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Welcome to Bangladesh !!

Last week, I caught the train from Dhaka, Bangladesh, to Kolkata, India, after an incredible 41 days in Bangladesh.

The Lads, Chittagong

Rickshaw, Srimangal

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!

Barisal

Old Dhaka

Old Dhaka

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’

Kids, Chittagong

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…

Looking worried

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

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.

Sadarghat, Barisal

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

Bangladesh definitely has its problems. Like most of Asia, it is very corrupt. Every so often you see elephants on the street. Apparently people driving nearby have to pay a small bribe, otherwise the elephant will smash their car up! It is also a very poor country. Many jobs that normally require tools are done by hand too. I caught a rowboat across the Sadarghat in Dhaka, to where rowboats are built on the opposite side. There was a man tarring a boat by hand, with his hand.

Boat Building, Dhaka

They reuse everything. When a building is demolished, they chip the concrete off those long metal rods (I don’t know the name) and reuse them, and I frequently saw people chipping mortar off bricks to reuse them as well. I saw lots of people with deformities and health problems that wouldn’t have even been an issue in New Zealand, as they would have been operated on in childhood. You do see a lot of children working too. I didn’t see any kids doing hard labour, but a lot of children work in restaurants, and sometimes the rickshaw drivers are really young. I had to leave my existing ideas on many things at the door, and enter with an open mind.

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.

Recycled Grammar

Bangladeshis really value education, and will often ask what your academic qualification is. I met plenty of Bangladeshis who were effectively fluent in English, despite having hardly met any foreigners before. It was very humbling. They also produce all of their own food. Fresh fruit and vegetables are everywhere. Bangladesh, partly due to frequent flooding, has extremely fertile land, and they are extremely good farmers. You can find imported foodstuffs, but they are normally luxury foods rather than necessities, such as coffee, milk powder, coke, and Cadbury chocolate. I didn’t see a Starbucks, McDonalds or a 711.

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.

Cox’s Bazar

Typical Bangladesh. Work with what you have. Round up your family, friends, cattle, some chickens, turn the music on your cellphone up loud and party like you made it up.
It is also worth mentioning that at no point did i feel any hostility from anyone, or feel unsafe amongst the people. Whilst i’m not in any way a religious man myself, it was easier to say that I was Christian when anybody asked, as they don’t really understand why you wouldn’t have faith, and the language barrier is often too big to cross. I’m told (haven’t read it) that Christians are mentioned in the Quran as being ‘people of the book’ that should be treated with love and respect, and apparently if you encounter any hostility in a Muslim country you can say this. The muslim greeting ‘asalaamu alaikum’ translates as ‘may god give you peace’, and the response ‘alaikum asalaam’ means ‘may god give you peace too’. I think that’s beautiful.

Boat to Bhola

I went to some amazing places, ate some great food, met some of the world’s friendliest and most hospitable people, and had a real adventure. It felt like travelling for the first time again. I was intending on 2 or 3 weeks, but I ended up up staying for 41 days. If Mahmud hadn’t been so reassuring, and so generous with his time and forthcoming with his advice, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Bangladesh. Which would have been a huge mistake, as this has been one of my favourite travel experiences ever. A great big thank you to Mahmud Hasan Khan, you are a great man and a fantastic ambassador for your country. And thank you to all the beautiful people of Bangladesh!
Lots of Love, Joel

P.S. If you’re interested in hearing and seeing more, I’ll be posting some more photos and details about the people of Bangladesh, the transport, food and the specific places that I visited. Also Thailand and Burma too. I took heaps of photos in Bangladesh. Here are some of my favourites.

Meanwhile, in the Sunderbans…

Boy, Bhola

Communist party march, Barisal

Here there be tigers…

Houseboats near Bhola

In search of the Royal Bengal Tiger

Sapping, Bagerhat

‘Tame’ Crocodiles, Bagerhat

Bandarban, Chittagong hill tracts

Houseboats, Chittagong

Roxanna

Pink Palace, Dhaka

Chittagong harbour

Shipbreaking yards, Chittagong

View from the Bangabandhu Bridge, Dhaka – Kolkata train

The Sunderbans

The 60 domed Mosque, Bagerhat

My souvenir. It attaches to your rickshaw. Tata!

