Travel the World in 450 days
If you want to know what does it feel to be a celebrity, then Bangladesh is a country for you. Due to a very few foreigners visiting, people are usually very surprised to see an outsider. They will look at you with fascination: their jaw will drop, some will stumble over, and some will even stop the traffic just to look at you. Once I was addressed as: “ Oh my God” – but no I am not! The brave ones will say hi and many will stop to talk. As we were walking around many locals stopped to talk to us, but it was always only a man and spoke only to my male companion. They would not even say hi to me and would not look my way during the conversation. I found it funny, but it is the culture.
First day we hit the streets in Dhaka it felt very intimidating. We were the only tourists on the streets. Not enough it was just the two of us, but we were constantly surrounded by the thousands of people. Streets are simply chaotic! Since this is primarily a Muslim country it is a custom that muslim women stay at home and only men are in the streets. Not enough we never met another tourist throughout our trip, but I was usually the only woman in the street as well.
When we first landed in the International airport, it surprised us how simple and humble it was. However, everything works perfectly well there. Our first stop was at the counter to get visa on arrival. There was a short form to be filled out and payment was $50 plus 15TK. Most travelers do not have 15DTK and ATMs are are available only once you pass the immigration, so everyone will pay additional $1 (no change back); even though $1= 78TK. After we paid we went to the immigration line that said: “ visa on arrival” to get a stamp and then get our bags. If you stand in a wrong line, no one will serve you and will tell you go to the correct line. The line for passengers with visas was the first one on the left. At the airport we also bought 3G internet from Bangla Link – 350MG for about $6. Internet worked very well. But later when we ran out of MG for the internet, for some reason we could not refill it. No one could help us to fix the problem either. Leaving the airport at the Taxi stand we were quoted TK1300-1200; however, after walking away and bargaining with others we paid TK800 (about $11). If you are brave enough to walk couple blocks away from the airport, you can catch tuk tuk for TK400 or so.
Traffic even at 10 at night was quite a mess. Everyone was driving without obeying any rules, they would even drive through a red light. Four lane street was more like 8 lane street. Cars are very old and in very bad condition, it was surprising that they are still running. More luxurious cars had plenty of scratches on the sides; even though, they had front and back steal bumpers attached. And the horns, were honking and honking. The smells were a mixture of dust, sewage and gasoline. Surprisingly people are not wearing any face masks to protect themselves from the pollution. Our driver was great, but stop and go in the traffic made my stomach turn. And when we thought that we saw it all, there was an elephant going along with all the heavy traffic.
Once we made it to the hotel the cab driver started telling us to tip him. From what we read tipping is not mandatory, but only a sign of appreciation. We even read that you tip your hotel made or a server, but not a taxi driver or a hair dresser. Ricksha or tuk tuk drivers ask for tip just foreigners. We read that 2-10% is just enough. But day after day it seemed to get worse. One guy helped us to find boat tickets and showed us around, so we paid him. He asked to be paid 10 times more and insisted that we had to pay his friend who was our “second guide”. His friend just followed us around and we even treated him to lunch as well! Another incident was when a cab driver took us to the hotel but he wasn’t sure how to get there, so his friend helped him to find it. We knew for a fact that were already paying a “tourist price”to the driver, but his friend told us to tip him for finding a place. We gave him TK10, he refused to take it asking 50TK, thus we gave him nothing and just walked away. On the overnight boat ride one of the staff kept offering us to buy food, we didn’t need anything at that time; but once we were leaving the boat he requested we pay him. But for what??? I understand that they see tourist and try really hard to make the money, but there are just a few of us surrounded by millions of locals, so please try to be fair to us as well. A friend we made in Dhaka said it right: asking for money is becoming a bad culture, so simply refuse. Incidents like that are very common in many developing countries, so don’t let it spoil your day. Just be fair, be firm, and simply walk away. Another tip for travelers is watch out for beggars and they everywhere, even on the overnight boats. So don’t give out all your money away at once. We gave money for disabled who are truly unfortunate.
Bangladesh is the poorest country that we have seen but the generous smiles, the goodness and kindness of people towards us was incredibly stunning. Even though girls and boys never talked to me, but they always followed me with a smile and a waved hello. Many times we would ask a street seller trying to buy something and if he doesn’t speak English, other people near by would always stop to help us and translate.
