As much history as India. More Buddhism than Nepal. As many beaches as Malaysia. Cheaper Prices than Thailand. Bangladesh...Why go anywhere else?
You are introduced to the whirlwind of south asia when you land at Dhaka airport. The immigration staff are welcoming and a smile and a hello will go down well. They do not get that many ‘western’ tourists and are consequently quite curious but always friendly. According to a Bangladesh tourism conference that I attended in London last year there are around 180,000 tourist arrivals in country each year (that is about the same number that visit Beijing’s Forbidden City in 3 days).
Considering that many of those will be overseas-born Bangladeshis coming to see family will mean very few are actual, foreign tourists. In the many times that I have been to Bangladesh, I have come across only one small group of tourists (in Dhaka).
It can take a while for the luggage to come through – many of the large cases will be locals bringing back goods from their jobs in the middle-east and elsewhere. Over 4 million Bangladeshi’s work overseas and their remittances are vital to the economy.
Traffic in Dhaka can be pretty busy with all the cars and lorries competing with the thousands of rickshaws. Many of the rickshaws are colourfully decorated with scenes from Bollywood and other designs.
We take our bus to the downtown area with a stop outside the National Parliament building. Bangladeshi’s are very proud of their parliament building, designed by Louis Kahn. Work on it started before Bangladesh was even born – it was then known as East Pakistan. I was lucky enough to get security clearance to have a look around inside and was given a VIP tour around. The debating chamber is quite modern and the system is modelled on the British system. I noticed that the chairs are all bolted to the floor and was told this is to stop them being thrown across the chamber. Things can get quite heated in Bangladeshi politics!
We then move on to Lalbagh Fort which dates from 1678. It is a pleasant, green oasis in the middle of the city. Our arrival usually brings much interest from the locals. People are very curious about foreigners and they will love to chat and interact with us. This is the one of the greatest things about travel in Bangladesh – the people are just so friendly. They always want to have their photo taken with us and are curious to hear about our lives and where we come from. The Fort is a favoured spot for young lovers escaping for a while from their families and it is great to see them enjoying an hour or so chatting and holding hands.
Next we travel the short distance to the Liberation War Museum. This sober museum charts the events that led up to the formation of Bangladesh. Like many people, I was really quite ignorant of the terrible civil war that occurred between East and West Pakistan in 1971. This very interesting museum lays out the history of the conflict. Time for local lunch now and perhaps a cup of tea – Bangladesh is the world’s 11th largest producer of tea!
After lunch we drive down to catch our exclusive boat. This is a large, comfortable vessel where we can sit with a cup of tea and biscuits and see the comings and goings on the river.
This is the Buriganga river and is the main river through Dhaka. Being a riverine country, the river also serves as a transport hub and we see many ferries and working boats plying up and down. Here again, the locals are fascinated by a group of foreigners on a nice-looking boat. There is much waving and smiling from the workers on boats, kids swimming in the river and from locals crossing from bank to bank on little punt-like craft. It is a mesmerising scene and makes a great photo opportunity.
We make our way up to the main boat terminal at Sadarghat, where we disembark.
If there is time we walk the short distance through local markets to Ahsan Manzil, locally known as the Pink Palace.
It is a rather splendid neo-classical building built between 1859-1872 as the seat of the Nawab of Dhaka. Inside there is a small museum displaying local life of the time.
Then we walk back to the bus through old Dhaka along the road known as Hindu Street. It can be a bit stressful for me as tour leader as the pedestrianised road is extremely busy with people and I tend to stay at the back of the group as the local guide takes the group through the melee. I keep an eye on anyone making a wrong turn or getting lost. However, it is a fantastic place for photographs and again; chatting to the locals. Everyone wants their photograph taken and to chat with us and ask where are we from?
The bus then negotiates the traffic back to our hotel. After a tiring but very interesting day, I usually suggest dinner in the hotel. They provide a varied and good choice for our meal. There will be many opportunities for other local foods in the days to come. Early to bed, as tomorrow we need to make a start to avoid the rush-hour traffic and make our way out of the city to our next destination.
David Short - Tour Leader