Bangladesh – Chittagong and the Shipbreaking Yards

The journey from Barisal to Chittagong is a full day endeavour. Firstly, I caught a launch from the ghat to Moju Chowdhury Hat, which takes about 5 hours. I personally love boat trips, and the launches in Bangladesh are a real highlight of travelling there. They are comfortable, you can buy tea and food, there's always something interesting going on, and the scenery is beautiful. As usual, I took lots of pictures of boats.

 

Fishermen

 

Leaving the launch is an experience. Moju Chowdhury Hat is a major transit hub, so it's really busy and you kind of have to fight your way from the launch up the gangplank and onto dry land. Luckily, I was adopted for the day by Prince, a super friendly Bangladeshi guy who is in the army in Dhaka. It is inconceivable for most Bangladeshis that a foreigner can travel alone in Bangladesh and survive. He made me promise to call him when I got to Chittagong safely, and made sure to call and message me every few days to make sure I was fine.

 

'Any problems, massage me.' Excerpt from a text message from Prince.

 

From Moju Chowdhury Hat, I caught this bus to Chittagong, which I think took another 5 or so hours. I just said 'Chittagong' and was pointed in the right direction.

 

Moju Chowdhury Hat to Chitagong bus.

 
Luckily for everybody concerned, there were plenty of long cracks in the windscreen, which radiated outwards from head shaped clusters of smaller cracks, only a few people vomited and we stopped for lunch too. When we arrived in Chittagong, the bus driver made a special stop to drop me off as close to Station Road as possible, the Bus Wallah negotiated a CNG for me, and various passengers said goodbye and wished me a safe trip. Typical lovely Bangladeshis!

 

Chittagong

 

I checked in at Hotel Golden Inn. There were three English language movie channels available on the tv in my room, and the reception was great. I hadn't watched a movie in ages, and I love film, so for me evenings in Chittagong were movie bliss. The films I watched included Friday the 13th, that Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen film where she's a con woman, and I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry. It was pretty hilarious seeing what the Bangladeshi censors censored, and what was allowed. Apparently you can't smoke marijuana, but it's perfectly acceptable to watch a young couple have premarital sex and then be chased naked through the woods by a masked physcopath wielding a machete. Some swear words are out, and some are ok. 'But'' is censored, but 'arse' is no problem.

'I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry' is a dumb Adam Sandler comedy, about two male friends who get married for insurance perks, and have to pretend to be gay. Pretty risqué material for 10pm on a school night in Chittagong. It was particularly hilarious when Larry was trying to convince Chuck to marry him, in order to ensure that his children would be financially secure in the event of his death.

'You're at my funeral and you're looking for my kids, but they're not there. 'Cause they're in some factory in Bangladesh making sneakers for six cents an hour.'

 

Chittagong harbour and the ship building yards.

 

The next morning I took a walk through Chittagong, went down to the harbour, and caught a small public motorboat across the Karnaphuli river.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

The harbour is fascinating. There's a massive assortment of ships of various sizes, and in various states of repair, and weaving between them on a small wooden motorboat is a pretty surreal experience.

On the opposite bank there is a ship making yard where they build and repair ships. The workers and guards were really friendly, and were more than happy to let me walk around and look.

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

The Shipbreaking yards

 

Just like auto-mobiles and aeroplanes, oil tankers, cargo ships, aircraft carriers and other huge ships eventually reach the end of their working life. Where do they go to die? Pakistan, India, Turkey, and Bangladesh.

Chittagong is home to the world's second largest Shipbreaking yard. The Shipbreaking industry has been the focus of a lot of negative media attention over the last few years. Many older ships are built with potentially dangerous materials and substances such as asbestos and lead based paint, and dismantling them is an involved and extremely dangerous process.