We met Sahel via couchsurfing who was absolutely amazing. His generosity and kindness was out of this world. Sahel even hosted us the last few days of our trip. After working all day and he would come home to cook for us! An amazing and talented cook as well! He gave us so many tips and an advice where to go and what to do. He always called us and always made sure that we are ok and we do not need anything. Sahel and many other people we met were incredibly good and kind people, like nowhere else in our almost 40 countries visited. Sahel also introduced us to his friends Bithy and Hasib that live in Jassore who generously invited us to their home and even slept on the floor so we would have a good night sleep in their bedroom. They cooked for us multiple times a day and we were even served us additional dinner at 10pm at night. I wish that one day I would be such grate and generous host to total strangers as their were. Bithy and Hasib took as around to show the city and we even went out for my first sari shopping. It was an amazing experience! The day we were leaving even their neighbors came to say hi to us and brought us food and deserts as well. We have never experienced such kindness and generosity of so many wonderful people like in Bangladesh. These kind of memories will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
We met worm and kind Bangladeshis everywhere we went. One day we had lunch in a very simple hut in the middle of the market. We ordered four pancakes and by the time we got to our second one, a man who worked there, brought us two worm packages and took the cold once away. One man was so happy talking to us that he gave me a red rose as a gift. Many people were just happy that we would take a picture of them and show it to them on the screen. You can tell it made their day, but these moments will stay with us forever as well.
Many times we got stopped in the middle of the street when people simply wanted to practice their English with us. Everyone was so friendly and nice! Many times they would ask us in surprise: “Why Bangladesh?”. Sometimes we would take a picture with them as well. But once we stop we always get swarmed with people who just stare at us and listen-in to the conversation. Or when we where taking the boat every cabin had windows and doors towards the outside, but the corridor is shared. We had our windows open – people would just stand there without saying anything and stare and stare and stare!!! Or some would just come and talk and talk and talk. It was fun at first but after couple of hours we closed the windows and stayed inside to get some privacy and rest.
In Bangladesh every day was an adventure to us. We saw and learned so many things that are very different from anything we have seen before in our travels. We were surprised to see that men hold hands and walk happily down the street, and no one thinks twice about it. This is the first developing country that we did not see starving, injured and stray dogs begging for food in the streets. But you will meet goats and ducks roaming around everywhere in the streets. In Bangladesh the birth rate is very high; thus there are many young children, but not even once we saw children running around in the streets and being unsupervised Young girls were always with their moms and boys that looked 10years or older were helping their parents to work in what ever business they had.
Infrastructure is developed very poorly here as well. We have noticed that most of the construction isn’t being updated, decorated or even painted once to make it look better even for the brand new buildings in the heart of the city. Many high-rise buildings are built by hand, there are no construction cranes or pre-mixed cement, people build everything by hand placing brick after brick and pouring had-mixed cement floor after floor. We have noted that once it is built, there is no keeping it up in the future. Worn off carpets will never be replaced, broken shower doors stay broken, windows or dusts are never cleaned even in the public areas. Even not all burn out lightbulbs are changed.
As you visit Dhaka you will also notice that there are many Muslims as Hindu. I met many Muslim women wearing beautiful and stunning sari and not covering their hair. Others wore full body clothing including gloves and even covering their eyes at times. Once you walk around the city you will see many Hindu statues and Muslim Mosques and people are very friendly towards each other no matter what religion their practice. During every sunrise you will be woken up with a call for prayers and they will be heard many times during the day as well.
As much as we enjoyed exploring area and watching every day life and activities of Bangladeshis there was not much else to do there in Dhaka. There are not many activities around, but there are few museums to see. There are no tourists maps around so come prepared. We saw a Pink House, that used to be a residence of some rich family. It was so dirty inside, no one even swept the floor. Displayed family’s crystal and diner-wear was all covered in thick layer of dust. Locals pay 10TK while tourist a 100TK.
Everyone visiting Dhaka speaks about Port Terminal Sadarhat aka Sadar Ghat – it is truly a site to see. Small and large boats come to the pier bringing their goods and transporting passengers across the river. We got to see boats full of watermelons. Here at the terminal you can also take a boat towards Khulna. Old British Steamer Rocket Boat is highly publicized for the tourists; however, booking a cabin there is difficult. Not many speak English, there are no signs how to find a ticket office. We got lucky that someone speaking English helped us to find the Rocket Steamer (for some tips of course). The boat looks stunning from the outside, but inside even the first class looks very bad with old sheets and cabins that have never been updated since the boat went in to service. Also tickets were all sold out, everyone kept telling us that we need 10 days in advance to order the tickets. Sounds like bureaucratic paperwork prohibits them from allowing people to board the boat within 10 days of booking a ticket. 1st class ticket was $40 for 2 people, and 2nd class was around $25 for 2 people. Ferry takes about 14 hr. Since we could not find any tickets on the Rocket Steamers, we were guided to private boats, for a cabin of 2 people we paid about $23 and will take same time of travel. Cabins are very simple and cockroaches were noted. If you like, you can sleep on the floor for probably 2-3 dollars or so.
