Bangladesh is a small Asian country in the Bay of Bengal. It mainly borders India, which surrounds it to the west, north and east, with the exception of a small eastern part bordering Myanmar. It is an almost flat country, crossed by a cluster of rivers, including the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, forming winding waterways and the Bengali delta, the largest on the planet.
Despite its small size, having a population of 180,000,000 souls, it is considered one of the most overcrowded in the world, while poverty and natural disasters from the annual floods make living conditions hard.
The history of this place of many ethnic groups, is lost deep in time. In its modern history, after the end of British colonialism, was named eastern Pakistan in 1947, according to its Muslim identity and despite its geographical distance to the rest of Pakistan. Finally gained full independence in 1971. Today it’s considered a developing country. The water-rich, nutrient-rich soil emerge it as a major agricultural producer, but it’s even more famous for the textile industry which is globally competitive, due to low labor costs.
Bangladesh is one of the least visited countries in Asia. As it lacks the typical monuments and sightseeing of neighboring India, it’s overcrowded, poor and polluted, it’s not a tempting destination for tourism. However, what I personally encountered was a colorful chaotic mosaic, filling me with memorable images and powerful experiences.
The Bangladeshi people, despite their deep poverty, are especially friendly, kind-hearted and patient. They’re stoically adapted to a lifestyle where they literally live crammed, often in miserable conditions, where moving around cities requires enormous time, but still maintain their kindness and smile. Despite the cautious advices about safety especially at night, I didn’t feel a slightest fear.
In addition to the social problems of the country, a humanitarian crisis has recently been compounded by the refugee flows of the Rohingya Muslim populations, who have been under violation of human rights and expelled from the neighboring Myanmar regime.
The capital city of Dhaka, with a population of over 16 million in a fairly small area, is the most chaotic city I’ve been to, with an extreme traffic problem, pollution and lack of infrastructures. The heat, the humidity, the fumes, the noise, the garbage, combined with the unruled overcrowding of people and vehicles, make the conditions unbearable. Situated 70km from Dhaka, Sonargaon is a historic district that used to be a former capital and where few monuments of the Mughal empire and subsequent British rule are preserved.
In addition to flat areas and waterways, there will also be a few hill stations in the country with evergreen forests and tea fields in the northern Silhet region and others. Southwest is Sundabarns, the largest mangrove forest in the world and an important wetland where, among other fauna, a population of the Bengal tiger survives.
Other major cities are Chittagong, one of the largest ports, and Cox Bazar where you will find the world’s longest uninterrupted beach, stretching for 120km.
In a country with such an extensive waterway network, it is worthwhile to travel by river boats.
The place no one wished to be…
I landed at Dhaka airport after a very comfortable flight, as I was lucky enough to get a free business class upgrade from Qatar airways. On the same flight, only 3 more westerners arrived for business, one of them a Greek fabrics importer. I will not meet anyone else throughout my stay in the country! Slow bureaucratic procedures followed the issuance of the visa (€ 46) and the necessary paperwork completed by the employee, with a small cockroach hanging out with him. Strangely, I will not see the disgusting insect anywhere else in the country, not even in slums and garbage areas. I would meet them, all together some days later in Borneo, where they had probably gone on holiday. After receiving the luggage, there was an huge crowd cue for bag checking, but when my turn came, I was treated specifically as a Westerner. The bargaining with taxis is common in such countries, but prices were very low. In the absence of air conditioning I got my first dose of suffocation, with the car trapped between people, rickshaws and street shops, until I reached my hotel that was modest but clean, with an average price for Asian standards. After being informed that for security reasons, I should not be leaving away at night, I ignored them and went out to the nearby outdoor market for social contacts and night time photos. In the shops and street stalls, everything was for sale, from clothes, electronics, to… eggs cleaned by the sellers with their dirty hands under the romantic light of oil lamps. My presence, of course, made an impression, especially on the young people who were asking me to take selfies, inviting me to their shops for cultural information exchanges. The advice of the day was that in the Islamic country, shorts are not common, since they are considered to be disrespectful clothing. I didn’t really see anyone in shorts under the heat of the next days, but nobody did care about my outfit either.