The cost of dismantling a ship in a developed country is prohibitively high, so it's easier and far more cost effective to ship them off to Bangladesh, where labour is cheap and plentiful, human rights are negligible, there's no such thing as a minimum wage, and health and safety is effectively non-existent. The ships, some as large as 80,000 tonnes (!), are dismantled by hand by an army of Bangladeshi workers, with no safety equipment, wearing flip flops or sometimes bare feet.. Unsurprisingly, accidents and deaths amongst the workers are common place. Still, in a country as poor as Bangladesh, there is no shortage of willing workers.

Many have tried to shut down the Shipbreaking yards, but all have failed. In such a poor country many workers have no other option. Foreigners and are generally regarded with suspicion and normally not allowed in, as a few years ago some foreign journalists published an article about the working conditions at the yards which was published internationally. In the resulting backlash many workers lost their jobs.

I asked my hotel (Hotel Golden Inn) about the possibility of visiting.

'Foreigners can't go to the Shipbreaking yards. But if you talk to this man he can bribe the guards.'

Third world solutions.

Rahmat is an ex employee of Hotel Golden Inn who now works at a 5 star hotel, and runs a business on the side taking foreigners to the yards. When he was 18 he worked at the yards for a month, during which time a group of workers died as a result of someone welding through a gas tank.

He met me at my hotel, we agreed on a price, rented a CNG and off we went. Before we even got to the main beach, we stopped at a river, which was full of old lifeboats from Hong Kong.

 

When we arrived, Rahmat left me in the CNG while he went to talk to the guards. The CNG was mobbed by a bunch of super cute kids.

 
 
 
Rahmat came back; we were allowed in. It was a little sketchy and I felt a bit like some sort of secret agent. I kept my hood up, shot my camera from the waist, and tried my best to look inconspicuous. Every so often he'd be all 'hide your camera!' when a guard would walk up, but they were all really friendly and generally just curious. I suspect that it probably would have been a different story if we were anywhere near to where people were actually working.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

As you can see, we didn't get particularly close, but to be honest i was kind of relieved, as I'm not sure that I want to see a bunch of people working in such appalling conditions. Seeing these huge ships sitting on the beach in various stages of deconstruction is pretty awe inspiring though. It was like something out of The Road.

 

Outside the yards, there are a bunch of shops selling fixtures and curios salvaged from the ships.

 
 
 
 

 

The next day, I caught the bus to Bandarban…

 

Cheers,

 

A little bit worried as a guard was coming.

 

Joel

 

A note on logistics, prices etc


I stayed at hotel Golden Inn, which was 660 taka. The second time I stayed in Chittagong on the way from Cox's Bazar to Srimangol, I stayed in Super Sylhet, which was better and half the price. Both are on station rd and are opposite each other.

Rahmat's details are as follows:

  • rahmat_ullllah@yahoo.com
  • 01818110953 or 01830555715
  • You'll need to negotiate a fee with him and rent a CNG for the return trip
  • You're not guaranteed entry.
  • We tried three places but only got into one. If I did it again I'd take some USD 5 bills, and try an extra bribe if the guards say no the first time.
  • Try not to dress like a foreigner, e.g wear trousers and a collared shirt rather than shorts and a t shirt, and take a small camera.

 

Bangladesh – Bagerhat: Tame Crocodiles, 17 extra domes, and another bus ride…

The morning after our awesome Sunderbans trip, I caught this bus from Khulna to Bagerhat.

 

As you can see, she's actually in pretty good nick! Far better than the bus next to her.

 

 

The bus was pretty empty, so I threw my bags aboard and made my way to the shop on the other side of the car park for snacks and mum.

 

It's lead and arsenic free!

 

In the two minutes that I was standing there considering what to buy, the bus had filled up with people and luggage, and started driving out of the terminal. Luckily I turned around in time, ran for it, and managed to swing aboard with far more panache than is to be expected from a man of my size and coordination. Bangladeshi buses wait for no man, even if you have your mum with you.

 

Bagerhat

 

Bagerhat is a UNESCO protected world heritage sight, and was built in the 15th century by Khan Jahan Ali, who was a Sufi (mystic) originally from Turkey. I'm sure he didn't actually build it himself, but he gets to take credit for all the hours of backbreaking labour that his servants and slaves put into building it. That's generally how history works.