One evening we took a boat towards Khulna. There is no direct boat o Khulna, so you need to go to the last stop Hulahard and then take a bus from there for 1.5hr to Khulna. The view of the river was stunning. We got to see all the boats taking people across the river, fishing, or transporting goods. Surrounding nature was pretty as well. Khulna was our favorite city, it is smaller and it seemed to be less crowded. There are no busses but electric TukTuks and rikshas, so the air felt less polluted. People even seemed friendlier as well. One night we walked into the Hindu temple and once the elders saw us invited us to their office gave us some tea and we all watched cricket finals on TV. We found great places to eat with very friendly staff as well
Food is very interesting and different in Bangladesh. Mostly spicy. Most expensive is rotisserie chicken about $1 small portion with rice and usually on the street. Most popular is biryani – rice with meat. The safest option is rotti – pancake type of bread, with curry vegetables. For large 5 pieces of rotti and 5 servings of vegetables we paid $2. Another delicious dinner option was mungi – it is the same rotti bread stretched very thin and filled with mixture of curry, egg and vegetables; then all fried. Sweet shops were memorizing as well. There are so many different delicious sweets make into small oval or round balls, the variety is huge so you have to try them all and pick your favorite. I truly enjoyed yogurt that is also sold in bakeries, it comes in small or large clay pots and it is white (original) and yellow (sweet). I mixed the two together and it was perfect. Truly the best yogurt that I had in a very long time. We truly enjoyed drinking Cha it is black tea with condensed milk served in tiny cups – it is sold everywhere on the streets. The small cup of tea was packed with flavor and it was more than enough. Fruit was also inexpensive, for 16 mini bananas we paid just less $1, imported fruit from Nepal like apples, oranges, mangos and grapes were more expensive but truly delicious. When it is a mango season in Bangladesh then the price is much lower as well
Another tip for travelers is always to ask for the price first! Even though we were careful, we still got to pay tourist prices. In one restaurant they kept putting food on our table without us even asking, of course it was not free and he clearly overcharged us at the end too. One market same casual sari was $6 and the other $12 and he quickly added – price is fixed! There is no such thing as fixed price in the markets or anywhere in Bangladesh! Just walk away! When we stayed at one hotel the owner kept offering us to buy food, polite: “ o thank you” wasn’t enough for him. It is annoying that you have to show an attitude to stop such behavior. And the worst ones were electric TukTuk drivers, they gave us hard time each time, so we just chose rikshas instead.
I strongly recommend for travelers to see the Bangladesh. This is truly a place of the beaten track! Rarely you will meet other tourists here, and you will meet the most wonderful natives who will open their hearts and their homes to you. There is no luxury here and there are no World’s most famous sites to see. But this is one of the most interesting countries with fascinating people. This is a developing country with very little to spear and with such significant population. Life is moving fast in Bangladesh. At first it might be scary and everything might look like chaos, but watching people go about their daily routines and getting a chance to know some of them – was truly worth the trip! During The sounds of hourly worship, the noise of the traffic, being surrounded with loud and excited people rushing to accomplish something – makes you feel like a real traveler!
Some places that we have missed:
Kuakata beach in the South West of Bangladesh. Is is the place where the sun rises and goes down in the same spot.
Coxes Bazar – the longest beach in the world. All the locals told us the we have missed out a lot by not going there. But all the traveler reviews we have read actually say that this is just the beach without any bars or things to do around.
Sundabar is a mangrove in the South that host many species of birds and wild animals including Royal Bengali Tigers. And again all the locals spoke highly of such unique place. However, as a tourist we were quoted price to be $100 for one day trip. We would see the nature and various animals; however, Royal Bengali tigers are rarely rarely seen. While visiting in Jessore we met wonderful and kind Hasib who offered us to help and travel there for the price as locals pay. If you are interested email him for dates and price: email@example.com. He is a very kind young man who is very enthusiastic about his country and wants to invite other travelers to explore without paying tourist prices and from being exploded by money hungry tourist guides.
If you come to Dhaka first, bet areas to stay are Zulshan or Banani. These neighborhoods are filled with coffee shops and great shopping with many expects around.
Also get in touch on Facebook page called Couchsurfing Daka for the events going around in Dhaka.