On the following day, I set out on exploring Dhaka, a city with a population of 18 million built in a small geographical area, which is the most squeezed place I’ve ever been. From the very first moment I was experiencing such extreme chaotic conditions of crowd, noise, heat and pollution that India now resembled as… Switzerland. I will be riding on rickshaws, the tricycle taxis that flood the city dramatically increasing the traffic problem. Unofficially, they are estimated at around 800,000 and are not allowed to move on the highways. Another alternative is CNG, that is, gas-powered tricycles similar to tuk-tuks of other places in Asia, which I personally disliked because they are more expensive and have dense railing on the windows limiting the view. The cost for a rickshaw ride, which can take 1 or 2 hours depending on distance and traffic, varies at around 100 tika (€ 1). But seeing the fatigue of these drivers making their living in this inhumane working condition, you pay something more. Many times they carry more than one person, even a whole family!
I have marked some points of interest on GPS, starting from the more distant to walk for the rest. Luckily the weather is good, but with unbearable heat and humidity that made sweat constantly flowing. From the area of Tejgaon where I was staying, I boarded a rickshaw heading towards Dhaka’s Old Town and the Lalbagh Fort, through narrow alleys reminiscent of old Delhi. The monument was unfortunately closed on Sundays, so I just took some outdoor photos. From there I continued exploring the alleys, starting to adjust to the traffic of people and vehicles that were driving mad, combined with the heat and the smell of open sewers.
At one point I reached the banks of the Buriganga River, the main waterway that crosses Dhaka. A flood of images confused my senses, looking at the riverside setting. I couldn’t figure out if it was beautiful or disgusting, if it was an authentic piece of exoticism or hell on earth. Everywhere there was rubbish that covered the ground with a thick layer or even formed small hills. Under self made tents people were selecting the garbage. In the dirty waters of the river, boatmen holding umbrellas waited patiently for passengers to take them across the bank. A little further on, workers carried huge sacks full of small pieces of plastic, arranging them by color and turning the landscape into an idyllic one. Eventually all this jumble overwhelmed me and once again i concluded that I enjoy this world I’m lost into, disconnecting for a little while from the daily routine of Western civilization. All people were friendly, welcoming and very receptive to the rare western visitor and his camera. The riverside road was reminiscent of a bombed zone. Dust, dirt water, trash, people and some half-demolished buildings. I saw people living in the remaining rooms, on the edge damaged floors. I didn’t meet lot of kids in these jobs, I remember more of a boy and a girl who collecting dissolved plastic dolls.
As Ι continued along the riverside road, I was even more fascinated to see a countless wooden pirogues in the river, moving between large boats. The scene was directly referencing to Venice, in a twisted version of it. Men and women were getting on and off the boats, men wearing the traditional lungi wrapped around the waist, women with niqabs covering the face in accordance to Islamic standards. Young children were diving in the dirty water of the river. Just behind a sheet fence separating tranquility from paranoia, was an impressive ornate pink building with a lush garden. This is the Ahsan Manzil Museum, which used to be a royal residence and is one of the most important monuments in the country, but despite being on the list of attractions I had pointed out, a brief outside look was enough for me. It was so intense experience all this mess, that I didn’t want to leave it, insisting on dust and sweat. Shortly after crossing other rubbish dumps and many stalls selling fruit and vegetables, I arrived at Sadarghat port. Above the floating piers, large passenger boats were bound, waiting to sail to the various destinations. From here I would take a boat to the south a few days later. Some boatmen were trying to sell me a boat ride while other men were washing in the muddy waters. Eventually I negotiated a cheap price for an one hour boat ride, to enjoy the view from another angle and recover a little from the fatigue of adaptation to this brutal climate. I am just on the first day of almost a month of traveling in Asia and I already have an overdose of images. The boatman was navigating the boat with a unique paddle, between dozens of boats and larger ships. Traffic confusion is also prevalent in waterways and the issue of safety causes terror as well. The small pirogue shelled by the huge passing ships and as usual, I was mostly worried about my photographic equipment rather than my drowning. On the banks of the Buriganga and other rivers, there are many rusty ships for repair or dismantling and recycling.