 

There were heaps of Bangladeshi tourists looking at the ruins and the mosques, but I didn't see any other foreigners. Bangladeshis love having their photos taken with foreigners, and I think most of them were more interested in me than the various sights.

 

The Shait Gumbad Mosque


The most notable of the buildings in Bagerhat is the Shait Gumbad mosque. Shait Gumbad means 'temple with 60 domes', even though it actually has 77. 17 extra domes or not, it is pretty cool.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

At Shait Gumbad, I ran into Thufill (a Bangladeshi kid from the Sunderbans trip), his father Metoo, and their family. Unfortunately, I've forgotten the names of his mother and sister. I found it really difficult to remember Bangladeshi names, probably because most of them aren't commonly found in English, e.g Arifur, Mani, Faisal, Mahamut etc. This led to a bit of confusion. I thought that when Metoo said 'metoo', he was explaining that his name was Thufill as well. 'My name is Thufill'. 'Me too'.

 

Thufill

 

Metoo and his lovely family adopted me for the day. We went to see the excavations of Khan Jahan Ali's house, which are situated right in the middle of a field where local Bangladeshi farmers live.

 

Khan Jahan Ali's house

 

 

The local farmers collect sap from these trees. You can drink it straight out of the tree and it's delicious.

 

 

Sapping

 

The sap.

 

These villagers were a little bit surprised to see a foreigner. They invited me for lunch, but unfortunately I was in a bit of a hurry and trying to avoid catching a bus at night. I still kind of regret not accepting actually.

 

The lovely ladies of Bagerhat

 

 

We then went to see the Tomb of Khan Jahan Ali.

 

Metoo and I at the tomb of Khan Jahan Ali.

 

 

The tomb of Khan Jahan Ali also boasts a rather unusual tourist attraction. Two 'tame' crocodiles.

 

 

 

In Bagerhat tame means well fed. They throw them heaps of mutton, with the idea being that they will be too full to bother eating anybody. Makes sense I guess. You can walk right up to them and touch them too. When in Bangladesh…

 

Please don't eat me.

 

Luckily, Bangladeshi crocs aren't used to foreigners, so they're not aware that we're delicious.

 

The Khulna to Barisal bus.

 

By the time I got on the bus back to Barisal, it was way later than I had planned. Bus travel in Bangladesh (like most developing countries) is not that safe at night, as headlights are optional and there are occasional incidents of armed robbery. They're not that safe in the day either, but it's best not to tempt fate!

 

Metoo had told the guy at the bus terminal in no uncertain terms that there would be trouble if anything happened to me on the way back, which had the opposite effect than he intended. I would have been fine on my own, but I didn't want to cause offence. Generally if a grown man needs a minder for something as simple as catching the bus, he's an easy target. When Metoo left, and I got on the bus, the ticket guy told me I had to buy another seat for my bag. This is pretty common in Bangladesh, but it felt like a scam, so I asked for a extra ticket before i paid again. He unhappily wrote something to the effect of 'valid for two seats' on my first ticket, and thinking I'd won I left it at that. About thirty minutes into our bus ride, another guy, the ticket wallah, asked me about my bag, so I showed him the note on my ticket. This wasn't good enough, and I think he wanted me to remove my bag or pay again, but all the other passengers had witnessed me paying, so I knew they'd probably stick up for me. I just pointed to the driver, who was involved in the original negotiation, as if to say 'it's his problem' and ignored the ticket wallah.

 

When we arrived at the vehicle ferry, there was a pretty big queue, and it was getting dark. Heaps of the passengers got off, and walked up the line. I think they going to jump on the bus at the front of the queue and pay again. I didn't want to ask the driver what was happening, as I was pretty sure that he was pissed off about me beating the ticket scam. I figured that if I switched buses, I might have to stand the whole way and pay for two more tickets, and that if I got off my current one they might not let me get back on, so I stayed put. At this point it was getting dark, and our bus looked like this.

