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Bangladesh


Two Days in and around Dhaka

Dhaka, Bangladesh 

June 9th/10th, 2016



To many people Bangladesh is known for only two things, as the place where most of their clothes and shoes are made, and a place that is in the news every few years for terrible floods that cover large swathes of the entire country. And I freely admit that I didn't know a whole lot more about it either. So it was high time to go and check it out for myself.

Dragon boat festival day, which is a public holiday in Hong Kong, fell on a Thursday this year which seemed like a perfect opportunity to take Friday off and visit my 77th country. I took the direct flight on Dragon Air leaving Hong Kong on Wednesday afternoon to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The flight to Dhaka took just under four hours. The plane continued onto Kathmandu and less than a quarter of the passengers got off here in Dhaka.

Europeans and citizen from most other western countries can get a visa on arrival in Bangladesh. The immigration formalities were a bit confusing at first, since it was not clear where you had to line up and it took me a while to figure out how the other visitors got the forms they were holding. (Turned out you just have to go to the front of the line and ask one of the officers for a form.) The visa costs 50 US Dollars, which you have to pay in a hard currency, so make sure you bring Dollars, Euros or Pounds. There weren't many visitors here today (maybe about 10), so the whole process took less than 30 minutes. What I hadn't known however, was that apparently you need some sort of invitation letter. The immigration officer asked me 'business letter?'. I was a bit confused and more than a little worried about this question at first. But then it occurred to me to give him the receipt from the city tours I had booked through a local travel agency. And he seemed perfectly happy with that documentation, and started scribbling things in my passport. After getting the visa stamp, you can pass the long lines in front of the actual immigration and just show one of the officers the stamped visa in your passport and they just waive you through.

I changed some money at one of the exchange places in the airport. And then booked a taxi from a little booth. I paid 1,100 taka, which is about 13 dollars. The drive to the Westin Dhaka Hotel located in the North of the city took only about 20 minutes and traffic was not bad at all. The taxi driver spoke not much English, but tried to tell me how little salary he gets (I think he said 5,000 taka per month), and that he has a baby and therefore definitely would need a tip from me (which I was going to give him anyway).

Thursday, June 9th
I had booked two guided sightseeing tours a few weeks earlier through Nijhoom Tours, a local tour operator I had found when their owner started following my travel blog on Twitter. My first tour today was called the Old Dhaka Tour. My guide Masbah and a driver picked me up at the hotel at 8:30 in the morning. Masbah's English was excellent, and he was very knowledgeable and very patient in answering all of my questions about history, politics and life in Bangladesh.

The tour started at the parliament building (called the National Assembly Building), which is a huge and very impressive building designed by Louis Kahn. Construction started in the 60s, but was halted during the 1971 liberation war and finally completed in 1982. The building is surrounded by expansive gardens and lots of water. It is generally not possible for tourists to go inside the building, but it is worth seeing just from the outside.



Some background about Bangladesh:
The country of Bangladesh (officially the People’s Republic of Bangladesh) has a population of over 170 million people, which makes it the world’s 8th most populous country. It is also one of the most densely populated countries.The vast majority of the population are Bengali. The ethnic and linguistic region of Bengal is split between the Indian State of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Following the independence of the Indian subcontinent from British rule in 1947, the area of today’s Bangladesh became part of Pakistan and was renamed East Pakistan. Bangladesh only became independent in 1971 following the Bangladesh Liberation War. While ostensibly a multi-party parliamentary democracy, the country suffers from enormous corruption, serious human rights abuses and strong doubts about the fairness of elections. (The main opposition parties boycotted the last national elections held in 2014 and as a result Awami League, the party in power, now holds 273 seats in the 350 seat parliament.)

Continuing the city tour our next stop was the Dhakeswari Temple, which is the most important Hindu temple in Dhaka. It's a small but beautiful temple founded in the 12th century.


Afterwards we went to visit the Khan Mohammed Mridha Mosque, a Mughal period mosque built on a raised platform. Islam was introduced to Bengal more than a thousand years ago, and became the official religion in the 13th century under the Delhi Sultanate. The Mughal empire ruled the entire Indian subcontinent including Bengal in the 16th and 17th century.


Unfortunately the mosque was mostly covered in an ugly scaffolding. It turns out that, if you want to take nice pictures of the mosques in Dhaka, don't go there as I did during Ramadan, particularly if Ramadan falls in the Monsoon season (my second error in scheduling this trip). Because there are so many people going to mosque during Ramadan, that they erect these large and unsightly scaffolding roofs in the front of the prayer halls to allow more people to pray without getting drenched in Monsoon rains.

From the mosque is was a short walk to Lalbagh Fort, the highlight of any Dhaka city tour and usually the title picture on most Bangladesh guide books. It is a beautiful fort also from the Mughal period surrounded by extensive and very well maintained gardens.