After the short break, I continued on the streets of old Dhaka, the little shops of Indian road and then with a rickshaw I arrived at Kamalapur Central Train Station where I hoped to see enough activity those days of the upcoming Eid Muslim holiday. the station it was a strange concrete structure with many domes supported by columns. Strangely, the crowd was scarce and the station in good condition. There were quite a few beggars, which is as you can imagine are many in Bangladesh. The practice of passengers traveling on roof of wagons was restricted and the officials were strict, at times enforcing the rule by bitting with their stick.
After the valuable information I received by chatting with locals introduced by a Greek friend of mine, I decided the next few days to explore and visit some of Dhaka’s slums, starting from the Karail slum. Arriving there, I did not see much difference from the rest of the city, as there were sheet shacks elsewhere. Here you would not find any tall buildings, only sheet metal, lot of mud and smells that testified that the road was being used as a toilet. People were very friendly and smiling here as well despite the poverty. I entered their backyards and some balloons i had with me offered the kids some joy. The boiling utensils showed that there was no shortage of food and around there were shops of all kinds, from small groceries to tailors, barbershops and of course a school. The lice seemed to be widespread, as I had often seen mums checking heads of children and vice versa. For as long as I was lost in the narrow streets, the images were repeating, until the settlement ends in a few poor gardens and a small lake that separates the slum from the rest of the urban settlements. Sewage were pouring into the lake and flying insects were alarmingly many. But the most contrasting thing is that Karail slum borders two of Dhaka’s richest suburbs, Banani and Gulshan. These small areas are dominated by luxury villas, glass buildings and some expensive hotels. I went into a store to cool off with an ice cream, but paying €6 was a shame, considering that this small luxury costs maybe 3 times the daily income of many.
On the next days I will visit another train station, close to the airport and more rail track areas crossing the city. On the sheet-metal shacks that were set up along the route, families were living in shockingly poor, even worse conditions than those of Karail, while young children were strolling around the rails without anyone worrying about the obvious danger. In the evening I met the man from the travel agency who had provided me with the tickets of vintage river boat, that I had booked prior to my arrival. Meeting point was the Bashundara mall which would serve me several times as a dining solution, having a food court with lots of basic quality fast-food restaurants. I asked Jafar about taking a bus to some distant cities such as Cox Bazar, but he told me to forget it, the 11 hours of the trip could easily rise up to 24 hours due to traffic of these days. Even a flight scenario seemed like a waste of time, considering transport to the airports and waiting time, so I decided to go for a more feasible plan. After all, I was so fascinated with the images in Dhaka.
70kms away from Dhaka is Sonargaon which was one of the old capitals that I’ll visit by local bus. The station was in the Gulistan area, perhaps the most chaotic in Dhaka, where buses were scattered around without an actual station, no one knew which bus and no one spoke English. The ticket costs 30 tika (€ 0.30) and the ride was comfortable enough but with unbearable traffic. From the main road, electric rickshaws take you to the archaeological site. In this idyllic space, this oasis of tranquility, several buildings are preserved, built with red bricks and elaborate decorations exterior and interior. Visitors were few locals and at some point the residents of a neighboring village entered the area singing and playing trumpets, celebrating something I was not aware of. They invited me to their village but it was already late and I had to secure my way back. On the outskirts of Dhaka, the traffic was once more so stifling that all passengers decided to continue on foot.