 

 

I.e empty. By the time we boarded the ferry it was dark. The remaining passengers, most if whom were women, were looking really worried, and some of them were calling home. After the journey from Barisal to Khulna, I'd promised myself that if I caught a bus that went on a vehicle ferry again, I'd get off for the crossing. But at this point there were so few passengers on board that in the case of an emergency, getting to the door wouldn't be a problem. I figured it was better to stay on board and avoid drawing attention to myself, so I just put my hood up and tried to look inconspicuous…

 

Three hours later, we made it to Barisal. I survived!

 

Cheers,

 

Great Benglish.

 

Joel

 

 

A note on logistics and some info.


  • Buses to Bagerhat leave frequently from Khulna. You can do it as a day trip or on the way to or from Barisal like I did.
  • When you arrive in Bagerhat you can catch a rickshaw to the ruins. Just say 'Shait Gumbad'
  • I think you might actually be able to get off the bus at the ruins, before the station, but I'm not sure.
  • I left my bag in the ticket office by the 60 domed mosque. I was super polite and smiley which probably helped.
  • I went on Sunday, and the mosque was open, despite what the lonely planet says. The museum was closed tho.
  • There was a really annoying tout at the tomb, who followed me around for ages as a 'guide', tried to convince me to drink water from the lake, interrupted me whenever I tried to take photos or talk to anyone, and then followed me into the toilet and asked for Baksheesh (a tip or bribe). If you see him, just tell him nicely to piss off right from the start.

 

Bangladesh – the Sunderbans: Richard Parker and the Apocalypse.

After a fantastic first few days in Bangladesh, I caught the local bus (on my second attempt) from Barisal to Khulna for my Sunderbans tour.

 

You can read more about the Bangladeshi bus rides in the 'Transport in Bangladesh' post, but needless to say our bus was this full…

 

 

We crossed a river on one of these…

 

 

And I looked like this.

 

 

Thankfully our bus made it to Khulna in one (or two) piece(s).

 

The Sunderbans.

 

 

The Sunderbans National Park is the largest mangrove forest in the world, and it is home to over 26 species of mangroves, 300 species of birds, cobras and pythons, spotted deer, barking deer, monkeys, crocodiles, wild boar, and most famously, the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger!

There are thought to be around 400 Royal Bengal Tigers living in the Sunderbans, which is around 10% of the total worldwide population of wild tigers, and the highest population density anywhere in the world. They prey on deer, wild boar, and they are man eaters…

They say that if you do see a tiger, it will be the last thing that you ever see… We did see plenty of deer, a wild boar, some sweet birds, crocodiles, monkeys, and plenty of tigerprints.

 

 

Here are some photos from the Sunderbans.

 

Mangroves

 

Eerie

 

3 years ago there was a big cyclone here...

 

Paradise

 

Pier on West Kotka

 

Path to east Kotka

 

East Kotka?

 

I love boats

 

Our group

 

.

 

Our guards and boat boy

 

The tigers were probably scared.

 

Checking for tigers

 

Faisal and our other guard

 

Hurry up!

 
Around about the time the above photo was taken, our guard started hassling us to hurry up, stick together and stop taking photos. Our guide Mani told us afterwards that there was a tiger nearby; they can tell by 'listening to the jungle'. Awesome.
 

Deep in the Sunderbans

 

East Kotka

 

The Bay of Bengal.

 

Rare, dangerous, possibly rabid and found only in the Sunderbans. A Wild Frenchman

 

Sunset in the Sunderbans

 
 
Mahmud organised my ticket for me with 'The Rain Bow Tours' (sic), for 3 days and 2 nights. The staff were awesome, the food was delicious and there was heaps of it, and the boat and facilities were great. Special thanks to our guide Mani, who is an excellent guide and a great bloke.
 
 

Our home for three days

 

Our small boat, for exploring and going ashore.

 

Mani and I

 

Coffee time

 

Breakfast.

 

 

21/12/12 – The Apocalypse...

 

The second day of our Sunderbans tour happened to coincide with the Mayan apocalypse.

