Occasionally you will come across a country that will leave you excited, stunned, shocked, amused, heartbroken, impressed, depressed, and thankful.
For me, that country was Bangladesh, situated in south Asia and bordering India and Myanmar.
Up until early this year I have to say I knew nothing about the country, and could certainly not locate it on a map. All I knew was that it suffered from bad floods, and other than that it rarely made the news. But things changed when my good friend from Phuket moved there in January ish of this year, and I immediately made plans to visit.
The research began. I found a Lonely Planet in Bangkok and began reading up. The edition was small, only 200 pages, and quickly confirmed that there weren’t a tonne of attractions, and that many tourists tended to instead visit nearby India. Down the track I managed to find in Phuket a 1985 edition of the Bangladesh LP which reconfirmed nothing much had changed since then!
Bangladesh has had a really rough past, not much of which I knew about before some online research and a visit to the Liberation War Museum in central Dhaka. Initially it was part of India, then when India and Pakistan separated it became East Pakistan. Following a bloody war in 1971, Bangladesh was liberated, but not before India stepped in to defeat the Pakistanis. A year earlier around 500,000 people in East Pakistan had died when a cyclone hit, and Bangladesh today remains the victim of yearly floodings and other types of natural disasters.
I landed in Dhaka, where my friend was living. Arriving at the airport was incredible. It was so late at night (I had been delayed by about six hours in Bangkok – a common theme of this trip!) and when I arrived there seemed to be only men at the airport. Where were all the women? The airport was extremely run down and it was here when I stepped outside to find thousands more men who all appeared to be looking (or should i say, staring) at me that I got my first taste of what was to come.
We spent the next couple of days exploring Dhaka – the capital city of Bangladesh and home to 16 million people. Our main form of transport was a CNG, a little tuk tuk car thing on three wheels, in which we were caged and the door was locked – only able to be opened by the CNG driver. The CNGs, as the name says, are powered by compressed natural gas and since their introduction I read somewhere that they have done wonders for helping the pollution problem in Dhaka. Now they only have to sort out the horrendous totally un-eco friendly buses!
The traffic was insane. To get to the Old Dhaka part of the town (where we found most of the attractions were plus the markets) it took about two hours in a CNG from where we were staying. We dodged buses, people, rickshaws, beggars and huge pot holes. I’m used to a lot of crazy driving however there were times when my friend Hina and I both grabbed each other. With good reason too – we actually got hit by a bus. Thankfully it wasn’t at high speed and the CNG just rocked and got bashed forward, we didn’t tip over. One of the worst moments was when were driving through an area at such high speed and an old lady turned to stare (i got stared at A LOT on this trip) and then she fell over a big pile of trash. It was really sad and our driver didn’t even stop to help her up or anything.
The staring was definitely one of the worst parts of the trip. Hina is Pakistani so didn’t attract anywhere near the attention I did, with my white face and all. I’m not sure if people had not seen a white person before, but it sure seemed that way. Either that or they were just so bewildered and shocked to find me there, and wondered what I was doing there. It was a question I asked myself multiple times during some of the low points on the trip!!
Old Dhaka was great and was one of the highlights for me. We managed to cram in a lot during the two days we spent there. To get between the attractions we got to ride on a rickshaw, which I just loved. Rickshaws are a little carriage with a pushbike attached to the front, which usually an old man pedals to get you around. Certainly not the type of transport to take if you want to keep a low profile as the minute you sit high up on the rickshaw you immediately attract attention. Also it felt so awful sitting there while an old man drove you around the street, sweating like anything in the 35 degree heat for the measly 50 cents he would charge you for the service.
Here we visited lots of old buildings – the Ahsan Manzil (also known as the pink palace) built by a rich man in 1872. It eventually got run down but has been done up over the years. We also found the Armenian church, dating back to 1781 and unbelievably our guide (we were so stoked to find a guide there at all, let alone one who spoke amazing English and actually knew a lot of history about it) said it is still used about twice a year by people in Dhaka.
We went to the Sitara Mosque (Bangladesh is virtually all Muslims) which was rated by Lonely Planet as the one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. This was definitely not true. We had difficulty finding the place, and when we did, it was just a white mosaic mosque. Nothing impressive at all.
Lalbagh Fort was one of my favourites – one again it was a pink building but had such beautiful grounds. In a place as dirty as Bangladesh, it was so refreshing to find well cared for, luscious green grass and lots of trees and flowers. It made for some great photos as well. The guards here were particularly helpful and directed us to a local place where we ordered up a storm of Bangladeshi food (chicken curry, naan, rice and heaps of coke!) for $5. This was also where I got my marriage proposal (something I hope I won’t regret turning down when I’m alone at 60 with my 10 cats!).
We also visited a couple of markets – Shankharia Bazaar which had heaps of amazing cloth and other random things. Because Bangladesh doesn’t have much/any tourism, the markets were mostly just full of things local people will use/buy. This sadly didn’t include anything Hina and I wanted to buy! However I did manage to pick up a few cute scarves, only to find once I returned home they were made in China. Ah well. Also a lot of street food and fruit around – the fruit on our travels was delicious. Young coconuts (which I ate a lot of) were 20 cents each and chopped open fresh on the street, plus lychees, mangoes etc etc. There was a lot of really disturbing things such as a meat shop which had lots of live chickens there, clearly you just picked which one you wanted to eat for dinner. Also we somehow found ourselves on a chemical shop street. Here shopowners were pouring out cleaning and other chemicals with no protection at all, spilling it on the street etc. There was also a couple of perfume shops, where fake scents were labelled in jars behind the counter. It seems you just picked whether you wanted Gucci or Tommy and they popped it into a little container for you.
We also visited the Liberation War Museum as I previously mentioned. I was impressed by this because it was in a really neat little building (almost like a two storey house – sadly they took my camera away) and the exhibits were really detailed and all in English. They had some amazing records too – photographs and newspapers from the liberation period and lots of possessions from notable people involved in the movements of the time. Surprisingly there were a lot of women involved in taking a stand for freedom and I was surprised to find out the PM today is a woman also. One downside was how anti-Pakistan the museum was, and all the commentary of the exhibits reflected this. Understandably I suppose, but I normally expect museums to be more factual and balanced and this one really wasn’t at all.
We also went to the National Museum, which wasn’t very good. However it was packed with locals, all checking out the exhibits. There was a very small (and not very good) section on Bangladesh. The most interesting thing was a huge floor map of bangladesh, with a man sitting nearby who would light up particular towns when you asked him. What a job. The kids loved this and I was quite interested in seeing just how far we would have to travel by bus to get to Cox’s Bazaar, our final destination and a place near the Myanmar border. Turns out it was miles away (two bus rides, one eight hours and one six). The rest of the museum was basically just world artifacts, including some really weird exhibits such as dolls from different countries and birds etc. We got bored of this quickly, and I was rather disappointed.
It was also in Dhaka we got really bad food poisoning. After our first day in Old Dhaka we were stoked to have done so much and so far surviving, so we went out to a really nice restaurant we had eaten at the previous day. Lets just say the next day and a half were not pleasant as we both were so so sick (I was vomiting for 12 hours!!) and the toilets didn’t flush and the power was mostly out which meant no fan. Probably one of the standout worst moments of the last year. Sadly that meal remains the best one we had in Bangladesh!!!
After four days of exploring in the heat and dirt we decided to start making our way to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh’s pride and joy beach town. We headed east through Chittagong (about eight hours from Dhaka) before arriving at Cox’s, an area right on the Bay of Bengal and very close to the Burma border.
Stay tuned for more soon.