old Muslim man with a perfectly manicured beard, wearing a longyi (like a sarong), and a T-shirt that said ‘Fashion Statement’

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.

There are some pretty fly Bangladeshis.

Beige brown and blue on the boat to Bhola.

For the ladies, long and loose, bright and bold.

Women in Bolerhat

Scanda-Bengali fusion.

Like many Asian people, the Bengalis are also pretty touchy-feely, but not in a sexual or romantic way. It’s actually really refreshing to see. I constantly had people rubbing my tattoos to see if they’d come off. Girls and women are often cuddling each other, and one lovely old granny held Sari’s thumb for the length of our bus ride. It’s perfectly acceptable for grown men walk around holding hands and linking arms too. Look closely at this photo….

Somewhere in the Sunderbans…

The Bangladeshis are generally a really curious and inquisitive people, and they’re not shy about asking questions. In Bangladesh, if you don’t know how to speak much English, the done thing when you see a foreigner is to just yell out whatever you can remember. ‘Tankyou! (Sic)’ ‘My name is?’ ‘I am fine!’. The Bangladeshis don’t see many westerners, and everybody wants to know what country you are from. ‘Your country?’ A couple of times I was even asked, ‘Your country, Japan?’…It’s pretty common, especially in small villages, to have a crowd of 30 or 40 people standing in a circle, staring at you.

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.

Mehedi and I

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…

…And another…

Here are some of my favourite pictures of the people that I met…


Fruit seller, Old Dhaka

Roxanna and Tasin

On the boat to Bhola island

On the boat to Bhola Island II

On the boat to Bhola island III

The lovely ladies of Bagerhat.

Fishing in St Martins

Chittagong kids

Rowboat wallah, Dhaka

Rowboat wallah, Chittagong

Roxanna

Baul on the train

All blacks NZ bags are everywhere in Bangladesh.

Rickshaw man, Barisal

Girl at the launch ghat, Bhola Island

Friendly dude on the boat to Bhola

Mahmud

Happiest man in Chittagong

I didn’t meet many other westerners in Bangladesh, about 20 in 41 days, 9 of which were from Finland (suspicious). For the first four days I saw none, and the first one that I did see turned out to be a Bangladeshi guy with a pigmentation problem.
There were 5 foreigners on my Sunderbans trip. 3 were Finnish, one of whom, Paivi, was working in Dhaka. Her friends had come to visit her, and they had all signed on for the Sunderbans trip. There was also an extremely well travelled French couple, Marie-anne and Franck. Franck is a photographer.


Franck.

I met two great girls, Elina and Sari (Finnish and Swedish of Finnish descent) in Bandarban, and we travelled together for a couple of weeks. In Bandarban we met an awesome Italian guy, Marco, and another 4 Finns(!?!). Also, an older Italian couple who were adorable. They had travelled to 45 countries, didn’t speak English, looked like they were straight out of a Mario Puzo novel, and were arguing. A British guy Andrew, who had crossed in from the North eastern states of India, a Swiss girl and her boyfriend (this was 2 weeks in and I was so excited see a westerner that I almost jumped on her), and another Swiss couple, who were the only people to sign up for a package tour group. We briefly ran into a couple from NZ at the Chittagong train station. I asked if they’d been to Cox’s Bazar, and they didn’t really get the joke. Some other tourists I saw from a distance, and some were pretty weird. There was one older guy, on St Martins island, suspiciously trying to be inconspicuous by lurking in a bush. Despite this I had a great time. I never felt lonely and I was treated like a long lost relative by all the Bengalis 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.

Chittagong

Joel
PS. This little guy is Mahmud’s cousins son, and he loves having his picture taken. When we visited him, he already had a photo shoot all planned out. He gets his own section.

This cow wouldn’t cooperate, and he was not happy.

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4 thoughts on “The people of Bangladesh

  1. MIPSA

    Hi, Joel , good to read your blog about Bangladeshi people > enjoyed ur blog. Hop you will visit again soon.

    Reply
  2. Matthew Hartzell

    “Bono didn’t sing about it”
    But George Harrison certainly did. I’m sure the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh (a fundraiser for the victims of the cyclone, famine, and civil warb) did much to raise awareness of the country at the time. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the hippies in Kathmandu and India even made it to Bangladesh.

    Reply

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