I've always been pretty sceptical about the whole thing. Does anyone remember Harold Camping? And seriously, a mountain in France?? As a British citizen (my dad was born in London) I refuse to accept that in the unlikely event of the world ending and Aliens coming to rescue us, they would choose France as a rendezvous point. And if the Mayans could predict the future, surely they would have foreseen the Spanish conquest?

'Hey guys, how about we quit cutting each others heads off and get our shit sorted, the Spanish are coming'.

I am a pretty big fan of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the Walking Dead, 28 Days later, anything by Margaret Atwood, zombie movies and the post apocalyptic/dystopian genre in general, and I do have to admit that I was aware of the date. But I wasn't particularly worried…

 

Until our boat crashed.


Three times.

 

Safety First!

 

 

At this point I'd been in Bangladesh less than a week, and been on three large boats. The boat trip to Bhola Island was thankfully uneventful, but our launch from Dhaka to Barisal had a pretty gnarly scrape with another launch, and my extremely crowded Barisal to Khulna bus had somehow managed to squeeze aboard a dangerously overloaded car ferry. Maybe the ghosts of the Mayans (or the French) were trying to tell me something.

I was reading up on deck, when I noticed that there were a lot of leaves hanging over the railing. Next thing there's an almighty scraping sound, and a big branch crashes into the canopy. Our captain had somehow lost control of the ship and crashed into the trees hanging out over the river.

I helped to clear the debris off the deck, and then checked my phone. No reception. We had spun 180 degrees, and the captain and crew were trying to turn the boat around. But the boat wasn't cooperating, and we crashed into the opposite bank too. Thirty minutes later though, the boat was back on course and we were still afloat. Our worry turned to joking and laughter. Until I looked out over the side, and noticed that we were gradually drifting towards the bank again…

While not as dramatic as the first, the third crash was the scariest. We saw it coming for a good minute before we hit, and by now it was pretty obvious that there was a problem with the steering and/or the motor. Nobody had reception, we were out in the middle of nowhere in the Sunderbans with 400 hungry tigers for company, and the Mayan calendar had just ended…

At least I had the presence of mind to film it. Sorry about the swearing.

 

 

 

 

We survived, and I can now add two boat accidents in Bangladesh to my ever growing list of travel misadventures. We didn't see a tiger, but other than one of our guards who has been working there for 20 years, I've yet to meet anybody who has. The Sunderbans feel like the edge of the world, and are totally unlike anywhere else I've ever been. Our tour was without a doubt a highlight of my trip to Bangladesh and my travels thus far, and it was a pretty damn good way to spend the apocalypse. I still hope to see a tiger someday. And maybe the next time I'm in Bangladesh, I will!

 

 

Cheers,

 

 

Joel

 

P.S. This tragic story of unrequited tiger love actually has a happy ending. About a week ago in a cinema in Kolkata, I saw my first Royal Bengal Tiger.

 

I didn't actually take this photo

 

 

P.P.S. I was sending some of my photos to the French couple on my tour, Franck and Marie-Anne, and I accidentally sent one to my friend Marie-Pier, in Canada, with no explanation. This was her reply.

 

 

RE Photo 5

'This email confused me so much, I still don't know what to think of it really haha'

 

 

 

 

A note on logistics, prices, some info etc.

Monitor the situation with hartals (strikes). It's probably worth getting to Khulna a day early just in case. I had to leave a day later than planned from Barisal as there was a Hartal.

In Khulna, I stayed in New Safe Hotel, which from memory was about 500 per night. Breakfast is included, but if you want it really early, like 630am, speak to the manager direct, as the staff are really confused as to why you'd be up so early (Sunderbans). Good hotel with nice rooms and nice staff.

I bought hiking shoes in Khulna. I'm about size ten. It took awhile to find some that fit, so might be better to bring your own. The walking wasn't particularly challenging, but you do walk through mud so it's a good idea to wear appropriate shoes.