The construction of the fort was started in 1678, but it was never finished. The daughter of Shaista Khan, the ruler of Dhaka, died here in 1684 and the fort was considered unlucky as a result. Shaista Khan continued to live here for several more years and built a mausoleum for his daughter in the centre of the grounds. When the capital of the Bengal region was moved from Dhaka to Murshidabad a few years later, the fort was essentially abandoned.


After spending about an hour walking around the gardens and visiting the little museum inside the main palace building, we went outside and my guide started to look for a rickshaw to take us into the main part of the Dhaka Old Town. It took quite a bit a negotiation before he found one that would take us, and I am not sure whether the negotiations where about money, destination of whether the drivers looked at me and thought this guy looks way to big and heavy. The streets in the old part of Dhaka are so narrow (and frequently unpaved) that cars cannot get through, so the main form of transportation is by rickshaw.


Our rickshaw driver first took us to Star Mosque – a beautiful mosque fully decorated with stars, (But again with an unsightly scaffolding built over it.)


After that he rode us into the centre of the old town. Wow - what an incredibly intense city. This may have been the most chaotic, crowded, noisy and seriously smelly (from huge piles of trash) place I have ever been to, and I loved every minute of it. There is just so much going on. Every few minutes you see something where you think: Are they really transporting that on a rickshaw? Our rickshaw was weaving through the crowds at a rather fast pace miraculously not hitting anyone or any other vehicles (well, at least not hitting anything very hard. Traffic is a full contact sport here.)



Our next stop was the Armenian Church – an orthodox church built by Armenians in Dhaka and one of the most quiet and peaceful spots in the middle of the crowded old town. The Armenians came to Dhaka mainly to trade jute and leather, which apparently was so lucrative that many of them stayed and a thriving community of Armenians built this beautiful little church in 1781:


Our first attempt to find me lunch failed, as the restaurant was closed. (Did I mention, don't come to Dhaka during Ramadan?) So we grabbed two rickshaws to get to another restaurant, which served local curry with rice. I felt a bit bad having this nice lunch since my guide was strictly sticking to his fast and just watched me eat. I would have been happy to fast with him, but he absolutely insisted that I get my lunch.

After lunch we walked down to the shore of the Buriganga River for a little boat trip. We entered the incredibly busy Sadarghat River Station, which is the main river port in Dhaka and one of the largest river station in South Asia. All the passenger ferries to southern parts of Bangladesh leave from here. There are tiny boats navigating perilously in between the huge ferries to sell fruit and drinks to the passengers. We hired one of those small wooden boat with an elderly man, who rowed us up and down the river for an hour, although rowing isn't really the right word. They do it similarly to a Venetian gondolier, moving a single oar in a circular motion behind the boat.


This river is incredibly busy. Huge ferries and large cargo ships plow through the hundreds of little boats. Since large parts of Bangladesh are covered by water, transportation of people and goods is largely done by ship throughout the country.


We pass the Dhaka shipyard, which is full of enormously large river ferries and container ships.  Most of the ships looked totally dilapidated and I asked if these were here to be dismantled, but Masbah assured me they are all being repaired to be used again. The crews working on the ships all seem to be living and sleeping on board while they work on them.


Once we were back on dry land my guide asked me to wait for 10 minutes, so he could quickly visit the mosque for his evening prayer. Waiting on the street by myself turned out to be quite interesting, because I had several people come up to me wanting to speak to me. And the first or second question always seemed to be 'Why are you here?', followed by slightly puzzled looks of incredulity when I said, I am a tourist here for sightseeing. (That's when I realized that I hadn't seen another tourist in Dhaka all day, and that I apparently was a bit of a novelty.)

We found our car and driver for the what I thought was going to be a short drive back to the hotel. Not quite, the drive of about 10 kilometers took 2 hours in absolutely insane traffic. I didn't mind at all, because the street live is so varied and fascinating that I really enjoyed my time in traffic, but I can see that Dhaka would not be an easy place to do business, when you never know whether a trip will take 10 minutes or 2 hours.

I ended my day with a couple of beers in the hotel bar. (Yes, the Westin Hotel does serve alcohol even during Ramadan). I first tried the local beer called Hunter, but learned that drinking locally brewed beer in a largely dry country is something to be best avoided.


Thursday, June 9th
The day started slightly inauspiciously when the car did not start in front of the hotel. The driver kept working on the engine for some time using wires and pliers without much luck. But it was no problem as all, as Masbah and Nijhoom tours managed to get another car here within 30 min. I was very impressed by how quickly they dealt with it. Masbah kept apologizing profusely for the delay, so it's obviously not something that happens frequently.

I had the so called Old Capital Tour booked for today, which would take me outside of the city to Sonargaon. The 50 km drive took about 1.5 hours. It seemed like you are surrounded by water everywhere here. The entire landscape seems to exist mainly of swamps, lakes and rivers with bits of dry land in between. The whole country is basically waterlogged, as three of Asia’s largest rivers (the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna) converge here and form the largest river Delta in the world.


There are lots of fruit stalls by the side of the road everywhere, with bananas and mangoes being the main staple. My guide bought a bag of mangoes for me, which were incredibly sweet, quite different from what you get in a western supermarket.