The day of the “cruise” arrived and the boat was due to sail at 6pm. I left μυ heavy backpack at the hotel and got some clothes and my rubber boots in a smaller bag I bought there, though I had to repair it 1-2 times at the street shoe repairers. I got on route to the port 4 hours before, for the known 6km distance to Sadarghat, in order to have enough time to walk around. On that day and time, the traffic was so intense that no driver was taking me there. I was desperately searching for a CNG and locals offered to help me, in vain. I tried to call an Uber taxi, walked to the point where the vehicle was jammed and but it got canceled before I catched up. I walked to the mall, an hour had already passed. Eventually I found a CNG and it turned out that 3 hours was marginal to cross Dhaka’s paranoid traffic at peak times. At intersections, the traffic is controlled by a policeman, with stopping periods of more than 15 minutes at a time, forcing the rules by hit vehicles and people with their glob. A sudden storm aggravated the situation and prevented me from moving on foot, after all, it was hard to move in this traffic chaos. Vehicles were struggling to claim their space defying whether they could be crushed by a bigger one, or run over a human.
The riverboat that was my only preparation for this trip, finally appeared in front of me. Although I had seen it in photos, I was impressed with the ability of this amorphous sheet metal to float. Rocket Steamer is the type of three traditional boats still in operation, aged since the British colonial era, 100 years ago. They service the route to Hulharat in the south. Instead of propeller, the propulsion is driven by two side wheels, while coil/steam engines were replaced in the 1970s by a primitive diesel engine. On the 3rd class floor, it was difficult to pass through, as people were lying around, something familiar from the Greek islands’ boats some years ago. Curiously, the 1st class and my double cabin was much better than I expected, quite clean and without cockroaches. Although I didn’t initially intend to, I decided to dine in the large dining room. We bid farewell to Dhaka, painted in violet and orange hues of sunset, and light signs from the city were reflecting in the waters of Buriganga. Electric flashes from welding works on the wrecked ships, silhouettes of the passengers framed by the steel structures of the passing ships, added to the oddly beautiful scenery. At the bow, on the deck of the first class, the few passengers had a mood for chatting with me. Later, I’d sleep relatively comfortably under my mosquito net that I’d brought, until 5am when I woke up from noise. Someone was knocking my cabin door. The vintage ship had broke down, ending its trip in Chandphur. I was informed that we’d board on another ship and delay our arrival for at least 5 hours. I had to take a return bus on night of the same day from Khulna, but it was probably enough time. The newer ship had a similar cabin that allowed me to sleep a little until sunrise when I enjoyed the pictures unfolding on the famous Brahmaputra River on which we sail. The cloudy sky, the palm trees, the flooded land, the small riverside settlements, make up a unique backdrop of beauty that once again makes me feel like I’m in my natural environment. The ship arrived after noon and I disembarked on a pier without any settlement.
I offered myself the luxury of private CNG transportation at a price equivalent to the ice cream in Dhaka. The choice was wise as a heavy thunderstorm broke out and this time lasted long. I was lucky enough the previous days in terms of weather and now the monsoon had to prove its strength. So I didn’t manage to explore the city of Bagerhat, just the famous 60 Dome Mosque, the country’s most iconic monument. I wouldn’t say that I was impressed by the brick mosque that’s not comparable even to the most insignificant of neighboring India. From the mosque I took a crowded city bus to Khulna, a city that is no different from others. From there I’d take a luxury night bus back to Dhaka. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time for a 2-3 day tour of Sundarbans National Park, not far from Khulna, anyway it was not the right season to do it.
Bangladesh is not a tourist country at all and there are no souvenirs or handicrafts to buy. But the handmade rickshaws consist small pieces of traditional art that inspired me, I found the place being made and I bought some.
My experience of this country may seem to many as uninspiring, boring, without beautiful landscapes and intense emotions. For me it was just the opposite.
The place I really wished to be…
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