Sunderbans tour

  • I used The Rain Bow tours, about 200-220 USD I think. 3 days 2 nights.
  • It's a good idea to book your trip before you get to Bangladesh, as places are limited. I didn't, and luckily Mahmud managed to get me a ticket.
  • Rooms are normally shared, with two single beds. A bit cramped, but there was enough room under the bed for all my luggage, and it was comfortable and clean.
  • I brought my own water, but when it ran out I drank the water that was provided. It was purified.
  • Food was excellent and there was plenty of it. Dinner is normally at 9pm ish.
  • Western and squat toilets.

 

Bangladesh – Barisal, Bamrail and Bhola Island

After a bit of a hairy overnight launch ride from Dhaka, (see the 'Welcome to Bangladesh!' Post), we made it to Barisal.

 

 

Traffic in Barisal

 

Fruit wallah

 

Rickshaw wallah

 

Kids at the Cha shop

 

Bangladeshi sweets

 

Somewhere in Barisal

 

Mahmud has family in Barisal and the surrounding area, and after breakfast at Ruma's parents house, we went to Bamrail to visit them. Bamrail is an example of what Mahmud calls 'the real Bangladesh'. It's slow paced, green and beautiful, and it feels a little bit like time has stopped.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Fishing net

 
 
 

Foreigners are a bit of a novelty in these parts. This was the first (of many) times that this happened….

 

 

The next day, Mahmud met me at my guesthouse, and we caught a motorboat across the river.

 

 
 
 
We also stopped for Cha and Singaras, which are kind of like vegetable samosas. They're delicious.
 
 

 

Mahmud was going back to Dhaka that night, but had sorted out my ticket for the Sunderbans trip in 4 days time. I promised him I'd catch up with him in Dhaka, and after a lovely introduction to Bangladesh, I was on my own.

 

Bhola


The next day i caught the ferry to Bhola Island and back. I just said 'Bhola' to the first official looking person that I saw at the ghat, and he led me to the right ferry. Bangladeshis are so friendly and helpful, it's like being a kid again. You don't have to take any responsibility for yourself. Great! The ferry trip is really scenic, and takes about 3 hours each way. There are heaps of photos of boats in the 'Boats in Bangladesh' post. Here are some photos of things other than boats.

 

My ticket.

 

My ticket the right way up.

 

'That's how you hold a ticket'

 

Boats. Couldn't help myself.

 

Another boat. Sorry

 

Sugary nut cake.

 

Not sure what this is, but it's delicious

 

When our launch arrived on Bhola island, this guy…

 

 

…told me to catch this bus.

 

 

His extremely limited English was far better than my non-existent Bengali, but I still didn't understand where the bus was going. I got on anyway, as I figured that we'd end up somewhere! The bus ride took about 30 minutes, and it dropped us at a bus station in a small village. From there i caught a rickshaw to the Bhola town centre. For some reason I'd assumed that Bhola was just a small village and that the ferry would drop us straight in the midst of it, which is why I was confused about the bus. Actually it's a pretty large island with a pretty sizeable town and lots of people. There are so many people in Bangladesh that even relatively small towns and villages are normally pretty busy.

Here are a couple of videos of Bhola, and some photos of the town, the ghat and the return ferry trip.

 

 

Side street in Bhola.

 

Launch Ghat, Bhola Island

What do you call the cockpit on a boat?

 

Fish wallah

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Barisal to Khulna bus.

 

The next day I got up early and caught a rickshaw to the Rupatoli bus stand, to catch the local bus to Khulna for the Sunderbans trip. This was my first time traveling all on my own in Bangladesh. Feeling pretty badass, I sauntered into the bus stand, pointed to myself and said 'Khulna Bus', and was directed to a small hole in the wall.

 

'Assalamu alaikum.'

'Khulna bus!'

'No.'

'Khulna bus?'

'No!'
 
After taking scissors from Auckland to Singapore in my carry-on, walking into a bees nest and surviving an earthquake in Burma both in one day, catching what felt like some sort of dysentry in Bangkok, sneaking past the security guards into the first class section of the Nong Khai sleeper train and living through a launch crash in the Dhaka harbour, i wasn't going to be defeated by a small grumpy Bangladeshi man with a big Moustache in some pokey little hole in the wall ticket booth in the Rupatoli bus stand in Barisal.