Our first stop was the beautiful little Goaldi Mosque. It is a small, elegant single dome brick construction built in 1519, an example of pre-Mughal architecture. It is no longer used as a mosque, so it's only possible to see if from the outside.


Our next stop nearby was the Folk Arts and Crafts Museum, which in its grounds contains the Sadar Bari, a small palace built in 1901. The palace was under renovation, and we could only see if from the outside. The museum itself was quite interesting with artifacts from the 17th to 19th century, such as kitchen items, jewelry and furniture.


After that we drove to what to me was the highlight of the whole trip, the abandoned city of Panam Nagar. What a strange and amazing place that was! It is a small city, really just one street lined with these large, incredibly ornate and opulent mansions, that was completely abandoned by all its inhabitants in the 1960s. The buildings were home to squatters for the next couple of decades before the Department of Archaeology took them over and started to try to preserve them. It is one of the weirdest places I have ever seen.


The age of the buildings are not exactly known, but most are believed to have been constructed in between 1895 and 1905 by wealthy Hindu merchants. There are about 50 mansions on either side of a single street. Following the partition of India and Pakistan, and particularly during the Indo-Pakistan war (at that stage Bangladesh was still part of Pakistan), the inhabitants of the city all left for India.


Normally tourists cannot go inside the buildings, but Masbah seemed to know the guy with the keys and for a small tip he led us into two of the larger buildings. Both buildings had a large two story central ball room, with a columned balconies on the second floor and the most intricate plaster work on the walls, which still conveyed a sense of serious wealth and grandeur. It was also really eerie being in these places, which only seemed to be inhabited by stray cats and pigeons now. I felt like being in a cheap horror movie.


After Panam Nagar, we visited an abandoned Hindu temple nearby. The ruins were totally overgrown reminding me of some of the non-restored temples in Angkor.


Normally this tour would have included a visit to a local primary school, which apparently is built entirely out of bamboo. But it was Friday, and weekends in Bangladesh are Friday and Saturday so the school was closed. So instead we drove straight to our final destination for today, which was something I had been very much looking forward to - a visit of a Char island in the middle of the Meghna River (particularly after I had read the chapter on the Chars in John Wood's book "Creating Room to Read"). The Meghna river forms part of the Ganges Delta, which covers most of the country of Bangladesh. The Meghna is an enormous river, although not very long, it is about 3 km wide here and gets as wide as 12 km before it join joins the Padma (which is the Bengali name for the Ganges) about 60 km further downriver. There is a lot of traffic on the river, from tiny wooden fishing boat to large container ships and smaller freighters, that are so overloaded that they barely stick out above the water line.


We hired a small wooden boat with a outboard motor to cross the huge river to the nearest island. The Char islands, or Chars, are nothing other than sandbanks piled up in the middle of the river.


The people living on the chars are among the poorest people in Bangladesh. They are mostly people who were displaced by natural disasters from their original homes, and came to the Chars because they had no other place to go. They are called sandbank people in Bangladesh. It is an incredibly perilous existence, living on the margins of society and under the constant threat of their homes and all their possessions and livestock being swept away in an instant by the next major flood. Most people live of fishing and the little subsistence farming, that can be done on the islands. Lately however, they have been able to improve the situation a little bit by selling sand. They have been dredging the river and sell the sand, which is highly sought after for filling in swampy areas around the city for new building construction. This newfound "wealth" is visible in the centre of the village, where there are some nicer buildings with concrete foundations built on the highest point on the island.


The village also has a small mosque (built of out of corrugated iron like all the buildings here). And since it was prayer time, my guide had to leave me alone for about 10 minutes so he could pray. At that stage a few of the boys (all about 6 to 8 years old) immediately took over guiding duties for me. Although we did not speak a word of each others languages, they waved me around the village and pointed to all the things they thought I should take pictures of (which often included one of them posing). They were hilarious. Luckily I had the pens and sweets with me that I had brought for the school we didn't visit, so I could reward them for their expert guidance job.


We got back on our little boat to take us back across the river to the car and for the 2 hour drive back to the hotel.


To be perfectly honest, I was intrigued but did not have the highest expectations for my short trip to Bangladesh, but it far exceeded any of my expectations. It was a really fascinating, intense but friendly and authentic place to visit. Dhaka does not have much of tourist infrastructure to speak of and it probably would not be an easy place to travel around by yourself. But if you get a good local guide, it is an absolutely fascinating city to visit, and I hope to be able to come back to see other parts of the country soon.


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9 comments:

  1. Very glad to read your experience of traveling Bangladesh, and happy to know that you liked it here! Bangladesh is a beautiful country about which very few people have any idea. And it is completely different when you go outside Dhaka. There are many more interesting things to see in Bangladesh. I hope you'll find an opportunity to come back here someday and see what rest of the country has to offer.

    Interested readers can check our website for many more interesting tours all over Bangladesh: Bangladesh tour packages

    Best regards,

    Hasan, Founder & CEO
    Nijhoom Tours

    ReplyDelete
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