Bangladesh, often over shadowed by its largest neighbour and, lately at least, in the news for the wrong reasons, is a land criss-crossed by rivers and at times strikingly beautiful is an up and coming tourist destination. We were asked many time why we were heading here, and if we are honest, mainly out of curiosity – curiosity that is reciprocated by the locals. Bangladesh gained independence in 1971 after a bloody war with its erstwhile overlords Pakistan. With a population somewhere around 168m people, it is the most densely populated country on the planet, cramming in a remarkable 1252 ppl per sq.km! (By way of comparison NZ has just 14 ppl per sq.km). That means we’ve now been to the most densely and most sparsely populated (Mongolia) countries in the world on this trip.
Arrival in Dhaka, the nations most populous city and capital is an assault on the senses as buses blast their horns, auto-rickshaws (or CNGs as they are called here) buzz through traffic, cycle-rickshaws ring bells and general street-side mayhem, make for a cacophony of noise. It creates an awesome atmosphere that really lets you know what is in store for you country-wide. Over the next couple of days we got around and saw a number of sites in the city, with the liberation museum a powerful monument to the men, women and children whose lives were taken, or altered forever through the struggle for independence. While after a day of dodging Dhaka’s famously chaotic traffic, taking in the smorgasbord of street food satiated our hunger for the princely sum of about $1.50 AUD. Dhaka probably isn’t for those that like to relax at parks and amble the streets, as you are on constant watch for a CNG tearing down the thin lanes of Old Dhaka, but we found that it could entertain because of the craziness as much as in spite of it.
Throughout the previous few days we had been trying to touch base with multiple agencies to take us on a journey to the famous Sundarban mangrove forests, home of the Royal Bengal Tiger. As we found is a common frustration in Bangladesh, information for independent travellers was sorely lacking, and so it was with this case that many of the agencies we contacted were allergic to responding to our questions, or told us they had boats going but stopped replying when we asked for the price. So, after all that we decided we’d take the famous Rocket, an old paddle ship that plies the river from Dhaka to the city of Khulna, in the south, where the tours depart. Except, the rocket doesn’t leave on Fridays, and with trains booked out, we took our last resort of a bus. What’s wrong with the bus you ask? Lonely Planet puts it best when it says “The real danger when travelling around Bangladesh is road safety, particularly intercity highways. Bus travel is, quite frankly, scary and road deaths are all too common”. It was accurate on all counts, Bangladesh has some of the worst road safety in the world, and we saw many crashes, and all too often we ourselves were involved in near misses.
We arrived in a Khulna whose significant Hindu population was in the throes of celebrating their Durga Puja festival, so we wandered the streets and loaded up on yummy street food, with plans the next day of sorting our tour. The following morning and Khulna had a less glamorous look about it, but we strode out to find someone to take us on a boat. After meeting with several it became abundantly clear, that there were no tour leaving on the dates specified on their websites, despite one generous offer for us to rent a whole boat for a private tour that would have chewed up about 8 months travel budget, it appeared we’d hit a snag. In truth this was the prime reason we’d come, and now it was a no go, but we were determined to get a win and see more of what Bangladesh had to offer.
The next morning we high tailed out of Khulna, this time on a local bus, completely packed to the rafters to add to the spice of the rally/dodgem ride to a small town called Hularhat, this time we’d catch an overnight boat to Dhaka. Upon arrival at the ghats, or pier, it was clear they didn’t get a lot of our kind round there. We’d stoked the curiosity of the locals, and at one point after disappearing to get us an ice cream, Mark returned to see Martina surrounded by no less than 15 people, staring at Martina, lobbing questions such as “Country?”, “Why you here?”, “Married?” and a oddly popular one “What you religion?”. It might sound like an inquisition, but people are genuinely interested, independent travellers are very much a novelty, so it’s not uncommon to be surrounded by a group of people, maybe saying noting at all, just looking, it can be uncomfortable, but it’s harmless curiosity. A massive thump announced the launches arrival, as it crashed into the pier, we caught the launch, because, as with all things we’d done here so far, our Sunday departure meant that there was no rocket, but a boat is a boat really. The ride was great, particularly watching local fruit and veg vendors load their produce onto the moving ship. Although the inquisition didn’t completely die off, we met a couple of nice locals that spoke English and learned a little more about life in Bangladesh as we watched the beautiful green river side scenery pass. It really is a serene atmosphere, a quiet escape from the usual noise and chaos as the sun turns a dark orange and sets over the river.
After Dhaka we headed north to Sylhet province, known for its forests and tea production. The area surrounding Sreemangal is quite picturesque, with tea and rubber plantations dominating the lush green landscape. We bumped into a local, Sourav, a tour guide by trade, but on holidays, who after trying to save us running the gauntlet on the bus back to Dhaka by sourcing a train ticket for us, took us to a tea house famous for making an 8 layer tea, although it didn’t taste like much, it looked pretty cool. He then took us to have the best food we’d had in Bangladesh, hands down, it always pays to meet a friendly local.
Early the following morning we made our way to Lawacharra National Park, home to the critically endangered Western Hoolock Gibbon, the worlds smallest ape species. Apparently you need a guide, but we had heard it was sign posted, so eschewed that in favor of a map, albeit written in Bengali, how hard could it be. Extremely apparently, as there were no signs that we saw, multiple times having to back track after finding ourselves walking into some of the tribal people’s yards. It was a fantastic day of walking though, despite Mark entangling himself in some thorns at one stage. Hacking our way through bush and spider webs, past some of the biggest, meanest spiders we’ve ever seen, with huge Golden Orb spiders dotting the path, and also cute woodpeckers so it wasn’t all grim. The one we really wanted to see though was the Hoolock Gibbon, and by the end of the day, almost ready to give up, we spotted a family high in the canopy, one looking straight at us warning his mates. It was special to have a private audience to one of the most endangered species in the ape world, and went a long way to making the trip north worth it.
After our luck of seeing the rare gibbons, we thought we might be on a streak and decided to roll the dice of life one more time with a Bangladeshi bus driver. It was a particularly hairy ride back, somehow we made it back to the big smoke in one piece, (literally, it’s very smoggy).
Bangladesh is well worth a visit, but we would certainly recommend being prepared to make sure you can fit in everything you’d like to do as all roads lead to Dhaka so you might find yourself ducking in and out to get to different parts of the country. You’ll be rewarded with some of the loveliest people you’ll meet, and honest when it comes to being fair and upfront about prices, and it’s rare you’ll pay more than a local. People will stop you and ask where you’re from because they are genuinely interested, and if they speak English, you’ll get engaged in a hearty conversation. Never once did we get the feeling they were trying to sell us something against our will like in other countries. It was certainly an experience, for now though, we’re off to big sibling, India.
Until next time.
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