 

I sat down on a seat and to have a think, when I saw another hole in the wall. Maybe I could get a ticket there! No such luck; they just sent me back to the moustache man. I remembered that on my way in, I'd seen some official looking guys in uniforms with big rifles. Maybe they would help me out… They also just pointed me to the same whole in the wall. I had an idea…

 

 

'Assalamu alaikum, Khulna bus?'

'No.'

 

 

Feeling like a bit of a failure, I gave up and called Mahmud, and passed my phone through the bars covering the hole. McMoustache listened for a minute, shouted something down the phone, and passed it back to me. Apparently there were no buses running today, as there was a Hartal.

 

Hartal Hartal!

 

 
 
A Hartal (strike) is a form of protest which is pretty common on the subcontinent, and especially in Bangladesh. They are often organised by political parties, in this case the communist party, and generally involve a complete shutdown of transport, other than CNGS and rickshaws. They often have roadblocks, and sometimes buses and cars get torched, so nobody risks driving. In a relatively small city such as Barisal, they are generally pretty low key, feel non threatening and represent an interesting cross section of the community. Business men, mothers with babies, chai wallahs, kids and toothless old Grannys… Anybody can be a communist!
They are pretty cool to watch, and I really like the communist party chant, even though I have no idea what they're saying. 'Death to the capitalist swine, long live our motherland Russia!' perhaps.
 
 

I spent the rest of the day checking out the Rowboat Ghat, (different from the launch ghat), and walked around exploring Barisal. Here are some photos.

 
 
 

This is like an extreme finishing school.

 

Traffic in Barisal. No big deal.

 

The best restaurant in Barisal.

 

The awesome staff at the restaurant.

 

 

The next day, I caught the bus to Khulna…

 

Cheers!

Shocker FTW

 

Joel

 

A note on logistics, prices, some info etc.


Hotel Athena: I paid 400 taka for a single

In Barisal town there is a town hall, and when I was there they had some sort of concert at night which was cool.

Bus to Khulna:

  • 160 taka from memory.
  • You don't actually have to go inside the station, your rickshaw driver will prob just drop you off outside at a small shack where you can buy the ticket. Normally the bus is waiting there for a awhile before it leaves.
  • Get the hell off the boat when it goes across the car ferry. It's crowded, and on the slight chance that something happened, there's no way you'll get out unless you're right by the door. Get back on when the ferry docks. You'll know when the crossing is coming, as you stop briefly first. You can buy food, and there is often a queue of cars waiting to cross.
  • If you leave early, you can get off at Bagerhat, which is about an hour out of Khulna. I stashed my pack in the guard office at the 60 domed mosque. Despite what the guide book says, I went on Sunday and it was open. After you check out the ruins etc, you can rickshaw to the bus stand and carry on to a khulna. I did this in reverse – on the way back from Khulna to Barisal.

Bhola Island

  • Just go to Barisal launch ghat, and say Bhola
  • Ferry about three hours each way, was about 90 taka I think?
  • You can catch a speedboat back for more money. 250? Don't know how safe it would be
  • The launch ghat in Bhola is outside the town centre, you catch a bus from the street to a bus stand outside of town, and catch a rickshaw into the centre.
  • On the way from the bus stand to the town centre, there is a rundown looking amusement park, which I wish I'd checked out!
  • I got a rickshaw all the way back to the ghat. Didn't take too long, but make sure you say 'Barisal ghat', as we went to a completely different one for Dhaka first.

 

Photos of People taking photos – Burma, Thailand, Bangladesh and India

Click.

 

Inle lake, Burma

 

Inle lake, Burma

 

Inle Lake, Burma

 

Inle Lake, Burma

 

Inle lake

 

Mandalay, Burma

 

Pyin Oo Lwin, Burma

 

Pwin Oo Lwin

 

Bagan, Burma

 

Nong Khai, Thailand

 

The Sunderbans, Bangladesh

 

Teknaf, Bangladesh

 

Srimangal, Bangladesh

 

Kolkata, India

 

Kolkata

 

Kolkata

 

Kolkata

 

Kolkata

 

Kolkata

 

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.